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What is a cross-sectional study?

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In cross-sectional surveys, the study takes place at a single point in time. Hence, cross-sectional surveys do not entail the manipulation of the variables under study, and are limited in that way. Cross-sectional surveys allow researchers to study various characteristics, such as the demographic structure of the consumers, their interests, and attitudes, all at once. It aims to provide information about the population at the current moment in time. For example, cross-sectional surveys will tell us how the consumer is responding and feeling about the product at the present moment. It does not study the other variables that may affect the consumers’ reactions to the product in the future.

Cross-sectional studies are also known as transverse study or prevalence study. Researchers use cross-sectional research in physical and social sciences as well as business industries in order to understand the outcomes of the real world. Cross-sectional studies do not include experiments.

This article covers what a cross-sectional study is, its types, characteristics as well as its advantages. 

What are the characteristics of cross-sectional studies?

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  • A cross-sectional study can be conducted with the same variables over a period of time. 
  • Cross-sectional studies are observational in nature. Even though similar cross-sectional studies explore the same variables, they do so by studying a new set of participants.
  • Cross-sectional studies analyse singular instances or topics and they are rigidly defined. The starting and ending point of a cross-sectional study is determined unlike longitudinal studies. In longitudinal studies, variables can change during the course of the research.
  • Cross-sectional studies let researchers study one independent variable as the main focus and examine its effects on one or more dependent variables.
  • Similar research may look at the same variable of interest, but each study observes a new set of subjects.

One way to understand cross-sectional research is to think of a photograph of a family reunion. The people in the photograph help in determining what is happening in the moment, at the current time. Everyone has one variable in common – being biologically related – and variables that they do not share, example; education level. From the starting point till the end, you can use this photograph to make several observations about the family. Thus, a cross-sectional research basically helps you analyse the “pulse” of the population at any given time with the help of the data collected.

Researchers can also conduct a cross-sectional study to understand the variables that are prevailing in the population or affecting it at any given point. For example, researchers can use past data to analyse the effects of past smoking habits on the current diagnosis of lung cancer.

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Cross-sectional study examples

In a cross-sectional study, the data collection process involves participants who share similar characteristics. However, the variable under review is different and is held constant throughout the study. 

For better understanding, we have shared some examples of how cross-sectional studies can be used in different industries. 

A healthcare firm may use a cross-sectional study to determine the correlation between exposure to passive smoking and lung cancer. While the study may not determine if passive smoking can cause lung cancer or not, it can provide information on correlations that may exist. 

The city council may want to know how many schools in the area is in need of fund to offer a canteen facility. A cross-sectional study can help them determine how much is required to build and operate a canteen. 

A retail company can use a cross-sectional study on men between ages 18 to 25 and 26 to 40 to identify similar shopping behavior between the two age groups. 

A restaurant owner may use a cross-sectional approach to understand how people from different economic statuses respond to their new price list. 

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What are the different types of cross-sectional studies?

Cross-sectional study tends to be either descriptive or analytical. In some cases, it is also a mix of both. 

  • Descriptive research: A cross-sectional study can be completely descriptive. A descriptive survey under cross-sectional research assesses how often, widely, or with what intensity does a variable of interest influences a specific demography under study. In a descriptive cross-sectional study, researchers make careful observations in order to identify trends like purchasing behaviour, thereby playing a crucial role in market research. They may use this information to introduce relevant products and services in the market. They are not interested in why these trends are occurring, but in what are the trends that exist in the market.
  • Analytical research: Analytical cross-sectional study explores the relationship between two parameters that are either related or unrelated. This methodology is not the most accurate or foolproof as it has a tendency of being affected by outside variables and outcomes. For instance, if one wants to study the likelihood of an elderly person contracting coronavirus will overlook other variables such as immunity, comorbidity, and stress levels that are equally likely to affect the contraction of the strain. Hence, in an analytical research, other variables remain unaccounted for.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Cross-sectional Study

We have outlined the benefits and disadvantages of using cross-sectional study in research to help you determine if it is the right approach for your market, social research, or any other.  

Pros: 

  1. Cross-sectional studies are cheaper than other research types. 
  2. Researchers can collect required data at a single point in time making the study time-efficient. 
  3. In a cross-sectional study, a researcher collects data from a large population. 
  4. The study has a lower risk of missing data points because it allows the researcher to look at a large pool of subjects at a specific time. 
  5. Data collected in a cross-sectional study can be used for multiple purposes. This ensures that the information has ongoing use. 
  6. A cross-sectional study is used when a researcher needs to generate a general hypothesis for a population. It is a suitable approach for descriptive analysis.

Cons: 

  1. A cross-sectional study is most suitable and effective when used for research that represents the entire population. It requires a large sample size. 
  2. The data collected in the cross-sectional study does not determine the cause of events. It does not look at what triggers a certain event within the population. 
  3. With a cross-sectional study, it is difficult to determine a cause-and-effect relationship. 

What is the Difference Between Cross-sectional and longitudinal studies?

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Although both cross-sectional and longitudinal research methods are quantitative in nature, there are several differences amongst them. In a cross-sectional study, researchers collect data of a variable at a specific point in time while in a longitudinal study, the data is collected at different times. In longitudinal studies, variables tend to change over time as well. 

Researchers use cross-sectional research to find commonalities between different variables. They use longitudinal studies in order to dissect the findings of the cross-sectional study further.

  • Longitudinal studies are more expensive because it involves taking measures for an extended period. 
  • The study focuses on collecting data from a smaller group of subjects with shared characteristics. 
  • Due to the time taken for a longitudinal study, participants are likely to drop out of the research


[Read more on Longitudinal Study]

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Join 500 + global clients across 40+ countries