Factorial surveys: using vignettes to study professional judgement

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Decision making is becoming an increasingly central feature of social work practice, yet there is limited research on the topic. Experimental methods of investigating decision making tend to be constrained by practical and ethical difficulties, whilst questions about validity and generalisability surround ethnographic and other descriptive methods.
It is argued here that the factorial survey addresses these methodological difficulties as a research design to study the way that professionals make decisions in real life. In this research design, true-to-life vignettes (case scenarios or paper cases) are presented to social workers or other staff to make a judgement about a familiar type of scenario. The randomised factors within the vignettes, combined with the randomisation of the selection of vignettes for each decision maker, gives the factorial survey a unique capability to investigate the effect of multiple factors in complex decisions, unlike the more common factorial experiment.
The method is explained, and prospects and issues for the development of this research design to study professional judgement within social work are discussed. The factorial survey has potential as a method for rigorous study of the impact of client, family and context factors on decisions by social work and social care staff.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1187-1207
Number of pages21
JournalBritish Journal of Social Work
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 31 Oct 2006


  • decision making; professional judgement; research methods; factorial survey; vignettes; assessment; risk.


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