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Research Methods in the Social Sciences

Cross-Sectional Design*

Definition and Purpose

Cross-sectional research designs have three distinctive features: no time dimension, a reliance on existing differences rather than change following intervention; and, groups are selected based on existing differences rather than random allocation. The cross-sectional design can only measure diffrerences between or from among a variety of people, subjects, or phenomena rather than change. As such, researchers using this design can only employ a relative passive approach to making causal inferences based on findings.

What do these studies tell you?

  1. Cross-sectional studies provide a 'snapshot' of the outcome and the characteristics associated with it, at a specific point in time.
  2. Unlike the experimental design where there is an active intervention by the researcher to produce and measure change or to create differences, cross-sectional designs focus on studying and drawing inferences from existing differences between people, subjects, or phenomena.
  3. Entails collecting data at and concerning one point in time. While longitudinal studies involve taking multiple measures over an extended period of time, cross-sectional research is focused on finding relationships between variables at one moment in time.
  4. Groups identified for study are purposely selected based upon existing differences in the sample rather than seeking random sampling.
  5. Cross-section studies are capable of using data from a large number of subjects and, unlike observational studies, is not geographically bound.
  6. Can estimate prevalence of an outcome of interest because the sample is usually taken from the whole population.
  7. Because cross-sectional designs generally use survey techniques to gather data, they are relatively inexpensive and take up little time to conduct.

What these studies don't tell you?

  1. Finding people, subjects, or phenomena to study that are very similar except in one specific variable can be difficult.
  2. Results are static and time bound and, therefore, give no indication of a sequence of events or reveal historical contexts.
  3. Studies cannot be utilized to establish cause and effect relationships.
  4. Provide only a snapshot of analysis so there is always the possibility that a study could have differing results if another time-frame had been chosen.
  5. There is no follow up to the findings.


Sample Cross-Sectional Studies