Research Designs: Non-Experimental vs. Experimental

Qualitative Methodology

While there are many types of quantitative research designs, they generally fall under one of two umbrellas: experimental research and non-experimental research. Experimental research designs are what many lay-people think of when they think of research; they typically involve the manipulation of variables and random assignment of participants to conditions. A traditional experiment may involve the comparison of a control group to an experimental group who receives a treatment (i.e., a variable is manipulated). When done correctly, experimental designs can provide evidence for cause and effect. Because of their ability to determine causation, experimental designs are the gold-standard for research in medicine, biology, and so on. However, such designs can also be used in the “soft sciences,” like social science. Experimental research has strict standards for control within the research design and for establishing validity. These designs may also be very resource and labor intensive. Additionally, it can be hard to justify the generalizability of the results in a very tightly controlled or artificial experimental setting. However, if done well, experimental research methods can lead to some very convincing and interesting results.

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Non-experimental research, on the other hand, can be just as interesting, but you cannot draw the same conclusions from it as you can with experimental research. Non-experimental research is usually descriptive or correlational, which means that you are either describing a situation or phenomenon simply as it stands, or you are describing a relationship between two or more variables, all without any interference from the researcher. This means that you do not manipulate any variables (e.g., change the conditions that an experimental group undergoes) or randomly assign participants to a control or treatment group. Without this level of control, you cannot determine any causal effects. While validity is still a concern in non-experimental research, the concerns are more about the validity of the measurements, rather than the validity of the effects.

So, how do you choose between the two designs? This will depend on your topic, your available resources, and desired goal. For example, do you want to see if a particular intervention relieves feelings of anxiety? The most convincing results for that would come from a true experimental design with random sampling and random assignment to groups. Ultimately, this is a decision that should be made in close collaboration with your advisor. Therefore, I recommend discussing the pros and cons of each type of research, what it might mean for your personal dissertation process, and what is required of each design before making a decision.