The Definition and Use of a Cross-Sectional Study

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A cross-sectional study involves looking at people who differ on one key characteristic at one specific point in time. The data is collected at the same time from people who are similar on other characteristics but different on a key factor of interest such as age, income levels, or geographic location. Participants are usually separated into groups known as cohorts.

For example, researchers might create cohorts of participants who are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.

How and When Cross-Sectional Studies Are Used

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

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, meaning that you can’t use them to determine the cause of something, such as a disease.

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 community, but not to determine cause-and-effect relationships between different variables. This method is often used to make inferences about possible relationships or to gather preliminary data to support further research and experimentation.

Defining Characteristics of Cross-Sectional Studies

Some of the key characteristics of a cross-sectional study include:

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