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

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Reference Works
  • Conceptual Models and Frameworks
  • Methodological Guidance
  • Journals
  • Online Resources
  • Types of Bias
  • Methodological Quality Checklists
  • Ethical Aspects
  • Challenges
  • Global Progress

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Social Work Social Intervention Research
Knut Sundell, Tina Olsson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0254


This article is about social intervention research. A general definition of intervention is any interference that would modify a process or situation. In social work, interventions are intentionally implemented change strategies which aim to impede or eradicate risk factors, activate and/or mobilize protective factors, reduce or eradicate harm, or introduce betterment beyond harm eradication; thus social work intervention encompasses a range of psychotherapies, treatments, and programs. Interventions may be simple or complex. Yet simple interventions may have multiple elements that contribute to their effectiveness. Although social intervention research is an essential aspect of social work as a profession and research discipline, it is clearly multidisciplinary in its nature. The current knowledge base of social intervention research draws on knowledge gained from a wide variety of behavioral, psychological, and health interventions as well as from disciplines as diverse as psychology, education, medicine, public health, social work and other caring sciences. Social intervention research is vital to social work practice as professional decisions should be informed by evidence of both the potential benefits and harms of alternative interventions. Social intervention research focuses on the effects of an intervention under study. Of primary importance is understanding changes in the health and well-being of a target population. Subsequent results are then, ideally, used for decisions on future service provision. The goal of social intervention research is to bring about change in individuals, groups, or entire communities, and requires research methods that are most appropriate for achieving this goal.

Introductory Works

Intervention research has a long history dating back for more than a century. A brief history of intervention research can be found in Oakley 1998. In the United States, the period from the early 1960s to the early 1980s was one in which there was a burst of activity in applying the randomized controlled trial in the evaluation of public policy. Introductory works for social intervention research include some of the early published studies of this type—for example, Institute for Research on Poverty & Mathematica, Inc. 1973; McCord 1978; Meyer, et al. 1965; and Mullen and Dumpson 1972. In addition to these, the key publications Campbell and Stanley 1963, Cook and Campbell 1979, and Fisher 1966 have influenced the continuous development in the field and include description and guidance on the design of experiments for assessing the outcome of social interventions. Fisher 1970, originally printed in 1925, describes the development of statistical methods for analysis of social intervention data as well as the application of these developments in the then real world of social intervention practice.

  • Campbell, D. T., and J. C. Stanley. 1963. Experimental and quasi-experimental designs for research. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    This early work on experimental and quasi-experimental design draws from a broad range of social science research to form an all-encompassing and broadly applicable methodological presentation and provides recommendations for conducting social intervention research.

  • Cook, T. D., and D. T. Campbell. 1979. Quasi-experimentation: Design and analysis issues for field settings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    This early work considers the problems associated with answering, in real world settings, the question of whether treatment X causes the outcome of Y.

  • Fisher, R. A. 1966. The design of experiments. 8th ed. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd.

    This early work presents an examination of widely successful experimental designs for valid inference. This book focuses on aspects of experimental design that impact unambiguous interpretation.

  • Fisher, R. A. 1970. Statistical methods for research workers. 14th ed. New York: Hafner.

    This early work in mathematical statistics aimed to supply practical experimenters with a connected account of the application of statistics in conjunction with laboratory work. In addition, this work presents then recent advances in statistical theory and their relationship with the problems of experimental design. Originally printed in 1925 (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd).

  • Institute for Research on Poverty & Mathematica Inc. 1973. The New Jersey graduated work incentive experiment summary report. Washington, DC: Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Office of Economic Opportunity.

    This report describes an early carefully controlled field test of a social intervention and compares the differential effects of eight different negative income tax or benefit formulas on changes in labor supply and other outcomes.

  • McCord, J. 1978. A thirty-year follow-up of treatment effects. American Psychologist 33.3: 284–289.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.33.3.284

    This article presents a thirty-year follow-up of the Cambridge-Sommerville Youth Study, an early experiment within social work where the outcomes of participants provided to a social worker were compared to the outcomes of participants that did not have a social worker assigned to their case. Results indicated that the participants who had regular contact with a social worker did worse than those who did not.

  • Meyer, H. J., E. F. Borgatta, and W. C. Jones. 1965. Girls at vocational high: An experiment in social work intervention. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    This book describes an early experiment undertaken within social work in collaboration with a vocational high school in New York. It gives an initial experimental look into the lives of delinquent adolescent girls and raises questions on the effectiveness of case work in diverting deviant careers in this group.

  • Mullen, E. J., and J. R. Dumpson. 1972. Evaluation of social intervention. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    This early study reviews sixteen evaluation projects and concludes that social welfare programs have only limited success and often fail to achieve their goals. An in-depth review of the reasons for failure is given along with reform recommendations.

  • Oakley, A. 1998. Experimentation and social interventions: A forgotten but important history. British Medical Journal 317:1239–1242.

    DOI: 10.1136/bmj.317.7167.1239

    This piece presents a short history of social intervention research, from its start in the 1870s to the golden age of evaluation in the 1960s to early 1980s, when randomized experiments were considered the optimal design for evaluating public policy interventions in the United States.

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