Descriptive research

Descriptive research aims to accurately and systematically describe a population, situation or phenomenon. It can answer what, where, when and how questions, but not why questions.

A descriptive research design can use a wide variety of research methods to investigate one or more variables. Unlike in experimental research, the researcher does not control or manipulate any of the variables, but only observes and measures them.

When to use a descriptive research design

Descriptive research is an appropriate choice when the research aim is to identify characteristics, frequencies, trends, and categories.

It is useful when not much is known yet about the topic or problem. Before you can research why something happens, you need to understand how, when and where it happens.

Descriptive research question examples
  • How has the Amsterdam housing market changed over the past 20 years?
  • Do customers of company X prefer product X or product Y?
  • What are the main genetic, behavioural and morphological differences between European wildcats and domestic cats?
  • What are the most popular online news sources among under-18s?
  • How prevalent is disease A in population B?

Descriptive research methods

Descriptive research is usually defined as a type of quantitative research, though qualitative research can also be used for descriptive purposes. The research design should be carefully developed to ensure that the results are valid and reliable.

Surveys

Survey research allows you to gather large volumes of data that can be analyzed for frequencies, averages and patterns. Common uses of surveys include:

  • Describing the demographics of a country or region
  • Gauging public opinion on political and social topics
  • Evaluating satisfaction with a company’s products or an organization’s services

Observations

Observations allow you to gather data on behaviours and phenomena without having to rely on the honesty and accuracy of respondents. This method is often used by psychological, social and market researchers to understand how people act in real-life situations.

Observation of physical entities and phenomena is also an important part of research in the natural sciences. Before you can develop testable hypotheses, models or theories, it’s necessary to observe and systematically describe the subject under investigation.

Case studies

A case study can be used to describe the characteristics of a specific subject (such as a person, group, event or organization). Instead of gathering a large volume of data to identify patterns across time or location, case studies gather detailed data to identify the characteristics of a narrowly defined subject.

Rather than aiming to describe generalizable facts, case studies often focus on unusual or interesting cases that challenge assumptions, add complexity, or reveal something new about a research problem.

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Shona McCombes

Shona has a bachelor's and two master's degrees, so she's an expert at writing a great thesis. She has also worked as an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.

52 comments

Erwin
September 11, 2020 at 12:11 PM

Hi this question"how to deal with procrastination." What is the most appropriate quantitative research style do i need to use?

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Bilal Khalil
September 7, 2020 at 5:02 AM

Hi,

First of all, thank you for these helpful articles

I need your help to specify what is type of research question and which research method is appropriate for my thesis? My topic titled "Evolution of mediation as a progressive dispute resolution method for construction projects" I have two research questions the first one is "What are the skills and competencies that should the mediator have and the tactics that should be used in the mediation session to enhance the quality of the process and to encourage parties to reach satisfactory dispute resolution?" the second one is "What happens if after the mediated settlement agreement is achieved one of the involved parties does not perform the obligations emerging out of such agreement knowing that the agreement reached voluntarily? and how would such an agreement be enforced?"

Your help is much appreciated!

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Zinzile
September 6, 2020 at 11:15 PM

Hi Shona

I have a research project and I am struggling to choose which method or design to apply. Kindly explain for me the difference, if there is any, between correlational research design and descriptive method.

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M. Al-Mahmood
September 3, 2020 at 2:20 PM

Thanks...Very helpful nice presentation.

Q. In case of descriptive research depending on qualitative-quantitative method, is it necessary to include a hypothesis? Does it suffice that research questions can be used alone? It is known that there are many researches and studies without hypotheses.

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Mohammad Salman
September 3, 2020 at 1:38 PM

Thanks...Very helpful nice presentation.

Q. In case of descriptive research depending on qualitative-quantitative method, is it necessary to include a hypothesis? Does it suffice that research questions can be used alone? It is known that there are many researches and studies without hypotheses.

Reply

THAPELO
August 31, 2020 at 4:39 PM

What is the best way to define exploratory and explanatory/descriptive research and what is the difference between the two.

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Iva
August 30, 2020 at 7:09 PM

Love the article, it's very helpful. Just a little note: you accidentally wrote "when" twice in the second sentence: "what, when, where, when and how", instead of "what, who, where, when and how".

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Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
September 3, 2020 at 11:52 AM

Hi Iva, thanks for pointing out! This has now been updated :)

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Anna Adidi
August 26, 2020 at 10:09 AM

hi,
please i will like to know what research design i can use for this topic "The impact of COVID-19 on teaching and learning"

what research design do you think suits this research? is it observational? is it qualitative or quantitaive?

i need your opinion on this please.

thanks

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
August 27, 2020 at 4:32 PM

Hi Anna,

Your topic is very broad, so there are many approaches you could take. It depends on what you want to find out.

If you want to draw broad statistical conclusions about the impacts, you need to do quantitative research. But if you want to gain detailed insight into, for example, students' and teachers' experiences and perspectives, you could do qualitative research.

To get started, you might find it helpful to read our guides to developing research questions and creating a research design.

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Aggie
July 25, 2020 at 3:18 PM

I have a very confusing question which goes as,what are the factors to consider when using descriptive study as opposed to explanatory study

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Bernice Ofori
July 17, 2020 at 2:48 AM

Can u please help me out with these case study and the questions below.
A lecturer noticed that most of the students who were rated highly intelligent were left-handed. The Lecturer is aware that his previous definition of academic ability lacked validity.
Design a study to test whether there is a difference in the academic performance of left-handed students and right-handed level 300 students of the School of Business and Law, University for Development Studies, WA campus?

i. identify the design that you would use and explain why you would use that method
ii. explain an appropriate sampling method and justify your choice

iii. describe the procedure that you would use, including details of how you would access their academic ability

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
July 21, 2020 at 3:17 PM

Hi Bernice,

There are many possible methods and procedures you could use in this situation, though it would certainly involve some sort of quantitative research. It seems like the most important part of this assignment is not just to give a correct answer, but to justify your choices, showing that you understand why and how to use appropriate methods.

Our articles on data collection, sampling methods, and test validity might help you understand the different options available to you.

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Sarah Rukudzo Muza
July 12, 2020 at 8:32 AM

This article was helpful. Thank you McCombes.

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Thandokazi
June 28, 2020 at 7:54 AM

Hi I'm trying to ask " What are the factors......" So I'm confused as whether to use both descriptive and explonatory or exploratory as my research designs. I chose quantitative research

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Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
July 21, 2020 at 4:57 PM

Hi Thandokazi,

It depends on your research problem and the type of approach you want to take.

Exploratory research is appropriate when very little is known about a topic or problem – it's usually quite flexible and open, allowing you to "explore" ideas and gain an initial understanding that will guide further research.

Descriptive research is appropriate when you have a fixed idea of exactly what you want to find out – it allows you to quantitatively "describe" characteristics or processes and gain a more systematic understanding.

Reply

loko mathewos
July 25, 2020 at 11:34 AM

what is research design in thesis?

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
July 29, 2020 at 7:56 PM

Hi Loko,

You can find out more about this topic in our guide to research design.

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Kasole Wasonga
July 31, 2020 at 2:29 PM

In total agreement with this. Choice of suitable research design is dependent on the approach and what the researcher want to find out in the research.

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Aravind S
June 4, 2020 at 10:44 PM

Thank you maam. This is very much helpful for me. Keep going. 👍

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Kaviatu
May 29, 2020 at 9:51 AM

What is a research design

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
May 29, 2020 at 8:05 PM

Hi,

You can find out more in our guide to research design.

Reply

Priyadarshi
May 25, 2020 at 6:26 AM

Hi , can u please answer whether in social science descriptive research is more efficacious than experimental research design ?

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
May 29, 2020 at 8:04 PM

Hi,

It depends on what type of research question you want to answer. For investigating cause-and-effect relationships, experimental research is more effective, but descriptive research is effective for finding out about characteristics, frequencies, trends, etc.

Reply

Padhou
July 9, 2020 at 3:49 PM

Hi,
When is a case-control study appropriate?

Reply

Rayene
May 16, 2020 at 4:40 PM

How can I cite this information please???

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
May 19, 2020 at 7:13 PM

Hi Rayene,

It depends on which citation style you're following. You can use our guides to learn how to cite a website in APA, MLA, or Chicago style.

Reply

bernard
January 31, 2020 at 11:10 AM

Thank you for the in-depth explanation. I would appreciate if you can post a comparative prose between descriptive and experimental research.

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Lyn
January 27, 2020 at 2:18 PM

Thanks! Very helpful.

question: what is a descriptive-correlational design?
would love to hear your insights.

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
January 28, 2020 at 6:23 PM

Hi Lyn,

Correlational research is one type of descriptive research. It investigates correlations between variables without aiming to test causal relationships. You can read more in our guide to correlational research.

Hope that helps!

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Juliet morah
January 26, 2020 at 9:25 AM

Nice presantation and very helpful

Reply

Ati
December 15, 2019 at 3:54 PM

Hello,

May anyone who reads this post, cites some sentences of the post for academic purposes?

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
December 23, 2019 at 11:50 AM

Hi Ati,

Yes, you're welcome to cite this article. If you need any help with citation, we've also published lots of useful articles about how to cite sources.

Reply

Chala Jilo
December 13, 2019 at 11:01 AM

Thanks!!! My question is what is differences between cross sactional survey and descriptive research??

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
December 13, 2019 at 4:04 PM

Hi Chala, thanks for your question! A cross-sectional survey is a specific method you could use in a descriptive research study. Cross-sectional means that you conduct the survey at just one point in time; it's the opposite of a longitudinal survey, where you would collect data at several points over a longer time period.

You can read more in our in-depth articles about survey research and about the different types of research. Hope that helps!

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Okolo
December 29, 2019 at 4:03 AM

thanks Shona, this really helped me

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khan
March 12, 2020 at 4:27 PM

Very helpful ....

Reply

cata leya
December 4, 2019 at 4:59 AM

thank you, it's very helpful indeed. ?

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TAWANDA MATENDE
December 2, 2019 at 7:40 PM

THANK YOU, VERY INSIGHTFUL...

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Nour
November 29, 2019 at 11:48 AM

Would you give me n example about survey Nd case study

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Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
November 29, 2019 at 12:17 PM

Hi Nour! You can find examples and in-depth explanation in our articles about survey research and case studies. Hope this helps!

Reply

Chorena
November 27, 2019 at 1:30 PM

easy to be understood

Reply

Elvis Kamwendo
November 25, 2019 at 9:23 AM

Thanks.

Reply

kaushila kathayat
December 6, 2019 at 8:41 AM

im easy to understand

Reply

CHELANGAT
November 21, 2019 at 7:13 AM

Concept made simple and understandable. Thanks for the effort.

Reply

Mohammed Kemal
November 18, 2019 at 10:23 AM

I like it very much.

Reply

Dr.jyoti
November 14, 2019 at 5:52 AM

It was really good nd well explained

Reply

Makonko
November 13, 2019 at 6:22 PM

Thanks very much, very helpful indeed.

Reply

Abu Sayem
November 11, 2019 at 9:34 PM

Very helpful.

Reply

Chisaki Isaac
November 1, 2019 at 9:39 PM

nice presentation

Reply

Pearl Keogotsitse
November 16, 2019 at 2:24 PM

Helpful thanks.

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