Descriptive research; definition; methodology; methods; characteristics; examples and advantages

1.1 Definition

Descriptive research is a type of research Classified under “purpose of research” and it is the systematic process of establishing the features or characteristics that distinguish a particular nature or type of population from another. This research narrates the features or characteristics of a variable being observed. It is also referred to as observational research.


Descriptive research deals with analyzing of a character that does not change or vary with time and that’s why it focuses on subject matter such as demographic perspectives such as age, sex, level of education, and market share size etc.

Descriptive research methodology

2.1 Definition

Descriptive Research Methodology is the logical process or step by step outline on how to solve a research problem that entails a variable which cannot be manipulated such as age, sex or level of education etc. Descriptive Research methodology involves choosing a logical procedure on the topic to be studied. That is the research problem, how specific objectives and research hypotheses of the study will be identified/or formulated. Identification of knowledge gaps to be filled, the methods used in identification of the study population and sample size determination, type of data to be collected and how it will be collected and analyzed, data presentation and interpretations thereof and the reporting of the research findings.


The aforementioned description /definition on descriptive research methodology is in tandem with the argument of (Kothari, 1984) who hypothesized that research methodology is the reasoning behind the methods we use in the context of our research study. This provides a rationale as to why one is using a particular method or technique at a particular stage in the research process and not others so that research output is accomplished either by the researcher himself or by others.

2.1.1 Questions Descriptive Research Methodology tries to Answer

Descriptive research methodology answers the following questions;





Questions pertaining to a particular population or group. But it does not answer questions such as why?

A “WHAT” Question means the approach is limited in interrogating the variables under investigation. For example, the study simply wants to know “what is the age range of girls in form one up to form four” in a certain country. You see, the researcher cannot manipulate the variable “AGE” for it is a matter of fact that after digging deeper, he/she will only work with the range available such as;

Another example of answering “What” question is when one is gathering opinion over a certain matter from respondents using a Likert scale.


Example of such questions is “what is your opinion as pertaining effectiveness of tackling of corruption issues by presidential candidate “Mr. XX” if he wins the USA General elections?”

From this statement, indicate by ticking the range of options given below.

Very Effective (VE)

Effective (E)

Neutral (N)

Not Effective (NE)

Not Effective at All (NA)


A “WHEN” Question means the approach is limited in interrogating the variables under investigation. For example, the study simply want to know “When” a certain event occurred.


For example, the researcher may be investigating the year in which African countries got their independence. So, it is a matter of fact as indicated in history or the secondary data.

Example, when did the East African countries get their independence?

The following matrix portrays the link between descriptive type of research and the type of research methodology adopted and then an explanation of the logical approach associated with this category and then in the last column, the research method(s) used in formulating the research problem as per Table 1.1.

2.2 Descriptive Research Methodology-Diagrammatic Approach

The following diagram as per Figure 1.1 represents a summary of logical roadmap to be adhered to in descriptive research methodology.

2.3 Logical Steps; Descriptive Research Methodology

The following logical steps describe the descriptive research methodology. From step one to eight, it represents a logical way of how systematically the matter at hand need to be dealt with. Remember that in this approach, the researcher only carries observations on the characteristic of the variable or the phenomenon being studied and cannot manipulate the variable or phenomenal state.

2.3.1 Step One; Identification of Area of Interest

This is the first step in descriptive research where by the researcher is venturing in observing the characteristic of the variable being studied. Once he/she narrows to that specific perspective, the researcher has to ask himself or herself the following questions;

Q1. Do I really have any interest in a certain TOPICAL Issue, let say Education Psychology where I have more knowledge in?

Q2. What are the thematic issues in this realm?

Q3. Am I motivated on some specific aspects in this realm?

Q4. Which specific variables are dominant in this area and are observable?

Therefore, descriptive research is governed by either of the following research questions;





You should note that these are the research questions which govern the researcher to identify the area of interest.


2.3.2 Step Two; Define the Research Problem

Under Descriptive research, formulation of research problem is on the basis of either a to c questions as indicated below;

a). Descriptive Question

For example, descriptive affiliated research questions assume the following form “what is the sales level of product Z in the market?”


 “What is the buying or consumption trend of a certain story book amongst the youth in New York City?”


b). Correlational Questions

“To what extent does religious beliefs determine the kind of dressing an individual prefer to put on?” This is a question to do with the level of correlation between consumers’ beliefs and demand of a certain dress fashion. This is an example of a descriptive correlational study in which the researcher is primarily concerned with describing relationships between two variables, without seeking to establish a causal connection.


c). Cause-comparative Questions

The cause-effect research question focuses on influence of the predictor variable on the dependent variable where by the predictor variable is not manipulated. For instance,

“Does age level determine the food diet one uses in life?” this is an example of a descriptive causal-effect research in which the researcher is primarily interested in causal connection.

2.3.3 Step Three; Literature Review

Once the research problem has been identified, the next step is to undertake the necessary literature review to build the research gaps. The research gaps may either be of theoretical, methodological or contextual nature.

2.3.4 Step Four; Collect Relevant Data

In this step, the researcher is concerned with how to collect data relevant to guide him or her whether there exists any link of stated variables. Methods used include;

Observational methods-which is very much appropriate whereby they make use of both quantitative and qualitative observations. For quantitative, numbers are observed while for qualitative approach, characteristics are observed or monitored. The researcher watches the behavior of the respondents from far.


Survey method-data is collected by conducting a survey especially when the area of coverage is wide. Survey questions are set ad sent either physically or online for the respondents to reply. The questions should take care of all logistics such that both open ended and closed ended questionnaires should be used.


Case-study method-it is an in-depth study of individuals or groups. The method opens doors for further study of a phenomenon. But caution should be undertaken that the method should not be used in collecting data to test for cause-effect studies.

2.3.5 Step Five; Analyze Data

For descriptive research, the data analysis approach used is strictly descriptive in nature for it ought to explain the characteristics of a variable or a phenomenon. The relevant statistics used include those related to measures of central tendency such as mean, median and mode, measures of dispersion such as standard deviation, variance, range and quartiles just to mention but a few. It also entails summarization of data to interpretable status such as frequency and percentages. The descriptive data analysis will focus on variable trends or movements.

It should be noted that descriptive statistics are utilized to summarize data in an organized manner by describing the relationship between variables in a population or sample. Descriptive data analysis is the genesis of other advanced data analysis processes.

Under descriptive data analysis, the researcher should be in a position of identifying the diverse types of variables involved, which include, namely;

Categorical variables-variables which are qualitative in nature. Sometimes also referred to as discrete.

Categorical variables are further divided in to sub-classes namely;

i). Nominal sub-category-a scale in which numbers serve as “identifiers” or “markers” only, to identify or classify an object. For instance

1=Best situation;

2=Fair Situation;

3=Bad Situation and

4=Worsted Situation

ii). Ordinal sub-category-take more than two categories that can be ranked or ordered as in the case of Likert scale approach

iii). Dichotomous sub-category-DI means TWO. So, in this case, we have only two categories E.g., male or female or alive or dead options.

iii). Continuous Variable sub-category- Also known as quantitative or numerical) and they are further categorized as either interval or ratio.

You should note that the variables being studies are analyzed appropriately based on the sub-classification each one of them falls under.

2.3.6 Step Six; Establish Research Findings

With the new data, the researcher establishes the research findings which should be conclusive. The groups conducted or the surveys carried out will provide the researcher with feedback which can be reviewed for accuracy, viability, and topically relevant information in order to be incorporated into existing bodies of knowledge.

The research findings arrived at is a solution to the study. In other words, the findings should fill a certain research gap.


2.3.7 Step Seven; Interpretation of Research Findings

Interpretation of research findings is done by use of computer programs such as e-Views, R, C, STATA, SPSS and excel.

Once analysis of data is complete, the research findings are supposed to be properly interpreted and the findings be well tackled so that the researcher can be in a position to communicate to his/her audience. You should know that any wrong interpretation of the output will translate to no effective communication to the end users of the research findings and this will render the research endeavors futile.

For descriptive research finding interpretation, the following example can be used

Example (a past study extract), see Table 1.2 for the details

“The study sought to establish the influence of innovation on the sales level of SME projects in Kingpin City. Out of 221 respondents who participated in the study, 161(72.9%, i.e., 35.3+37.6%) felt that innovation fairly influenced sales levels of SME projects in Kingpin City. Whereas 20(9.2% i.e., 5+4.2%) disagreed and the other 40(18.1%) had no idea of the exact cause of changes in sales levels. As per Table 1.2, the responses realized a mean of 3.95 greater than the composite mean and SD=1.05. Hence innovation significantly contributed to positive change in sales levels and also the financial performance of the SME projects.”

Therefore, this Is How We Should Interpret Results of Descriptive Nature.

2.3.8 Step Eight; Report Writing

Based on the research findings gotten in step seven, the researcher prepares a report on the extent to which the research problem has been solved and the recommendations to be undertaken by the concerned parties. If the research was being conducted on behalf of the management of a particular business concern, then the researcher needs to advise the client according to the research findings. In the report, he/she should also portray generally the contribution of the research as pertains, policy, theory and practice.

Descriptive research data collection methods

Research methods are all the techniques that are utilized in all the stages of research processes. They are tools used to ensure the end results of research task are accomplished. These techniques vary from one stage of research process to another. These methods are further classified in to two categories, namely;

  1. a) Pre-Data analysis methods
  2. b) Data Analysis related methods

As per Table 1.1 in this article, the descriptive research methods indicated in that table (refer), namely; descriptive; correlational, cause-comparative and survey methods are for the purposes of formulating the research problem and are some of the methods which fall under pre-data analysis category.  However, in this discussion of descriptive research, we will focus first on the THREE main methods of data collection which are also pre-data analysis in nature. That is; observation, survey and case study.

3.1 Observation Data Collection Method

It is an approach of collecting data in a more direct manner whereby the researcher physically watches a behavior being portrayed. This is a common approach in behavioral science. The researcher observes things as they happen live without directly asking the respondent to give an opinion. This method is more objective for this method is independent of respondents’ willingness to reply and as such is relatively less demanding of active collaboration on the part of respondents as it is in the case of interview or the questionnaire method.



  1. Simple to apply in research unlike other Methods
  2. Helps is Hypothesizing the research problem
  3. It is more accurate as compared to other approaches
  4. It is a universally accepted by most researchers hence its validity is high
  5. Objectivity-it is an objective method of collecting data for the data is collected from a scenario which is free from any human being interference.



  1. Not applicable in all cases. That is, some of the occurrences may not be fitted to observation. For instance, it is not ethical to collect data of one undergoing main operation in hospital theatre.
  2. Portraying of the wrong information by the respondent-when the respondent knows that he or she is being observed, there is high chances of portraying the wrong information for that is human nature. For example, if the researcher wants to learn the productivity level of workers in a factory. If the researcher or the investigator avails him/herself in person, every worker will pretend to be busy hence wrong conclusion is made.
  3. Difficulties in carrying out generalization after data collection. Due to biasness and prejudice of the researcher, it may proof to be harder to make a general conclusion on the population

3.2 Survey Data Collection Method

As the name suggests, survey method simply involves watching at a behavior or phenomenon in a more comprehensive way or manner. It entails a wide spectrum of methods which include; in-person and telephone interviews, mailed and online questionnaires as further explained below;


In-Person Interviews.

This approach is the most effective way of data collection for it involves actual interaction with the respondent. In other words, this is the most effective manner in which information or data is accessed from an individual.


Telephone interviews

The method relies on making free will calls to the respondents. The method involves the concerned party making calls to the targeted group or individual(s). The method is cheap although with increased frauds many respondents are skeptical when giving information.

   Mailed Questionnaires

This method involves sending of written questionnaires to the respondents using their contacts who in turn fill and return the filled questionnaires within a specific period of time. Although it is a little bit expensive, more people may be reached by paper surveys than any other method.


Online Questionnaires

The online approach is a unique one for the same questionnaire is prepared by the researcher and sent digitally to the targeted respondents who answer the questions therein in an electronic manner and then they revert their answers to the sender. It should be noted that, online questionnaires are common amongst researchers and they are at least cheap. They also reach more respondents all over the globe.

Advantages of Survey Data Collection Method

1). Simple to use-it is not a complicated method to collect data.

2). It is a less time-consuming approach-the method is time saving for it just requires either facing the respondent directly in the case of face-to-face approach or sending the questionnaire

3). Cost effective-the approach is economically viable because when conducting survey, one need to pay for the production of the questionnaire materials that’s all.

4). Eliminates geographical barriers-if online approach is used the issue of mountainous or valley or geographical distance is eliminated and hence coverage is wider.

5). Large data is collected-a broad data size is collected by the researcher and this assures of validity.

 6). Level of statistical significance is high-the sample size is reasonably good to be a true representation of the whole population and as a result, the research findings have a high chance of being significant.


Disadvantages of Survey Data Collection Method

1). The method is not flexible- that is, if in some circumstances it is not possible to rely on survey approach, it is not possible to replace this method with a more appropriate one.

2). Poor answering of questions in the questionnaire -now that these questionnaires are sent to the respondents who are away, no room to guide the respondents in case of errors or as pertains some areas requiring clarifications.

3). Dishonesty responses-questionnaires are very sensitive for the answers expected are highly influenced by one’s emotions hence missing objectivity of the inquiry.

4). Missing items-the questionnaire may have many unanswered gaps which may render the response futile hence thrown away.

3.3 Case Study Data Collection Method

This method entails in depth or very detailed collection of descriptive information about a particular entity, or a case, or a group. Then the data collected is tested for all aspects of the subject’s life and history so as to learn the pattern or trend dominating the group or subject matter. This helps the researcher to conclude on the behavior thereof or the causes of a certain behavior then generalize to other similar population. The results gotten are presented in a narrative manner.


Advantages of Case Study Data Collection Method

  1. Case study data collection method allows scenarios which were difficulty to be handled in a lab setting so as to be investigated.
  2. Help in hypothesis development by the researcher.
  3. It is in depth approach- that is, this method provides holistic investigation of a subject matter.
  4. No sample is required-since the researcher is dealing with only one unit of observation, sampling process which has high-cost implication is not required.
  5. Increased knowledge-the method is a tool useful in providing analytical approach in gaining new knowledge which is advantageous.
  6. Full understandability of the subject matter under interrogation-since the method is rigorous, it increases the researcher’s level of familiarizing with the subject matter.


Disadvantages of Data Collection Method

  1. Challenge of human biasness- since the researcher focuses on only one case at a time, chances are high that he/she may over do the observations resulting to one side’s conclusions. This makes the conclusions unreliable.
  2. Scientifically, the method is not rigorous as compared to other methods. You see, even the number of data points are very few.
  3. Not suitable for cause-effect conclusions. The playground to the researcher is limited to very few research participants and this makes the researcher not being in good position to conclude the causes of change of the dependent variable for the data is very small.
  4. No generalization-the information collected from the single identity may not be relied up on to generalize on the whole population.

Characteristics of descriptive research 

How do we distinguish this type of research with other approaches? The following distinctive features separate descriptive research and other types of research;

  1. Deals with Quantitative perspective: Descriptive research attempts to collect information which is quantifiable in terms of numbers for data analysis reasons.
  2. No manipulation of independent variables: Descriptive research does not advocate for the changing of the characteristics of the study variable. E.g., cannot change respondent’s age or sex.
  3. Cross-sectional based: Descriptive research focuses studying different aspects or sections of the unit of observation to come up with diverse data. The researcher can enquire one’s age, sex, level of education and years of experience.
  4. Foundation for further research: Descriptive research is the basis for further detailed types of research by the researchers. This is because the descriptive data already collected can also aid in pinpointing the types of research methods used for the subsequent research.
  5. Precise-descriptive research is detailed for it provides good space to obtain more clear data about the subject matter under investigation.
  6. Generalization-results from descriptive research are easily generalizable to the whole population.
  7. Accommodative-descriptive research provides room for use of different techniques and instruments for data collection such as interviews, survey methods, documentation, participant observation.

Applicability of descriptive research

Where does descriptive research apply in real life situation?

The following are some of the areas where the research apples well

1). It defines or describes the respondent’s characteristics in a holistic manner-when a closed ended questionnaire is used, it attempts to draw all aspects of the respondent such that the research is well informed of the patterns, traits, and behaviors of the respondents. Even respondents’ attitude or opinion is easy.  

2). Used in measuring the variable trend or movements-it is possible for the researcher to understand the general movement of the study variable. Or let us put it this way that the researcher can use descriptive research to tell the data trends over time. For instance, he or she can tell the data trends over time.

3). Used for comparison purposes. Researchers can make use of descriptive research abilities to compare two variables as far as a particular perspective is concerned. For example, a researcher can use a descriptive research approach to demonstrate how different groups of respondents behave given a certain condition. For example, the question on age, income, gender, geographical location and political affiliation of an individual etc.

4). Validation of prevailing conditions: For underlying patterns of a study object matter, a researcher can prove or disapprove whether a certain state assumed by the study variable is due to the underlying circumstances or not using descriptive research.

5). Descriptive research is used in different time horizons to observe if the results are the same or vary due to time factor as it is in the case of cross-sectional analysis. The analysis can be conducted at different periods to ascertain any similarities or differences.


  1. Decision-making. Data collected from descriptive research is used by management in resource allocations and in undertaking all the five functions of a manager. This is because the data is obtained from a large population.
  2. Help in precise answering of the research questions-descriptive research accommodates a variety of data through diverse descriptive research methods like surveys, observation, and case study. For instance, it is possible to develop a hypothesis using data from case study.
  3. Cost effective-descriptive research is cheaper over the other approaches used in research. For instance, when this research relies on observation method to collect data which is characterized by observation in natural settings, it turns out to be less costly.
  4. Double sword-Descriptive research provides both qualitative and quantitative information hence it all round informative to the researcher and other end users of research efforts.


  1. It answers limited questions of what and how but cannot explain “why” a certain situation exists. Therefore, this method is not appropriate for establishing cause-effect association.
  2. Halo effect problem-data collected from respondents may be pegged on the psychological halo issues. Halo effect is the first physical assessment one makes on an individual depending on dressing or outward outlook. For instance, one may look presentable and so is assumed to give valid answers on the questionnaire. Which may not turn to be true.
  3. Descriptive research uses a sample which if not well selected and this approach may result to biased data, leading to misrepresentation of the whole population.

About the Author - Dr Geoffrey Mbuva(PhD-Finance) is a lecturer of Finance and Accountancy at Kenyatta University, Kenya. He is an enthusiast of teaching and making accounting & research tutorials for his readers.