1.1 Getting started

Learning Objectives

  • Find a topic to investigate
  • Create a working question


Choosing a social work research topic

According to the Action Network for Social Work Education and Research (ANSWER), social work research is conducted to benefit “consumers, practitioners, policymakers, educators, and the general public through the examination of societal issues” (Action Network for Social Work Education and Research, ANSWER, n.d., para. 2).  Common social issues that are studied include “health care, substance abuse, community violence, family issues, child welfare, aging, well-being and resiliency, and the strengths and needs of underserved populations” (ANSWER, n.d., para. 2). This list is certainly not exhaustive. Social workers may study any area that impacts their practice. However, the unifying feature of social work research is its focus on promoting the well-being of target populations.


a road sign with arrows pointing off into various directions with the word "possibility" written next to each one

But as social work students, you may not be practicing social work yet. How do you identify valuable research topics then? Part of the joy in being a social work student is figuring out what areas of social work are appealing to you. Perhaps there are certain theories that speak to you, based on your values or experiences. Perhaps there are social issues you wish to change. Perhaps there are certain groups of people you want to help. Perhaps there are clinical interventions that interest you. Any one of these is a good place to start. At the beginning of a research project, your main focus should be finding a social work topic that is interesting enough to spend a semester reading and writing about it.

A good topic selection plan begins with a general orientation into the subject you are interested in pursuing in more depth. Here are some suggestions when choosing a topic area:

  • Pick an interest, experience, or an area where you know there is a need for more research.
  • It may be easier to start with “what” and “why” questions and expand on those. For example, what are the best methods of treating severe depression? Or why are people receiving SNAP more likely to be obese?
  • If you already have practice experience in social work through employment, an internship, or volunteer work, think about practice issues you noticed in the placement.
  • Ask a professor, preferably one active in research, about possible topics.
  • Read departmental information on research interests of the faculty. Faculty research interests vary widely, and it might surprise you what they’ve published on in the past. Most departmental websites post the curriculum vitae, or CV, of faculty which lists their publications, credentials, and interests.
  • Read a research paper that interests you. The paper’s literature review or background section will provide insight into the research question the author was seeking to address with their study. Is the research incomplete, imprecise, biased, or inconsistent? As you’re reading the paper, look for what’s missing. These may be “gaps in the literature” that you might explore in your own study. The conclusion or discussion section at the end may also offer some questions for future exploration. A recent blog posting in Science (Pain, 2016)  provides several tips from researchers and graduate students on how to effectively read these papers.
  • Think about papers you enjoyed researching and writing in other classes. Research is a unique class and will use the tools of social science for you to think more in depth about a topic. It will bring a new perspective that will deepen your knowledge of the topic.
  • Identify and browse journals related to your research interests. Faculty and librarians can help you identify relevant journals in your field and specific areas of interest.

Spotlight on UTA: Dr. Jandel crutchfield

Before Dr. Jandel Crutchfield of the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Social Work ever became a school social worker or a social work professor, she was “just” a student in public schools in southern Louisiana. While she had a very strong support system through her family and community, she remembers interacting with students around her who clearly did not have the same set of life circumstances that she did. And she saw, too, that often those circumstances interfered with their performance at school.  She served as a mentor during her middle and high school years to try to stand in the gap for some of these students who were facing personal and/or academic challenges, and so, it came naturally that she would want to become a school social worker as a long-term career. Whether it was her  years of schooling as a child or as a professional working in K-12 public schools, she experienced enough to come up with at least 20 different research topics related to schools. Not only was school such a pivotal part of life for children and families, but there was so much happening in schools that influenced long term outcomes like employment, safety, freedom, and success!

Photograph of Dr. Jandel Crutchfield
Dr. Jandel Crutchfield of University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Social Work

Of all these 20+ potential topics, she really wanted to know how social workers could help improve the lives of children and families in schools. When she began exploring research articles, she found it interesting to see there existed lots of ideas and models of how school social workers could assist students with academic, social, behavioral, and psychological health in schools. But based on her experience, she saw several gaps in these models and ideas. In the literature about school social work, she didn’t find much information about school social workers working with minority (black and brown) students. She remembered in her own personal and professional experiences that minority students make up a large percentage of the public school students and that they were experiencing very consequential racial disparities in academic success and school discipline.  So, she launched out to explore what became her first research topic: exactly what school social workers are doing to address these disparities. From this topic, another research area blossomed, as she discovered that many school social workers reported a desire to address racial disparities but lack the cultural competence training to advocate effectively for anti-racist interventions. And so, her research quest also involves seeking out understanding of cultural competence needs in school social work practice. She’s very thankful that her own personal and professional experiences served her well in finding research topics. She found two pathways to explore minority student experience: school social work interventions for minority students and cultural competence among school social workers (for more information, refer to Crutchfield & Webb, 2018; Crutchfield, Crutchfield, & Buford, 2018; Ortega-Williams, Crutchfield, & Hall (in press); and Tan, Teasley, Crutchfield & Canfield, 2017).

How do you feel about your topic?

Perhaps you have started with a specific population in mind—for example, youth who identify as LGBTQ or visitors to a local health clinic. In other cases, you may start with a social problem, such as gang violence, or social policy or program, such as zero-tolerance policies in schools. Alternately, maybe there are interventions like dialectical behavioral therapy or applied behavior analysis about which you would like to learn more. Your motivation for choosing a topic does not have to be objective. Because social work is a values-based profession, social work researchers often find themselves motivated to conduct research that furthers social justice or fights oppression. Just because you think a policy is wrong or a group is being marginalized, for example, does not mean that your research will be biased. However, it does mean you need to understand how you feel, why you feel that way, and what would cause you to feel differently about your topic.


drawn black arms reaching towards the word justice written in grey text on a white background

Start by asking yourself how you feel about your topic. Be totally honest, and ask yourself whether you believe your perspective is the only valid one. Perhaps yours isn’t the only perspective, but do you believe it is the wisest one? The most practical one? How do you feel about other perspectives on this topic? If you feel so strongly that certain findings would upset you or that either you would design a project to get only the answer you believe to be the best one or you might feel compelled to cover up findings that you don’t like, then you need to choose a different topic. For example, a researcher may want to find out whether there is any relationship between intelligence and political party affiliation—certain that members of her party are without a doubt the most intelligent. Her strong opinion would not be a problem by itself. However, if she feels rage when considering the possibility that the opposing party’s members are more intelligent than those of her party, the topic is probably too near and dear for her to use it to conduct unbiased research.

Of course, just because you feel strongly about a topic does not mean that you should not study it. Sometimes the best topics to research are those about which you do feel strongly. What better way to stay motivated than to study something that you care about? You must be able to accept that people will have a different perspective than you do, and try to represent their viewpoints fairly in your research. If you feel prepared to accept all findings, even those that may be unflattering to or distinct from your personal perspective, then perhaps you should intentionally study a topic about which you have strong feelings.

Kathleen Blee (1991, 2002) has taken this route in her research. Blee studies hate movement participants, people whose racist ideologies she studies but does not share. You can read her accounts of this research in two of her most well-known publications, Inside Organized Racism and Women of the Klan. Blee’s research is successful because she was willing to report her findings and observations honestly, even those about which she may have strong feelings. Unlike Blee, if you think about it and conclude that you cannot accept or share with others findings with which you disagree, then you should study a different topic. Knowing your own hot-button issues is an important part of self-knowledge and reflection in social work.

Social workers often use personal experience as a starting point for what topics are interesting to cover. As we’ve discussed here, personal experience can be a powerful motivator to study a topic in detail. However, social work researchers should be mindful of their own mental health during the research process. A social worker who has experienced a mental health crisis or traumatic event should approach researching related topics cautiously. There is no need to retraumatize yourself or jeopardize your mental health for a research paper. For example, a student who has just experienced domestic violence may want to know about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. While the student might gain some knowledge about potential treatments for domestic violence, she will likely have to read through many stories and reports about domestic violence. Unless the student’s trauma has been processed in therapy, conducting a research project on this topic may negatively impact the student’s mental health. Nevertheless, she will acquire skills in research methods that will help her understand the EMDR literature and whether to begin treatment in that modality.

Whether you feel strongly about your topic or not, you will also want to consider what you already known about it. There are many ways we know what we know. Perhaps your mother told you something is so. Perhaps it came to you in a dream. Perhaps you took a class last semester and learned something about your topic there. Or you may have read something about your topic in your local newspaper or in People magazine. We discussed the strengths and weaknesses associated with some of these different sources of knowledge in Chapter 1, and we’ll talk about other sources of knowledge, such as prior research in the next few sections. For now, take some time to think about what you know about your topic from all possible sources. Thinking about what you already know will help you identify any biases you may have, and it will help as you begin to frame a question about your topic.

a faceless cartoon figure with his hand on his head and his arm leaning on a red question mark

What do you want to know?

Once you have a topic, begin to think about it in terms of a question. What do you really want to know about the topic? As a warm-up exercise, try dropping a possible topic idea into one of the blank spaces below. The questions may help bring your subject into sharper focus and provide you with the first important steps towards developing your topic.

  1. What does ___ mean? (Definition)
  2. What are the various features of ___? (Description)
  3. What are the component parts of ___? (Simple analysis)
  4. How is ___ made or done? (Process analysis)
  5. How should ___ be made or done? (Directional analysis)
  6. What is the essential function of ___? (Functional analysis)
  7. What are the causes of ___? (Causal analysis)
  8. What are the consequences of ___? (Causal analysis)
  9. What are the types of ___? (Classification)
  10. How is ___ like or unlike ___? (Comparison)
  11. What is the present status of ___? (Comparison)
  12. What is the significance of ___? (Interpretation)
  13. What are the facts about ___? (Reportage)
  14. How did ___ happen? (Narration)
  15. What kind of person is ___? (Characterization/Profile)
  16. What is the value of ___? (Evaluation)
  17. What are the essential major points or features of ___? (Summary)
  18. What case can be made for or against ___? (Persuasion)
  19. What is the relationship between _____ and the outcome of ____? (Explorative)

Take a minute right now and write down a question you want to answer. Even if it doesn’t seem perfect, everyone needs a place to start. Make sure your research topic is relevant to social work. You’d be surprised how much of the world that encompasses. It’s not just research on mental health treatment or child welfare services. Social workers can study things like the pollution of irrigation systems and entrepreneurship in women, among infinite other topics. The only requirement is your research must inform action to fight social problems faced by target populations.

Your question is only a starting place, as research is an iterative process, one that subject to constant revision.  As we progress in this textbook, you’ll learn how to refine your question and include the necessary components for proper qualitative and quantitative research questions. Your question will also likely change as you engage with the literature on your topic. You will learn new and important concepts that may shift your focus or clarify your original ideas. Trust that a strong question will emerge from this process.


Key Takeaways

  • Many researchers choose topics by considering their own personal experiences, knowledge, and interests.
  • Researchers should be aware of and forthcoming about any strong feelings they might have about their research topics.
  • There are benefits and drawbacks associated with studying a topic about which you already have some prior knowledge or experience. Researchers should be aware of and consider both.
  • Writing a question down will help guide your inquiry.


Image Attributions

Transportation/Traffic by Geralt CC-0

Justice by Geralt CC-0

Question by Max Pixel CC-0



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Guidebook for Social Work Literature Reviews and Research Questions Copyright © 2020 by Rebecca Mauldin and Matthew DeCarlo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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