Epistemology in Qualitative Social Work Research: A Review of Published Articles, 2008-2010

Article excerpt

Abstract

This study explores the epistemological foundations of qualitative social work research. A template-based review was completed on 100 articles from social work journals. Reviewers examined five things: (1) the purpose or aims of the research, (2) the rationale or justification for the work, (3) the populations studied, (4) the presence of four epistemological markers (addressing theory, paradigm, reflexivity, and power dynamics), and (5) the implications presented. Results underscore the exploratory nature of qualitative social work research; authors were most likely to use the word "explore" and least likely to use the term "understand" to describe their aims. The most common rationale given for the research was a gap in the literature (77%), followed by the severity or extent of the problem (50%). Authors emphasized the perspectives of respondents, who were most likely to be social work practitioners (39%) or clients (28%). Among the epistemological markers examined, authors were most likely to mention use of theory (55%) and a research paradigm (51%) and least likely to apply reflexivity (16%) or acknowledge power dynamics inherent in research (7%). Finally, authors were most likely to identify practice implications in their work (90%), followed by research (60%), theory (38%), and policy (29%).

KEY WORDS: epistemology; qualitative methods; research methods; social work research; theory

Social inquiry is shaped by the epistemology of the researcher, his or her underlying assumptions about the process of knowing (Denzin, 2002). Epistemology may be seen as theories of knowledge that justify the knowledge-building process that is actively or consciously adopted by the researcher (Carter & Little, 2007; Pascale, 2010). These assumptions guide our decisions about topics, research questions, theories, methods, analyses, and conclusions and help us evaluate the knowledge contributions of published work (Carter & Little, 2007; Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2011; Pascale, 2010). Koch and Hamngton (1998) recognized that "researchers bring to the research product, data generated, a range of literature, a positioning of this literature, a positioning of oneself, and moral socio-political contexts" (p. 882). Examining the ways our social locations shape our process of knowing "can help us understand why certain questions get asked and answered, examine how values shape observation" (Pascale, 2010; Takacs, 2003, p. 37). Anastas (2004) noted that the researcher's epistemology affects the kind of scholarly work done, how one values scholarship and understands its political import, and how one situates oneself in relation to the work.

Marshall and Rossman (2006) noted the importance of "epistemological integrity," in which authors account for the "logical and compelling connections between genre, overall strategy, the research questions, the design, and the methods" (p. 55). Researchers demonstrate their epistemological engagement with the work through explicit discussion of their research paradigm or inquiry tradition, which is fundamental for rigorous qualitative research (Anastas, 2004; Marshall & Rossman, 2006). Qualitative research "should reveal a consistency and integrity of approach that is easily recognized by the reader and the reviewer" (Padgett, 2009, p. 102). Given the importance of epistemology to the research endeavor, social work researchers must make explicit the decisions made in the process of inquiry if they are serious about contributing to the knowledge base of the profession. As Padgett pointed out, "the burden of proof is on the researcher" (p. 102) to be accountable to readers regarding the underlying assumptions and logic of our work.

We focus our discussion on epistemology as research praxis that contributes to the development of knowledge in our field. Our aim in this section of the article is to discuss the practice of epistemology to support social work researchers using qualitative methods to think and write more explicitly about the epistemological foundations of our work. …