Overview of Research Questions

In social work, searching for empirical evidence starts with the formulation of a research question or hypothesis.

The nature of the research questions influence numerous features of the study being conducted, including:

1. Study approach

2. Research design

3. Measurement

4. Selection of participants

5. Data collection methods

6. Data analysis

7. Results dissemination

For social work research design, sample size calculations, analysis, and results presentation to be optimal, the research question has to be well formulated.

Such a question, which is clear, complete, and informative could help bridge the gap between research and clinical practice.

This makes the understanding of social work research questions as important as the application of social work theories in social work research.


Types of Research in Social Work

Before you begin to formulate your social work research question, it is important to review the different types of research conducted in social work.

It is important to note that the nature of research determines the appropriateness of the research question.

The different types of research are:


1. Basic Research

In social work, basic research entails a systematic study conducted to help understand the fundamental aspects of a phenomenon.

Such a study is not done with specific applications in mind.

This type of research is designed to describe something or find answers to questions about its nature.

In social work and behavioral sciences, there are two types of basic research questions that include:

1. Epidemiology questions

2. Etiology questions

Epidemiology questions focus on issues such as social phenomenon, problem, or population.

These questions study how a phenomenon or problem is distributed within a population


On the other hand, etiology questions test theories and hypotheses on the natural course and origin of a phenomenon or problem.

Such questions examine factors that moderate or mediate the development or progression of phenomenon, including environmental processes, demographic characteristics, and co-occurring problems.

2. Intervention Research

Intervention research focus on identified needs.

In this, epidemiology research support interventions by identifying the needs to address.

Epidemiology research further help identify theories used to explore causes and factors related to social work problems.

Later, theory-testing and etiology research support the development of intervention research.

When interventions have been developed, intervention research tests and evaluates them to ensure that they are:

1. Safe

2. Effective

3. Cost-effective

Intervention research also focus on mechanisms of change that the interventions have their effects through.

In this, it examines what changes happen as well how they happen.

3. Implementation Science

This type of social work research seeks to understand barriers and facilitators of evidence-supported interventions in being adopted into routine practice.

Such understanding include factors like:

1. Characteristics of the interventions

2. Processes and conditions in organizations the interventions are being implemented

3. External factors influencing practitioner’s adoption of interventions within organizations

The research acknowledges that implementation of interventions within organizations could be affected by external environmental factors like new legislation, changes in funding, new technology, contracting practices changes, and clinical practice guidelines changes.

Generally, it intends to find the factors that influence effective implementation of evidence in resolving social work problems.

4. Research for Research

This type of research focuses on the scientific methodology.

It seeks to makes advancements in areas such as:

1. Data analysis

2. Participant recruitment and retention, and

3. Measurement

Results from these studies are key in improving the general research, implementation research, and social work intervention.

Examples of such research may include:

1. Field methods for measuring community members drug abuse in rural areas

2. Concept mapping to assess college needs of sexual minority students

3. Perceived social competence scale-II

4. Intergenerational contact measurement

5. Teamwork scale for youth

6. Recruitment strategies for treatment samples for addiction studies


Types of Social Work Research Questions and their Aims

Social work research questions can be grouped into two main categories, i.e.

1. Background questions and

2. Foreground questions


Background Questions

These questions are usually answered using a fact or a set of facts.

They have a simple structure and seek a straightforward search for evidence.

Their formulation can be done using the classic five question words that include: who, what, when, where, and why.

Examples of background social work research questions may include:

1. Who is at bigger risk of prenatal drug exposure?

2. What are the developmental consequences of prenatal drug exposure?

3. When in pregnancy is the risk of prenatal drug exposure bigger?

4. Where do women acquire information on risks of drug use during gestation period?

5. Why is fetal drug exposure presented as a spectrum syndrome, which is different from fetal drug syndrome?

These types of questions require the social worker to review literature in areas such as problem distribution across populations, human behavior, human development, and factors that influence the nature of the problem.

Most of them can be answered using epidemiology or etiology evidence.

Foreground Questions

These types of questions are more complex compared to background questions.

They focus on decision making by evaluating or comparing options.

The questions demand specialized evidence and may therefore require the search for different types of resources.


Which is the best screening tool for drug use among pregnant women with the aim of decreasing fetal exposure, TWEAK, T-ACE, or AUDIT?


Evidence required to answer this research question should compare the three different approaches.

Such evidence is derived from comparative reviews or literature on individual efficacy and effectiveness studies.

Types of Background Questions

There is distinction between background social work research questions.

Categories of these questions are:

1. Exploratory questions

2. Descriptive questions

3. Explanatory questions


Exploratory Questions

These questions are suitable for understanding emerging problems with little existing knowledge about.

Since there is limited knowledge, complex questions about causes or testable theories cannot be asked.

Exploratory research questions usher in efforts to start to understand the phenomenon.

Such questions are useful for example in the emergence of new diseases like AIDS.

Research questions in this case led to the understanding of the causal factors (HIV).

Descriptive Questions

These social work research questions seek to provide descriptions about specific phenomena, problems, populations, and processes.

They seek to create types or categories, profile of a population or group (typology), describe a process, describe elements of a populations, or identify stages or steps in a sequential process.

Answering the descriptive research questions can be done using either qualitative or quantitative approaches.

Examples of descriptive questions can be:

1. How do imprisoned teenagers feel about the option of medication-assisted treatment for drug abuse disorders?

2. What is the degree of ethnic or racial disparities in access to drug abuse disorders treatment?

3. How often do college going teenagers engage in binge drinking within different drinking contexts e.g. parties, bars, or sporting events?

Among descriptive social work research questions, the correlational research questions is a key category.

It seeks to establish any relationships existing between variables.

The correlation could either be positive, negative, or neutral.

Explanatory Research Questions

These questions seek answers about the nature of relationships between variables or factors that are potentially influential.

They are commonly used to test theory that is related to etiology.

It involves comparative research that aim to provide information on relationships between variables.

In social work, these questions are used to establish causality among variables.


Features of a Good Research Question

Social work research questions should be empirical, implies that their answers should entail real experience in real world.

Such questions should exhibit some key features that include:


1. Should be written in the form of a question

The topic being explored should be framed as a question instead of a statement.

Stating your research question as “HIV pandemic” would be wrong.

It has to be a question.

For example, “What factors have led to an increase in spread of HIV in the Middle East countries?”

2. Should be well-focused

A good research question must focus on the right scope.

This is important in helping trim irrelevant information where you do not attempt to answer everything about all the world issues at once.

Note that if the research question is unclear, your research paper will eventually lose direction.

3. Should not be able to answer with a simple yes or no

Research questions with yes or no answers are not suitable for social work studies.

The yes or no answers do not allow you to explore a phenomenon once the answer is found.

Instead, you should tweak the research question in a manner that makes it more fascinating and allows for further exploration.

4. Should have more than one plausible answers

Because social work phenomenon does not exist in a vacuum, answers to research questions have to consider numerous characteristics about the problem being studied.

This ensures that there are various plausible answers to the question.

5. Should consider relationships between multiple variables

Although social work research questions begin with interest in a single concept, they have to extend to other interrelated concepts.

This entails exploring the relationships between different concepts.

6. Should be clear on the concepts being addressed

The research question must specifically and clearly state the concepts it intends to explore.

7. Should include a target population

A good social work research question should have a target population.

Choosing the target population should be done with the consideration that social work has the responsibility to work for the oppressed and marginalized groups.


Evaluating the Research Questions

Evaluating your social work research questions entail two key aspects.

1. Checking for feasibility and importance of results

2. Matching questions and study design


Checking for feasibility and importance of results

This entails ensuring that the research questions are feasible for the intended answers and the importance the results will have among participants, the community, and scientific literature.

It should be done before designing the research study.

Deliberations to make when testing for feasibility include:

1. Whether you have access to required data

2. Whether you can secure consent from gatekeepers, stakeholders, etc.

3. Whether your research project poses risks to individual through confidentiality breaches, dual relations, direct harm, etc.

4. Whether you are competent enough to complete the study.

5. Whether you have resources and time required to conduct the research study

Deliberations on the importance of the study include:

1. Whether the research question can answered by a simple review of literature

2. Whether the research question adds something new to the field’s literature

3. Whether the target population will benefit from answers derived

4. Whether social work practice, community, and wide social world will benefit from derived answers

Matching questions and study design

This entails determining the research design to use in your study.

The choice of research design is influenced by the research question.

It determines what the participants will do in the data collection process.

Common designs in social work include:

1. Experiments

2. Surveys

3. Focus groups

4. Interviews

5. Secondary data

6. Content analysis

7. Program evaluation

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