Encyclopedia of Social Work is now a consistently updated digital resource. Visit About to learn more, meet the editorial board, or explore the latest articles.

Show Summary Details

Updated the section "An Operational Model of Intervention Research." Bibliography and citations updated to reflect recent research.

Updated on 02 Jan 2014. The previous version of this content can be found here.
Page of

PRINTED FROM the Encyclopedia of Social Work, accessed online. (c) National Association of Social Workers and Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the applicable license agreement governing use of the Encyclopedia of Social Work accessed online, an authorized individual user may print out a PDF of a single article for personal use, only (for details see Privacy Policy).

Subscriber: null; date: 26 February 2017

Intervention Research

Abstract and Keywords

This entry regards intervention research as an essential part of social work as a profession and research discipline. A brief history of intervention research reveals that use of intervention research for the betterment of human conditions is contemporary with the genesis of modern social science. Advances in intervention research are attributed to the comprehensive social programs launched during the 1960s in the United States. A contemporary and generic model of intervention research is described. It is argued that it is ethical to use intervention research and unethical not to use it. Assessment of some of the recent advances in policy making and science gives an optimistic picture of the future of intervention research.

Keywords: history, essence, operational model, ethics, experiments

A Definition of Intervention Research

A very general definition of “intervention” would be any interference that would modify a process or situation. A widely used definition of social intervention was suggested by Seidman (1983) as actions that change intra-societal relationships, planned or unplanned, intended or unintended. In social work, the purpose of intervention is to induce change in order to block or eradicate risk factors, activate and mobilize protective factors, reduce or eradicate harm, or introduce betterment beyond harm eradication. Intervention research occupies a very specific place in the social work profession; we may say that social work is social intervention by its very nature. Intervention research refers to the scientific study of interventions for social and health problems.

Brief History

The notion of the betterment of conditions of individuals and societies by using modern science in the sense we understand science today is some four centuries old. During the sixteenth century, a number of books were published about Utopia, Greek for “the land which is nowhere,” (Soydan, 1999), to propagate the idea of a better life and a better society. These ideas were generated to elevate human beings and communities from the poverty and misery that overwhelmed people's lives during those times. A growing number of intellectuals, among them Sir Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England, emphasized that thinkers' theories and practitioners' tested experiences could and must be used by the natural sciences to control the material world (Soydan, 1999).

Much later, in the mid-eighteenth century, the analysis of society and human behavior was put on a scientific foundation by Scottish scientists, Adam Smith being the most eminent of them. It took another half a century or so before the first prototype agenda for social change by using social science was in place. The Frenchman Claude Henri de Rouvroy, mostly known as Comte de Saint-Simon, formulated an explicit program of action to induce change on the basis of scientific methods. There might be good reason to call Saint-Simon the father of intervention research (Soydan, 1999).

Intervention research in social work, in a more modern sense, was shaped during the post-World War II era. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and later to some extent Nixon, launched nationwide programs to improve the conditions of the most needy and underserved cross-sections of the American population (Davis et al., 2006). Such social reforms to induce change constitute an important backdrop to what later came to be defined as intervention research. Sponsors of social programs wanted to understand whether the programs they funded had any positive and intended outcomes.

One single person, the American psychologist and methodologist, Donald T. Campbell, stands as the most eminent and prominent scientist, whose legacy to intervention research is unmatched. Campbell introduced the concept of “The experimenting society,” meaning that eradication of societal problems should be based on the scientific principle of experimentation and evaluation of intervention outcomes. However, social experiment—the foundation of intervention research—is not an easy enterprise. It is surrounded by methodological, practical, and ethical issues. In Donald Campbell's experimental society, the social scientist is responsible for ascertaining the effectiveness of social interventions. Much of Campbell's scientific work was focused on the study of the scientific criteria by which experimental interventions were to be studied (Campbell 1988).

During the last decade, literature on intervention research became more focused after the publication of the pivotal book, Intervention research – Design and development for human service, edited by Rothman and Thomas (1994). In this book, the editors and their numerous colleagues elaborate on multiple aspects of intervention research and develop an agenda for the coming decade and perhaps beyond.

An Integrative Approach to Intervention Research

Thomas and Rothman's (1994) integrative perspective on intervention research is broad and captures the endeavors of human services researchers to develop approaches to research generating knowledge pertinent to end-users such as practitioners, policy-makers, and administrators. The types of research that aim at practice relevance include the following: “Intervention Knowledge Development,” which refers to empirical investigations of human behavior in the context of human services intervention; “Intervention Knowledge Utilization”, referring to utilization of practical knowledge in human services; and “Intervention Design and Development”, which aims to develop innovative interventions. One common aspect of all of these types of research is their ultimate purpose of contributing to problem solving and problem eradication by supporting human services with practice-pertinent knowledge. This broader perspective was crafted into a practical method by narrowing it to a Design and Development issue. They formulated six main steps of intervention design and development are: a) problem analysis and project planning; b) information gathering and synthesis; c) intervention design; d) early development and pilot testing; e) evaluation and advanced development; and f) dissemination (Thomas and Rothman, 1994).

The Essence of Intervention Research as Scientific Vehicle in Social Work

The essence of intervention research in social work is to generate knowledge on whether social work interventions and programs work. Since the goal of social work interventions is the betterment of human beings and solving societal problems, it is of great importance to understand the effectiveness of these interventions. Furthermore, it is certainly of vital importance to understand whether a given intervention is harmful. The benchmark of any social work intervention is to avoid harm to the client and others who are exposed to the intervention. For instance, a Campbell Collaboration systematic review demonstrated that the very popular and widely implemented Scared Straight programs designed for juvenile crime prevention were not only not effective, but sometimes shockingly harmful (Petrosino et al., 2002). This systematic review was based on all known scientifically qualified intervention research results. Besides generating information about effectiveness and potential harm, intervention research also delivers information about whether an intervention is promising. In the absence of enough numbers of high quality intervention research studies, the few studies at hand can indicate whether a given social work intervention is promising. In such cases, social workers might like to use those interventions, but with great caution, and the intervention researchers should further study their effectiveness.

An Operational Model of Intervention Research

A useful operational model of intervention research is described by Mark Fraser (2004), who identifies the following steps of the model: Explanatory research, conceptualization, program design, efficacy testing, effectiveness testing and dissemination. Fraser, Richman, Galinsky and Day (2009) further expanded this framework in an intervention research guidebook.

Explanatory research is the first phase of intervention research to identify and analyze the problem, as well as gather information that might be necessary for the preparation of the intervention itself. The ultimate purpose of this phase is to specify and develop a program theory or a model that can define the structure and procedures of the intervention. Explanatory research might be conducted by the intervention researchers who will be responsible for the following steps. But, in many cases, useful explanatory research results would already be at hand, thanks to previous research done by others. Observational studies such as surveys and cross-sectional and longitudinal studies are very useful in identifying and assessing risk factors and protective factors that might be involved. Knowing about risk factors and protective factors is important because they are used in the conceptualization and the design of the program that will be used as the intervention. Conceptualization and program design are two steps that define and operationalize concepts into actions to be taken as a part of the intervention. Examples of such actions are those that may generate awareness, mobilize key agents, provide support, develop skills, and provide cash support, housing, etc.

Programs are then tested for efficacy and effectiveness. Efficacy testing involves program intervention in well-controlled environments where the program is delivered with high fidelity and outcomes are measured so as to compare results of the experimental group with the control group(s). Efficacy trials that yield positive results mean that the intervention is promising and should be tested for effectiveness. Effectiveness testing takes place in sites where the clients are under less controlled but realistic conditions. Extensive effectiveness testing generates rich information about whether the intervention works and to what extent and under what circumstances. It should be kept in mind that many scholars and practitioners keep asking whether successful interventions tested in a given society can be implemented in countries with different cultural and social contexts. This is usually called external validity. There is no direct guarantee that they would work. However, successful interventions can and should be tested under diverse cultural and societal circumstances. Further, sustainability of interventions needs to be emphasized. Traditionally, successfully implemented interventions after the completion of favorable effectiveness studies would weaken in the long run because of measures for long-term sustainability. Especially with the growing awareness about the vital role of organizational settings as a seat for interventions, the issue of sustainability has come to the forefront (Palinkas & Soydan, 2012).

Once the effectiveness testing is done it is time for dissemination. Dissemination of effective interventions has historically been a difficult problem to handle. A successful dissemination requires appropriate format, a language that is understood by the users, well-identified end-users, and a high degree of transparency to secure end-users' confidence.

Traditionally, dissemination has been the last step of intervention research. During the late 1990s and early 2000s the “implementation” of social interventions has become more prominent on the agendas of scholars and practitioners (Bhattacharyya et al., 2007; Kerner, 2007). Rather recently, the concept of “translation” has also been introduced. Implementation of social interventions involves organizational, client-related, and intervention-technical issues to make the implementation of an intervention as successful as possible. Translation of social interventions takes an active stand in terms of “transferring” a social intervention to new and untested sites as to make sure that the intervention is adapted to local circumstances.

The Context of Intervention Research

The context of intervention research occurs in real life situations and is either about efficiency (controlled environments) or effectiveness (loosely controlled or uncontrolled environments) studies. Interventions involve real life situations with real people and real social entities. In this sense, the context of intervention research is a web of political, moral, fiscal, and scientific issues. Thus, a number of stakeholders are always present; these may include clients, their families, social workers, social agency managers, and researchers. Smyer and Gatz, (1986) suggest that three sets of questions emerge when planning intervention research: 1) Stakeholders: Who are the stakeholders? Do they support the intervention in question? What is their stake? 2) The purpose of the intervention: What is the problem to be solved? Who are the potential recipients of the intervention, and how can they be identified? What kind of interventions may be introduced? What are the unintentional effects of the intervention? Are there alternative ways of solving the problem? 3) The research: Who is seeking the answers and for what reason?

Future Trends

The use of intervention research has been relatively modest in social work (Rosen et al., 1999; Reid & Fortune 2003). However, the use of intervention research with experimental designs in the social sciences in general has expanded during recent decades (Boruch et al., 2002). The driving motor of this development has been multiple and concurrent factors: a growing awareness about accountability and transparency issues among the public, decision makers, and professionals; the further professionalization of social work and other human services professions; and the emergence of the Cochrane and Campbell Collaborations that develop systematic and high quality syntheses of intervention studies available in plain language to end-users.

Frazer (2004, p. 212) gives examples of other advances that might positively impact the future of intervention research. These include the growing use of a risk factor approach, the emergence of practice relevant micro-social theories and the increased acceptance of manual based interventions, as well as methodological advances.

It Is Ethical to Conduct Intervention Research

The code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers prescribes the following regarding the social workers' competence:

“Social workers should provide services in substantive areas or use intervention techniques or approaches that are new to them only after engaging in appropriate study, training, consultation, and supervision from people who are competent in those techniques” (NASW 2007, p. 6).

The definition of social work adopted by the International Federation of Social Workers reads:

“Social work bases its methodology on a systematic body of evidence-based knowledge derived from research and practice evaluation” (IFSW, 2000 , p.1).

Thus, it is obvious that social workers' universal professional standards prescribe high quality scientific knowledge and training in terms of understanding whether social work interventions avoid harm to the client, and most desirably, are effective in the betterment of the client's problem. A scientifically sound social work profession has to make use of intervention research. In other words, practice of intervention research is one of the fundamentals of ethical and transparent social work practice.

It is equally true that social work interventions must be planned and executed in a responsible way and with full consent of the clients who are exposed to them. Additionally, the most apt scientific design used to measure the effects of social interventions, that is, the experimental design, must be used responsibly, only when it is appropriate, and with full transparency and the consent of the clients. Oddly, opponents of experimental studies argue that it is unethical to experiment when it comes to human behavior and especially with those human beings who are most dependent on the services of social workers. This is a fallacy, and an unethical stand: consider the case that when social workers do not base their professional practice on sound and strong scientific evidence, they in fact are “experimenting” with their clients every time they intervene and attempt to treat them; because they do not know anything about the potential harm of the intervention and techniques used, such experimentation is clearly unethical.


Bhattacharyya, O., Reeves, S., Zwarenstein, M. (2007). What is implementation research? Rationale, concepts and practices. Stockholm: Institute for evidence-based social work practice. 2007 Stockholm Implementation and Translational Research Conference. This paper will be published in Research on Social Work Research 2008.Find this resource:

    Boruch, R., De Moya, D., & Snyder, B. (2002). The importance of randomized field trials in education and related areas. In M. Frederick & B. Robert (Eds.), Evidence matters (pp. 50–79). Washington, DC: Brookings Institute Press.Find this resource:

      Campbell, D. T. (1988). The experimenting society. In E. S. Overman (Ed.), Methodology and epistemology for social science: Selected papers (pp. 290–314). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

        Davis, P., & Newcomer, K. & Soydan, H. (2006). Government as structural context for evaluation. In I. Shaw, J. Greene & M. Mark (2006). The SAGE Handbook of evaluation. London, UK: Sage.Find this resource:

          Fraser, M. W., Richman, M. W., Galinsky, M. J. & Day, S. H. (2009). Intervention research: Developing social programs. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

            Frazer, M. (2004). Intervention research in social work: Recent advances and continuing challenges. Research on Social Work Practice, 14(3), 210–222.Find this resource:

              IFSW (2000). Definition of social work. Retrieved February 17, 2007, from http://www.ifsw.org/en/p38000208.html

              Kerner, F J. (2007). Research dissemination & diffusion: Translation within science and society. Stockholm: Institute for evidence-based social work practice. 2007 Stockholm Implementation and Translational Research Conference.Find this resource:

                NASW (2007). Code of ethics. Retrieved February 17, 2007, http.//www.socialworkers.org/pubs/codenew/code.asp

                Palinkas, L. A. & Soydan. H. (2012). Translational and implementation research of evidence-based practice. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                  Petrosino, A., Turpin-Petrosino, C., & Buehler, J. (2002). Scared Straight and other prison tour programs for preventing juvenile delinquency. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from http://www.campbellcollaboration.org/lib/download/12/

                  Reid, W., & Anne, F. (2003). Empirical foundations for practice guidelines in current social work knowledge. In R. Aaron & E. Proctor (Eds.), Developing practice guidelines for social work interventions: Issues, methods, and research agenda (pp. 59–79). New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                    Rosen, A., Proctor, E., Staudt, M. (1999). Social work research and the quest for effective practice. Research on social work practice, 23, 4–14.Find this resource:

                      Rothman, J., & Thomas, E. (Eds.). (1994). Intervention research: Design and development for human services. New York: The Haworth Press.Find this resource:

                        Seidman, E. (1983). Introduction. In E Seidman (Ed.), Handbook of social intervention (pp. 11–17). Beverly Hills: Sage.Find this resource:

                          Smyer, M., & Gatz, M. (1986). Intervention research approaches. Research on Aging, 8(4), 536–558.Find this resource:

                            Soydan, H. (1999). The history of ideas in social work. Birmingham: Venture Press.Find this resource:

                              Thomas, E., & Rothman, J. (1994). An integrative perspective on intervention research. In R. Jack & T. Edwin (Eds.), (1994). Intervention research: Design and development for human services. New York: The Haworth Press.Find this resource:

                                Further Reading

                                The Campbell Collaboration: http://www.campbellcollaboration.org

                                The Cochrane Collaboration: http://www.cochrane.org