Theory is the foundation from which knowledge is built, and the basis for generating hypotheses to test propositions that explain or develop knowledge, including in social work. Correspondingly, almost all U.S. GADE-involved social work PhD programs require a theory course in their curricula (94.7%). Based on these initial findings, we wanted to know to what extent flagship social work journals Research on Social Work Practice (RSWP) and Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research (JSSWR) explicitly utilize theory. RSWP and JSSWR were selected for content analysis due to their similar journal impact and importance for social work readers. This study explores: Is the importance of theory reflected in the research social workers produce in RSWP and JSSWR?
A ten-year (2012 – 2021) content analysis of RSWP and JSSWR was conducted following a modified model from Walsh (2014). Four reviewers independently completed a blind review using Rayyan Systems Inc. First, a title and abstract screening (TAS) was conducted to assess if the article presented results from an empirical study. As a part of a pilot study, we randomly selected twenty-five articles from each journal from the TAS to provide a data snapshot. These 50 publications underwent full article review to identify theory engagement by using internet browser search functions to look for “theory,” “model,” “framework,” “approach,” “concept,” or “perspective.”
For the full content analysis, we will extract data on methods of analysis (quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods), names of referenced theories, and theory locations. Theory references in the introduction, literature review, or methods will be coded as “input,” theory references in the results, discussion, or conclusion as “output,” and those in both input and output as “throughout.”
TAS from a total of 1,263 articles from the past ten years of RSWP and JSSWR were uploaded to Rayyan. In the TAS, 653 articles were excluded, leaving 610 articles. From these 610 articles, 50 were randomly selected for the pilot study.
Following the pilot study, all 610 articles will undergo full blind review to identify explicit use of theory. Data will be extracted from the remaining articles to explore methods of analysis, names of referenced theories, and theory locations.
We can hypothesize that the full review of RSWP and JSSWR will not be significantly different from our pilot study, which had the following findings: Only 36% of RSWP articles and 80% of JSSWR articles explicitly utilized theory.
There is an emphasis on theory-driven paradigm and conceptual framework development throughout social work education, suggesting that empirical research should possess a theoretical foundation. The results of the pilot study indicated wide differences in theory utilization across journals as well as an overall underutilization of theory in social work research articles. Thus, there is a need to conduct a more expansive content analysis with a larger sample. The results of the current analysis will reveal whether there is a gap between the high emphasis on theory in researcher education and the use of theory in published social work articles.