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5.1: Key Attributes of a Research Design

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    The quality of research designs can be defined in terms of four key design attributes: internal validity, external validity, construct validity, and statistical conclusion validity.

    Internal validity, also called causality, examines whether the observed change in a dependent variable is indeed caused by a corresponding change in hypothesized independent variable, and not by variables extraneous to the research context. Causality requires three conditions: (1) covariation of cause and effect (i.e., if cause happens, then effect also happens; and if cause does not happen, effect does not happen), (2) temporal precedence: cause must precede effect in time, (3) no plausible alternative explanation (or spurious correlation). Certain research designs, such as laboratory experiments, are strong in internal validity by virtue of their ability to manipulate the independent variable (cause) via a treatment and observe the effect (dependent variable) of that treatment after a certain point in time, while controlling for the effects of extraneous variables. Other designs, such as field surveys, are poor in internal validity because of their inability to manipulate the independent variable (cause), and because cause and effect are measured at the same point in time which defeats temporal precedence making it equally likely that the expected effect might have influenced the expected cause rather than the reverse. Although higher in internal validity compared to other methods, laboratory experiments are, by no means, immune to threats of internal validity, and are susceptible to history, testing, instrumentation, regression, and other threats that are discussed later in the chapter on experimental designs. Nonetheless, different research designs vary considerably in their respective level of internal validity.

    External validity or generalizability refers to whether the observed associations can be generalized from the sample to the population (population validity), or to other people, organizations, contexts, or time (ecological validity). For instance, can results drawn from a sample of financial firms in the United States be generalized to the population of financial firms (population validity) or to other firms within the United States (ecological validity)? Survey research, where data is sourced from a wide variety of individuals, firms, or other units of analysis, tends to have broader generalizability than laboratory experiments where artificially contrived treatments and strong control over extraneous variables render the findings less generalizable to real-life settings where treatments and extraneous variables cannot be controlled. The variation in internal and external validity for a wide range of research designs are shown in Figure 5.1.

    Figure 5.1. Internal and external validity

    Some researchers claim that there is a tradeoff between internal and external validity: higher external validity can come only at the cost of internal validity and vice-versa. But this is not always the case. Research designs such as field experiments, longitudinal field surveys, and multiple case studies have higher degrees of both internal and external validities. Personally, I prefer research designs that have reasonable degrees of both internal and external validities, i.e., those that fall within the cone of validity shown in Figure 5.1. But this should not suggest that designs outside this cone are any less useful or valuable. Researchers’ choice of designs is ultimately a matter of their personal preference and competence, and the level of internal and external validity they desire.

    Construct validity examines how well a given measurement scale is measuring the theoretical construct that it is expected to measure. Many constructs used in social science research such as empathy, resistance to change, and organizational learning are difficult to define, much less measure. For instance, construct validity must assure that a measure of empathy is indeed measuring empathy and not compassion, which may be difficult since these constructs are somewhat similar in meaning. Construct validity is assessed in positivist research based on correlational or factor analysis of pilot test data, as described in the next chapter.

    Statistical conclusion validity examines the extent to which conclusions derived using a statistical procedure is valid. For example, it examines whether the right statistical method was used for hypotheses testing, whether the variables used meet the assumptions of that statistical test (such as sample size or distributional requirements), and so forth. Because interpretive research designs do not employ statistical test, statistical conclusion validity is not applicable for such analysis. The different kinds of validity and where they exist at the theoretical/empirical levels are illustrated in Figure 5.2.

    Figure 5.2. Different Types of Validity in Scientific Research

    This page titled 5.1: Key Attributes of a Research Design is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anol Bhattacherjee (Global Text Project) .