Social Behavioral Research

Social behavioral research applies the behavioral and social sciences to the study of people’s or animals’ responses to certain stimuli (both external and internal).  Such research is commonly conducted in the following academic disciplines: sociology, psychology, anthropology, economics, political science, and history.

Types of Social Behavioral Research


  • Research on behavioral and social processes
  • Biopsychosocial research
  • Research on methodology and measurement in the behavioral and social sciences
  • Research on the identification and understanding of behavioral and social risk and protective factors associated with the onset and course of illness, and with health conditions
  • Research on the effects of illness or physical condition on behavioral and social functioning
  • Treatment outcomes research
  • Research on health promotion and disease prevention
  • Research on institutional and organizational influences on health

Social Behavioral Research Methods

  • Interviewing/Questions
    • Overt or covert
  • Studies of existing records
  • Experimental designs involving exposure to some type of stimulus or intervention
    • In person
    • Over the telephone
    • Via questionnaire
  • Observation:
    • With or without observer interaction
    • Includes public (e.g., vital statistics, motor vehicle registrations, or court records) and/or non-public and sensitive (e.g., medical or educational records in which the subjects are identified)
    • Conducted in public places, in private settings (e.g., a clinic or therapist’s office), or in laboratories
    • Interventions in such studies range from the innocuous, such as varying the package design of commercial products, to the potentially significant, such as varying behavior modification techniques in studying the treatment of alcoholism.


Risk is the probability of harm or injury (physical, psychological, social, or economic) occurring as the result of participation in a research study.  Most social behavioral research involves no physical intervention and therefore no physical risk, but the potential risks of social or psychological harm must still be considered. Researchers must consider the following risks when conducting their study.

  • Social harm can occur when:
    • questions about illegal behaviors or immigration status may damage subjects’ reputation or raise legal concerns
    • information about subjects’ activities may place them at risk of harm or legal action
    • confidentiality is compromised, jeopardizing employment and/or insurance coverage
  • Psychological harm can occur when:
    • the research involves deception
    • the research provides subjects with unwelcome and disturbing information about themselves
    • the research questions or procedures can cause stress, embarrassment or raise painful memories

Although most social and psychological risks are minimal and transitory, investigators must be aware of the potential for harm.  The IRB will want to know how such outcomes will be minimized or addressed.

Methods and Risks/Harm sections adapted from Health and Human Services’ Institutional Review Board Guidebook, Chapter V: Biomedical and Behavioral Research: An Overview.

Additional Resources

Informed Consent

Internet Research

Students Conducting Research