Chapter XIII: Descriptive Research Strategy
13.1 An Introduction To Correlational Research
Five basic research strategies: experimental, non-experimental, quasi-experimental,
correlational, and descriptive.
Descriptive research typically involves measuring a variable or set of variables as they
The descriptive strategy is not concerned with relationships between variables but rather
with the description of individual variables.
The goal is to describe a single variable or to obtain separate descriptions for each variable
when several are involved.
Descriptive strategy is extremely useful in preliminary research.
The intent of a descriptive strategy study is to describe a phenomenon.
Three descriptive research designs are considered: observational research, survey
research, and case study research.
In the observational research design, we describe observations of behaviors as they occur
in natural settings.
In survey research design, we describe peoples responses to questions about behavior
In case studies, we describe a single individual in great detail.
13.2 Observational Research Design
In the observational research design, the researcher observes and systematically records
the behaviors of individuals for the purpose of describing behavior.
As a measurement technique, behavioral observation can be used in a variety of research
strategies including experimental and correlational designs.
A study using behavioral observations simply for descriptive purposes is classified as an
observational research design.
In the observational research design, the researcher observes and systematically records
the behavior of individuals in order to describe the behavior.
The process of behavioral observation simply involves the direct observation and
systematic recording of behaviors, usually as the behaviors occur in a natural situation.
This measurement technique, however, introduces two special measurement problems:
1. Because the goal is to observe natural behavior, it is essential that the behaviors
are not disrupted or influenced by the presence of an observer.
2. Observation and measurement require at least some degree of subjective
interpretation by the observer. The fact that the measurements are based, in part,
on a subjective judgment, raises the question of reliability; that is, would two
different occurrences of the same behavior be judged in the same way?
The first problem can be addressed by concealing the observer so that the individuals do
not know their behaviors are being observed and recorded.
As long as we observe public behaviors in public places, there is no ethical problems with
An alternative procedure is to habituate the participants to the observers presence.
Habituation requires repeated exposure until the observers presence is no longer a novel
To address the second problem, subjectivity, researchers typically employ three
interrelated devices to help ensure the objectivity of their behavioral observations.
(i) a well-defined categories of behavior
(ii) inter-rater reliability (iii) use multiple observers to assess behaviors
The first step in the process is to prepare a list of behaviors called behavior categories.
Developing a set of behavior categories means that before observation begins, we identify
the categories of behavior we want to observe (such as group play, play alone, aggression,
social interaction) and then list exactly which behaviors count as examples of each
A pre-existing list enables observers to know exactly what to look for and how to categorize
A set of pre-established behavior categories require a clear operational definition of each
construct being examined.
During the observation period, normally only one individual observes and records
behaviors using the set of behavioral categories as a guide.
To establish reliability, however, two or more individuals must observe and record
simultaneously for some of the observation periods.
The degree of agreement between the two observers is then computed (usually as a
correlation or proportion of agreement ranging from 1.00 = perfect agreement to 0 = no
agreement) as a measure of inter-rater reliability.
Behavioral observation involves converting the observations into numerical scores that can
be used to describe individuals and groups.
The creation of numerical values is usually accomplished by one of three techniques:
(1) The frequency method involves counting the instances of each specific behavior that
occur during a fixed time observation period.
(2) The duration method involves recording how much time an individual spends engaged in
a specific behavior during a fixed-time observation period.
(3) The interval method involves dividing the observation period into a series of intervals and
then recording whether or not a specific behavior occurs during each interval.
The first two techniques are often well-suited for specific behaviors but can lead to
distorted measurements in some situations.
When an observer is confronted with a complex situation, it can be impossible to observe
many different individuals and record many different behaviors simultaneously.
Solution #1: Use a videotape, which can be replayed repeatedly to gather observations.
Solution #2: Take a sample of the potential observations rather than attempt to watch and
The sampling process then consists of one of the following three procedures:
(1) Time sampling involves observing for one interval, then pushing during the next interval to
record all the observations. The sequence of observe-record-observe-record is continued
through the series of intervals.
(2) Event sampling involves identifying one specific event or behavior to be observed and
recorded during the first interval; then the observer shifts to a different event or behavior
during the second interval, and so on, for the full series of intervals.
(3) Individual sampling involves identifying one participant to be observed during the first
interval, then shifting attention to a different individual for the second interval, and so on.
Content Analysis & Archival Research
The same techniques that are used in behavioral observation can be applied in other
situations that do not involve the direct observation of ongoing behaviors.
It is possible to measure behaviors that unfold in movies or books, and it is possible to
study documents recording behaviors that occurred long ago. When researchers measure behaviors or events in books, movies, or other media, the
measurement process is called content analysis.
Recording behaviors from historical records is called archival research.
Content analysis involves using the techniques of behavioral observation to measure the
occurrence of specific events in literature, movies, television programs, or similar media that
present replicas of behaviors.
Archival research involves looking at historical records (archives) to measure behaviors or
events that occurred in the past.
To ensure measurements are objective and reliable, the processes of content analysis and
archival research follow the same rules that are used for behavioral observation.
The measurement process involves the following:
(1) Establishing behavioral categories to define exactly which events are included in each
category being measured. (i.e. a list of specific examples is prepared to define television
(2) Using the frequency method, the duration method, or the interval method to obtain a
numerical score for each behavioral category. (i.e. an observer records how many
examples of violence are seen in a 30 minute television program or how many disciplinary
actions appear on an individuals school records)
(3) Using multiple observers for at least part of the measurement process to obtain a measure
of inter-rater reliability.
Types of Observation & Examples
Ethologists are researchers who study nonhumans in their natural environment
Researchers interested in human behavior commonly use the observational research
There are three basic kinds of observation: naturalistic observation, participant observation,
and contrived observation.
When a researcher observes and records behavior in a natural setting without intervening
in any way, it is called naturalistic observation or nonparticipant observation.
A natural setting is one in which behavior ordinarily occurs and that has not been arranged
in any way for the purpose of recording behavior.
In naturalistic observation, researchers try to be as inconspicuous and unobtrusive a
possible, passively recording whatever occurs.
In naturalistic observation or nonparticipant observation, a researcher observes behavior
in a natural setting as unobtrusively as possible.
Naturalistic behaviors could be used to describe any behavior.
Naturalistic observation is particularly useful in providing insight into real-world behavior.
The results of studies using naturalistic observation also have high degrees of external
validity because the behavior is examined in real-world settings as opposed to laboratories.
Naturalistic observation is useful for examining b