As an interdisciplinary profession, social work grew out of many traditional professions such as psychology and sociology, whose research foundations are grounded in empirical science. These traditional disciplines have historically viewed quantitative research in social work has been seen as the only acceptable methods for empirical discovery and understanding.
Social work is not entirely free of this legacy, either, as illustrated by the continued push for evidence-based practice to inform our work.
Most social science disciplines still operate under the dominant view that quantitative methods are the only legitimate approach to knowledge generation, the idea that objective attitudes toward research are the only “correct” way of conducting social science.
Quantitative Research in Social Work
Quantitative research certainly does have certain advantages for social scientists aiming to make significant contributions to their fields. By operationalizing variables, quantitative research seeks to measure change, allowing us to make important comparisons and quantify correlations.
Quantitative research aims to be generalizable to large populations by using specific sampling methods and large data sets. It can provide important descriptive statistics about a population or location, allowing us to grasp key characteristics of the object(s) of study.
Qualitative research has now also been established as an alternative methodology for social science investigation, focusing on the rich descriptions it is able to provide through interviews and observation.
Qualitative research provides a few of inter-related systems and social contexts.
Quantitative methods, however, are still often viewed as highly subjective and open to interpretation and bias. Therefore, many researchers feel the need to apply a mixed-methods approach, combining qualitative work with quantitative measures as well to legitimize their findings.
A number of arguments can be made both in support of and against either approach to conducting social science research, and another set of arguments could be made in favor of or against the mixing of the two. While there are many important considerations to be gleaned from such classical and ongoing debates, it is perhaps more fruitful to look at the dichotomy in approaches from Maxwell’s perspective: with a focus on each approach’s suitability to the research question.
In many years of work and multiple publications, Maxwell has made a compelling argument for the need to allow our research questions to define our approach or vice versa. The principle idea is that neither quantitative or qualitative research methods can be considered better or more accurate, they are different ways of investigating social phenomena that should correspond to the type of information the researcher is looking to find.
The dichotomy between qualitative and quantitative research in social work methods exists in the types of questions each is able to answer.
Thus, when considering one’s next research project, here is a simplified rule of thumb to guide the development of a research design:
- If your research focuses on difference and correlation, asking such questions as:
- How much…?
- To what extent…?
- Is there a relationship between…?
You likely want to employ quantitative methods, allowing you to operationalize variables and examine issues of variability and difference.
- If your research focuses on process and connections, asking such questions as:
- The meaning of…?
- The influence of…?
You likely want to employ qualitative methods to discover “what these meanings and influences are and how they are involved in these events and activites1.”
Conversely, if you know that you want to employ a specific approach to research (qualitative or quantitative in social work), reverse the relationship to ensure that your research questions are looking for the type of information that is best suited to your chosen approach.
Taking this view of variance questions versus process questions2 is a simple way for researchers to determine how to go about conducting their investigations.
1Mawell, JA. Qualitative research design. Washington (DC): Sage Publications; 2013. 217 p.
2Mohr, L. Explaining organizational behavior. San Francisco (CA): Jossey-Bass; 1982.