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What is a longitudinal study?

Last updated

20 February 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Hugh Good

A longitudinal study is a type of correlational research that involves regular observation of the same variables within the same subjects over a long or short period. These studies can last from a few weeks to several decades.

Longitudinal studies are common in epidemiology, economics, and medicine. People also use them in other medical and social sciences, such as to study customer trends. Researchers periodically observe and collect data from the variables without manipulating the study environment.

A company may conduct a tracking study, surveying a target audience to measure changes in attitudes and behaviors over time. The collected data doesn't change, and the time interval remains consistent. This longitudinal study can measure brand awareness, customer satisfaction, and consumer opinions and analyze the impact of an advertising campaign.

One of the longest-running longitudinal studies is the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has been collecting data on the mental and physical health of a group of Boston men since 1938.

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Types of longitudinal studies

There are two types of longitudinal studies: Cohort and panel studies.

Panel study

A panel study is a type of longitudinal study that involves collecting data from a fixed number of variables at regular but distant intervals. Researchers follow a group or groups of people over time. Panel studies are designed for quantitative analysis but are also usable for qualitative analysis.

A panel study may research the causes of age-related changes and their effects. Researchers may measure the health markers of a group over time, such as their blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and mental acuity. Then, they can compare the scores to understand how age positively or negatively correlates with these measures.

Cohort study

A cohort longitudinal study involves gathering information from a group of people with something in common, such as a specific trait or experience of the same event. The researchers observe behaviors and other details of the group over time. Unlike panel studies, you can pick a different group to test in cohort studies.

An example of a cohort study could be a drug manufacturer studying the effects on a group of users taking a new drug over a period. A drinks company may want to research consumers with common characteristics, like regular purchasers of sugar-free sodas. This will help the company understand trends within its target market.

Benefits of longitudinal research

If you want to study the relationship between variables and causal factors responsible for certain outcomes, you should adopt a longitudinal approach to your investigation.

The benefits of longitudinal research over other research methods include the following:

Insights over time

It gives insights into how and why certain things change over time.

Better information

Researchers can better establish sequences of events and identify trends.

No recall bias

The participants won't have recall bias if you use a prospective longitudinal study. Recall bias is an error that occurs in a study if respondents don't wholly or accurately recall the details of their actions, attitudes, or behaviors.

New data

Because variables can change during the study, researchers can discover new relationships or data points worth further investigation.

Small groups

Longitudinal studies don't need a large group of participants.

Potential pitfalls

The challenges and potential pitfalls of longitudinal studies include the following:

Expensive

A longitudinal survey takes a long time, involves multiple data collections, and requires complex processes, making it more expensive than other research methods.

Unpredictability

Because they take a long time, longitudinal studies are unpredictable. Unexpected events can cause changes in the variables, making earlier data potentially less valuable.

Slow insights

Researchers can take a long time to uncover insights from the study as it involves multiple observations.

Dropouts

Participants can drop out of the study, limiting the data set and making it harder to draw valid conclusions from the results.

Overly specific data

If you study a smaller group to reduce research costs, results will be less generalizable to larger populations versus a study with a larger group.

Despite these potential pitfalls, you can still derive significant value from a well-designed longitudinal study by uncovering long-term patterns and relationships.

Longitudinal study designs

Longitudinal studies can take three forms: Repeated cross-sectional, prospective, and retrospective.

Repeated cross-sectional studies

Repeated cross-sectional studies are a type of longitudinal study where participants change across sampling periods. For example, as part of a brand awareness survey, you ask different people from the same customer population about their brand preferences. 

Prospective studies

A prospective study is a longitudinal study that involves real-time data collection, and you follow the same participants over a period. Prospective longitudinal studies can be cohort, where participants have similar characteristics or experiences. They can also be panel studies, where you choose the population sample randomly.

Retrospective studies

Retrospective studies are longitudinal studies that involve collecting data on events that some participants have already experienced. Researchers examine historical information to identify patterns that led to an outcome they established at the start of the study. Retrospective studies are the most time and cost-efficient of the three.

How to perform a longitudinal study

When developing a longitudinal study plan, you must decide whether to collect your data or use data from other sources. Each choice has its benefits and drawbacks.

Using data from other sources

You can freely access data from many previous longitudinal studies, especially studies conducted by governments and research institutes. For example, anyone can access data from the 1970 British Cohort Study on the UK Data Service website.

Using data from other sources saves the time and money you would have spent gathering data. However, the data is more restrictive than the data you collect yourself. You are limited to the variables the original researcher was investigating, and they may have aggregated the data, obscuring some details.

If you can't find data or longitudinal research that applies to your study, the only option is to collect it yourself.

Collecting your own data

Collecting data enhances its relevance, integrity, reliability, and verifiability. Your data collection methods depend on the type of longitudinal study you want to perform. For example, a retrospective longitudinal study collects historical data, while a prospective longitudinal study collects real-time data.

The only way to ensure relevant and reliable data is to use an effective and versatile data collection tool. It can improve the speed and accuracy of the information you collect.

FAQs

What is a longitudinal study in research?

A longitudinal study is a research design that involves studying the same variables over time by gathering data continuously or repeatedly at consistent intervals.

What is an example of a longitudinal study?

An excellent example of a longitudinal study is market research to identify market trends. The organization's researchers collect data on customers' likes and dislikes to assess market trends and conditions. An organization can also conduct longitudinal studies after launching a new product to understand customers' perceptions and how it is doing in the market.

Why is it called a longitudinal study?

It’s a longitudinal study because you collect data over an extended period. Longitudinal data tracks the same type of information on the same variables at multiple points in time. You collect the data over repeated observations.

What is a longitudinal study vs. a cross-sectional study?

A longitudinal study follows the same people over an extended period, while a cross-sectional study looks at the characteristics of different people or groups at a given time. Longitudinal studies provide insights over an extended period and can establish patterns among variables.

Cross-sectional studies provide insights about a point in time, so they cannot identify cause-and-effect relationships.

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