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Research Methods in the Social Sciences

Descriptive Design*

Definition and Purpose

Descriptive research designs help provide answers to the questions of who, what, when, where, and how associated with a particular research problem; a descriptive study cannot conclusively ascertain answers to why. Descriptive research is used to obtain information concerning the current status of the phenomena and to describe "what exists" with respect to variables or conditions in a situation.

What do these studies tell you?

  1. The subject is being observed in a completely natural and unchanged natural environment. True experiments, whilst giving analyzable data, often adversely influence the normal behavior of the subject.
  2. Descriptive research is often used as a pre-cursor to more quantitatively research designs, the general overview giving some valuable pointers as to what variables are worth testing quantitatively.
  3. If the limitations are understood, they can be a useful tool in developing a more focused study.
  4. Descriptive studies can yield rich data that lead to important recommendations.
  5. Appoach collects a large amount of data for detailed analysis.

What these studies don't tell you?

  1. The results from a descriptive research can not be used to discover a definitive answer or to disprove a hypothesis.
  2. Because descriptive designs often utilize observational methods [as opposed to quantitative methods], the results cannot be replicated.
  3. The descriptive function of research is heavily dependent on instrumentation for measurement and observation.


Sample Descriptive Studies