Descriptive research

Descriptive research aims to accurately and systematically describe a population, situation or phenomenon. It can answer what, when, where, when and how questions, but not why questions. To determine cause and effect, experimental research is required.

A descriptive research design can use a wide variety of quantitative and qualitative 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, correlations, 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 can use both qualitative and quantitative research methods. 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. They are a common method in correlational research, a type of descriptive research that aims to find relationships between variables. Other 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.

25 comments

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.

Reply

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!

Reply

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!

Reply

Okolo
December 29, 2019 at 4:03 AM

thanks Shona, this really helped me

Reply

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. ?

Reply

TAWANDA MATENDE
December 2, 2019 at 7:40 PM

THANK YOU, VERY INSIGHTFUL...

Reply

Nour
November 29, 2019 at 11:48 AM

Would you give me n example about survey Nd case study

Reply

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.

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Mohammed Kemal
November 18, 2019 at 10:23 AM

I like it very much.

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

It was really good nd well explained

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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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