- Identify the aspects of feasibility that shape a researcher’s ability to conduct research
- Analyze the importance of research projects
Now that you have thought about topics that interest you and you’ve learned how to frame those topics as social work research questions, you have probably come up with a few potential research questions—questions to which you are dying to know the answers. However, even if you have identified the most brilliant research question ever, you are still not ready to begin conducting research. First, you’ll need to devise a plan for your research design, which we discussed in Chapter 7. Once you’ve settled on a research question, your next step is to think about the feasibility of your research question.
There are a few practical matters related to feasibility that all researchers should consider before beginning a research project. Are you interested in better understanding the day-to-day experiences of maximum security prisoners? This sounds fascinating, but unless you plan to commit a crime that lands you in a maximum security prison, gaining access to that facility would be difficult for an undergraduate student project. Perhaps your interest is in the inner workings of toddler peer groups. However, if you’re much older than four or five, it might be tough for you to access that sort of group. Your ideal research topic might require you to live on a chartered sailboat in the Bahamas for a few years, but unless you have unlimited funding, it will be difficult to make even that happen. While the types of topics that can be studied in social work research seem limitless, researchers must consider the feasibility of the topics and target populations they choose to study.
One of the most important questions in feasibility is whether or not you have access to the people you want to study. For example, let’s say you wanted to better understand students who engaged in self-harm behaviors in middle school. Certainly, this topic is socially important, but if you were a principal, you may not want parents to hear in the news that students are engaging in self-harm at your school. Building a working relationship with the principal and the school administration will be a complicated, yet necessary task to gain access to the study population. Social work research must often satisfy multiple stakeholders, or individuals and groups who have an interest in the outcome of your study. The goal of answering your research question can only be realized when the goals of the other stakeholders are accounted for.
Assuming you can gain approval to conduct research with the population that most interests you, do you know if that population will let you in? Researchers who study the behavior of children, like Barrie Thorne (1993),  sometimes face this dilemma. Professor Thorne has studied how children teach each other gender norms, as well as how adults “gender” children. For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on the former aspect of her work. Thorne had to figure out how to study the interactions of elementary school children when they probably would not accept her as one of their own. They were also unlikely to be able to read and complete a written questionnaire. Since she could not join them or ask them to read and write on a written questionnaire, Thorne’s solution was to watch the children. Considering these barriers, observation seemed like a reasonable solution. However, there is always the possibility that her observations differed from the experience of physically joining a class. This example shows how a researcher’s identity and characteristics might sometimes limit (or enhance) their ability to study a topic in the way that they had intended.
In addition to personal characteristics, practical matters like time and money also influence what you can study or how you are able to study it. In terms of time, your personal time frame for conducting research may be the length of the semester that you study research methods. Perhaps, one day your employer will give you an even shorter timeline in which to conduct some research—or perhaps longer. The length of time that a researcher is given to complete their work may depend on a number of factors and will certainly shape what sort of research they are able to conduct. In addition, money is also a relevant factor. For example, your ability to conduct research while living on a chartered sailboat in the Bahamas may be hindered unless you have unlimited funds or win the lottery. If you wish to conduct survey research, you may have to consider the potential costs of mailing paper surveys, including printing and postage. Interviewing people face to face may require that you offer your research participants a cup of coffee or glass of lemonade while you speak with them—and someone has to pay for the drinks.
In sum, feasibility is always a factor when designing a research project. Aspects of your own identity may play a role in determining what you can and cannot investigate, as will the availability of resources such as time and money.
Another consideration before beginning a research project is whether the question is important enough. Answering the question should be important enough for the researcher to invest the effort, time, and money often required to complete a research project. As we discussed in Chapter 2, you should choose a topic that is both important to you and interesting enough that could enjoy learning about it for at least a few months. Your time and effort are your most precious resources, particularly when you are in school. Make sure you dedicate them to topics and projects you consider important.
Your research question should also be important and relevant to the scientific literature in your topic area. Scientific relevance can be a challenging concept to assess. I often provide the following example to students: If your research aims to test the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in treating depression, then you are a little late to be asking that question, as hundreds of scientists have already published articles on this topic. If CBT interests you, perhaps you can apply it to a population for which it has not yet been proven effective, like older adults. Or, you could apply it to a social problem for which it has not yet been tested, like mobile phone addiction. Your project should have something new to say that we don’t already know. For a good reason, Google Scholar’s motto at the bottom of their search page is “stand on the shoulders of giants.” Social science research rests on the work of previous scholars, and we learn more about the social world by building off their findings. Ensure that your question will bring our scientific understanding of your topic to new heights.
Finally, your research question should be important to the social world. Social workers conduct research on behalf of target populations. Just as clients in a clinician’s office rely on social workers to help them, target populations rely on social work researchers to help them by illuminating aspects of their life. Your research should matter to the people you are trying to help. By helping this client population, your study should be important to society as a whole. In Chapter 4, we discussed the problem statement, which contextualizes your study within a social problem and target population. The purpose of your study is to address this social problem and further social justice. Obviously, research projects need not address all aspects of a problem or fix all of society but making a small stride in the right direction is more than enough to prove your study’s importance in the social world.
Your study will likely require money to complete, so you will also have to highlight that your study is important enough to fund. Research grants can be as small as a few hundred dollars or as large as a multi-million dollar grants. Scientists rarely fund their own research, so they must convince governments, foundations, and other organizations to support their research. Additionally, funders will likely have to align your research question to what your funders find important. In our previous example on CBT and older adults, you may want to seek funding from an Area Office on Aging or the American Association of Retired Persons. However, you will need to fit your research into their funding priorities or make the case that your study is important enough on its own merits. Perhaps the funding priorities are fitting for a study on treating depression, and your funders are interested in reducing suicides or increasing social connectedness. If you’re successful, funders become important stakeholders in the research process. Researchers must take great care not to create conflicts of interest in which the funder is able to dictate the outcome of the study before it is even conducted.
- Researchers should consider their own identities and characteristics as well as potential constraints related to time and money when thinking about the feasibility of their research questions.
- Your research question should be important to you, social scientists, the target population, and funding sources.
Stakeholders– individuals or groups who have an interest in the outcome of the study a researcher conducts
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