Criminology Cross-Sectional Research Designs in Criminology and Criminal Justice
James V. Ray
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0281


Cross-sectional research allows researchers to study a phenomenon or the relationship between variables at one point in time. In cross-sectional research data are collected once for each case (e.g., individual, neighborhood, city, state) at a single point in time. Cross-sectional research is most appropriate for studies that have descriptive or exploratory aims and in many cases are inadequate to assess causal processes due to an inability for researchers to establish temporal order—a necessary but not sufficient condition for causality. However, in some cases cross-sectional research may be adequate or even preferable to assess mediational models such as when the mediator variable is contemporaneous. Due to the nature of cross-sectional research, it is also not possible to utilize this approach to examine patterns or within-individual change in behavior over time. Alternatively, longitudinal designs typically follow the same cases over time and make observations (e.g., surveys, interviews) for each case at multiple time points. This approach allows for researchers to establish temporal order and assess both between and within-individual change over time. There is an ongoing debate among criminologists, particularly those interested in developmental processes and theories, regarding the worth of cross-sectional designs over longitudinal designs. This debate largely stems from the relationship between age and crime in what is typically referred to as the age-crime curve and the criminal career paradigm. That is, traditional cross-sectional research has found that crime peaks in mid- to late adolescence and then gradually declines across adult age groups. Despite the criticisms waged against cross-sectional research and the benefits of longitudinal research to establish temporal order, cross-sectional research designs still dominate criminology and criminal justice research. This may be due to some of the advantages of cross-sectional research and disadvantages of longitudinal research. For instance, cross-sectional research is relatively quick and affordable to carry out, making it a fairly accessible research design to conduct without funding and enables production of timely findings. Most importantly, researchers have developed unique methods of data collection and statistical analyses to overcome concerns of causality in cross-sectional research including retrospective or life history analyses, experimental survey designs, and repeated cross-sections or trend data. While these “fixes” do not allow researchers to assess within-individual change in outcomes (e.g., behaviors, attitudes, personality), they do address issues of temporal order and nonspuriousness within the cross-sectional design. The following article presents works that address various aspects of cross-sectional research and some examples of research utilizing this design.

General Overviews

Often contrasted with longitudinal research, cross-sectional research examines the prevalence of phenomenon and associations among variables by collecting data at a single point in time. Despite its limitations, cross-sectional research has an important role in criminological research. For instance, Kleck, et al. 2006 provides an empirical account of the most widely used methods in criminological research. This section also includes scholarly works that discuss the benefits and weaknesses of cross-sectional research. Ray 2015 and Sobol 2014 provide general overviews of cross-sectional research that define and describe research using this methodological approach. Cullen, et al. 2019 discusses how the emphasis on longitudinal research is hurting criminology (e.g., publication bias, limited theory-testing, etc.). Farrington 1979, Gideon 2012, and Morgan et al. 2012 empirically compare and contrast cross-sectional research and longitudinal research.

  • Cullen, Francis T., Travis C. Pratt, and Amanda Graham. 2019. Why longitudinal research is hurting criminology. The Criminologist 44.2: 1–7.

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    Provides commentary on the emphasis in criminology and criminal justice research on longitudinal data at the expense of cross-sectional research. The authors make the case that researchers in criminology and criminal justice are at an unfortunate disadvantage when trying to publish using cross-sectional data. They also point out some of the advantages of cross-sectional research and some of the limitations of longitudinal research that go overlooked.

  • Farrington, David P. 1979. Longitudinal research on crime and delinquency. Crime and Justice 1:289–348.

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    Compares the methodological advantages of longitudinal and cross-sectional research for studying criminal careers.

  • Gideon, Lior. 2012. Handbook of survey methodology for the social sciences. New York: Springer.

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    A handbook that includes chapters written by various authors on survey methodology. There are several chapters that cover survey designs that only survey respondents one point in time and also methods for estimating longitudinal data (e.g., repeated cross-sectional designs).

  • Kleck, Gary, Jongyeon Tark, and Jon J. Bellows. 2006. What methods are most frequently used in research in criminology and criminal justice? Journal of Criminal Justice 34.2: 147–152.

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    Examines the most widely used methods in criminology and criminal justice including the amount of studies that used cross-sectional designs.

  • Morgan, Rod, Mike Maguire, and Robert Reiner, eds. 2012. The Oxford handbook of criminology. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Handbook of entries by various authors that cover different aspects of criminology and research as it pertains to criminology. Includes a chapter on the debates that stem from life-course and developmental criminology regarding longitudinal and cross-sectional research designs.

  • Ray, James V. 2015. Cross‐sectional research. In The encyclopedia of crime and punishment. Edited by Wesley G. Jennings, George E. Higgins, David N. Khey, and Mildred Maldonado-Molina, 1–5. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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    A general overview of cross-sectional research including definitions and purposes of cross-sectional research.

  • Sobol, James J. 2014. Cross‐sectional research design. In The encyclopedia of criminology and criminal justice. Edited by Jay S. Albanese, 1–4. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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    An encyclopedia chapter that serves as a basic overview of cross-sectional research providing definitions, purposes, and limitations.

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