An Examination of the Concept of Need and its Operational Uses in Applied Social Research

Jenkins, Margaret Elizabeth (1994). An Examination of the Concept of Need and its Operational Uses in Applied Social Research. MPhil thesis The Open University.



The concept of need is a central one in the development of social services and other aspects of social policy. Despite its significance, there is a lack of clarity about, and common understanding of, the concept. Concepts are abstractions from reality, and their use requires some shared understanding. A study of the literature shows that there are diverse elements to the meaning and use of the concept: needs may relate to individuals, groups, societies; they may be identified 'objectively' as universals, yet experienced subjectively in cultural contexts which vary in time and space. Social policy is, among other things, concerned with the way in which society acknowledges and responds to identified individual and social needs. It is developed and implemented through the political processes of government, at various levels. In this context the diverse meanings of the concept of need may be used; the extent to which understanding is shared is debatable. This poses problems for the researcher working to identify, survey or measure need in the social policy context. Operational definitions of need will have to be developed; they will be influenced by the political context in which the research is being undertaken. All such definitions will have political implications. Yet many research studies are carried out without acknowledging the nature or implications of the political context on their approach to their research, on their operational use of the concept need, or consequently on their results. Such results often carry a spurious validity and credibility. Researchers working in the social policy context should acknowledge its political nature, at the least try to present and explicate their methodology, including in particular the conceptualization process, to provide readers and users with the basis for evaluating their results.

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