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Introduction, what is practice research and why (and for whom) does it matter, practice research as an organisationally rooted participatory research methodology, practice research frameworks, how can service users benefit from participating in practice research, integrating practice research processes into social service organisational analysis, applications of practice research for social service organisations, methodological and ethical considerations for practice research-based organisational analysis, implications and an agenda for social work researchers, acknowledgements.

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Practice research methods in social work: Processes, applications and implications for social service organisations

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Bowen McBeath, Michael J Austin, Sarah Carnochan, Emmeline Chuang, Practice research methods in social work: Processes, applications and implications for social service organisations, The British Journal of Social Work , Volume 52, Issue 6, September 2022, Pages 3328–3346, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcab246

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Although social work research is commonly rooted within social service settings, it can be difficult for social work researchers and practitioners to develop and sustain participatory studies that specifically promote knowledge sharing and service improvement involving organisational practice. One participatory approach is practice research (PR), which involves social work researchers and practitioners collaborating to define, understand and try to improve the delivery of health and social care services and organisational structures and processes. The two goals of this commentary are to introduce essential methods and approaches to PR and to identify points of connection involving PR and social service organisational studies. Our specific focus on PR in statutory, voluntary and private social service organisations reflects efforts to connect practice, theory and qualitative and quantitative research methods to develop and share organisationally-situated knowledge.

This paper offers an overview of practice research (PR) that focuses on the delivery of social work services in social service organisations. PR is a participatory method used by researchers to address the needs of vulnerable populations, notably poor communities of colour, who receive health and social care services in formal organisational settings. PR is ‘a knowledge development process that focuses primarily on the roles of the service provider, service user, and the service researcher who all participate in defining the research questions and interpreting the findings’ ( Fisher et al. , 2016 ). PR therefore seeks to improve social work and other social services and promote the well-being of service users; and functions as a collaborative process that minimises power differentials between participants ( Austin, 2020 ).

The macro-organisational context of PR studies includes concerns of managerialism amidst neoliberalism, involving increased professionalisation, the use of evidence-based practices and the structuring of service programmes around carefully defined performance measures in response to administrative and policy requirements ( Hasenfeld and Garrow, 2012 ; Harlow et al. , 2013 ; Yan et al. , 2017 ). The meso-organisational context of PR studies involves the development and sustainment of organisational spaces for reflection and sharing that support practitioner engagement in evidence-informed practice ( Carnochan et al. , 2017 ; Brandt et al. , 2020 ). The immediate context for PR is the bureaucratic encounters that involve staff and service users as well as practitioner use of research to promote organisational learning ( Austin and Carnochan, 2020 ). With its specific focus on statutory, voluntary and private social service organisations, PR aims to strengthen the collaborative capacity of practitioners and researchers to support service improvement and responsiveness to the perspectives of service users (capturing the expertise of experience).

In order to describe PR within organisations providing health and social care services, our paper is divided into four sections. First, we provide a brief introduction to PR to characterise its core elements. We also provide a brief review of the major approaches to PR, distinguishing between PR frameworks at different levels of practice and in different geographic contexts. We then identify how service users can benefit from PR. Secondly, we identify how PR processes can be integrated within social service organisational analysis, focusing in particular on how practice researchers and their agency partners (notably front line staff and managers) collaboratively seek to improve social service delivery, support organisational learning and promote interorganisational knowledge sharing. We also summarise PR processes that are based on the core concepts embedded in the science of the concrete (SOC) ( Flyvbjerg, 2001 ). Thirdly, we illustrate the applications of PR for local authorities/counties and voluntary social service organisations with the use of three brief examples featuring methodological and ethical considerations for researchers using PR approaches. Finally, we conclude by identifying implications for social work organisational researchers participating in PR studies and proposing a future research agenda.

At its core, PR is a negotiated process involving multiple stakeholders ( Uggerhøj, 2011 ). These stakeholders include statutory, voluntary and private social service organisations; managers, staff and service users within the organisation; researchers; and policymakers and community leaders. They all function within the context of intergroup communications, negotiation and shared learning needed to address the gap between research and practice and support learning across role-based social, cultural and organisational distances ( Austin and Carnochan, 2020 ).

In order to address this gap, PR involves elements of both practice and research. The elements of practice include: (1) engaging and including diverse types of stakeholders; (2) an effort to rebalance power relationships across organisational contexts, by validating the experiences and expertise of participants at different levels of the organisation; (3) open and frequent conversations to promote dialogue and sustain norms of trust and reciprocity; and (4) an appreciation for the critical role of organisational supports (notably managers) for exploring service innovation ( Uggerhøj, 2011 ).

Essential research elements of PR include the use of quantitative and qualitative data, as well as the reliance on evidence collected within the agency setting. The use of different types of evidence can generate two major research tensions; namely, balancing the breadth (as seen in large organisational surveys and administrative service databases) and depth (e.g. analysis of client case records, in-depth interviews) of research while navigating the tension between research rigour and practice wisdom displayed by practitioners and service users ( Julkunen, 2011 ).

These practice and research elements are integrated into PR studies that evolve in response to ongoing and changing agency needs and priorities. Facilitated group dialogue is used to collaboratively identify practice concerns, conduct research in response to the concerns, and share findings with a focus on assessing current social work practices and identifying opportunities for improvement ( Austin, 2020 ). PR involves power sharing and role shifting through reciprocal learning, as traditionally less-engaged stakeholders explore new roles (e.g. from service user to PR partner); and as managers and researchers reframe their traditional roles (e.g. exploring the emergence of practice-informed management research and research-informed management practice) ( Fisher et al. , 2016 ).

As one of several participatory social science research methods, PR reflects the emphasis of researchers on practice-in-context. In particular, PR shares a number of characteristics with participatory action research (PAR) and empowerment evaluation. In each method, collaboration with service users and other stakeholder groups is central to identifying basic research questions that relate to practices, programmes and/or policies as expressions of larger institutional forces. Furthermore, these approaches draw on diverse sources of literature, including practice and policy reports as well as academic research studies, to inform research questions. Lastly, collaborative collection and analysis of qualitative and/or quantitative data is carried out by research and practice partners across the three research traditions ( Healy, 2001 ; Fetterman et al. , 2017 ).

However, while PR shares many similarities with PAR and programme evaluation principles, it also differs in several important ways related to goals, data sources, data interpretation and the nature of knowledge development and dissemination (see Table 1 ). For example, a main goal of programme evaluation includes the central role of specifying programme objectives to inform funder or organisational decision making in a narrowly defined area (e.g. continue, modify or eliminate a programme). In contrast, PR goals may be much broader, and intended to inform participants’ conceptual thinking about current practice or service delivery and create dialogical opportunities without the same emphasis on direct implications for organisational decision making. Differences also appear in the area of research dissemination. Specifically, programme evaluation results are often used to support organisational planning in response to formal funding and policy requirements, and PAR is often used to support socio-political action or community change. In comparison, PR focuses more on service and practice improvement as well as the relationship between theory and practice, with the goal of encouraging more research-minded practitioners and more practice-minded researchers ( Saurama and Julkunen, 2012 ).

Comparing PR with other research frameworks a

Adapted from Austin and Carnochan (2020 , p. 199).

Another critical factor that distinguishes PR from other participatory research methods is the connection between social work practice and social service managers. Compared to action research and empowerment evaluation methodologies, PR is more explicitly organisational in understanding how managers, front line staff and service users make sense of their diverse roles and often competing statuses. PR is also more attentive to the collaborative interrelationships of service users, front line agency staff and managers in their interorganisational and institutional context. Finally, PR demonstrates an awareness of how questions of service delivery reflect the professionalisation of social work and social services vis-à-vis questions of organisational learning ( Fisher et al. , 2016 ).

Finally, another key difference between PR and its related methodologies can be found in the relationship of organisationally situated theories vis-à-vis practice. For practice researchers, considerations of theory-informed practice and practice-informed theory are important ( Fisher, 2011 ). The exploration and development of diverse theories (e.g. cultural–historical activity theory; Foot, 2014 ) helps practice researchers and participants identify shared practice challenges and explore possible solutions. For example, practice researchers can share lessons learned and practice implications of different theories of group-based learning and relational work, so that managers, workers and service users can determine how each theory enhances shared understanding of service problems and possible solutions ( Austin, 2020 ; Muurinen and Kaarianen, 2021 ).

In sum, PR is explicitly rooted within social service organisations, with a basic goal of collaborating to improve the delivery of health and social care services and organisational capacity within and between organisations ( Austin and Carnochan, 2020 ). Practice researchers pay close attention to the delivery of front line services as well as multilevel practice issues relating to managers, staff and service users.

The evolution of PR has reflected theoretical and practical developments. Practice researchers have used person-in-organisation theories of practice in an effort to explain the ‘everyday actions’ ( Feldman and Orlikowski, 2011 , p. 1241) and ‘concrete activities’ ( Barley and Kunda, 2001 , p. 76) that capture the relationship between agency-based service providers and service users. Researchers have also proposed ways of enhancing the practical relevance of research that involves social work researchers and practitioners promoting shared learning, with a goal of resolving fundamental service delivery dilemmas ( Austin et al. , 2014 ).

In response to these developments, the interrelated streams of PR have been explored in the form of collaboration and negotiation. For example, the foundational perspective of PR invites practitioners and service users to collaboratively identify opportunities to improve social work practices and organisational processes—particularly in response to administrative requirements and statutory mandates ( Fook and Gardner, 2007 ; Epstein, 2009 ). Similarly, there are opportunities to negotiate across differing approaches and perspectives that practitioners, service users and researchers bring to the knowledge production process ( Uggerhøj, 2011 ).

Based on the original formulation of PR, Julkunen (2011) developed a typology of PR studies, distinguishing between practitioner-oriented, generative, method-oriented and democratic models. In the practitioner-oriented model, the practitioner reflectively dialogues with others in order to address pressing practice issues. The generative model involves cycles of agency practice and research designed to connect practical knowledge to action by testing and evaluating potential practice innovations. The method-oriented model involves the service user, practitioner and researcher collaboratively developing practice-based knowledge as well as knowledge that can inform theory development and application. Finally, the democratic model focuses specifically on service users, practitioners, researchers and organisational and system leaders using PR to advocate for practice reforms, thereby connecting PR to policy change (also see Fisher, 2013 ).

Although scholarship on PR has historically reflected the perspectives of Nordic and US academic institutions and social welfare states, a globally diverse body of PR literature is emerging ( Chan and Sim, 2020 ). This literature demonstrates that different PR studies may reflect different: political, policy and organisational contexts of social service delivery; research methods; understandings of service user and practitioner involvement and collaboration and understandings of practice ( Sim et al. , 2018 ).

Empirical research on benefits accrued by service users when engaging in PR is currently limited. However, preliminary evidence suggests that benefits can be organised in terms of empowerment processes and measurable outcomes built on the service user premise of ‘nothing about us, without us’ ( Beresford and McLaughlin, 2020 ). Such processes invite PR participants to learn how to participate in non-hierarchical relationships that ensure diversity, equity and inclusion among service users and providers. This partnership relationship often involves joint problem-solving as well as developing a critical consciousness leading to an alliance through the articulation of shared and different needs and challenges ( Fook and Gardner, 2007 ). Engaging in this process can help service users gain a greater understanding of the contextualised nature of social problems they face.

Another key benefit of participating in PR involves expanding the capacities of service users to amplify their own voices and assume the position of representing the perspectives of peer-colleagues ( Austin and Carnochan, 2020 ). Service users may advocate internally (in response to management directives) and externally (in response to policy dicta and fiscal requirements). As they engage in advocacy efforts, service users can also increase their skills in identifying and accessing community resources (e.g. job training programmes that enhance employability). The process of engaging in humanising power-sharing relationships using dialogical communications between service users, staff and managers can thus involve a shared search for community resources and organisational funding needed to maintain service delivery at needed levels ( Ramon et al. , 2019 ).

The benefits of service user involvement do not necessarily lead to major organisational changes when the focus is on modifying or improving direct service or managerial practice. However, service user involvement can lead to both changes in practice as well as changes in organisational policies and structures ( Julkunen, 2011 ; Fisher, 2013 ). Through involvement in PR, service users can also participate in training and other learning-oriented events as co-equals with staff and other community stakeholders. These opportunities can involve service users playing critical roles of knowledge navigation and translation within social service organisational contexts, particularly where service user perspectives are needed to translate deep knowledge of programme and policy gaps to staff, managers and policymakers ( Muurinen and Kaarianen, 2021 ). Such PR efforts can help spur organisational change and the development of new approaches to system transformation. For service users, skills acquired through participation in PR can also be leveraged in future advocacy efforts or employment opportunities (e.g. serving as a consultant or staff member based on their expertise of experience with a particular social issue) ( Voronka and Grant, 2021 ).

In summary, some of the major benefits derived from service user involvement have been documented ( Natland and Celik, 2015 ) by noting the transition of service user from functioning with a sense of shame or trauma to one of pride and empowerment, in addition to learning how services can be evaluated and improved based on timely and strategic input from service users. A major limitation related to service user involvement could be that their involvement in which their service user experiences are contextualised or revisited could result in being retraumatised (e.g. reliving the experiences of being homeless, incarcerated, unemployed, physically disabled or mentally disabled), especially when acquiring the ‘big picture understanding’ of the pervasiveness of social problems in the larger society ( Müller and Pihl-Thingvad, 2020 ).

The next section identifies common approaches for practice researchers to collaborate with agency-based practitioners and managers in support of service user preferences.

PR processes reflect the evolving interests of social service organisational researchers and practitioners, as seen in their concerns with the formal delivery of contract-based public services, with specific focus on service access and equity considerations ( Jindra et al. , 2020 ). In a similar way, PR processes capture the concerns of managerialism as a response to neoliberalism and austerity, especially in European, Australian and Asian social welfare contexts ( Yan et al. , 2017 ; Alexander and Fernandez, 2021 ). Underlying these interests is an abiding focus on studies that validate and feature the perspectives of service users and service providers ( Hasenfeld and Garrow, 2012 ; Harlow et al. , 2013 ). These studies reflect decades of organisational research, as seen in Table 2 (for a review, see Austin and Carnochan, 2020 ). The overarching effort is to democratise knowledge sharing within social service organisational settings by identifying complementary ways for service users, practitioners, researchers and advocates to contribute to social service delivery.

Complementary types of practice research with social service organisations

For social service organisational scholars, PR processes support exploratory, explanatory and interventive research aims. In exploratory research, PR is used to identify the diverse organisational experiences of service users and service providers ( Austin, 2020 ). These exploratory studies are analogous to participatory needs assessments. In contrast, explanatory PR examines connections between service, programme or policy logics, and identifies broken or missing logics reflecting needed resources (notably, time, funding and training). For example, the identification of gaps between needs and services often reflects historically and/or currently unaddressed service needs (as seen by service users), programme needs (as perceived by front line staff) and organisational learning and policy implementation needs (as viewed by agency leaders) ( Hasenfeld and Garrow, 2012 ; Spitzmueller, 2018 ). Finally, PR can support intervention studies that involve the co-design, co-development, refinement and sharing of new practices within programmes (e.g. practical innovations that benefit service users and front line workers) ( Schalock et al. , 2014 ).

PR-based social service studies can be viewed from the perspectives of the SOC ( Flyvbjerg, 2001 ) that invites researchers to propose person-oriented research questions related to those individuals and groups most impacted by the issues at hand. The SOC also asks researchers to focus on small practices that support big events or processes by exploring everyday activities and their contexts that connect people and their organisational milieu. Finally, the SOC involves engaging multiple stakeholders while reducing power differentials. In PR, managers are viewed as essential linchpins who facilitate shared learning, by validating the multiple organisational identities of participants.

Although social service organisational research based on the SOC can take many forms, it ordinarily begins with question formulation around one or more practical problems or concerns. As elucidated by Austin and Carnochan (2020) , PR questions can take a variety of forms but generally involve three fundamental questions: How can we improve social services and, more broadly, enhance opportunities for health and social care? How can we amplify the voices of service users? and How can we sustain small innovations and promising practices in social work, particularly in different organisational and policy settings? Jointly defining PR questions involves validating the perspectives of each type of participant. Questions derived from the perspectives of service users and staff require considerable outreach in order to engage and amplify service user and practitioner voices (e.g. via service user- and staff-led meetings) ( Uggerhøj, 2011 ).

In comparison, organisational and policy-focused research questions are often formulated by senior management in regards to intra-organisational issues (e.g. cross-departmental coordination and collaboration) and inter-organisational issues (e.g. contracting and implementation challenges involving statutory, voluntary and private social service organisations) ( Fisher, 2013 ). Negotiating among the diverse types of research questions involves explaining why the questions are relevant for different groups, how each envisioned research study can support mutually beneficial goals, and what benefits and challenges might arise as a result.

Other key concepts of the SOC that support PR studies include collaboration and engagement with partners based on persistent communication, representation of diverse memberships, fostering inclusiveness, engaging in difficult conversations and consensus building. Other needed skills involve managing critical tensions, often relating to the responsibilities and expectations of different PR stakeholders. Additional tensions reflect the evolving demands of the organisation vis-à-vis its institutional environment. These tensions need to be addressed through shared dialogue in PR teams ( Julkunen, 2011 ).

As the PR team coalesces, it informs research design, data collection, data interpretation and research dissemination and utilisation in unique ways ( Austin, 2020 ). For example, the more traditional use of literature reviews is to ensure that the research questions and study design are informed by the latest peer-reviewed research studies, by reflecting their findings, key concepts, research methods and implications for future research. In comparison, building on existing knowledge in PR may also involve review of organisational documents, grey literature and the practice wisdom of practitioners and service users ( Austin and Carnochan, 2020 ).

In PR, literature reviews can also become ends in themselves. For example, PR-informed literature reviews can assist in reframing service processes (i.e. identifying how service users and practitioners understand the theories of action underlying service logic models); help staff to become more evidence-informed by reflecting on diverse practice literature and inform managerial decision-making processes. Similarly, in contrast to the traditional scholarly approach of disseminating research findings via peer-reviewed publications in academic journals, practice researchers also share findings directly with service providers and service users in the form of reports and presentations so that practice partners can identify novel applications and more effective approaches to practice.

This section provides three brief examples of PR-based organisational studies. The institutional context of the examples reflects a longstanding PR centre located in a US public research university, a regional consortium of county organisations that administer statutorily required social services and a regional consortium of non-profit organisations that provide voluntary social services. Regionalisation of PR efforts is not uncommon, particularly when organised through academic–practice partnerships involving research, education and training and service functions (often in metropolitan areas).

PR centres serve as network hubs for developing service, workforce and programme studies in response to institutional and local demands (e.g. new policy implementation requirements impacting service delivery). They share PR-based knowledge in order to advocate with local and regional policy and practice bodies, and work to promote mutual support and shared leadership among social service organisations. From the social service organisational perspective, consortium membership and affiliation with the PR centre can advance knowledge development and utilisation that might not otherwise be possible due to considerations of cost, research capacity or timing ( Schalock et al. , 2014 ). Whilst some PR centres are university-based ( Austin et al. , 1999 ), others are located in public settings (e.g. ministries of health and social services) ( Muurinen and Kaarianen, 2021 ). However, the general purpose of PR centres is similar to centres providing applied evaluation and technical assistance.

For over twenty-five years, the PR centre from which the following examples are drawn has supported collaborative, usable knowledge related to the management and improvement of social work services across the public and non-profit social service sectors ( Austin, 2018 ). Its studies have involved research at the front line, organisational and inter-organisational levels, ranging from qualitative agency-based case studies to large quantitative surveys that span public and non-profit organisations across the region. The studies have supported the collection and sharing of three types of research evidence as noted by Nutley et al. (2007) . The first type relates to conceptual evidence that is often drawn from exploratory PR studies that are designed to support future applications. The second type includes persuasive research evidence that often involves explanatory PR, and is used to advocate (within organisations) and externally (notably, with policymakers, funders and civic leaders). And the third type involves instrumental evidence that often relates to explanatory or interventive PR that is designed to support practice improvements (notably in response to identified service and training needs).

To illustrate some of these PR-informed studies of service delivery, we note the purpose of each study, and then summarise its use by study partners and the consortia of local authorities/counties and non-profit social service organisations. As each study evolved, practice researchers attended to the perspectives of organisational partners through persistent communications, relational work centred in interpersonal and small group meetings, managing tensions in response to ongoing and new challenges and celebrating successes.

The first example involved an exploration of the attributes and sustainability of pioneering non-profit social service organisations through in-depth case histories ( Austin, 2013 ) and focused on the organisational developmental needs of long-serving nonprofits. The study partners and regional consortium of non-profit social service organisations expressed significant interest in findings, leading to requests for self-assessment-based organisational and management support tools designed to promote front line service improvement.

The second example was a survey-based study of how front line and management practitioners across eleven county-based public social service organisations engaged in evidence-informed practice. The quantitative aspect of the study noted the importance of organisational roles and resources, and individual practitioner attitudes towards practice and innovation, in supporting different levels of evidence use ( McBeath et al. , 2015 ). The qualitative component of the study identified the specific cognitive, interactive, action and compliance dimensions of evidence-informed practice that are embedded within agency-based social and organisational practices and priorities ( Carnochan et al. , 2017 ). This explanatory study resulted in the provision of recommendations to the eleven county social service organisations, focused on identifying needed resources and opportunities for peer sharing and social support.

The third example involved a mixed methods study examining the collaborative nature of non-profit contracting amidst technical challenges that reflect the underlying complexity of social service delivery. Qualitative, comparative case study analysis was used to explore the multiple dimensions of relational contracting between non-profit and county social service organisations in three counties ( McBeath et al. , 2017 ). The quantitative component of the study entailed surveying non-profit and county social service organisations across different counties to assess the importance of cross-sector communications, trust-building and shared client accountability for collaborative contracting and social service outcome achievement ( Carnochan et al. , 2019 ; Chuang et al. , 2020 ). Study findings identified the need for public-non-profit social service contracting support structures and processes, including: regularly scheduled cross-sector meetings to identify emergent needs and promising service approaches; and cross-sector training and technical assistance to promote collaborative contracting and improved service outcomes.

Each example involved engagement with agency directors, division heads, senior managers and line staff. In each study, the research design and reporting process was iterative between levels, in support of facilitating communication on broadly relevant topics involving diverse staff groups. Overall, these and other studies from the specific PR centre have regularly featured critical information exchange sessions, involving agency staff presentations of local practices as well as research staff presentations of research syntheses, and in which the audience is cross-division and multi-level.

PR methods complement social service organisational research methodologies in at least two ways. First, PR offers an alternative to traditional organisational research that relies on quantitative analysis of elite surveys (notably agency directors). In comparison, PR studies incorporate diverse types of data (e.g. use of agency documents, interviews, focus groups, surveys) and the perspectives of individuals at different levels of analysis (including administrators and managers, front line staff and service users). These qualitative and quantitative data collection methods are intended to address common source bias and validity concerns. Mixed methods PR studies therefore need to anticipate concerns about the perceived trustworthiness, credibility, confirmability and dependability of the data (e.g. by pilot testing survey instruments and interview guides). (For a summative review concerning how to promote the rigour and relevance of PR studies, see Austin and Carnochan (2020 , pp. 183–189)).

Secondly, PR provides a balanced response to the understanding of researchers as either directing and managing the research process, or serving in subsidiary roles. In comparison, PR is a participatory process in which the research interests and perspectives of the researchers and practitioners are actively negotiated, and often reflect multiple objectives ( Fisher et al. , 2016 ). As noted previously, these include instrumental objectives (e.g. to use PR to enhance understanding of services and programmes, and/or to support organisational learning) along with process and interactional objectives (e.g. to support PR-based participation and collaboration). Among the most challenging aspects embedded in negotiations are values-based objectives that are designed to enhance equity and empowerment through PR projects.

Practice researchers therefore need to be prepared to take on co-facilitative roles on issues ranging from research question formulation to the interpretation, use and wider sharing of PR findings in organisations and broader contexts. These co-roles are essential for addressing group dynamics and cross-sector challenges, celebrating shared wins and fostering inclusiveness and active dialogue. Working through these critical tensions depends on power sharing—particularly for practice researchers and senior agency staff vis-à-vis front line staff and service users—and reflects key elements of intergroup dialogue amidst difference ( Austin, 2020 ).

Whilst there is a wide range of ethical issues associated with PR that draws heavily from social science research, some of the more prominent issues include service user and case record confidentiality, final report contributor equity, teamwork accountability derived from participatory decision making in search of consensus and adherence to data source protocols. The theme of confidentiality is wide ranging. It includes respecting the confidential nature of service user information collected as part of a PR project. It also involves the confidential discussions among research team members, who can include service users and staff. A final concern relates to the ethics of the timely reporting of the research to service users, other agency stakeholders and the larger community (e.g. elected officials, other organisations and researchers). In essence, PR involves the various ethical views of three different communities; namely, the research community, the service provider community and the service user community. The convergence of these three perspectives can be challenging for the various participants to both understand and accept.

These methodological and ethical considerations lead to four suggestions for social service organisational researchers when co-facilitating PR studies to enhance their ability to anticipate common PR challenges. First, PR presents communication-based coordination challenges (involving questions of trust, ethical dilemmas and available expertise), as practice and research partners may need to dialogue regularly amidst already-demanding work schedules. Secondly, partners may face changing and/or limited capacity for and engagement with PR, particularly as practice and research roles and priorities evolve. Thirdly, navigating PR projects requires attending to differing perspectives on the time frame to generate research results, viewed as fast by university standards and slow by agency standards. Fourthly, practice researchers need to demonstrate the capacity to convert research implications into practical recommendations for organisational change given the limited experience with the unique aspects of organisational cultures that differ across participating agencies and research institutions. Underscoring these suggestions is the importance of practice researchers and agency partners remaining flexible with respect to different role-based expectations and university versus agency-based priorities.

We conclude with two major recommendations for social work researchers and practitioners in the social service organisational milieu. First, developing, maintaining and supporting collaborative, trust-based relationships is essential for PR studies. Relationship-building involves recognising mutually beneficial capabilities and shared objectives across different organisational roles (e.g. service users, staff and managers within the agency, and practice-informed researchers inside and outside the agency) to advance collaborative planning. Supporting relationships can involve power-sharing to promote mutual respect and trust as well as social support, particularly amidst the complex dynamics of PR teams. Sustaining relationships calls for transparent information-sharing, consistent communication to address evolving practice and research dilemmas and reciprocal risk-taking that respects the negotiated boundaries of various partners. Finally, sustained relationships often require continuous boundary spanning within the organisation and between agency and university partners.

For productive PR relationships to evolve, an ongoing assessment of practice and research relationships includes monitoring evolving organisational and community contexts, revisiting shared goals in light of changes, and managing PR project expectations in response to evolving stakeholder needs and ethical challenges. Relational work is perhaps the most essential dimension of collaborative, participatory research with social service organisational partners.

Secondly, for practice researchers and agency-based practitioners, the balancing of diverse relational commitments requires sustained self-reflection . Self-reflection involves considering the tensions between the breadth and depth possible in empirical research as well as between the commitment to peer-reviewed empirical research and the investment in practice-based research (e.g. grey literature, agency statistics, practice wisdom). Self-reflection also relates to addressing the different expectations and emphases of service users, staff, managers and other agency stakeholders as well as the different collaborative roles that researchers are required to play when they are invited to step up as co-leaders or step back (e.g. comfortably serving as a research consultant), depending on the specific needs of the research team in its organisational context. These reflexive considerations are centred in an ethos of collaboratively improving service delivery to enhance service user well-being.

While reflecting on identified tensions is a critical aspect of the efforts of practice researchers in relationship with agency-based partners, it is also essential for researchers located in university-based settings. Self-reflection on these tensions can involve deeper questions of how to: (1) reconcile the often-competing expectations of one’s academic home, one’s social service organisational partners and one’s role as a scholar–researcher and (2) reframe these competing expectations into complementary aims. Regular dialogue involving practice and research partners concerning these two issues can involve iterative processes of shared debriefing, deconstructing and redefining key needs. The overall goal is to find win–wins that benefit the university, agency and oneself in carrying out research and disseminating practical knowledge in community-based organisational settings.

In order to identify mutually beneficial PR opportunities for social service organisational researchers, we propose a research agenda in the form of ten questions designed to promote speculation and dialogue as illustrated in Table 3 . The array of questions captures the tensions related to the different ways that practice researchers: engage and consider collaborating with possible agency partners; transition from the development of participatory research studies to their dissemination in complex agency contexts and sustain participatory studies in larger institutional settings. The questions seek to capture a lifecycle of participatory research projects at different stages of organisational development and across different contexts.

New directions for practice research-informed social service organisational analysis.

In summary, PR is a participatory, organisationally focused approach that combines the search for practice-relevant knowledge with qualitative and quantitative research methods in order to enhance services and promote organisational improvement in diverse contexts. PR therefore complements participatory methodologies as well as other applied social science methods used in social service organisational analysis. The future challenges include promoting more participatory studies of social service organisations as well as articulating additional perspectives on PR processes, applications and implications.

The authors would like to express their appreciation to the anonymous peer reviewers and Editors for their very helpful suggestions regarding the manuscript.

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Social Work Education, Research and Practice: Challenges and Looking Forward

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social work practice and research

  • Abraham P. Francis 3 ,
  • Ilango Ponnuswami 4 &
  • Hyacinth Udah 3  

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In this chapter, we present a summary of key ideas expressed in this book and invite readers, social work educators, researchers, scholars, practitioners and students to deeply ponder on some of the challenges and opportunities for social work in post-COVID-19 world. By describing these challenges the social work profession faces, we provide a bird’s eye view of the possibilities and opportunities for practice in the future based on our collaborative discussions, reflections and experiences. Many factors have influenced the outcome of this book. The various kinds of social work initiatives undertaken, both, in India and Australia, especially in social work education, indicate the importance of cross-cultural learning, decoloniality and discussing the impact international collaboration can have in promoting social justice and human rights. In the context of the global challenges and disruptions presented by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, we place a special emphasis on post-pandemic response, directing readers to contemplate on the kind of work that can be done in social work education, research and practice.

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Francis, A.P., Ponnuswami, I., Udah, H. (2020). Social Work Education, Research and Practice: Challenges and Looking Forward. In: Ponnuswami, I., Francis, A.P. (eds) Social Work Education, Research and Practice . Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-9797-8_20

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The link between social work research and practice

When thinking about social work, some may consider the field to solely focus on clinical interventions with individuals or groups.

There may be a mistaken impression that research is not a part of the social work profession. This is completely false. Rather, the two have been and will continue to need to be intertwined.

This guide covers why social workers should care about research, how both social work practice and social work research influence and guide each other, how to build research skills both as a student and as a professional working in the field, and the benefits of being a social worker with strong research skills. 

A selection of social work research jobs are also discussed.  

  • Social workers and research
  • Evidence-based practice
  • Practice and research
  • Research and practice
  • Build research skills
  • Social worker as researcher
  • Benefits of research skills
  • Research jobs

Why should social workers care about research?

Sometimes it may seem as though social work practice and social work research are two separate tracks running parallel to each other – they both seek to improve the lives of clients, families and communities, but they don’t interact. This is not the way it is supposed to work.

Research and practice should be intertwined, with each affecting the other and improving processes on both ends, so that it leads to better outcomes for the population we’re serving.

Section 5 of the NASW Social Work Code of Ethics is focused on social workers’ ethical responsibilities to the social work profession. There are two areas in which research is mentioned in upholding our ethical obligations: for the integrity of the profession (section 5.01) and for evaluation and research (section 5.02). 

Some of the specific guidance provided around research and social work include:

  • 5.01(b): …Social workers should protect, enhance, and improve the integrity of the profession through appropriate study and research, active discussion, and responsible criticism of the profession.
  • 5.01(d): Social workers should contribute to the knowledge base of social work and share with colleagues their knowledge related to practice, research, and ethics…
  • 5.02(a) Social workers should monitor and evaluate policies, the implementation of programs, and practice interventions.
  • 5.02(b) Social workers should promote and facilitate evaluation and research to contribute to the development of knowledge.
  • 5.02(c) Social workers should critically examine and keep current with emerging knowledge relevant to social work and fully use evaluation and research evidence in their professional practice.
  • 5.02(q) Social workers should educate themselves, their students, and their colleagues about responsible research practices.

Evidence-based practice and evidence-based treatment

In order to strengthen the profession and determine that the interventions we are providing are, in fact, effective, we must conduct research. When research and practice are intertwined, this leads practitioners to develop evidence-based practice (EBP) and evidence-based treatment (EBT).

Evidence-based practice is, according to The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) , a process involving creating an answerable question based on a client or organizational need, locating the best available evidence to answer the question, evaluating the quality of the evidence as well as its applicability, applying the evidence, and evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of the solution. 

Evidence-based treatment is any practice that has been established as effective through scientific research according to a set of explicit criteria (Drake et al., 2001). These are interventions that, when applied consistently, routinely produce improved client outcomes. 

For example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) was one of a variety of interventions for those with anxiety disorders. Researchers wondered if CBT was better than other intervention options in producing positive, consistent results for clients.

So research was conducted comparing multiple types of interventions, and the evidence (research results) demonstrated that CBT was the best intervention.

The anecdotal evidence from practice combined with research evidence determined that CBT should become the standard treatment for those diagnosed with anxiety. Now more social workers are getting trained in CBT methods in order to offer this as a treatment option to their clients.

How does social work practice affect research?

Social work practice provides the context and content for research. For example, agency staff was concerned about the lack of nutritional food in their service area, and heard from clients that it was too hard to get to a grocery store with a variety of foods, because they didn’t have transportation, or public transit took too long. 

So the agency applied for and received a grant to start a farmer’s market in their community, an urban area that was considered a food desert. This program accepted their state’s version of food stamps as a payment option for the items sold at the farmer’s market.

The agency used their passenger van to provide free transportation to and from the farmer’s market for those living more than four blocks from the market location.

The local university also had a booth each week at the market with nursing and medical students checking blood pressure and providing referrals to community agencies that could assist with medical needs. The agency was excited to improve the health of its clients by offering this program.

But how does the granting foundation know if this was a good use of their money? This is where research and evaluation comes in. Research could gather data to answer a number of questions. Here is but a small sample:

  • How many community members visited each week and purchased fruits and vegetables? 
  • How many took advantage of the transportation provided, and how many walked to the market? 
  • How many took advantage of the blood pressure checks? Were improvements seen in those numbers for those having repeat blood pressure readings throughout the market season? 
  • How much did the self-reported fruit and vegetable intake increase for customers? 
  • What barriers did community members report in visiting and buying food from the market (prices too high? Inconvenient hours?)
  • Do community members want the program to continue next year?
  • Was the program cost-effective, or did it waste money by paying for a driver and for gasoline to offer free transportation that wasn’t utilized? What are areas where money could be saved without compromising the quality of the program?
  • What else needs to be included in this program to help improve the health of community members?

How does research affect social work practice?

Research can guide practice to implement proven strategies. It can also ask the ‘what if’ or ‘how about’ questions that can open doors for new, innovative interventions to be developed (and then research the effectiveness of those interventions).

Engel and Schutt (2017) describe four categories of research used in social work:

  • Descriptive research is research in which social phenomena are defined and described. A descriptive research question would be ‘How many homeless women with substance use disorder live in the metro area?’
  • Exploratory research seeks to find out how people get along in the setting under question, what meanings they give to their actions, and what issues concern them. An example research question would be ‘What are the barriers to homeless women with substance use disorder receiving treatment services?’
  • Explanatory research seeks to identify causes and effects of social phenomena. It can be used to rule out other explanations for findings and show how two events are related to each other.  An explanatory research question would be ‘Why do women with substance use disorder become homeless?’
  • Evaluation research describes or identifies the impact of social programs and policies. This type of research question could be ‘How effective was XYZ treatment-first program that combined housing and required drug/alcohol abstinence in keeping women with substance use disorder in stable housing 2 years after the program ended?’

Each of the above types of research can answer important questions about the population, setting or intervention being provided. This can help practitioners determine which option is most effective or cost-efficient or that clients are most likely to adhere to. In turn, this data allows social workers to make informed choices on what to keep in their practice, and what needs changing. 

How to build research skills while in school

There are a number of ways to build research skills while a student.  BSW and MSW programs require a research course, but there are other ways to develop these skills beyond a single class:

  • Volunteer to help a professor working in an area of interest. Professors are often excited to share their knowledge and receive extra assistance from students with similar interests.
  • Participate in student research projects where you’re the subject. These are most often found in psychology departments. You can learn a lot about the informed consent process and how data is collected by volunteering as a research participant.  Many of these studies also pay a small amount, so it’s an easy way to earn a bit of extra money while you’re on campus. 
  • Create an independent study research project as an elective and work with a professor who is an expert in an area you’re interested in.  You’d design a research study, collect the data, analyze it, and write a report or possibly even an article you can submit to an academic journal.
  • Some practicum programs will have you complete a small evaluation project or assist with a larger research project as part of your field education hours. 
  • In MSW programs, some professors hire students to conduct interviews or enter data on their funded research projects. This could be a good part time job while in school.
  • Research assistant positions are more common in MSW programs, and these pay for some or all your tuition in exchange for working a set number of hours per week on a funded research project.

How to build research skills while working as a social worker

Social service agencies are often understaffed, with more projects to complete than there are people to complete them.

Taking the initiative to volunteer to survey clients about what they want and need, conduct an evaluation on a program, or seeing if there is data that has been previously collected but not analyzed and review that data and write up a report can help you stand out from your peers, be appreciated by management and other staff, and may even lead to a raise, a promotion, or even new job opportunities because of the skills you’ve developed.

Benefits of being a social worker with strong research skills

Social workers with strong research skills can have the opportunity to work on various projects, and at higher levels of responsibility. 

Many can be promoted into administration level positions after demonstrating they understand how to conduct, interpret and report research findings and apply those findings to improving the agency and their programs.

There’s also a level of confidence knowing you’re implementing proven strategies with your clients. 

Social work research jobs

There are a number of ways in which you can blend interests in social work and research. A quick search on Glassdoor.com and Indeed.com retrieved the following positions related to social work research:

  • Research Coordinator on a clinical trial offering psychosocial supportive interventions and non-addictive pain treatments to minimize opioid use for pain.
  • Senior Research Associate leading and overseeing research on a suite of projects offered in housing, mental health and corrections.
  • Research Fellow in a school of social work
  • Project Policy Analyst for large health organization
  • Health Educator/Research Specialist to implement and evaluate cancer prevention and screening programs for a health department
  • Research Interventionist providing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for insomnia patients participating in a clinical trial
  • Research Associate for Child Care and Early Education
  • Social Services Data Researcher for an organization serving adults with disabilities.
  • Director of Community Health Equity Research Programs evaluating health disparities.

No matter your population or area of interest, you’d likely be able to find a position that integrated research and social work. 

Social work practice and research are and should remain intertwined. This is the only way we can know what questions to ask about the programs and services we are providing, and ensure our interventions are effective. 

There are many opportunities to develop research skills while in school and while working in the field, and these skills can lead to some interesting positions that can make a real difference to clients, families and communities. 

Drake, R. E., Goldman, H., Leff, H. S., Lehman, A. F., Dixon, L., Mueser, K. T., et al. (2001). Implementing evidence-based practices in routine mental health service settings. Psychiatric Services, 52(2), 179-182. 

Engel, R.J., & Schutt, R.K. (2017). The Practice of Research in Social Work. Sage.

National Association of Social Workers. (n.d). Evidence Based Practice. Retrieved from: https://www.socialworkers.org/News/Research-Data/Social-Work-Policy-Research/Evidence-Based-Practice

Social Work Research Methods That Drive the Practice

A social worker surveys a community member.

Social workers advocate for the well-being of individuals, families and communities. But how do social workers know what interventions are needed to help an individual? How do they assess whether a treatment plan is working? What do social workers use to write evidence-based policy?

Social work involves research-informed practice and practice-informed research. At every level, social workers need to know objective facts about the populations they serve, the efficacy of their interventions and the likelihood that their policies will improve lives. A variety of social work research methods make that possible.

Data-Driven Work

Data is a collection of facts used for reference and analysis. In a field as broad as social work, data comes in many forms.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative

As with any research, social work research involves both quantitative and qualitative studies.

Quantitative Research

Answers to questions like these can help social workers know about the populations they serve — or hope to serve in the future.

  • How many students currently receive reduced-price school lunches in the local school district?
  • How many hours per week does a specific individual consume digital media?
  • How frequently did community members access a specific medical service last year?

Quantitative data — facts that can be measured and expressed numerically — are crucial for social work.

Quantitative research has advantages for social scientists. Such research can be more generalizable to large populations, as it uses specific sampling methods and lends itself to large datasets. It can provide important descriptive statistics about a specific population. Furthermore, by operationalizing variables, it can help social workers easily compare similar datasets with one another.

Qualitative Research

Qualitative data — facts that cannot be measured or expressed in terms of mere numbers or counts — offer rich insights into individuals, groups and societies. It can be collected via interviews and observations.

  • What attitudes do students have toward the reduced-price school lunch program?
  • What strategies do individuals use to moderate their weekly digital media consumption?
  • What factors made community members more or less likely to access a specific medical service last year?

Qualitative research can thereby provide a textured view of social contexts and systems that may not have been possible with quantitative methods. Plus, it may even suggest new lines of inquiry for social work research.

Mixed Methods Research

Combining quantitative and qualitative methods into a single study is known as mixed methods research. This form of research has gained popularity in the study of social sciences, according to a 2019 report in the academic journal Theory and Society. Since quantitative and qualitative methods answer different questions, merging them into a single study can balance the limitations of each and potentially produce more in-depth findings.

However, mixed methods research is not without its drawbacks. Combining research methods increases the complexity of a study and generally requires a higher level of expertise to collect, analyze and interpret the data. It also requires a greater level of effort, time and often money.

The Importance of Research Design

Data-driven practice plays an essential role in social work. Unlike philanthropists and altruistic volunteers, social workers are obligated to operate from a scientific knowledge base.

To know whether their programs are effective, social workers must conduct research to determine results, aggregate those results into comprehensible data, analyze and interpret their findings, and use evidence to justify next steps.

Employing the proper design ensures that any evidence obtained during research enables social workers to reliably answer their research questions.

Research Methods in Social Work

The various social work research methods have specific benefits and limitations determined by context. Common research methods include surveys, program evaluations, needs assessments, randomized controlled trials, descriptive studies and single-system designs.

Surveys involve a hypothesis and a series of questions in order to test that hypothesis. Social work researchers will send out a survey, receive responses, aggregate the results, analyze the data, and form conclusions based on trends.

Surveys are one of the most common research methods social workers use — and for good reason. They tend to be relatively simple and are usually affordable. However, surveys generally require large participant groups, and self-reports from survey respondents are not always reliable.

Program Evaluations

Social workers ally with all sorts of programs: after-school programs, government initiatives, nonprofit projects and private programs, for example.

Crucially, social workers must evaluate a program’s effectiveness in order to determine whether the program is meeting its goals and what improvements can be made to better serve the program’s target population.

Evidence-based programming helps everyone save money and time, and comparing programs with one another can help social workers make decisions about how to structure new initiatives. Evaluating programs becomes complicated, however, when programs have multiple goal metrics, some of which may be vague or difficult to assess (e.g., “we aim to promote the well-being of our community”).

Needs Assessments

Social workers use needs assessments to identify services and necessities that a population lacks access to.

Common social work populations that researchers may perform needs assessments on include:

  • People in a specific income group
  • Everyone in a specific geographic region
  • A specific ethnic group
  • People in a specific age group

In the field, a social worker may use a combination of methods (e.g., surveys and descriptive studies) to learn more about a specific population or program. Social workers look for gaps between the actual context and a population’s or individual’s “wants” or desires.

For example, a social worker could conduct a needs assessment with an individual with cancer trying to navigate the complex medical-industrial system. The social worker may ask the client questions about the number of hours they spend scheduling doctor’s appointments, commuting and managing their many medications. After learning more about the specific client needs, the social worker can identify opportunities for improvements in an updated care plan.

In policy and program development, social workers conduct needs assessments to determine where and how to effect change on a much larger scale. Integral to social work at all levels, needs assessments reveal crucial information about a population’s needs to researchers, policymakers and other stakeholders. Needs assessments may fall short, however, in revealing the root causes of those needs (e.g., structural racism).

Randomized Controlled Trials

Randomized controlled trials are studies in which a randomly selected group is subjected to a variable (e.g., a specific stimulus or treatment) and a control group is not. Social workers then measure and compare the results of the randomized group with the control group in order to glean insights about the effectiveness of a particular intervention or treatment.

Randomized controlled trials are easily reproducible and highly measurable. They’re useful when results are easily quantifiable. However, this method is less helpful when results are not easily quantifiable (i.e., when rich data such as narratives and on-the-ground observations are needed).

Descriptive Studies

Descriptive studies immerse the researcher in another context or culture to study specific participant practices or ways of living. Descriptive studies, including descriptive ethnographic studies, may overlap with and include other research methods:

  • Informant interviews
  • Census data
  • Observation

By using descriptive studies, researchers may glean a richer, deeper understanding of a nuanced culture or group on-site. The main limitations of this research method are that it tends to be time-consuming and expensive.

Single-System Designs

Unlike most medical studies, which involve testing a drug or treatment on two groups — an experimental group that receives the drug/treatment and a control group that does not — single-system designs allow researchers to study just one group (e.g., an individual or family).

Single-system designs typically entail studying a single group over a long period of time and may involve assessing the group’s response to multiple variables.

For example, consider a study on how media consumption affects a person’s mood. One way to test a hypothesis that consuming media correlates with low mood would be to observe two groups: a control group (no media) and an experimental group (two hours of media per day). When employing a single-system design, however, researchers would observe a single participant as they watch two hours of media per day for one week and then four hours per day of media the next week.

These designs allow researchers to test multiple variables over a longer period of time. However, similar to descriptive studies, single-system designs can be fairly time-consuming and costly.

Learn More About Social Work Research Methods

Social workers have the opportunity to improve the social environment by advocating for the vulnerable — including children, older adults and people with disabilities — and facilitating and developing resources and programs.

Learn more about how you can earn your  Master of Social Work online at Virginia Commonwealth University . The highest-ranking school of social work in Virginia, VCU has a wide range of courses online. That means students can earn their degrees with the flexibility of learning at home. Learn more about how you can take your career in social work further with VCU.

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Gov.uk, Mixed Methods Study

MVS Open Press, Foundations of Social Work Research

Open Social Work Education, Scientific Inquiry in Social Work

Open Social Work, Graduate Research Methods in Social Work: A Project-Based Approach

Routledge, Research for Social Workers: An Introduction to Methods

SAGE Publications, Research Methods for Social Work: A Problem-Based Approach

Theory and Society, Mixed Methods Research: What It Is and What It Could Be


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Practice research methods in social work: Processes, applications and implications for social service organisations

Author:  Emmeline Chuang Michael J. Austin Sarah Carnochan Publication date:  September 30, 2022 Publication type:  Journal Article Citation:  McBeath, B., Austin, M. J., Carnochan, S., & Chuang, E. (2022). Practice research methods in social work: Processes, applications and implications for social service organisations. The British Journal of Social Work, 52(6), 3328-3346.

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School of Social Work faculty conduct research in a range of areas — from mental health, aging and spirituality to homelessness, interpersonal violence and body image.

More about SSW research

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Social Work faculty and students work directly with people in the community to empower those who are vulnerable, oppressed or living in poverty.

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Career Tips , Choosing a Job , Getting a Job

Navigating the Path to Social Work Careers

Published: May 24, 2024

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Social work is a deeply rewarding field where you can make a significant impact on individual lives and communities. You might be drawn to social work because it provides a tangible way to help others, or perhaps you want to be on the front lines of social change. Let’s take a closer look at the profession below.

a female social worker working with her client

Social Work Careers

Social work is a field with a wide range of career opportunities, each offering the chance to make a significant difference in the lives of others. Whether through direct client interaction or community-wide programs, social workers play a crucial role in improving societal well-being.

The core values of social work are service, social justice, dignity, and integrity. These four values guide practitioners in their professional actions and their commitment to serving individuals and communities effectively. 

Social workers fill roles in a variety of sectors, including healthcare, education, community, nonprofit, and government. The best career in social work is different for each person and depends on that person’s strengths along with the type of work they are passionate about. Below are some of the most popular careers in social work.

Clinical Social Work Therapist

Clinical social work therapists specialize in diagnosing and treating mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.

Medical Social Worker

Medical social workers work in healthcare settings to help patients navigate the emotional and practical challenges associated with acute, chronic, or terminal illnesses.

School Social Worker

School support workers support student success by addressing social, emotional, and behavioral problems that interfere with education.

Hospice Social Worker

Hospice social workers provide end-of-life support to patients and their families, helping them manage psychological and logistical challenges.

Substance Use and Recovery Treatment Counselor

Substance use and recovery treatment counselors assist individuals recovering from addiction, providing counseling and support to help them reclaim control of their lives.

Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counselors offer therapy and support for individuals dealing with mental health issues.

Community Service Manager

Community service managers oversee programs and staff that provide social services to the public.

Health Educator

Health educators focus on community-wide health education and intervention to promote wellness and healthy living.

Child and Family Social Worker

Child and family social workers work with children and families to improve situations in cases of abuse, neglect, or parental incapacity.

Social Research Scientist

Social research scientists research to evaluate and improve social services systems.

a senior female social worker verfifying records

What Does a Social Worker Do?

Social workers fulfill a variety of critical functions in their daily roles. These tasks demonstrate the comprehensive nature of social work, requiring a blend of empathy, problem-solving skills , and practical knowledge of social services. Here’s a more detailed look at a social worker’s typical tasks.

Client Assessment

Social workers begin their intervention with a thorough assessment of the client’s needs, strengths, and challenges. This process includes interviewing clients, and possibly their families, to gather detailed social, economic, and psychological information.

Developing Plans 

Based on their assessments, social workers develop tailored intervention plans to address the client’s specific circumstances. This might involve setting goals, outlining steps to meet those goals, and identifying appropriate resources.

Resource Connection

A key task is to connect clients with community resources and services. This can include mental health services, healthcare, housing, job training, and more, depending on what the client needs to improve their situation.

Social workers often act as advocates for their clients to access services and resources. They may work to change policies or access resources that are not readily available, ensuring that clients receive necessary services, such as healthcare or legal aid.

Crisis Intervention

In urgent situations, such as cases of abuse or mental health crises, social workers intervene to provide immediate support and safety. They are trained to handle emergencies and can provide critical support services during crises.

Counseling and Support

Counseling is a fundamental part of social work. This includes therapeutic interventions aimed at helping individuals cope with their circumstances and improving their emotional and psychological well-being.

Monitoring and Evaluation

After implementing intervention plans, social workers monitor the progress of their clients and evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention. Adjustments to the plan may be made to better meet the client’s needs.


Accurate documentation is crucial in social work. Social workers keep detailed records of assessments, plans, client progress, and sessions. This documentation ensures continuity of care and accountability.

What are the Benefits of Being a Social Worker?

The field of social work comes with a variety of benefits, including the ability to help others, a diverse working environment, and personal growth. One of the most fulfilling aspects of being a social worker is the opportunity to make a positive impact on individuals, families, and communities. Social workers play a crucial role in mental health care, crisis intervention, and employment counseling, often seeing firsthand how their efforts improve the lives of those they help. This aspect of the job provides a deep sense of purpose and accomplishment, which is a significant source of job satisfaction.

In addition to personal fulfillment, social work offers a diverse work environment where professionals can interact with people from various backgrounds and experiences. This diversity enriches the job experience, fostering a broader understanding and appreciation of different perspectives and needs. Social work also supports professional development through ongoing training and educational opportunities, allowing practitioners to stay current in their field and advance in their careers. 

How to Become a Social Worker?

The path to becoming a social worker typically begins with obtaining a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field such as psychology, sociology, or health sciences. This foundational step provides the essential knowledge and skills needed in the profession, including an understanding of social welfare policy, human behavior, and ethical practice. 

UoPeople offers a comprehensive bachelor of science in health science program, with an opportunity to earn a certificate in behavioral health . This program offers a curriculum in human development, psychopathology and mental health, community health, biology, and bioethics. You will gain an in-depth understanding of how social, cultural, and biological factors contribute to mental health and will prepare you for the next career step.

Besides offering a top-notch education, UoPeople’s courses are taught completely online , making our programs a great fit for students who are working or juggling family responsibilities. Because of our flexible model, our courses contain a diverse mix of students from around the world, providing unique perspectives and networking opportunities unmatched by in-person programs.

Once you have completed a bachelor’s degree, aspiring social workers who wish to enter clinical practice or advance in their careers typically pursue a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. An MSW not only broadens their knowledge and expertise but also meets the educational requirements for licensure, which is mandatory for clinical social workers in most states. 

After earning an MSW, candidates must complete a period of supervised clinical experience, often two to three years, before they can apply for licensure. The final steps include passing a professional state licensing exam and fulfilling any additional state-specific requirements.

Choosing a career in social work offers an exceptional opportunity to positively impact the lives of individuals, families, and entire communities. Social workers stand at the forefront of addressing societal challenges, from advocating for social justice to providing critical mental health support. 

This profession is not just a job; it’s a calling that attracts those who wish to make a meaningful difference. The role of a social worker extends beyond mere occupation—it’s about fostering change, supporting resilience, and empowering the most vulnerable to achieve their full potential. It’s a career that embodies the spirit of service, making it deeply fulfilling for those who pursue it.

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  1. Research on Social Work Practice: Sage Journals

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    Abstract This article traces themes over time for conducting social work research to improve social work practice. The discussion considers 3 core themes: (a) the scientific practitioner, including different models for applying this perspective to research and practice; (b) intervention research; and (c) implementation science. While not intended to be a comprehensive review of these themes ...

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  7. Practice research methods in social work: Processes, applications and

    Abstract. Although social work research is commonly rooted within social service settings, it can be difficult for social work researchers and practitioners to develop and sustain participatory studies that specifically promote knowledge sharing and service improvement involving organisational practice.

  8. Full article: Promoting Practitioner Research through a Social Work

    Introduction. Social work requires a robust evidence base to support effective interventions, yet social work research only minimally influences practice, indicating that the profession should address the research-practice disconnect (Teater Citation 2017).). 'Practitioner-researchers' combine their positions within practice with conducting research concerning that practice (Dahlberg and ...

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  10. How to Bring Research Into Social Work Practice

    5.01 (d): Social workers should contribute to the knowledge base of social work and share with colleagues their knowledge related to practice, research, and ethics…. 5.02 (a) Social workers should monitor and evaluate policies, the implementation of programs, and practice interventions. 5.02 (b) Social workers should promote and facilitate ...

  11. Social Work Practice: History and Evolution

    Social work is a profession that began its life as a call to help the poor, the destitute and the disenfranchised of a rapidly changing social order. It continues today still pursuing that quest, perhaps with some occasional deviations of direction from the original spirit. Social work practice is the primary means of achieving the profession's ...

  12. PDF Practice-Informed Research: Contemporary Challenges and Ethical

    social work. The development of research for use in practice has matured considerably during recent decades and well beyond Meyer's (1976) characterization of social work research as being haphazard and with little demand. Austin (1999) chronicles and describes the advancement of social work research highlighting the development

  13. Studies in Clinical Social Work: Transforming Practice, Education and

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  14. Integrating Practice Research into Social Work Field Education

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    Social work researchers will send out a survey, receive responses, aggregate the results, analyze the data, and form conclusions based on trends. Surveys are one of the most common research methods social workers use — and for good reason. They tend to be relatively simple and are usually affordable.

  16. Practice research methods in social work: Processes, applications and

    Practice research methods in social work: Processes, applications and implications for social service organisations. The British Journal of Social Work, 52(6), 3328-3346.

  17. School of Social Work

    School of Social Work faculty conduct research in a range of areas — from mental health, aging and spirituality to homelessness, interpersonal violence and body image. ... Social Work students build real-world problem-solving skills during field experiences at more than 300 locations. Field education. For current students.

  18. Full article: Social workers use of knowledge in an evidence-based

    View PDF View EPUB. Since the 1990s, evidence-based practice has become part of social work, grounded in the notion that social work should be a research-based profession. However, recent studies show that social workers struggle with bridging research and practice. This study analysed Norwegian social workers' use of knowledge in their daily ...

  19. Navigating the Path to Social Work Careers

    The path to becoming a social worker typically begins with obtaining a bachelor's degree in social work or a related field such as psychology, sociology, or health sciences. This foundational step provides the essential knowledge and skills needed in the profession, including an understanding of social welfare policy, human behavior, and ...

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    Education is an indispensable tool for improving social sustainability. In the school context, a wide variety of methodologies are being considered to achieve this goal by promoting cultural and experiential sustainability through educational and technological innovation. Educational robotics is an educational-formative context that makes it possible to develop new learning environments ...

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    The immediate context. Both authors have been involved with social work practice research at the Heikki Waris Institute funded by the Helsinki Metropolitan municipalities and University of Helsinki, Finland (Muurinen & Satka, Citation 2020).Both authors worked at the Institute, Aino Kääriäinen as a university lecturer and Heidi Muurinen as a researcher social worker and frequently ...

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    Process recordings allowed for reflective practice, and multiple opportunities for debriefing and feedback were embedded throughout the semester. As the social work profession contends with a changing field education environment post-Coronavirus-19, we must find pedagogical strategies to support skill development in the classroom.