What is research?

Dr Andy Pulman
30th November 2022

Research is all around us. As research participants, we know what it is like to be on the receiving end of a questionnaire or a survey. We live in a knowledge society, where information is easily collected, stored and analysed using computers and technology.

We take much of this for granted.

We rarely question rights to keep information about us and we assume that this information is essential for providing the services we receive and is used in beneficial and positive ways.

However, in professional roles, we need to understand how information is used and turned into evidence to inform practice. We also need to make judgements about the reliability of evidence and the way research is conducted if we are to develop as practitioners who deliver evidence based care and services.

Evidence based practice in health and social care

Evidence-based practice in social care has been described by Brian Sheldon as

“the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the welfare of those in need” (Sheldon and Shilvers 2000).

The evidence-based movement started in the United States, primarily in medicine, and has been extended in the UK to various disciplines and professions, including education, criminal justice, nursing and social work and social care.

Defining research in health and social care

Research means different things in different contexts, but it can also describe a number of different and diverse activities that, put together, form a research process.

Research can be viewed as a process that involves the collection of information (data) followed by organising and analysingreflecting on the data in order to produce new knowledge, ideas or insights, using described, rigorous and ethical ways to do it (the methods).

You may have carried out some of these activities in your workplace or when studying. You may not have realised you were ‘researching’ because it was informal, in the sense that you weren’t completing a research study, but these activities are largely the same as used in more formal research.

So, while you may be familiar with researching as an activity or a process, thinking about research as a wider concept can often seem confusing, especially given the language and writing style used to represent research and findings. Formal research differs from informal activities because it pulls them together into a specific process, where what you do, how you do it, and what you do with the results have to be specified at the beginning.

Research Governance

In health and social care, how we do research, particularly how we involve others in the process is guided by professional values and ethical principles and has to be managed or governed to make sure that the research is of a good quality. One of the strong principles we hold to in practice and in research is placing service-users and their needs at the heart of our work.

This is also emphasised in the UK Policy Framework for Health and Social Care Research , published by the NHS Health Research Authority.

Research carried out in health and social care has to comply with the regulations set down in this document and Research Governance is the process by which this is managed.

To some extent, the Framework has been set up to reduce risk and to reassure people about research conduct. It sets standards around a number of key research issues, such as consent, confidentiality and data protection. It has also been seen as an attempt to bring together a number of ethical considerations from a range of disciplines and professional contexts.

Ethics

All agencies and organisations have in place processes for managing research and all research should be approved before it begins. The work is usually conducted by a group of specialists (sometimes referred to as an Ethics Committee) who can give independent scrutiny and advice about the topic to be researched, the methods to be used and the difficulties or issues it presents.

Decisions made through these bodies will be steered by reference to an ethical framework or code, which represents the values of a particular professional or disciplinary group.

Ethics is, therefore, concerned with making sure that the way things are done complies with ideas that might be held about what is right, fair and good in a particular context and this applies equally to practice and research.

Professor Ian Butler, a social work academic, emphasises this point clearly:

“Social work research is about social workers, what they think, what they believe, what knowledge they claim and what they do with it and its primary (but not its only) audience will be social workers, service users and those who determine who falls into which category for the purposes of social policy. If this is so, then the ethics of social work research must, I suggest, be at least compatible if not coterminous with the ethics of social work.” (Butler, 2000:3)

Meet the author(s)

Dr Andy Pulman

Post Doctoral Researcher
I have been active in the field of qualitative research since starting my on my part-time PhD in 2008. Working across both technology and health and social care fields since then, I have accumulated a wide range of research skills concerning devising and implementing mobile technological innovations in healthcare.
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