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What Is a Cross-SectionalStudy?

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Cross-sectional research is a research method often used in developmental psychology, but also utilized in many other areas including social science and education. This type of study utilizes different groups of people who differ in the variable of interest, but share other characteristics such as socioeconomic status, educational background, and ethnicity.

For example, researchers studying developmental psychology might select groups of people who are remarkably similar in most areas, but differ only in age. By doing this, any differences between groups can presumably be attributed to age differences rather than to other variables.

Cross-sectional studies are observational in nature and are known as descriptive research, not causal or relational. Researchers record the information that is present in a population, but they do not manipulate variables. This type of research can be used to describe characteristics that exist in a population, but not to determine cause-and-effect relationships between different variables. These methods are often used to make inferences about possible relationships or to gather preliminary data to support further research and experimentation.

Defining Characteristics

  • Takes place at a single point in time
  • Does not involve manipulating variables
  • Allows researchers to look at numerous things at once (age, income, gender)
  • Often used to look at the prevalence of something in a given population

Potential Challenges

While the design sounds relatively simple, finding participants who are very similar except in one specific variable can be difficult. Also, groups can be affected by cohort differences that arise from the particular experiences of a unique group of people. Individuals born in the same time period may share important historical experiences, while people born in a specific geographic region may share experiences limited solely to their physical location.

Cross-Sectional Vs. Longitudinal Studies

This type of research differs from longitudinal research in that cross-sectional studies are designed to look at a variable at a particular point in time. Longitudinal studies involve taking multiple measures over an extended period of time, while cross-sectional research is focused on looking at variables at a specific point in time.

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Gratton, C., & Jones, I. (2004). Research methods for sports studies. London: Routledge.

Trochim, W.M.K. (2006). Time in research. Research Methods Knowledge Base. Web Center for Social Research Methods. http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/timedim.php

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