Observational Study of Behavior: Sampling Methods

In: Behaviour
Jeanne Altmann Allee Laboratory of Animal Behavior, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.

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Seven major types of sampling for observational studies of social behavior have been found in the literature. These methods differ considerably in their suitability for providing unbiased data of various kinds. Below is a summary of the major recommended uses of each technique: In this paper, I have tried to point out the major strengths and weaknesses of each sampling method. Some methods are intrinsically biased with respect to many variables, others to fewer. In choosing a sampling method the main question is whether the procedure results in a biased sample of the variables under study. A method can produce a biased sample directly, as a result of intrinsic bias with respect to a study variable, or secondarily due to some degree of dependence (correlation) between the study variable and a directly-biased variable. In order to choose a sampling technique, the observer needs to consider carefully the characteristics of behavior and social interactions that are relevant to the study population and the research questions at hand. In most studies one will not have adequate empirical knowledge of the dependencies between relevant variables. Under the circumstances, the observer should avoid intrinsic biases to whatever extent possible, in particular those that direcly affect the variables under study. Finally, it will often be possible to use more than one sampling method in a study. Such samples can be taken successively or, under favorable conditions, even concurrently. For example, we have found it possible to take Instantaneous Samples of the identities and distances of nearest neighbors of a focal individual at five or ten minute intervals during Focal-Animal (behavior) Samples on that individual. Often during Focal-Animal Sampling one can also record All Occurrences of Some Behaviors, for the whole social group, for categories of conspicuous behavior, such as predation, intergroup contact, drinking, and so on. The extent to which concurrent multiple sampling is feasible will depend very much on the behavior categories and rate of occurrence, the observational conditions, etc. Where feasible, such multiple sampling can greatly aid in the efficient use of research time.

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