In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Qualitative Research

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Definitions and Descriptions
  • Software
  • Journals
  • Textbooks
  • Participatory Action Research
  • Qualitative Inquiry
  • Rigor and Standards

Social Work Qualitative Research
James Drisko
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0047


“Qualitative research” is a term that encompasses a wide variety of research types and methods. Its great variety makes it difficult to define and describe succinctly. This bibliography will offer a general introduction but will inevitably be incomplete. Qualitative research in the social sciences has deep roots in sociology and anthropology. For example, fieldwork and ethnography continue to be pivotal methods in these and other disciplines. The professions have also drawn extensively on qualitative research, though emphasis on quantitative research in the academy after World War II and the current ideology of evidence-based approaches among academics and service funders devalue it. Qualitative research is widely found and widely taught in nursing and in education. It is quite evident, but less prominent, in social work, in medicine, in psychology, and in occupational therapy.

Introductory Works

In social work, Jane Addams’s portrayals of the circumstances of immigrant populations in Chicago (Addams 1895) are public qualitative research works that are still highly valued. Indeed, Addams is sometimes claimed as a role model by scholars outside the profession as well as within social work. Mary Richmond’s 1917 Social Diagnosis (Richmond 1955) details a method for learning the psychosocial needs of clients and families in context, drawing on qualitative interviews, observations, and documents. These social work contributions emerged as sociology began to define its research methods (Znaniecki 1934). The widely used traditional case study is one well-known form of qualitative research (Gilgun 1994), though case study methods, purposes, and reporting vary, as does its quality. Social work education has long included both formal and informal training in qualitative data collection methods, including interviewing and participant observation, described by Zimbalist 1977. Further, the traditional method of process recording has provided both a technique and active training in recording interview data. Beyond documentation, process recording also provided an introduction to active reflection on the participant and on the self that is a key element of professional practice as well as of qualitative research. Since 1994 qualitative research has been required content in the Council on Social Work Education’s accreditation standards for all bachelor’s and master’s level programs.

  • Addams, Jane, Agnes Sinclair Holbrook Florence Kelley, Alzina P. Stevens, Isabel Eaton, Charles Zeublin, Josefa Humpal Zeman, Alessandro Mastro-Valerio, Julia C. Lathrop, and Ellen Gates Starr . 1895. Hull House maps and papers. New York: Crowell.

    Addams sought to document and publicize the living conditions of immigrant populations in Chicago. Her goal was to raise public awareness and to catalyze social change. Both Addams’s methods, which draw on fieldwork from sociology, and her goals, which affirm social justice, are widely evident in qualitative research across disciplines in the early 21st century. Seminal, groundbreaking work from a social work pioneer.

  • Gilgun, Jane F. 1994. A case for case studies in social work research. Social Work 39:371–380.

    Gilgun argues for the wide applicability of the case study method to social work research and to social work practice. The article offers an overview of the case study method and takes stock of the method’s strengths and limitations. A very widely known, classic article.

  • Richmond, Mary Ellen. 1955. Social diagnosis. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    First published in 1917. The originator of the psychosocial perspective, Richmond details a qualitative method of diagnosis that balances attention to macro-level social issues with micro-level family and individual concerns. Several case studies portray people-in-environments in great detail and with broad perspective. An early example of social work case studies based on planned interviews and observations—key tools in qualitative research as well.

  • Zimbalist, Sidney. 1977. Historic themes and landmarks in social welfare research. New York: Harper & Row.

    A unique book on the history of social work research. Chronological in plan, the book shows the development of social work research models in context. Extensive use of qualitative methods is documented, and the forces that have promoted quantitative research as a dichotomous alternative to qualitative research are noted. Lacks contemporary perspective, however, given its publication date.

  • Znaniecki, Florian. 1934. The method of sociology. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.

    In this early, classic work in sociology, Znaniecki details the method of analytic induction. Analytic indication seeks deductively to frame new concepts and preliminary theory while maintaining clear connections to its evidence base. This method is clearly the foundation of grounded theory, which followed it in the 1960s.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.