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What is descriptive research?

Last updated

5 February 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Cathy Heath

Research projects must first explore, gather, and assess evidence related to a specific occurrence, notion, or claim. Before attempting to address a problem, they need to conduct descriptive research about it.

Descriptive research is a common investigatory model used by researchers in various fields, including social sciences, linguistics, and academia.

To conduct effective research, you need to know a scenario’s or target population’s who, what, and where. Obtaining enough knowledge about the research topic is an important component of research. The main goal is to observe and catalog all the variables and conditions that affect the phenomenon.

Read on to understand the characteristics of descriptive research and explore its underlying techniques, processes, and procedures.

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What is descriptive research?

Descriptive research is an exploratory research method. It enables researchers to precisely and methodically describe a population, circumstance, or phenomenon.

As the name suggests, descriptive research describes the characteristics of the group, situation, or phenomenon being studied without manipulating variables or testing hypotheses. This can be reported using surveys, observational studies, and case studies. You can use both quantitative and qualitative methods to compile the data.

Besides making observations and then comparing and analyzing them, descriptive studies often develop knowledge concepts and provide solutions to critical issues. It always aims to answer how the event occurred, when it occurred, where it occurred, and what the problem or phenomenon is.

Characteristics of descriptive research

The following are some of the characteristics of descriptive research:


Descriptive research can be quantitative as it gathers quantifiable data to statistically analyze a population sample. These numbers can show patterns, connections, and trends over time and can be discovered using surveys, polls, and experiments.


Descriptive research can also be qualitative. It gives meaning and context to the numbers supplied by quantitative descriptive research.

Researchers can use tools like interviews, focus groups, and ethnographic studies to illustrate why things are what they are and help characterize the research problem. This is because it’s more explanatory than exploratory or experimental research.

Uncontrolled variables

Descriptive research differs from experimental research in that researchers cannot manipulate the variables. They are recognized, scrutinized, and quantified instead. This is one of its most prominent features.

Cross-sectional studies

Descriptive research is a cross-sectional study because it examines several areas of the same group. It involves obtaining data on multiple variables at the personal level during a certain period. It’s helpful when trying to understand a larger community’s habits or preferences.

Carried out in a natural environment

Descriptive studies are usually carried out in the participants’ everyday environment, which allows researchers to avoid influencing responders by collecting data in a natural setting. You can use online surveys or survey questions to collect data or observe.

Basis for further research

You can further dissect descriptive research’s outcomes and use them for different types of investigation. The outcomes also serve as a foundation for subsequent investigations and can guide future studies. For example, you can use the data obtained in descriptive research to help determine future research designs.

Descriptive research methods

There are three basic approaches for gathering data in descriptive research: observational, case study, and survey.


You can use surveys to gather data in descriptive research. This involves gathering information from many people using a questionnaire and interview.

Surveys remain the dominant research tool for descriptive research design. Researchers can conduct various investigations and collect multiple types of data (quantitative and qualitative) using surveys with diverse designs.

You can conduct surveys over the phone, online, or in person. Your survey might be a brief interview or conversation with a set of prepared questions intended to obtain quick information from the primary source.


This descriptive research method involves observing and gathering data on a population or phenomena without manipulating variables. It is employed in psychology, market research, and other social science studies to track and understand human behavior.

Observation is an essential component of descriptive research. It entails gathering data and analyzing it to see whether there is a relationship between the two variables in the study. This strategy usually allows for both qualitative and quantitative data analysis.

Case studies

A case study can outline a specific topic’s traits. The topic might be a person, group, event, or organization.

It involves using a subset of a larger group as a sample to characterize the features of that larger group.

You can generalize knowledge gained from studying a case study to benefit a broader audience.

This approach entails carefully examining a particular group, person, or event over time. You can learn something new about the study topic by using a small group to better understand the dynamics of the entire group.

Types of descriptive research

There are several types of descriptive study. The most well-known include cross-sectional studies, census surveys, sample surveys, case reports, and comparison studies.

Case reports and case series

In the healthcare and medical fields, a case report is used to explain a patient’s circumstances when suffering from an uncommon illness or displaying certain symptoms. Case reports and case series are both collections of related cases. They have aided the advancement of medical knowledge on countless occasions.


The normative component is an addition to the descriptive survey. In the descriptive–normative survey, you compare the study’s results to the norm.

Descriptive survey

This descriptive type of research employs surveys to collect information on various topics. This data aims to determine the degree to which certain conditions may be attained.

You can extrapolate or generalize the information you obtain from sample surveys to the larger group being researched.

Correlative survey

Correlative surveys help establish if there is a positive, negative, or neutral connection between two variables.

Performing census surveys involves gathering relevant data on several aspects of a given population. These units include individuals, families, organizations, objects, characteristics, and properties.

Cross-sectional studies

During descriptive research, you gather different degrees of interest over time from a specific population. Cross-sectional studies provide a glimpse of a phenomenon’s prevalence and features in a population. There are no ethical challenges with them and they are quite simple and inexpensive to carry out.

Comparative studies

These surveys compare the two subjects’ conditions or characteristics. The subjects may include research variables, organizations, plans, and people.

Comparison points, assumption of similarities, and criteria of comparison are three important variables that affect how well and accurately comparative studies are conducted.

For instance, descriptive research can help determine how many CEOs hold a bachelor’s degree and what proportion of low-income households receive government help.

Pros and cons

The primary advantage of descriptive research designs is that researchers can create a reliable and beneficial database for additional study. To conduct any inquiry, you need access to reliable information sources that can give you a firm understanding of a situation.

Quantitative studies are time- and resource-intensive, so knowing the hypotheses viable for testing is crucial. The basic overview of descriptive research provides helpful hints as to which variables are worth quantitatively examining. This is why it’s employed as a precursor to quantitative research designs.

Some experts view this research as untrustworthy and unscientific. However, there is no way to assess the findings because you don’t manipulate any variables statistically.

Cause-and-effect correlations also can’t be established through descriptive investigations. Additionally, observational study findings cannot be replicated, which prevents a review of the findings and their replication.

The absence of statistical and in-depth analysis and the rather superficial character of the investigative procedure are drawbacks of this research approach.

Descriptive research examples and applications

Several descriptive research examples are emphasized based on their types, purposes, and applications. Research questions often begin with “What is …” These studies help find solutions to practical issues in social science, physical science, and education.

Here are some examples and applications of descriptive research:

Determining consumer perception and behavior

Organizations use descriptive research designs to determine how various demographic groups react to a certain product or service.

For example, a business looking to sell to its target market should research the market’s behavior first. When researching human behavior in response to a cause or event, the researcher pays attention to the traits, actions, and responses before drawing a conclusion.

Scientific classification

Scientific descriptive research enables the classification of organisms and their traits and constituents.

A descriptive study design’s statistical capabilities allow researchers to track data trends over time. It’s frequently used to determine the study target’s current circumstances and underlying patterns.

Conduct comparison

Organizations can use a descriptive research approach to learn how various demographics react to a certain product or service. For example, you can study how the target market responds to a competitor’s product and use that information to infer their behavior.

Bottom line

A descriptive research design is suitable for exploring certain topics and serving as a prelude to larger quantitative investigations. It provides a comprehensive understanding of the “what” of the group or thing you’re investigating.

This research type acts as the cornerstone of other research methodologies. It is distinctive because it can use quantitative and qualitative research approaches at the same time.


What is descriptive research design?

Descriptive research design aims to systematically obtain information to describe a phenomenon, situation, or population. More specifically, it helps answer the what, when, where, and how questions regarding the research problem rather than the why.

How does descriptive research compare to qualitative research?

Despite certain parallels, descriptive research concentrates on describing phenomena, while qualitative research aims to understand people better.

How do you analyze descriptive research data?

Data analysis involves using various methodologies, enabling the researcher to evaluate and provide results regarding validity and reliability.

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