What is descriptive research

What is descriptive research?


Descriptive research is a form of research whose main objective is to systematically and accurately describe the characteristics of a sample, population, event, phenomena, etc. It can involve one or more variables and focuses more on the “what” questions of whatever is being described. That is, what are the characteristics of the sample or phenomena under scrutiny? Its scope does not include answering how, when, and why questions.

Descriptive research usually comes before explanatory research. For instance, after the initial description of the elements of the periodic table, scientists then proceeded to explain chemical reactions such as the outcomes when these elements are combined. Variables in this form of research are not manipulated or controlled, unlike in experimental research. Descriptive research can be applied to both quantitative and qualitative data.

Descriptive research methods


Surveys are a popular and flexible data collection instrument all over the world. They can be applied in both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. In survey research, data are collected through the use of psychometric tools and procedures such as questionnaires, rating scales, scorecards, tests, interviews, checklists, and others. It can be a good method when you intend to study a large sample. A census is a type of survey that studies an entire target population.

Though surveys are old instruments, their use for research (survey research) was introduced by 20th-century researchers in the field of sociology. It has grown in usage since then to cover several fields of education. For example, in areas like psychology, statistics, anthropology, economics, marketing political science, etc.


Here, the researcher carefully monitors (observes) the subjects of interest records his observations. The main objective is to use the observations to arrive at conclusions about the subjects. Raymond Gold identifies four types of observation:

  • Complete observer method
  • Observer as participant method
  • Participant as observer method
  • Complete participant method

Observation can also be structured or unstructured in nature. A lot of instruments can be used when making observations. For example, a researcher interested in measuring weights may use a weighing scale while another researcher interested in measuring temperature can use a thermometer.

Descriptive statistics

Descriptive statistics are used to summarize, organize and present the characteristics or properties of data. Measures of central tendency are very popular techniques of describing data sets. Examples are mean, median, and mode. Data sets can also be described using measures of variability or dispersion such as variance, standard deviation, kurtosis, etc.

In quantitative research, the process of data analysis usually commences with descriptive statistics. Descriptive statistics is different from inferential statistics which uses sample data to shed light on the population.

Case study method

A case study is a detailed or in-depth investigation of a particular subject (such as an individual, group, company, tribe, event, etc) or subjects (such as individuals, groups, companies, tribes, events, etc). Case studies offer descriptive richness and are ideal for describing individual outcomes. They are widely used in both natural and social sciences.

Characteristics of descriptive research

Can describe quantitative data

Quantitative data can be analyzed via descriptive research. For example, descriptive statistics can easily analyze the measures of central tendency of a quantitative data set.

Can also describe qualitative data

Descriptive research can also apply to qualitative data since it can be used to analyze both numeric and non-numeric values. Descriptions can be useful in ethnographic and phenomenological studies, among others.

Control-free variables

The nature of descriptive research means that variables cannot be controlled by the researcher. This is unlike in experimental research where variables can be controlled or manipulated by the researcher.

Usually precedes other research

Descriptive research can sometimes be preliminary in nature, thus providing a basis for further studies. It is only after a concept has been accurately and systematically described that it can be investigated further. Also, in many studies, descriptive statistics are first discussed before inferential statistics.

Advantages of descriptive research

Versatile in application

Descriptive research does not discriminate between numbers and figures and therefore can be used to analyze both quantitative and qualitative data. Because of this versatile application, it is suitable for several data collection methods. It can also analyze both primary and secondary data.

Enhances knowledge

Providing detailed descriptions from investigations can help shed more light on various kinds of subject matter. Such knowledge can then be synthesized to create new knowledge that can help solve more problems.


It is a form of research that merely describes samples, populations, phenomena, etc. Hence, it is relatively a simple method of research unlike some other forms which can require several rigorous procedures, e.g., experimental research.

Enhances analytical creativity

Descriptive research involves systematic descriptions under various conditions. This makes it mandatory for the researcher to have significant analytical skills so as to describe or analyze optimally.


Ideologically narrow

It is said that descriptive research focuses on the “what” and negates the how/when/why questions.  This ideological orientation, therefore, makes it narrow in scope.

Unrepresentative samples

In some methods like surveys and case studies, the samples may not be representative enough of the entire population. This invalidates the research findings and any attempts to link or extend the outcomes to the population.

Lack of control

Controlled experiments are very important, especially in medical science. This is because it helps researchers make important observations that can lead to scientific milestones.


Some of the descriptive research methods involve the collection of primary data. Thus, the problem of bias/subjectivity on the part of both the researcher and subjects is always a possibility.

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