8.5: Feasibility and importance
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- 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 think about and come up with 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. If you’re much older than four or five, however, 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. The point, of course, is that while the topics about which social work questions can be asked may seem limitless, there are limits to which aspects of topics we can study or at least to the ways we can study them.
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. That is a topic of social importance, to be sure. But if you were a principal in charge of a middle school, would you want the parents to hear in the news about students engaging in self-harm at your school? Building a working relationship with the principal and the school administration will be a complicated task, but necessary in order to gain access to the population you need to study. Social work research must often satisfy multiple stakeholders. Stakeholders are individuals or groups who have an interest in the outcome of the study you conduct. Your goal of answering your research question can only be realized when you account for the goals of the other stakeholders. School administrators also want to help their students struggling with self-harm, so they may support your research project. But they may also need to avoid scandal and panic, providing support to students without making the problem worse.
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 like Barrie Thorne (1993),  who study the behaviors of children, sometimes face this dilemma. In the course of her work, Professor Thorne has studied how children teach each other gender norms. She also studied how adults “gender” children, but here we’ll focus on just 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. While this seems like a reasonable solution to the problem of not being able to actually enroll in elementary school herself, there is always the possibility that Thorne’s observations differed from what they might have been had she been able to actually join a class. What this means is that a researcher’s identity, in this case Thorne’s age, might sometimes limit (or enhance) her ability to study a topic in the way that she most wishes to study it. 
In addition to personal characteristics, there are also the very practical matters of time and money that shape what you are able to study or how you are able to study it. In terms of time, your personal time frame for conducting research may be the semester during which you are taking your research methods course. Perhaps, one day your employer will give you an even shorter timeline in which to conduct some research—or perhaps longer. By what time a researcher must complete her work may depend on a number of factors and will certainly shape what sort of research that person is able to conduct. Money, as always, is also relevant. 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. And if you wish to conduct survey research, you may have to think about the fact that mailing paper surveys costs not only time but money—from printing them to paying for the postage required to mail them. 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 deciding what, where, when, and how to conduct research. 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. For the researcher, answering the question should be important enough to put in the effort, time, and often money required to complete a research project. As we discussed in Chapter 2, you should choose a topic that is important to you, one you wouldn’t mind learning about for at least a few months, if not a few years. 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. An example I often provide students is as follows. If you plan to research if cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for depression, you are a little late to be asking that question. Hundreds of scientists have published articles demonstrating its effectiveness at treating depression. If CBT is a therapy of interest to you, perhaps you can consider applying it to a population like older adults for which there may be little evidence for CBT’s effectiveness or to a social problem like mobile phone addiction for which CBT has not been tested. 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, building off of what they found to learn more about the social world. 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 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. Research projects, obviously, do not need to address all aspects of a problem or fix all of society. Just making a small stride in the right direction is more than enough to make your study of importance to the social world.
If your study requires money to complete, and almost all of them do, you will also have to make the case that your study is important enough to fund. Research grants can be as small as a few hundred or thousand dollars to multi-million dollar grants and anywhere in between. Generally speaking, scientists rarely fund their own research. Instead, they must convince governments, foundations, or others to support their research. Conducting expensive research often involves aligning your research question with what the funder identifies as 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 they are interested in reducing suicides or increasing social connectedness. These funding priorities seem like a natural fit for a study on treating depression. 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.
- When thinking about the feasibility of their research questions, researchers should consider their own identities and characteristics along with any potential constraints related to time and money.
- 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
- Thorne, B. (1993). Gender play: Girls and boys in school. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. ↵
- Think about Laud Humphreys’s research on the tearoom trade. Would he have been able to conduct this work if he had been a woman? ↵