Academic journal article Social Work Research

Mainstream Is Contextual: Swedish Social Work Research Dissertations and Theses

Academic journal article Social Work Research

Mainstream Is Contextual: Swedish Social Work Research Dissertations and Theses

Article excerpt

In the United States it has been claimed that qualitative research has been pushed into the background by quantitative research, which has come to be considered as mainstream. This mainstream research follows the philosophical tradition of positivism and is characterized by hypothesis and theory testing, experimental controls, and the use of descriptive and inferential statistics (Adams & White, 1994; Pieper, 1985; Sherman & Reid, 1994). In social work dissertations (Adams & White), in research results presented in U.S. journals (Fraser, 1993; Fraser, Taylor, Jackson, & O'Jack, 1991; Glisson, 1990, 1995), and research methods taught in U.S. master's degree programs (Roberts, 1986), quantitative research designs appear to be the predominate tradition of methodology. According to Adams and White, only 32 percent of researchers are not following mainstream methods. In other disciplines a larger proportion of dissertations are not written in this tradition influenced by positivism (for example, planning [72 percent], women's studies [66 percent], and public administration [56 percent]). Many researchers argue that qualitative methods were important during the early periods of research in social work, but that they have had a far more limited influence during the post-World War II period (Dunlap, 1993; Lemlem, 1999).

However, there are indications that qualitative methods are regaining position in U.S. social work research. First, the number of dissertations in which qualitative methods were used tripled during the period 1982-92 (Brun, 1997). Second, on a discursive level, many have stressed the importance of qualitative research to social work and are now advocating a more pragmatic attitude (Padgett, 1997; Reissman, 1994; Sherman & Reid, 1994). The nature of the problem, the objective, and the way the question is formulated must be decisive factors in the choice of research method rather than preconceived ideas about the best way to acquire knowledge. Quantitative methods are most suitable for research on certain issues concerning numbers and causes within a context of justification. Issues about meaning and narratives need to be handled with qualitative methods within a context of discovery. This pluralism is expressed by Gambrill (1995): "Our only bone to pick, should be the bone of getting the most information about a question with a given amount of time, money and effort" (p. 46).

In Sweden, one of the few countries in Europe with its own disciplinary research in social work, the situation is really the opposite. As we intend to show in this article, qualitative designs are more frequent than quantitative, and in our country we have a struggle for quantitative analysis and for evaluating practice. In other words, mainstream seems to be contextual.

The purpose of this article is to describe the state of the art of research methods in Swedish social work and to discuss the reasons behind the present state. This article is a part of a larger research project that studied the development of academic knowledge in social work in Sweden in different ways. In this article we ask the following questions: Which research methods are being used? How is the choice of research method motivated, described, and discussed in scientific products? Which factors influence the use of research methods? What is the importance of teaching and literature on research methods in social work education? We also discuss briefly the differences between the United States and Sweden and the need for more comparative research.


Clearly, there are different ways to study academic disciplines. You may, for instance interview leading scholars and let them describe the state of the discipline. These representatives should have a good general view of their discipline. On the other hand, you run the risk of getting a certain degree of discursive and normative statements (which can be a point in itself). …

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