Four characteristics shape the research methods that family scholars use. First, family scholarship has conceptual roots in a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, family and consumer science, economics, history, human ecology, psychology, and sociology. Second, the subject matter studied by family scholars overlaps the subject matter studied by a variety of content specialty areas such as women's studies, human development, gerontology, education, nutrition, and counseling. Third, although other fields often focus on isolated individuals, family scholars study individuals who are embedded in family systems. Fourth, families have a shared past and future (Copeland and White 1991). Being responsive to these characteristics requires multiple perspectives from quantitative and qualitative methods, experimental and survey methods, and cross-sectional and longitudinal methods (Schumm and Hemesath 1999).
Some family scholars approach their study of families from a large-scale/historical perspective or a large-scale/comparative perspective. Others approach it from an individual perspective. Some scholars seek to discover family pattern in ancient culture; others seek to solve current social problems. The unit of analysis—that is, the smallest unit about which a scholar draws a conclusion—may be an individual (child, mother, nonresident father), a dyad (husband and wife, siblings), a family (nuclear, stem, lesbian, single parent), a culture, or a historical period.
Aresearcher may want to explain how a hyperactive child influences outcomes for families, such as conflict or chance of divorce. Other researchers may explain hyperactivity in children in terms of family or cultural factors. For the first researcher, the child's hyperactivity is the independent variable (predictor). For the second researcher, the child's hyperactivity is the dependent variable (outcome).
The intricate relationship between root disciplines and specialty areas on the one hand, and research methodology of groups of scholars on the other hand, has been detailed in a more complete exposition by Robert E. Larzelere and David M. Klein (1987).