Descriptive research involves gathering data to provide a detailed account or depiction of a phenomenon without manipulating variables or conducting experiments.
A scholarly definition is:
“Descriptive research is defined as a research approach that describes the characteristics of the population, sample or phenomenon studied. This method focuses more on the “what” rather than the “why” of the research subject.”(Matanda, 2022, p. 63)
The key feature of descriptive research is that it merely describes phenomena and does not attempt to manipulate variables nor determine cause and effect.
To determine cause and effect, a researcher would need to use an alternate methodology, such as experimental research design.
Common approaches to descriptive research include:
- Cross-sectional research: A cross-sectional study gathers data on a population at a specific time to get descriptive data that could include categories (e.g. age or income brackets) to get a better understanding of the makeup of a population.
- Longitudinal research: Longitudinal studies return to a population to collect data at several different points in time, allowing for description of changes in categories over time. However, as it’s descriptive, it cannot infer cause and effect (Erickson, 2017).
Methods that could be used include:
- Surveys: For example, sending out a census survey to be completed at the exact same date and time by everyone in a population.
- Case Study: For example, an in-depth description of a specific person or group of people to gain in-depth qualitative information that can describe a phenomenon but cannot be generalized to other cases.
- Observational Method: For example, a researcher taking field notes in an ethnographic study. (Siedlecki, 2020)
Descriptive Research Examples
1. Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder (Psychology): Researchers analyze various behavior patterns, cognitive skills, and social interaction abilities specific to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder to comprehensively describe the disorder’s symptom spectrum. This detailed description classifies it as descriptive research, rather than analytical or experimental, as it merely records what is observed without altering any variables or trying to establish causality.
2. Consumer Purchase Decision Process in E-commerce Marketplaces (Marketing): By documenting and describing all the factors that influence consumer decisions on online marketplaces, researchers don’t attempt to predict future behavior or establish causes—just describe observed behavior—making it descriptive research.
3. Impacts of Climate Change on Agricultural Practices (Environmental Studies): Descriptive research is seen as scientists outline how climate changes influence various agricultural practices by observing and then meticulously categorizing the impacts on crop variability, farming seasons, and pest infestations without manipulating any variables in real-time.
4. Work Environment and Employee Performance (Human Resources Management): A study of this nature, describing the correlation between various workplace elements and employee performance, falls under descriptive research as it merely narrates the observed patterns without altering any conditions or testing hypotheses.
5. Factors Influencing Student Performance (Education): Researchers describe various factors affecting students’ academic performance, such as studying techniques, parental involvement, and peer influence. The study is categorized as descriptive research because its principal aim is to depict facts as they stand without trying to infer causal relationships.
6. Technological Advances in Healthcare (Healthcare): This research describes and categorizes different technological advances (such as telemedicine, AI-enabled tools, digital collaboration) in healthcare without testing or modifying any parameters, making it an example of descriptive research.
7. Urbanization and Biodiversity Loss (Ecology): By describing the impact of rapid urban expansion on biodiversity loss, this study serves as a descriptive research example. It observes the ongoing situation without manipulating it, offering a comprehensive depiction of the existing scenario rather than investigating the cause-effect relationship.
8. Architectural Styles across Centuries (Art History): A study documenting and describing various architectural styles throughout centuries essentially represents descriptive research. It aims to narrate and categorize facts without exploring the underlying reasons or predicting future trends.
9. Media Usage Patterns among Teenagers (Sociology): When researchers document and describe the media consumption habits among teenagers, they are performing a descriptive research study. Their main intention is to observe and report the prevailing trends rather than establish causes or predict future behaviors.
10. Dietary Habits and Lifestyle Diseases (Nutrition Science): By describing the dietary patterns of different population groups and correlating them with the prevalence of lifestyle diseases, researchers perform descriptive research. They merely describe observed connections without altering any diet plans or lifestyles.
11. Shifts in Global Energy Consumption (Environmental Economics): When researchers describe the global patterns of energy consumption and how they’ve shifted over the years, they conduct descriptive research. The focus is on recording and portraying the current state without attempting to infer causes or predict the future.
12. Literacy and Employment Rates in Rural Areas (Sociology): A study aims at describing the literacy rates in rural areas and correlating it with employment levels. It falls under descriptive research because it maps the scenario without manipulating parameters or proving a hypothesis.
13. Women Representation in Tech Industry (Gender Studies): A detailed description of the presence and roles of women across various sectors of the tech industry is a typical case of descriptive research. It merely observes and records the status quo without establishing causality or making predictions.
14. Impact of Urban Green Spaces on Mental Health (Environmental Psychology): When researchers document and describe the influence of green urban spaces on residents’ mental health, they are undertaking descriptive research. They seek purely to understand the current state rather than exploring cause-effect relationships.
15. Trends in Smartphone usage among Elderly (Gerontology): Research describing how the elderly population utilizes smartphones, including popular features and challenges encountered, serves as descriptive research. Researcher’s aim is merely to capture what is happening without manipulating variables or posing predictions.
16. Shifts in Voter Preferences (Political Science): A study describing the shift in voter preferences during a particular electoral cycle is descriptive research. It simply records the preferences revealed without drawing causal inferences or suggesting future voting patterns.
17. Understanding Trust in Autonomous Vehicles (Transportation Psychology): This comprises research describing public attitudes and trust levels when it comes to autonomous vehicles. By merely depicting observed sentiments, without engineering any situations or offering predictions, it’s considered descriptive research.
18. The Impact of Social Media on Body Image (Psychology): Descriptive research to outline the experiences and perceptions of individuals relating to body image in the era of social media. Observing these elements without altering any variables qualifies it as descriptive research.
Descriptive vs Experimental Research
Descriptive research merely observes, records, and presents the actual state of affairs without manipulating any variables, while experimental research involves deliberately changing one or more variables to determine their effect on a particular outcome.
De Vaus (2001) succinctly explains that descriptive studies find out what is going on, but experimental research finds out why it’s going on/
Simple definitions are below:
- Descriptive research is primarily about describing the characteristics or behaviors in a population, often through surveys or observational methods. It provides rich detail about a specific phenomenon but does not allow for conclusive causal statements; however, it can offer essential leads or ideas for further experimental research (Ivey, 2016).
- Experimental research, often conducted in controlled environments, aims to establish causal relationships by manipulating one or more independent variables and observing the effects on dependent variables (Devi, 2017; Mukherjee, 2019).
Experimental designs often involve a control group and random assignment. While it can provide compelling evidence for cause and effect, its artificial setting might not perfectly mirror real-worldly conditions, potentially affecting the generalizability of its findings.
These two types of research are complementary, with descriptive studies often leading to hypotheses that are then tested experimentally (Devi, 2017; Zhao et al., 2021).
|Parameter||Descriptive Research||Experimental Research|
|Purpose||To describe and explore phenomena without influencing variables (Monsen & Van Horn, 2007).||To investigate cause-and-effect relationships by manipulating variables.|
|Nature||Observational and non-intrusive.||Manipulative and controlled.|
|Hypothesis Testing||Typically not aimed at testing a hypothesis.||Generally tests a hypothesis (Mukherjee, 2019).|
|Variables||No variables are manipulated (Erickson, 2017).||Involves manipulation of one or more variables (independent variables).|
|Control||No control over variables and environment.||Strict control over variables and environment.|
|Causality||Does not establish causal relationships.||Aims to establish causal relationships.|
|Predictability||Not focused on predicting outcomes.||Often seeks to predict outcomes based on variable manipulation (Zhao et al., 2021).|
|Study Design||Uses surveys, observations, and case studies (Ivey, 2016).||Employs controlled experiments often with experimental and control groups.|
|Ethical Considerations||Typically fewer ethical concerns due to non-interference.||Potential ethical considerations due to manipulation and intervention (Devi, 2017).|
Benefits and Limitations of Descriptive Research
Descriptive research offers several benefits: it allows researchers to gather a vast amount of data and present a complete picture of the situation or phenomenon under study, even within large groups or over long time periods.
It’s also flexible in terms of the variety of methods used, such as surveys, observations, and case studies, and it can be instrumental in identifying patterns or trends and generating hypotheses (Erickson, 2017).
However, it also has its limitations.
The primary drawback is that it can’t establish cause-effect relationships, as no variables are manipulated. This lack of control over variables also opens up possibilities for bias, as researchers might inadvertently influence responses during data collection (De Vaus, 2001).
Additionally, the findings of descriptive research are often not generalizable since they are heavily reliant on the chosen sample’s characteristics.
|Benefits of Descriptive Research||Limitations of Descriptive Research|
|Rich Data: Provides a comprehensive and detailed profile of the subject or issue through rich data, offering a thorough understanding (Gresham, 2016).||Lack of Control: Cannot control variables or external factors, potentially influencing the accuracy and reliability of the data.|
|Basis for Further Research: Helps to identify patterns, trends, and variables for subsequent experimental or correlational research – Krishnaswamy et al. (2009) call it “fact finding” research, setting the groundwork for future experimental studies.||No Causality Determination: Cannot establish causal relationships due to its observational nature, limiting the explanatory power.|
De Vaus, D. A. (2001). Research Design in Social Research. SAGE Publications.
Devi, P. S. (2017). Research Methodology: A Handbook for Beginners. Notion Press.
Erickson, G. S. (2017). Descriptive research design. In New Methods of Market Research and Analysis (pp. 51-77). Edward Elgar Publishing.
Gresham, B. B. (2016). Concepts of Evidence-based Practice for the Physical Therapist Assistant. F.A. Davis Company.
Ivey, J. (2016). Is descriptive research worth doing?. Pediatric nursing, 42(4), 189. (Source)
Krishnaswamy, K. N., Sivakumar, A. I., & Mathirajan, M. (2009). Management Research Methodology: Integration of Principles, Methods and Techniques. Pearson Education.
Matanda, E. (2022). Research Methods and Statistics for Cross-Cutting Research: Handbook for Multidisciplinary Research. Langaa RPCIG.
Monsen, E. R., & Van Horn, L. (2007). Research: Successful Approaches. American Dietetic Association.
Mukherjee, S. P. (2019). A Guide to Research Methodology: An Overview of Research Problems, Tasks and Methods. CRC Press.
Siedlecki, S. L. (2020). Understanding descriptive research designs and methods. Clinical Nurse Specialist, 34(1), 8-12. (Source)
Zhao, P., Ross, K., Li, P., & Dennis, B. (2021). Making Sense of Social Research Methodology: A Student and Practitioner Centered Approach. SAGE Publications.