Research Writing

What is Descriptive research definition types and characteristics

Descriptive research or Descriptive research  method is the procedure used in science to describe the characteristics of the phenomenon, subject or population to be studied. Unlike the analytic method, it does not describe why a phenomenon occurs, but merely observes what occurs without looking for an explanation.

Along with comparative and experimental research, it is one of three research models used in science. This type of investigation does not include the use of hypotheses or predictions, but the search for the characteristics of the studied phenomenon that interest the researcher.

Nor does it answer questions about why, how or when the phenomenon occurs. Instead, he simply answers “what is the phenomenon and what are its properties?”

Descriptive research definition

In the introduction, we mentioned that descriptive research is the research method that focuses on describing the characteristics of a subject or phenomenon without stopping to analyze and explain why it occurs.

Some authors have delved a little deeper into the concept and definition, with some of the following being the most recognized:

According to Mario Tamayo and Tamayo

In his work The Scientific Research Process  (1994), the author defines descriptive research as the «recording, analysis and interpretation of the actual nature and composition or processes of phenomena. The focus is on dominant conclusions or on how a person, group or thing conducts or works in the present ».

According to Carlos Sabino

Sabino defines descriptive research in his work The Research Process  (1992) as “the type of research whose main concern is to describe some fundamental characteristics of homogeneous sets of phenomena.

For this, they use systematic criteria that allow revealing the structure or behavior of the phenomena under study, providing systematic information comparable to that of other sources.

When is descriptive search used?

This research model is used when there is little information about the phenomenon. For this reason, descriptive research is usually prior work to expository research, as knowledge of the properties of a given phenomenon allows explanations for other related subjects.

It is a type of research that is used to study phenomena or subjects qualitatively, before doing so quantitatively. The researchers who use it are usually sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, pedagogues, biologists… Examples:

-A biologist who observes and describes the behavior of a pack of wolves.

-A psychologist who observes and describes the behavior of a group of people.

In general, this model is used to categorize the population into so-called “descriptive categories”. This type of research is usually carried out before any type of analytical research, as creating different categories helps scientists better understand the phenomenon they are supposed to study.

In general, the descriptive method is framed in what is known as qualitative research. In this type of research, the most important thing is to understand the population studied in depth, rather than discovering different cause and effect relationships (contrary to what happens in quantitative research).

To describe and understand the phenomenon, the researcher can be accompanied by quantitative techniques, such as research.

Differences between descriptive and analytical method

The main difference between the two styles of research is that descriptive studies only try to understand the phenomenon studied without trying to explain why it occurs. On the contrary, analytical studies focus on understanding the variables that cause the phenomenon.

Research methods differ entirely between descriptive and analytical studies. Although there are several ways to carry out each of the two types of research, we can say that, in analytical studies, the researcher tries to influence in some way what he is observing. On the contrary, in descriptive studies, it is limited to observation only.

Types of descriptive research

Basically, we can find three ways to perform descriptive searches:

  • observational method
  • Case Study
  • Researches

Each of these ways of doing descriptive research is suitable for studying a different type of phenomenon. For example, surveys are very useful for learning more about different human behaviors, while observation is the preferred method for studying different animal populations.

Next, we’ll talk in depth about each of the three methods:

– observational method

This type of descriptive research is also known as “naturalistic observation”. It is mainly used to observe different events that occur naturally in the lives of animals or people.

Naturalistic observation is widely used by biologists and ethologists who study animal behavior to understand different species. One of the most famous researchers specializing in this method is Dr. Jane Goodall.

Goodall has watched a community of chimpanzees in their natural environment in Tanzania for over 50 years. His work consisted of integrating himself into the routine life of the apes, so that he could observe phenomena hitherto unknown in their way of life.

Some of his research findings have allowed the science of animal behavior to come a long way. For example, this researcher discovered that chimpanzees are capable of using tools, something that until recently was believed to be a uniquely human ability.

In relation to working with people, the most relevant studies are those carried out by developmental psychologists. These researchers observe children in their natural environments (eg, in a playroom in the presence of their parents).

Through the observations made by these psychologists, we now know much more about how babies develop their intellectual and emotional development. This also allows us to intervene in problems that occur in adulthood more effectively.

One of the most important measures of the observational method is the “reliability between judges”. Basically, this means that the results of an observational investigation must be replicable by another scientist who is dedicated to observing the same phenomena.

Types of  observation

Observation can be of two types: indirect and direct. Indirect observation occurs when the researcher studies the phenomenon from written or audiovisual records: documents, books, photographs, videos, among others.

This method has limits, as the records on the phenomenon may not be as abundant as the researcher would like.

In general, this collection instrument is used when it is dangerous to directly observe the phenomenon, the necessary funds are not available, or the phenomenon occurred in the past and no longer exists in the present.

On the other hand, direct observation occurs when the researcher enters the environment in which the phenomenon develops or vice versa. In this sense, the researcher does not depend on secondary sources, but can observe the object of study for himself.

Whenever possible, researchers prefer the use of direct observation, as they rely more on data obtained from their own experience.

With this type of instrument, care must be taken so that the mere presence of the observer does not change the behavior of the phenomenon. If this happens, the data will not be valid.

– Case Study

This type of observational research is based on studying an individual or a small group of individuals. In this case, the different experiences and behaviors of the study subjects are investigated in depth.

Depending on the phenomenon you want to know, case studies can be carried out with normal individuals or with some type of problem. These more recent case studies tend to be more interesting as they allow us to better understand the differences between normal people and people with some sort of disorder.

Furthermore, by studying the experiences of people who deviate from the average, we can also learn more about human nature in general. This method was preferred by Sigmun Freud, one of the earliest and most famous psychologists in history.

Probably one of the best-known and most striking case studies is that of Phineas Gage, a 19th-century worker who was injured in a work-related accident that caused serious brain damage. His skull was completely pierced by a metal bar, receiving very serious injuries to the frontal lobe.

As a result of his accident, case studies at the time reported that the worker underwent a sudden change in personality. The researchers described how “their animal impulses were stronger than their rationality.”

This case helped neuroscience discover the role the frontal lobe plays in moderating instincts.

– Researches

The last type of descriptive research is carried out through surveys. Surveys are a series of standardized questions that are posed to a group of individuals, either in person, over the phone, in writing or online.

The surveys serve to better understand the beliefs, behaviors and thoughts of the group of people interviewed. In this way, a certain number of participants is chosen, which must be representative of the entire population relevant to the researcher.

In the field of psychology, for example, research serves to better understand the prevalence of certain phenomena, such as mental disorders, homosexuality or certain personality traits .

However, like all forms of research where participants are aware of their role, surveys have a problem: the answers cannot be guaranteed to be true. Therefore, the results obtained with this research method must be contrasted with others that are more reliable.

Features of Descriptive research

– The information provided by the descriptive research must be true, accurate and systematic.

– Avoid making inferences about the phenomenon. What matters are the observable and verifiable characteristics.

– Descriptive work focuses on answering “what?” and the “which?” The other questions (how, when and why) are not of interest in this type of research. The basic questions of this type of research are: “what is the phenomenon?” and “what are your characteristics?”

– The research question must be original and creative. It makes no sense to carry out a descriptive study on a topic that has already been studied from every possible perspective.

– The data collection methods used are observation, research and case study. From observation, qualitative data is usually extracted, while research usually provides quantitative data.

– Descriptive search does not include variables. This means that it does not depend on factors or conditions that could modify the results obtained.

– As there are no variables, the researcher has no control over the phenomenon studied. It is simply limited to collecting the information provided by the data collection instruments.

– It is not enough to present the characteristics of the phenomenon obtained through the methods of data collection. It is also necessary that these are organized and analyzed in the light of an appropriate theoretical framework, which will support the research.

– In descriptive research, comparisons are not made between the phenomenon studied and other phenomena. This is the object of comparative research.

– Relationships can be established between the data obtained, to classify them into categories (called descriptive categories). However, these relationships cannot be cause and effect, as it would be impossible to obtain this type of information in the absence of variables.

Advantages and disadvantages

As with any type of scientific research, the descriptive has a number of pros and cons with regard to its application.


– Its methodology guarantees that there is no deviation from the report, allowing to measure the real behavior of the subject / phenomenon.

– The possibilities of misstatement when collecting information are reduced, as only the observable is calculated.


– Provides very basic information about the subject / phenomenon, as it does not stop to analyze the reasons for their behavior, attitude, preferences or beliefs.

– The research perspective can be influenced by the researcher’s perception.

– It is an expensive procedure because it can be time consuming to gather enough information based on simple observations.

– May provide vague or inconclusive information as it cannot be analyzed statistically.

– Some do not consider scientific research valid, which can generate rejection in certain institutions or scientists.

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