Go to a shopping mall and record the interaction behavior of 30 mother-child pairs for 2 minutes each. Record carefully the number of children each mother has and her interaction with each child. Try to find out whether interaction patterns are predictable from: (1) the number of children a mother has to cope with; (2) the ages of the children; (3) the socioeconomic class or ethnicity of the family; or (4) some other factors.

This exercise is instructive, if not humbling. It’s a real challenge to code for socioeconomic class and ethnicity when you can’t talk to the people you observe. Do this with at least one colleague so you can both check the reliability of your coding.

In hypothesis-testing research, where you already know a lot about the people you are studying, you go out to observe armed with a coding scheme worked out in advance. The idea is to record any instances of behavior that conform to the items in the scheme. This allows you to see if your hunches are correct about conditions under which certain behaviors occur. In some studies, you might be interested in noting instances of aggressive versus submissive behavior. In other cases, those variables might be irrelevant.

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