The importance of theory and methodology in research (2022)

All research contains theory in some form, and social work research is no exception. Much research is clear about the theories being used, and the ways they are applied within the formation of the project. Theory will manifest itself to some degree in:

  • the theoretical approach itself (the methodology)
  • the arguments about what might happen
  • the approach to the fieldwork or data-gathering
  • the analysis and synthesis of the findings.

Royse (2008) argues that theory often arises out of a 'value' position, and this is apparent within social work research in its attention to anti-oppressive or emancipatory practices.


Theory can be explanatory or predictive, and can underpin interventions as well as be used within research frameworks (Lomax et al (2010) 'Surviving your social work placement' has a useful chapter for this: 'Using theory and knowledge in practice'). Below is a small selection of the different kinds of theory used in social work research. Read the list and then consider whether you have used any of them in your studies or practice, or read journal papers which use them.

  • humanist theory
  • psychodynamic theory
  • object-relations theory
  • developmental theory
  • attachment theory
  • resilience theory
  • social learning theory
  • actor-network theory
  • theory of change
  • grounded theory
  • Marxist theory
  • feminist theory
  • structuralist theory
  • poststructuralist theory
  • modernist theory
  • postmodernist theory
  • standpoint theory
  • emancipatory theory

Which of these have you used in your practice or your studies?

Sometimes, social work research is carried out pragmatically, without explicitly recognising the theory or methodology behind what is being done (Corby 2006). This is not to say that there is not a research design, and an understanding that the research is 'qualitative', 'quantitative', or 'mixed-method', but that the assumptions behind it (what are known as the ontological and epistemological standpoints), have not been clearly stated.

Wade and Neumann (2007: 52) suggest that practice-based research 'does not necessarily attempt to meet the idealized rigor of traditional research studies', and emphasise the pragmatic nature of this sort of research. However, Furlong and Oancea (2005: 9) argue that there are often methodological strengths in practice-based research:

Applied and practice-based research are not methodologically depleted forms of research; rather they can be innovatory modes of research that cater for a different set of needs and define quality in terms of wider social robustness.

Ontology and epistemology

Ontology and epistemology are closely linked: 'commonly regarded as related, sometimes in a linear fashion, with ontological preferences informing epistemological issues' (Hardy and Evans 2010: 18). This is because they are about the ways that we understand the world and the nature of reality, and our understanding of 'knowledge' within that.

Ontology is the philosophy of 'being', or 'the nature of the world and what we can know about it' (Orme and Shemmings 2010: 84). Different ontological approaches look at how we understand the physical and social world, and its nature. Importantly for social research this considers how we understand 'reality' within the social world: whether it is unyielding and there regardless of our thoughts about it (realism), or a product of our knowing about it and constructing it through our individual thoughts (idealism).

Even where not explicitly stated, researchers approach their topic from a particular position and understand the world in a certain way. This is because we all hold an 'ontological position', knowingly or unknowingly, and 'our values affect our research at every level - theories, hypotheses, choice of methodologies and variables, data analysis strategies - whether we are conscious of our values or not' (Royse 2008: 23). Ingleby (1980: 25) takes this understanding of ontological position further, suggesting that 'they correspond to different mentalities'.


Jennifer Mason (2002: 15) gives some useful examples of the ways in which ontology shapes our thinking about the world. She suggests that different ontological positions see people in different ways, as 'social actors, humans, bodies, subjects, objects'.

  • How do you think about the people you work with, in one of these ways or another?
  • How do you think about your friends and relatives in this sense?
  • Try and think of a type of research that would consider people in each of these ways.

'Epistemology' is the philosophy or theory of 'knowing'. It is 'concerned with the criteria used to distinguish knowledge claims, or assess their rigour and validity' (Orme and Shemmings 2010: 84). McLaughlin (2012: 25) writes that epistemology is about grounding how we know the world: 'the types of knowledge claims that we can make about the world and how we can then assure the credibility of such claims'.

The two main perspectives often described in epistemology are:

  • Positivism - a scientific approach that sees knowledge as discoverable through objective research. It looks for facts such as cause and effect, and researchers try to measure and then theorise from this. A 'post-positivist' approach is more often used in social sciences because it acknowledges the difficulties of writing yourself out of the research, particularly in relation to your value base (Corby 2006).

    A classic example of a positivist sociological study is Durkheim's investigation of suicide ([1897] 1951). He used statistical data to theorise about the causes of suicide, looking at the structures in society to build explanatory concepts.

  • Interpretivism - this approach to knowledge looks at it as constructed by the subjective meaning that people make of their world: 'What is distinctive about the interpretive researcher is that they see people, and their interpretations, perceptions, meanings and understandings, as the primary data sources' (Mason 2002: 56). For this approach, the researcher needs to acknowledge their own subjectivity and value base.

    Ethnographic studies in social work are useful ways to explore an interpretivist approach. For example, Sue White and Brid Featherstone's (2005) study of an integrated child health team drew attention to the ways in which professional identity influenced communications within the team.


Take a minute to think about how you understand the notion of 'reality' and the social world you live in.

  • If positivism and interpretivism are two ends of a spectrum of perspectives, where along that spectrum would you place yourself?
  • If you were to carry out a piece of research, would you want to look for 'fact' or at 'meaning'?

Qualitative and quantitative methods for research: equal but different?

The classic way to distinguish between 'qualitative' and 'quantitative' research is through what sort of data it analyses. The statistical analysis of numbers signifies quantitative research, while the analysis of 'text' is the remit of qualitative research. Text, in this context, also refers to talk, to images and to observations of actions.

The purpose and process of research in these two different approaches is also distinctive; you could say that they look for different things, in different ways. While some research methods overlap - for instance interviews, questionnaires or content analysis - the ways that these are framed and proceed depend on which kind of research they take place in.

Quantitative research:

  • looks for cause and effect (e.g. 'Is there a relationship between boys who witness domestic violence becoming perpetrators themselves?')
  • measures outcomes (e.g. Do intensive parenting programmes improve outcomes for adolescents excluded from school?)
  • measures the numbers involved in a category of interest. (e.g. What percentage of young women who were abused as children are substance misusers?)

Quantitative research gathers data through





Numerical data gathered (answers are coded into numbers for analysis)

Answers to closed-ended questions

Official statistics
Performance data
Content analysis of policy documents

Content analysis of transcripts

Observation schedule used with events
Measurements from experiments

Source: after Denscombe (2007: 254)

Qualitative research looks for:

  • meaning (e.g. Why do adults with autism sometimes prefer residential living?)
  • processes (e.g. In what ways does professional identity influence joint working between health and social care?)
  • participants' own understandings of a topic. (e.g. What do young adults with learning disabilities think about personalisation?)

Qualitative research gathers data through





'Textual' data gathered

Interview talk
Narratives (for life histories)

Diaries, minutes of meetings
Scripts (e.g. for political speeches)
Policy documents

Interactions between people

Answers to open-ended questions

Source: after Denscombe (2007: 287)


Find two pieces of research, one that uses quantitative methods [Suggestion: Douglas, E.M. & Hines, D.A. (2011) The Helpseeking Experiences of Men Who Sustain Intimate Partner Violence: An Overlooked Population and Implications for Practice. Journal of Family Violence, Vol. 26 473-485] and one that uses qualitative methods [Suggestion: Adamshick, P.Z. (2010) The Lived Experience of Girl-to-Girl Aggression in Marginalized Girls. Qualitative Health Research, Vol. 20 (4) 541-555].

  • Using the criteria listed above, consider what the research is trying to show, and what methods were used to gather the data.
  • Do you think the research was successful?
  • Are there other ways that you could have done this research?
  • What might the problems be with a single-method approach?

Now, find a piece of research that is 'mixed-method' - i.e. it uses both quantitative and qualitative methods. [Suggestion: Wilson, R.J., Abram, F.Y. & Anderson, J. (2010) Exploring a Feminist-based Empowerment Model of Community Building. Qualitative Social Work, Vol. 9 519-535.]

  • What does the mixed-methods approach bring to this research which couldn't be done with a single method? Do the methods work well together?
  • What might be the problems with a mixed-method approach?

As you can see, both these approaches to research have the possibility of finding out useful information for social care practitioners: 'different methodological approaches to undertaking research provide different knowledges for different purposes' (Orme and Shemmings 2010: 78). What matters is that the research is 'fit for purpose' and carried out in a rigorous and appropriate way.

Anti-oppressive perspectives

Social work researchers who are concerned with social justice aim to develop an anti-discriminatory consciousness to conduct their research in anti-oppressive ways. Such an attitude will inform every stage of the research process, from the conception of the research through to the planning, the methods and the reporting.

  • Anti-oppressive practice challenges the whole structure of society, and the use of power to maintain inequality and the oppression of some groups within society.
  • Anti-discriminatory practice seeks to reduce and fight unfair and unequal treatment, and aims to remove barriers that prevent people from accessing services.

There are a number of principles to keep in mind in conducting research in an anti-discriminatory way.

Knowledge, especially for and about social life, is not produced in a vacuum - as knowledge producers, researchers and evaluators are located within a complex set of social structures. Their identities, motives and agendas will impact on the questions they ask, the methods they use and the conclusions they draw. Instead of an assumption of a neutral, objective stance, anti-discriminatory researchers need to be concerned with the moral and political questions that affect the lives of the people being researched, including understanding how the language of power, oppression and domination is used. This may lead them to reject some methods as incompatible with this stance.

Anti-discriminatory research does not necessarily imply only qualitative methods. For example, in a survey of gay men's health needs conducted by Truman et al. (2000), the aims and design of the research were dictated by service users. This is an example of a quantitative study that set out to apply anti-discriminatory principles.

People who are the focus of research are often those who may be vulnerable and in relatively powerless positions. In some research they have no control over how they are represented in the research reports. As a result, some research presents people's experiences from the perspectives of dominant cultures and groups. Anti-discriminatory research seeks to work in a participatory, user-involved or controlled way to develop methodologies that are respectful, ethical, sympathetic and authentic.

Service users and other research participants can design and take part in, or run, investigations, rather than only 'being on the receiving end'. Where possible research should be a negotiated process between researchers and participants, including the interpretation of any findings.

Social workers and others may be involved in producing data indirectly, by being asked to collect statistics and other information for monitoring purposes. These may be used for purposes they do not support (e.g. the recording of immigration status to be used to identify 'illegal' entrants). They and their professional organisations need to ask how routinely recorded information is being used.

Data protection restrictions have helpfully ensured that information about service users cannot be used routinely for research or other purposes for which it was originally intended.

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