1.2 Science and social work

Learning Objectives

  • Define science
  • Describe the the difference between objective and subjective truth(s)
  • Describe the role of ontology and epistemology in scientific inquiry


Science and social work

Science is a particular way of knowing that attempts to systematically collect and categorize facts or truths. A key word here is systematically–conducting science is a deliberate process. Scientists gather information about facts in a way that is organized and intentional, usually following a set of predetermined steps. More specifically, social work is informed by social science, the science of humanity, social interactions, and social structures. In other words, social work research uses organized and intentional procedures to uncover facts or truths about the social world. And social workers rely on social scientific research to promote individual and social change.



Philosophy of social science

This approach to finding truth probably sounds similar to something you heard in your middle school science classes.  When you learned about the gravitational force or the mitochondria of a cell, you were learning about the theories and observations that make up our understanding of the physical world.  These theories rely on an ontology, or a set of assumptions about what is real.  We assume that gravity is real and that the mitochondria of a cell are real.  Mitochondria are easy to spot with a powerful enough microscope and we can observe and theorize about their function in a cell.  The gravitational force is invisible, but clearly apparent from observable facts, like watching an apple fall.  The theories about gravity have changed over the years, but improvements in theory were made when observations could not be correctly interpreted using existing theories.

If we weren’t able to perceive mitochondria or gravity, they would still be there, doing their thing because they exist independent of our observation of them.  This is a philosophical idea called realism, and it simply means that the concepts we talk about in science really and truly exist.  Ontology in physics and biology is focused on objective truth.  Chances are you’ve heard of “being objective” before.  It involves observing and thinking with an open mind, pushing aside anything that might bias your perspective.  Objectivity also means we want to find what is true for everyone, not just what is true for one person.  Certainly, gravity is true for everyone and everywhere.  Let’s consider a social work example, though.  It is objectively true that children who are subjected to severely traumatic experiences will experience negative mental health effects afterwards.  A diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is considered to be objective, referring to a real mental health issue that exists independent of the social worker observing it and that is highly similar in its presentation with our client as it would be with other clients.

So, an objective ontological perspective means that what we observe is true for everyone and true even when we aren’t there to observe it.  How do we come to know objective truths like these?  This is the study of epistemology, or our assumptions about how we come to know what is real and true.  The most relevant epistemological question in the social sciences is whether truth is better accessed using numbers or words.  Generally, scientists approaching research with an objective ontology and epistemology will use quantitative methods to arrive at scientific truth.  Quantitative methods examine numerical data to precisely describe and predict elements of the social world.  This is due to the epistemological assumption that mathematics can represent the phenomena and relationships we observe in the social world.

Mathematical relationships are uniquely useful, in that they allow comparisons across individuals as well as across time and space.  For example, while people can have different definitions for poverty, an objective measurement such as an annual income of less than $25,100 for a family of four provides (1) a precise measurement, (2) that can be compared to incomes from all other people in any society from any time period, (3) and refer to real quantities of money that exist in the world.  In this book, we will review survey and experimental methods, which are the most common designs that use quantitative methods to answer research questions.

It may surprise you to learn that objective facts, such as income or age, are not the only facts in the social sciences.  Indeed, social science is not only concerned with objective truth.  Social science also describes subjective truth, or the truths that are unique to individuals, groups, and contexts.  Unlike objective truth, which is true for all people, subjective truths will vary based on who you are observing and the context in which you are observing them.  The beliefs, opinions, and preferences of people are actually truths that social scientists measure and describe.  Additionally, subjective truths do not exist independent of human observation because they are the product of the human mind.  We negotiate what is true in the social world through language, arriving at a consensus and engaging in debate.

Epistemologically, a scientist seeking subjective truth assumes that truth lies in what people say, their words.  A scientist uses qualitative methods to analyze words or other media to understand their meaning.  Humans are social creatures, and we give meaning to our thoughts and feelings through language.  Linguistic communication is unique.  We share ideas with each other at a remarkable rate.  In so doing, ideas come into and out of existence in a spontaneous and emergent fashion. Words are given a meaning by their creator.  But anyone who receives that communication can absorb, amplify, and even change its original intent.  Because social science studies human interaction, subjectivists argue that language is the best way to understand the world.

This epistemology is based on some interesting ontological assumptions. What happens when someone incorrectly interprets a situation?  While their interpretation may be wrong, it is certainly true to them that they are right.  Furthermore, they act on the assumption that they are right.  In this sense, even incorrect interpretations are truths, even though they are only true to one person.  This leads us to question whether the social concepts we think about really exist.  They might only exist in our heads, unlike concepts from the natural sciences which exist independent of our thoughts.  For example, if everyone ceased to believe in gravity, we wouldn’t all float away.  It has an existence independent of human thought.

Let’s think through an example.  In the Diagnositic and Statistical Manual (DSM) classification of mental health disorders, there is a list of culture-bound syndromes which only appear in certain cultures.  For example, susto describes a unique cluster of symptoms experienced by people in Latin American cultures after a traumatic event that focus on the body.  Indeed, many of these syndromes do not fit within a Western conceptualization of mental health because they differentiate less between the mind and body.  To a Western scientist, susto may seem less real than PTSD.  To someone from Latin America, their symptoms may not fit neatly into the PTSD framework developed within Western society.  This conflict raises the question–do either susto or PTSD really exist at all?  If your answer is “no,” you are adopting the ontology of anti-realism, that social concepts do not have an existence apart from human thought.  Unlike the realists who seek a single, universal truth, the anti-realists see a sea of truths, created and shared within a social and cultural environment.

Let’s consider another example: manels or all-male panel discussions at conferences and conventions.  Check out this National Public Radio article for some hilarious examples, ironically including panels about diversity and gender representation.  Manels are a problem in academic gatherings, Comic-Cons, and other large group events.  A holdover of sexist stereotypes and gender-based privilege, manels perpetuate the sexist idea that men are the experts who deserve to be listened to by other, less important and knowledgeable people.  At least, that’s what we’ve come to recognize over the past few decades thanks to feminist critique. However, let’s take the perspective of a few different participants at a hypothetical conference and examine their individual, subjective truths.

When the conference schedule is announced, we see that of the ten panel discussions announced, there are only two that contain women.  Pamela, an expert on the neurobiology of child abuse, thinks that this is unfair and as she was excluded from a panel on her specialty.  Marco, an event organizer, feels that since the organizers simply went with who was most qualified to speak and did not consider gender, the results could not be sexist.  Dionne, a professor who specializes in queer theory and indigenous social work, agrees with Pamela that manels are sexist but also feels that the focus on gender excludes and overlooks the problems with race, disability, sexual and gender identity, and social class among the conference panel members.  Given these differing interpretations, how can we come to know what is true about this situation?

Honestly, there are a lot of truths here, not just one truth.  Clearly, Pamela’s truth is that manels are sexist.  Marco’s truth is that they are not necessarily sexist, as long as they were chosen in a sex-blind manner.  While none of these statements is objectively true—a single truth for everyone, in all possible circumstances—they are subjectively true to the people who thought them up.  Subjective truth consists of the the different meanings, understandings, and interpretations created by people and communicated throughout society.  The communication of ideas is important, as it is how people come to a consensus on how to interpret a situation, negotiating the meaning of events, and informing how people act.  Thus, as feminist critiques of society become more accepted, people will behave in less sexist ways.  From a subjective perspective, there is no magical number of female panelists conferences much reach to be sufficiently non-sexist.  Instead, we should investigate using language how people interpret the gender issues at the event, analyzing them within a historical and cultural context.  But how do we find truth when everyone had their own unique interpretation?  By finding patterns.


abstract image showing connections between points on a photo

Science means finding patterns in data

Regardless of whether you are seeking objective truth or subjective truths, research and scientific inquiry aim to find and explain patterns. Most of the time, a pattern will not explain every single person’s experience, a fact about social science that is both fascinating and frustrating. Even individuals who do not know each other and do not coordinate in any deliberate way can create patterns that persist over time. Those new to social science may find these patterns frustrating because they may believe that the patterns that describe their gender, age, or some other facet of their lives don’t really represent their experience. It’s true. A pattern can exist among your cohort without your individual participation in it. There is diversity within diversity.

Let’s consider some specific examples. One area that social workers commonly investigate is the impact of a person’s social class background on their experiences and lot in life. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a person’s social class background has an impact on their educational attainment and achievement. In fact, one group of researchers (Ellwood & Kane, 2000) in the early 1990s found that the percentage of children who did not receive any postsecondary schooling was four times greater among those in the lowest quartile (25%) income bracket than those in the upper quartile of income earners (i.e., children from high- income families were far more likely than low-income children to go on to college). Another recent study found that having more liquid wealth that can be easily converted into cash actually seems to predict children’s math and reading achievement (Elliott, Jung, Kim, & Chowa, 2010).

These findings—that wealth and income shape a child’s educational experiences—are probably not that shocking to any of us. Yet, some of us may know someone who may be an exception to the rule. Sometimes the patterns that social scientists observe fit our commonly held beliefs about the way the world works. When this happens, we don’t tend to take issue with the fact that patterns don’t necessarily represent all people’s experiences. But what happens when the patterns disrupt our assumptions?

For example, did you know that teachers are far more likely to encourage boys to think critically in school by asking them to expand on answers they give in class and by commenting on boys’ remarks and observations? When girls speak up in class, teachers are more likely to simply nod and move on. The pattern of teachers engaging in more complex interactions with boys means that boys and girls do not receive the same educational experience in school (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). You and your classmates, of all genders, may find this news upsetting.

People who object to these findings tend to cite evidence from their own personal experience, refuting that the pattern actually exists. However, the problem with this response is that objecting to a social pattern on the grounds that it doesn’t match one’s individual experience misses the point about patterns. Patterns don’t perfectly predict what will happen to an individual person.  Yet, they are a reasonable guide that, when systematically observed, can help guide social work thought and action.

A final note on qualitative and quantitative methods

There is no one superior way to find patterns that help us understand the world.  There are multiple philosophical, theoretical, and methodological ways to approach uncovering scientific truths.  Qualitative methods aim to provide an in-depth understanding of a relatively small number of cases. Quantitative methods offer less depth on each case but can say more about broad patterns in society because they typically focus on a much larger number of cases.  A researcher should approach the process of scientific inquiry by formulating a clear research question and conducting research using the methodological tools best suited to that question.

Believe it or not, there are still significant methodological battles being waged in the academic literature on objective vs. subjective social science.  Usually, quantitative methods are viewed as “more scientific” and qualitative methods are viewed as “less scientific.”  Part of this battle is historical.  As the social sciences developed, they were compared with the natural sciences, especially physics, which rely on mathematics and statistics to find truth.  It is a hotly debated topic whether social science should adopt the philosophical assumptions of the natural sciences—with its emphasis on prediction, mathematics, and objectivity—or use a different set of tools—understanding, language, and subjectivity—to find scientific truth.

You are fortunate to be in a profession that values multiple scientific ways of knowing. The qualitative/quantitative debate is fueled by researchers who may prefer one approach over another, either because their own research questions are better suited to one particular approach or because they happened to have been trained in one specific method. In this textbook, we’ll operate from the perspective that qualitative and quantitative methods are complementary rather than competing. While these two methodological approaches certainly differ, the main point is that they simply have different goals, strengths, and weaknesses. A social work researcher should choose the methods that best match with the question they are asking.


Key Takeaways

  • Social work is informed by science.
  • Social science is concerns with both objective and subjective knowledge.
  • Social science research aims to understand patterns in the social world.
  • Social scientists use both qualitative and quantitative methods. While different, these methods are often complementary.



  • Epistemology- a set of assumptions about how we come to know what is real and true
  • Objective truth- a single truth, observed without bias, that is universally applicable
  • Ontology- a set of assumptions about what is real
  • Qualitative methods- examine words or other media to understand their meaning
  • Quantitative methods- examine numerical data to precisely describe and predict elements of the social world
  • Science- a particular way of knowing that attempts to systematically collect and categorize facts or truth
  • Subjective truth- one truth among many, bound within a social and cultural context


Image Attributions

Science and Technology by Petr Kratochvil CC-0

Abstract art blur bright by Pixabay CC-0



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Foundations of Social Work Research Copyright © 2020 by Rebecca L. Mauldin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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