Researching Individuals and Families across the Lifespan

Laura Overstreet; Lumen Learning; and Diana Lang

Learning Objectives
  • Explain how the scientific method is used in researching development
  • Compare various types and objectives of developmental research

Introduction to Research

How do we know what changes and stays the same (and when and why) in families and individuals across the lifespan? We rely on research that utilizes the scientific method so that we can have confidence in the findings. How data are collected may vary by age group and by the type of information sought. The developmental design (for example, following individuals as they age over time or comparing individuals of different ages at one point in time) will affect the data and the conclusions that can be drawn from them about actual age changes. What do you think are the particular challenges or issues in conducting developmental research, such as with infants and children? Read on to learn more.[1]

How do we know what we know?

Question mark
Figure 1. Scientific inquiry and questioning is critical in drawing conclusions about human development.

An important part of learning any science is having a basic knowledge of the techniques used in gathering information. The hallmark of scientific investigation is that of following a set of procedures designed to keep questioning or skepticism alive while describing, explaining, or testing any phenomenon. Not long ago a friend said to me that he did not trust academicians or researchers because they always seem to change their story. That, however, is exactly what science is all about; it involves continuously renewing our understanding of the subjects in question and an ongoing investigation of how and why events occur. Science is a vehicle for going on a never-ending journey. In the area of development, we have seen changes in recommendations for nutrition, in explanations of psychological states as people age, and in parenting advice. So think of learning about human development as a lifelong endeavor.

Personal Knowledge

How do we know what we know? Take a moment to write down two things that you know about childhood. Okay. Now, how do you know? Chances are you know these things based on your own history (experiential reality), what others have told you, or cultural ideas (agreement reality).[2] There are several problems with personal inquiry, or drawing conclusions based on our personal experiences. Read the following sentence aloud:

Paris in the the spring

Are you sure that is what it said? Read it again:

Paris in the the spring

If you read it differently the second time (adding the second “the”) you just experienced one of the problems with relying on personal inquiry; that is, the tendency to see what we believe. Our assumptions very often guide our perceptions, consequently, when we believe something, we tend to see it even if it is not there. Have you heard the saying, “seeing is believing”? Well, the truth is just the opposite: believing is seeing. This problem may just be a result of cognitive ‘blinders’ or it may be part of a more conscious attempt to support our own views. Confirmation bias is the tendency to look for evidence that we are right and in so doing, we ignore contradictory evidence.

Science offers a more systematic way to make comparisons and guard against bias. One technique used to avoid sampling bias is to select participants for a study in a random way. This means using a technique to ensure that all members have an equal chance of being selected. Simple random sampling may involve using a set of random numbers as a guide in determining who is to be selected. For example, if we have a list of 400 people and wish to randomly select a smaller group or sample to be studied, we use a list of random numbers and select the case that corresponds with that number (Case 39, 3, 217, etc.). This is preferable to asking only those individuals with whom we are familiar to participate in a study; if we conveniently chose only people we know, we know nothing about those who had no opportunity to be selected. There are many more elaborate techniques that can be used to obtain samples that represent the composition of the population we are studying. But even though a randomly selected representative sample is preferable, it is not always used because of costs and other limitations. As a consumer of research, however, you should know how the sample was obtained and keep this in mind when interpreting results. It is possible that what was found was limited to that sample or similar individuals and not generalizable to everyone else.

Scientific Methods

The particular method used to conduct research may vary by discipline and since lifespan development is multidisciplinary, more than one method may be used to study human development. One method of scientific investigation involves the following steps, preferably guided by a theory:

  • Determining a research question
  • Reviewing previous studies addressing the topic in question (known as a literature review)
  • Determining a method of gathering information
  • Conducting the study
  • Interpreting the results
  • Drawing conclusions; stating limitations of the study and suggestions for future research
  • Making the findings available to others (both to share information and to have the work scrutinized by others)

The findings of these scientific studies can then be used by others to further explore the area of interest. Through this process, a literature or knowledge base is established. This model of scientific investigation presents research as a linear process guided by a specific research question. And it typically involves quantitative research, which relies on numerical data or using statistics to understand and report what has been studied. Quantitative researchers typically start with simple analyses like mean, median, mode, or frequency count, and can utilize analyses to compare averages, or finding correlations between concepts.

Another model of research, referred to as qualitative research, may involve steps such as these:

  • Begin with a broad area of interest and a research question
  • Gain entrance into a group to be researched
  • Gather field notes about the setting, the people, the structure, the activities or other areas of interest
  • Ask open-ended, broad “grand tour” types of questions when interviewing subjects
  • Modify research questions as the study continues
  • Note patterns or consistencies
  • Explore new areas deemed important by the people being observed
  • Report findings

In this type of research, theoretical ideas are “grounded” in the experiences of the participants. The researcher is the student and the people in the setting are the teachers as they inform the researcher of their world.[3] Researchers should be aware of their own biases and assumptions, acknowledge them and report them in efforts to keep them from limiting accuracy in reporting results. Sometimes qualitative studies are used initially to explore a topic and then quantitative studies are employed to test or explain what was first described.

A good way to become more familiar with these scientific research methods, both quantitative and qualitative, is to look at journal articles, which are written in sections that follow these steps in the scientific process. Most psychological articles and many papers in the social sciences follow the writing guidelines and format dictated by the American Psychological Association (APA). In general, the structure follows: abstract (summary of the article), introduction or literature review, methods explaining how the study was conducted, results of the study, discussion and interpretation of findings, and references.

Link to Learning

Brené Brown is a bestselling author and social work professor at the University of Houston. She conducts grounded theory research by collecting qualitative data from large numbers of participants. In Brené Brown’s TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, Brown refers to herself as a storyteller-researcher as she explains her research process and summarizes her results.

Research Methods and Objectives

The main categories of psychological research are descriptive, correlational, and experimental research. Research studies that do not test specific relationships between variables are called descriptive, or qualitative, studies. These studies are used to describe general or specific behaviors and attributes that are observed and measured. In the early stages of research it might be difficult to form a hypothesis, especially when there is not any existing literature in the area. In these situations designing an experiment would be premature, as the question of interest is not yet clearly defined as a hypothesis. Often a researcher will begin with a non-experimental approach, such as a descriptive study, to gather more information about the topic before designing an experiment or correlational study to address a specific hypothesis. Some examples of descriptive questions include:

  • “How much time do parents spend with children?”
  • “How many times per week do couples have intercourse?”
  • “When is marital satisfaction greatest?”

The main types of descriptive studies include observation, case studies, surveys, and content analysis (which we’ll examine further in the module). Descriptive research is distinct from correlational research, in which psychologists formally test whether a relationship exists between two or more variables. Experimental research goes a step further beyond descriptive and correlational research and randomly assigns people to different conditions, using hypothesis testing to make inferences about how these conditions affect behavior. Some experimental research includes explanatory studies, which are efforts to answer the question “why” such as:

  • “Why have rates of divorce leveled off?”
  • “Why are teen pregnancy rates down?”
  • “Why has the average life expectancy increased?”

Evaluation research is designed to assess the effectiveness of policies or programs. For instance, research might be designed to study the effectiveness of safety programs implemented in schools for installing car seats or fitting bicycle helmets. Do children who have been exposed to the safety programs wear their helmets? Do parents use car seats properly? If not, why not?

Video Example

This Crash Course video provides a brief overview of psychological research, which we’ll cover in more detail on the coming pages.

You can view the transcript for “Psychological Research: Crash Course Psychology #2” here.

Key Terms

correlational research: research that formally tests whether a relationship exists between two or more variables, however, correlation does not imply causation

descriptive studies: research focused on describing an occurrence

evaluation research: research designed to assess the effectiveness of policies or programs

experimental research: research that involves randomly assigning people to different conditions and using hypothesis testing to make inferences about how these conditions affect behavior; the only method that measures cause and effect between variables

explanatory studies: research that tries to answer the question “why”

qualitative research: theoretical ideas are “grounded” in the experiences of the participants, who answer open-ended questions

quantitative research: involves numerical data that are quantified using statistics to understand and report what has been studied

 


  1. This chapter was adapted from Lumen Learning's Lifespan Development, adapted from Lifespan Psychology by Laura Overstreet and available under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
  2. Seccombe, K., & Warner, R. L. (2004). Marriages and families: Relationships in social context. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
  3. Glazer, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. New York: Aldine.

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Individual and Family Development, Health, and Well-being Copyright © 2022 by Laura Overstreet; Lumen Learning; and Diana Lang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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