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What Is a Case Study?

When you’re performing research as part of your job or for a school assignment, you’ll probably come across case studies that help you to learn more about the topic at hand. But what is a case study and why are they helpful? Read on to learn all about case studies.

Deep Dive into a Topic

At face value, a case study is a deep dive into a topic. Case studies can be found in many fields, particularly across the social sciences and medicine. When you conduct a case study, you create a body of research based on an inquiry and related data from analysis of a group, individual or controlled research environment.

As a researcher, you can benefit from the analysis of case studies similar to inquiries you’re currently studying. Researchers often rely on case studies to answer questions that basic information and standard diagnostics cannot address.

Study a Pattern

One of the main objectives of a case study is to find a pattern that answers whatever the initial inquiry seeks to find. This might be a question about why college students are prone to certain eating habits or what mental health problems afflict house fire survivors. The researcher then collects data, either through observation or data research, and starts connecting the dots to find underlying behaviors or impacts of the sample group’s behavior.

Gather Evidence

During the study period, the researcher gathers evidence to back the observed patterns and future claims that’ll be derived from the data. Since case studies are usually presented in the professional environment, it’s not enough to simply have a theory and observational notes to back up a claim. Instead, the researcher must provide evidence to support the body of study and the resulting conclusions.

Present Findings

As the study progresses, the researcher develops a solid case to present to peers or a governing body. Case study presentation is important because it legitimizes the body of research and opens the findings to a broader analysis that may end up drawing a conclusion that’s more true to the data than what one or two researchers might establish. The presentation might be formal or casual, depending on the case study itself.

Draw Conclusions

Once the body of research is established, it’s time to draw conclusions from the case study. As with all social sciences studies, conclusions from one researcher shouldn’t necessarily be taken as gospel, but they’re helpful for advancing the body of knowledge in a given field. For that purpose, they’re an invaluable way of gathering new material and presenting ideas that others in the field can learn from and expand upon.


descriptive research and case study

Module 2: Research and Ethics in Abnormal Psychology

Descriptive research and case studies, learning objectives.

Types of Research Methods

There are many research methods available to psychologists in their efforts to understand, describe, and explain behavior and the cognitive and biological processes that underlie it. Some methods rely on observational techniques. Other approaches involve interactions between the researcher and the individuals who are being studied—ranging from a series of simple questions; to extensive, in-depth interviews; to well-controlled experiments.

The three main categories of psychological research are descriptive, correlational, and experimental research. Research studies that do not test specific relationships between variables are called descriptive, or qualitative, studies . These studies are used to describe general or specific behaviors and attributes that are observed and measured. In the early stages of research, it might be difficult to form a hypothesis, especially when there is not any existing literature in the area. In these situations designing an experiment would be premature, as the question of interest is not yet clearly defined as a hypothesis. Often a researcher will begin with a non-experimental approach, such as a descriptive study, to gather more information about the topic before designing an experiment or correlational study to address a specific hypothesis. Descriptive research is distinct from correlational research , in which psychologists formally test whether a relationship exists between two or more variables. Experimental research goes a step further beyond descriptive and correlational research and randomly assigns people to different conditions, using hypothesis testing to make inferences about how these conditions affect behavior. It aims to determine if one variable directly impacts and causes another. Correlational and experimental research both typically use hypothesis testing, whereas descriptive research does not.

Each of these research methods has unique strengths and weaknesses, and each method may only be appropriate for certain types of research questions. For example, studies that rely primarily on observation produce incredible amounts of information, but the ability to apply this information to the larger population is somewhat limited because of small sample sizes. Survey research, on the other hand, allows researchers to easily collect data from relatively large samples. While surveys allow results to be generalized to the larger population more easily, the information that can be collected on any given survey is somewhat limited and subject to problems associated with any type of self-reported data. Some researchers conduct archival research by using existing records. While existing records can be a fairly inexpensive way to collect data that can provide insight into a number of research questions, researchers using this approach have no control on how or what kind of data was collected.

Correlational research can find a relationship between two variables, but the only way a researcher can claim that the relationship between the variables is cause and effect is to perform an experiment. In experimental research, which will be discussed later, there is a tremendous amount of control over variables of interest. While performing an experiment is a powerful approach, experiments are often conducted in very artificial settings, which calls into question the validity of experimental findings with regard to how they would apply in real-world settings. In addition, many of the questions that psychologists would like to answer cannot be pursued through experimental research because of ethical concerns.

The three main types of descriptive studies are case studies, naturalistic observation, and surveys.

Clinical or Case Studies

Psychologists can use a detailed description of one person or a small group based on careful observation.  Case studies  are intensive studies of individuals and have commonly been seen as a fruitful way to come up with hypotheses and generate theories. Case studies add descriptive richness. Case studies are also useful for formulating concepts, which are an important aspect of theory construction. Through fine-grained knowledge and description, case studies can fully specify the causal mechanisms in a way that may be harder in a large study.

Sigmund Freud   developed  many theories from case studies (Anna O., Little Hans, Wolf Man, Dora, etc.). F or example, he conducted a case study of a man, nicknamed “Rat Man,”  in which he claimed that this patient had been cured by psychoanalysis.  T he nickname derives from the fact that among the patient’s many compulsions, he had an obsession with nightmarish fantasies about rats. 

Today, more commonly, case studies reflect an up-close, in-depth, and detailed examination of an individual’s course of treatment. Case studies typically include a complete history of the subject’s background and response to treatment. From the particular client’s experience in therapy, the therapist’s goal is to provide information that may help other therapists who treat similar clients.

Case studies are generally a single-case design, but can also be a multiple-case design, where replication instead of sampling is the criterion for inclusion. Like other research methodologies within psychology, the case study must produce valid and reliable results in order to be useful for the development of future research. Distinct advantages and disadvantages are associated with the case study in psychology.

A commonly described limit of case studies is that they do not lend themselves to generalizability . The other issue is that the case study is subject to the bias of the researcher in terms of how the case is written, and that cases are chosen because they are consistent with the researcher’s preconceived notions, resulting in biased research. Another common problem in case study research is that of reconciling conflicting interpretations of the same case history.

Despite these limitations, there are advantages to using case studies. One major advantage of the case study in psychology is the potential for the development of novel hypotheses of the  cause of abnormal behavior   for later testing. Second, the case study can provide detailed descriptions of specific and rare cases and help us study unusual conditions that occur too infrequently to study with large sample sizes. The major disadvantage is that case studies cannot be used to determine causation, as is the case in experimental research, where the factors or variables hypothesized to play a causal role are manipulated or controlled by the researcher. 

Single-Case Experimental Designs

The lack of control available in the traditional case study research strategy led researchers to develop more sophisticated methods, such as single-subject research, which provides the statistical framework for making inferences from quantitative case-study data.


Figure 1 . Antipsychotics are the treatment of choice in managing schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. Several major trials have been conducted examining the clinical difference between typical antipsychotics and atypical antipsychotics and how the selection may affect the quality of life.

The single-case experimental design  (sometimes called  single-participant research designs ), is particularly useful for studies of treatment effectiveness.  In  single-case experimental designs ,  the same  research participant  serves as the subject in both the experimental and control conditions.  One of the most common forms of the single-case experimental design is the A-B-A-B design, or  reversal design ,  reflecting the alternation between conditions, or phases A and B. The  AB design is a two-part or phase design composed of a baseline (“A” phase) with no changes, and a treatment or intervention (“B”) phase.  If there is a change, then the treatment may be said to have had an effect. However, it is subject to many possible competing hypotheses, making strong conclusions difficult. The A-B-A-B design, or reversal design, is a variant on the AB design. It introduces ways to control for the competing hypotheses and allows for stronger conclusions. T he reversal design (ABAB) is the most powerful of the single-subject research designs because it shows a strong reversal from baseline (“A”) to treatment (“B”) and back again. In an ABAB design, researchers observe behaviors in the “A” phase, institute treatment in the “B” phase, and then repeat the process. If the variable returns to baseline measure without treatment and then resumes its effects when reapplied, the researcher can have greater confidence in the efficacy of that treatment. However, many interventions cannot be reversed for ethical reasons (e.g., involving self-injurious behavior like smoking).  It may be unethical to end an experiment on a baseline measure if the treatment is self-sustaining and highly beneficial and/or related to health. Control condition participants may also deserve the benefits of research once all data has been collected. It is a researcher’s ethical duty to maximize benefits and to ensure that all participants have access to those benefits when possible.

File:A-B-A-B Design.png

Figure 2. The investigator looks for evidence that the change in the observed behavior occurred coincident with treatment. If the problem behavior declines whenever treatment is introduced (during the first and second treatment phases) but returns (is “reversed”) to baseline levels during the reversal phase, the experimenter can be reasonably confident the treatment had the intended effect.

Link to Learning: Famous Case Studies

Some well-known case studies that related to abnormal psychology include the following:

Naturalistic Observation

If you want to understand how behavior occurs, one of the best ways to gain information is to simply observe the behavior in its natural context. However, people might change their behavior in unexpected ways if they know they are being observed. How do researchers obtain accurate information when people tend to hide their natural behavior? As an example, imagine that your professor asks everyone in your class to raise their hand if they always wash their hands after using the restroom. Chances are that almost everyone in the classroom will raise their hand, but do you think hand washing after every trip to the restroom is really that universal?

This is very similar to the phenomenon mentioned earlier in this module: many individuals do not feel comfortable answering a question honestly. But if we are committed to finding out the facts about handwashing, we have other options available to us.

Suppose we send a researcher to a school playground to observe how aggressive or socially anxious children interact with peers. Will our observer blend into the playground environment by wearing a white lab coat, sitting with a clipboard, and staring at the swings? We want our researcher to be inconspicuous and unobtrusively positioned—perhaps pretending to be a school monitor while secretly recording the relevant information. This type of observational study is called naturalistic observation : observing behavior in its natural setting. To better understand peer exclusion, Suzanne Fanger collaborated with colleagues at the University of Texas to observe the behavior of preschool children on a playground. How did the observers remain inconspicuous over the duration of the study? They equipped a few of the children with wireless microphones (which the children quickly forgot about) and observed while taking notes from a distance. Also, the children in that particular preschool (a “laboratory preschool”) were accustomed to having observers on the playground (Fanger, Frankel, & Hazen, 2012).

woman in black leather jacket sitting on concrete bench

Figure 3 . In naturalistic observation, psychologists take their research into the streets, homes, restaurants, schools, and other settings where behavior can be directly observed.

It is critical that the observer be as unobtrusive and as inconspicuous as possible: when people know they are being watched, they are less likely to behave naturally. For example, psychologists have spent weeks observing the behavior of homeless people on the streets, in train stations, and bus terminals. They try to ensure that their naturalistic observations are unobtrusive, so as to minimize interference with the behavior they observe. Nevertheless, the presence of the observer may distort the behavior that is observed, and this must be taken into consideration (Figure 1).

The greatest benefit of naturalistic observation is the validity, or accuracy, of information collected unobtrusively in a natural setting. Having individuals behave as they normally would in a given situation means that we have a higher degree of ecological validity, or realism, than we might achieve with other research approaches. Therefore, our ability to generalize the findings of the research to real-world situations is enhanced. If done correctly, we need not worry about people modifying their behavior simply because they are being observed. Sometimes, people may assume that reality programs give us a glimpse into authentic human behavior. However, the principle of inconspicuous observation is violated as reality stars are followed by camera crews and are interviewed on camera for personal confessionals. Given that environment, we must doubt how natural and realistic their behaviors are.

The major downside of naturalistic observation is that they are often difficult to set up and control. Although something as simple as observation may seem like it would be a part of all research methods, participant observation is a distinct methodology that involves the researcher embedding themselves into a group in order to study its dynamics. For example, Festinger, Riecken, and Shacter (1956) were very interested in the psychology of a particular cult. However, this cult was very secretive and wouldn’t grant interviews to outside members. So, in order to study these people, Festinger and his colleagues pretended to be cult members, allowing them access to the behavior and psychology of the cult. Despite this example, it should be noted that the people being observed in a participant observation study usually know that the researcher is there to study them. [1]

Another potential problem in observational research is observer bias . Generally, people who act as observers are closely involved in the research project and may unconsciously skew their observations to fit their research goals or expectations. To protect against this type of bias, researchers should have clear criteria established for the types of behaviors recorded and how those behaviors should be classified. In addition, researchers often compare observations of the same event by multiple observers, in order to test inter-rater reliability : a measure of reliability that assesses the consistency of observations by different observers.

Often, psychologists develop surveys as a means of gathering data. Surveys are lists of questions to be answered by research participants, and can be delivered as paper-and-pencil questionnaires, administered electronically, or conducted verbally (Figure 3). Generally, the survey itself can be completed in a short time, and the ease of administering a survey makes it easy to collect data from a large number of people.

Surveys allow researchers to gather data from larger samples than may be afforded by other research methods . A sample is a subset of individuals selected from a population , which is the overall group of individuals that the researchers are interested in. Researchers study the sample and seek to generalize their findings to the population.

A sample online survey reads, “Dear visitor, your opinion is important to us. We would like to invite you to participate in a short survey to gather your opinions and feedback on your news consumption habits. The survey will take approximately 10-15 minutes. Simply click the “Yes” button below to launch the survey. Would you like to participate?” Two buttons are labeled “yes” and “no.”

Figure 4 . Surveys can be administered in a number of ways, including electronically administered research, like the survey shown here. (credit: Robert Nyman)

There is both strength and weakness in surveys when compared to case studies. By using surveys, we can collect information from a larger sample of people. A larger sample is better able to reflect the actual diversity of the population, thus allowing better generalizability. Therefore, if our sample is sufficiently large and diverse, we can assume that the data we collect from the survey can be generalized to the larger population with more certainty than the information collected through a case study. However, given the greater number of people involved, we are not able to collect the same depth of information on each person that would be collected in a case study.

Another potential weakness of surveys is something we touched on earlier in this module: people do not always give accurate responses. They may lie, misremember, or answer questions in a way that they think makes them look good. For example, people may report drinking less alcohol than is actually the case.

Any number of research questions can be answered through the use of surveys. One real-world example is the research conducted by Jenkins, Ruppel, Kizer, Yehl, and Griffin (2012) about the backlash against the U.S. Arab-American community following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Jenkins and colleagues wanted to determine to what extent these negative attitudes toward Arab-Americans still existed nearly a decade after the attacks occurred. In one study, 140 research participants filled out a survey with 10 questions, including questions asking directly about the participant’s overt prejudicial attitudes toward people of various ethnicities. The survey also asked indirect questions about how likely the participant would be to interact with a person of a given ethnicity in a variety of settings (such as, “How likely do you think it is that you would introduce yourself to a person of Arab-American descent?”). The results of the research suggested that participants were unwilling to report prejudicial attitudes toward any ethnic group. However, there were significant differences between their pattern of responses to questions about social interaction with Arab-Americans compared to other ethnic groups: they indicated less willingness for social interaction with Arab-Americans compared to the other ethnic groups. This suggested that the participants harbored subtle forms of prejudice against Arab-Americans, despite their assertions that this was not the case (Jenkins et al., 2012).

Think iT Over

Research has shown that parental depressive symptoms are linked to a number of negative child outcomes. A classmate of yours is interested in  the associations between parental depressive symptoms and actual child behaviors in everyday life [2] because this associations remains largely unknown. After reading this section, what do you think is the best way to better understand such associations? Which method might result in the most valid data?

A-B-A-B design:  an experimental design in which the a person is given treatment, or experimental condition (B), to compare against the baseline (A), and this repeats in order to determine effectiveness

clinical or case study:  observational research study focusing on one or a few people

correlational research:  tests whether a relationship exists between two or more variables

descriptive research:  research studies that do not test specific relationships between variables; they are used to describe general or specific behaviors and attributes that are observed and measured

experimental research:  tests a hypothesis to determine cause-and-effect relationships

generalizability:  inferring that the results for a sample apply to the larger population

inter-rater reliability:  measure of agreement among observers on how they record and classify a particular event

naturalistic observation:  observation of behavior in its natural setting

observer bias:  when observations may be skewed to align with observer expectations

population:  overall group of individuals that the researchers are interested in

sample:  subset of individuals selected from the larger population

single-case experimental design:   when the same  research participant  serves as the subject in both the experimental and control conditions

survey:  list of questions to be answered by research participants—given as paper-and-pencil questionnaires, administered electronically, or conducted verbally—allowing researchers to collect data from a large number of people

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Difference Between Case Study and Descriptive Approach to Research

May 29, 2011 Posted by Aron

Case Study vs Descriptive Approach to Research

Case study and Descriptive approach are two different aspects of any research conducted in a given field. It is important to know that both these aspects differ in terms of their study and presentation.

A case study though is conducted in several fields it is quite commonly seen in the field of social science. It consists in a kind of deep investigation carried out in the behavior of a single group or individual or event for that matter. As a matter of fact a case study can be either descriptive or explanatory in character. Any single instance or an event is taken for study and it will be investigated for months by adhering to a protocol. Limited number of variables will be thoroughly examined too in the case of a case study.

On the other hand descriptive approach involves more statistical study than investigation. Descriptive approach is the foundation for conducting a survey investigation. It involves the use of averages, frequencies and other statistical calculations. The subject of mathematical statistics and probability play a vital role in the descriptive approach of research study. In short it can be said that descriptive approach deals with anything that can be counted and studied. This is the main difference between a case study and descriptive approach.

A case study is more of a research strategy whereas descriptive approach is not looked upon as a research strategy but as a part of research. Empirical inquiry is the backbone of a case study whereas statistical calculation is the backbone of descriptive approach. Case study contributes to qualitative research whereas descriptive approach contributes to quantitative research. Both the aspects of research should be conducted to bring out fruitful results to strengthen a given field. These are the differences between case study and descriptive approach.

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June 7, 2021 at 6:15 am

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Descriptive Research | Definition, Types, Methods & Examples

Published on May 15, 2019 by Shona McCombes . Revised on October 10, 2022.

Descriptive research aims to accurately and systematically describe a population, situation or phenomenon. It can answer what , where , when and how   questions , but not why questions.

A descriptive research design can use a wide variety of research 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.

Table of contents

When to use a descriptive research design, descriptive research methods.

Descriptive research is an appropriate choice when the research aim is to identify characteristics, frequencies, trends, 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

Descriptive research is usually defined as a type of quantitative research , though qualitative research can also be used for descriptive purposes. The research design should be carefully developed to ensure that the results are valid and reliable .

Survey research allows you to gather large volumes of data that can be analyzed for frequencies, averages and patterns. Common uses of surveys include:


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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Case study vs. descriptive approach to research.

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Difference Between Case Study and Descriptive Approach To Research

Descriptive approach and case study are two aspects that are entirely different for research carried out in a given field. It is important to know that these two aspects are different in terms of their study and presentation.

A case study is carried out in many fields and it is quite commonly seen in the social sciences and humanities. It consists in a kind of deep study conducted in the activities of a single group or person or event for that matter. In fact a case study can be descriptive or explanatory in character. Single event or case is considered for the study and is investigated over a period of time by sticking to a protocol. In case study the set number of variables will be completely examined.

Descriptive approach uses statistical study more than analysis and survey. The descriptive approach is the foundation to perform an investigational study. Use of frequencies, averages and statistical calculations is involved. Mathematical probability and statistics plays a key role in the approach of descriptive research study. In short we can say that the descriptive approach takes care of anything that can be counted and studied. This is the main difference between a case study and a descriptive approach.

A case study is a research strategy, while the descriptive approach is not considered a research strategy, but as part of research. The empirical investigation is the main part of case study while statistical calculations play a major role in statistical calculations. The case study contributes to the qualitative research while the descriptive approach is responsible for the quantitative research.

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Research Method

Home » Case Study – Methods, Examples and Guide

Case Study – Methods, Examples and Guide

Table of Contents

Case Study Research

Case study is a research method that involves an in-depth, detailed examination of a single unit, such as an individual, family, group, organization, community, or event. Case studies are usually conducted by sociologists, psychologists, historians, anthropologists, or researchers from other social science disciplines.

Case studies are used to provide a rich and detailed account of a particular social phenomenon. They are often used to generate new hypotheses or to test existing theories. In some cases, case studies are also used to evaluate programs or interventions.

Types of Case Study

There are three types of case study research:

Exploratory Case Studies

Descriptive case studies, explanatory case studies.

Exploratory case studies are conducted when little is known about a phenomenon. They are used to generate hypotheses and gather preliminary data.

Descriptive case studies describe a phenomenon in detail. They are used to develop an understanding of a complex issue.

Explanatory case studies explain why or how something happens. They are used to test theories and identify cause-and-effect relationships.

Case Study Data Collection Methods

There are a variety of case study data collection methods, including:


Interviews are perhaps the most common type of data collection in case studies. They allow researchers to collect detailed information about individuals’ experiences and perspectives.

Observations can also be useful in case studies, particularly if the researcher is interested in studying how people interact with their environment.

Document Analysis

Document analysis is another common data collection method in case studies; it involves examining documents such as policy records, media reports, and demographic data.

How to conduct Case Study Research

Conducting case study research is a complex process that requires both scientific and methodological rigor. Follow the steps below:

Advantages of Case Study Research

There are several advantages of using case study research.

Also see Focus Groups in Qualitative Research

Disadvantages of Case Study Research

There are also a number of drawbacks to using this approach.

About the author

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I am Muhammad Hassan, a Researcher, Academic Writer, Web Developer, and Android App Developer. I have worked in various industries and have gained a wealth of knowledge and experience. In my spare time, I enjoy writing blog posts and articles on a variety of Academic topics. I also like to stay up-to-date with the latest trends in the IT industry to share my knowledge with others through my writing.

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descriptive research and case study

descriptive research and case study

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Descriptive Research Design

Voxco’s Descriptive Research guide helps uncover the how, when, what, and where questions in a research problem


When conducting a study, researchers generally try to find an explanation for the existence of a phenomenon. They want to understand “why” the phenomenon occurred. 

However, before identifying why a phenomenon occurred, it is integral to answer other questions first. You need to have answers to the “what”, “when”, “how”, and “where” before you can understand the “why”. This is where descriptive research comes in.

The descriptive research design involves using a range of qualitative and quantitative research methods to collect data that aids in accurately describing a research problem.

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What is Descriptive Research Design?

Descriptive research design is a type of research design that aims to systematically obtain information to describe a phenomenon, situation, or population. More specifically, it helps answer the what, when, where, and how questions regarding the research problem rather than the why. 

A researcher can conduct this research using various methodologies. It predominantly employs quantitative data, although qualitative data is sometimes used for descriptive purposes. 

It is important to note that in the descriptive research method, the researcher does not control or manipulate any variables, unlike in experimental research. Instead, the variables are only identified, observed, and measured. 

Surveys and observation are the most used method to conduct this research design. You can leverage online survey tools or offline survey tools to gather data as per your research objective.

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What are the Characteristics of Descriptive Research Design?

Let’s take a look at the defining characteristics of the descriptive research design:

1. Quantitative in nature 

Descriptive research involves the collection of quantifiable and systematic data that can be used for the statistical analysis of the research problem. 

2. Uncontrolled variables

One of the most prominent characteristics of descriptive research is that, unlike in experimental research, the variables are not controlled or manipulated. Instead, they are simply identified, observed, and measured.

3. A basis for further research

The data collected in descriptive research provides a base for further research as it helps obtain a comprehensive understanding of the research question so that it can be answered appropriately. 

4. Cross-sectional studies

The descriptive research method is generally carried out through cross-sectional studies. A cross-sectional study is a type of observational study that involves gathering information on various variables at the individual level at a given point in time.

Example of Descriptive Research Design

To gain a deeper understanding of the descriptive method of research, let’s consider the following example: 

Company XYZ is a girls’ shoe brand catering to girls specifically between the ages of 4 to 14. 

They want to start selling shoes for boys of the same age group as well and therefore want to gather information on the kind of shoes boys want to wear. They decide to conduct market research & choose the observational method to learn about different shoes boys wear nowadays. 

Naturalistic observation can be conducted by observing boys’ shoes in schools, malls, playgrounds, and other public spaces. 

This will help company XYZ identify the kind of shoes boys wear nowadays so that they can create the kind of products that will appeal to this audience.

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Why use Descriptive Research Design?

Descriptive research allows researchers to thoroughly investigate the background of a research problem before further research can be carried out. 

There are many different contexts in which the use of a descriptive research design is beneficial, including the following:

1. To measure data trends 

The descriptive method of research can be used to measure changes in variables over a period of time, allowing trends to be identified and analyzed. 

2. To compare variables

Descriptive research can be used to compare different variables and how different demographics respond to different variables. 

3. To define the characteristics of subjects

It can also be used to determine the different characteristics of the subjects. This can include characteristics such as opinions, traits, behavior, etc. 

4. To verify or validate existing conditions 

Descriptive research can prove to be a useful tool when trying to test the validity of an existing condition as it involves conducting an in-depth analysis of every variable before drawing conclusions. 

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Advantages of Descriptive Research Design

The following are a few advantages of using a descriptive research design: 

1. Multiple methods of data collection

A research can use a wide range of methods for data collection, such as case study, observational, and survey methods. They can also decide how they want to collect the data, online, offline, or via phone. 

2. Fast and cost-effective

As the descriptive research design often employs the use of surveys, data can be collected from a very large sample size quickly and cost-effectively. 

Researchers aiming to conduct market research using this research design should leverage integrated market research software . It will enable them to conduct product, customer, brand, and market research using suitable channels. 

3. Comprehensive

Descriptive research often uses quantitative and qualitative research in amalgamation, providing a more holistic understanding of the research topic. 

4. External validity

Results obtained through the descriptive method of research often have high external validity as research is conducted in the respondent’s natural environment and no variables are manipulated.

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Disadvantages of Descriptive Research design

The following are a few disadvantages of using a descriptive research design:

1. Cannot test or verify the research question

The descriptive method of research cannot be used to test or verify the research problem as the data collected does not help explain the cause of the phenomena being studied. 

2. Lack of reliability

If the research problem isn’t formulated well, then the data collected may not be entirely reliable. This also makes it more tedious to carry out a credible investigation. 

3. Risk of untrue responses

Descriptive research relies on the responses of people, especially when conducted using surveys. There may be instances when people provide false responses, compromising the validity of the data collected and the research results. 

4. Risk of sampling error

The descriptive research method generally employs random sampling while selecting a sample group. The randomness may lead to sampling error if the sample group isn’t representative of the larger population. Sampling error would lead to unreliable and inaccurate results.

What are the different methods of descriptive research design?

Three key methods are used to carry out descriptive research:

In survey research, questionnaires or polls are used to collect information on a specific topic from respondents. Surveys should involve a mix of closed-ended and open-ended questions, as both have their own advantages. 

Online survey tools allow multiple data collection channels such as email, website, and SMS surveys. 

They are also popularly used in market research to collect customer feedback to optimize products and strategies and improve customer experience (CX). Some popular market research surveys are Net Promoter Score ® (NPS ® ) surveys , brand tracking surveys , and conjoint analysis surveys . 

2. Case Studies 

The case study method involves the in-depth research of individuals or groups of individuals. Case studies involve gathering detailed data on a narrowly defined subject rather than gathering a large volume of data to identify correlations and patterns. 

Therefore, this method is often used to describe a specific subject’s different characteristics rather than generalizable facts. 

Case studies allow researchers to create hypotheses that can widen the scope of evaluation while studying the phenomenon. However, it is important to note that case studies cannot be used to outline the cause-and-effect relationship between variables as they cannot make accurate predictions due to the risk of researcher bias.

3. Observations method

In this method, researchers observe respondents in their natural environment, from a distance, and therefore do not influence the variables being studied. This allows them to gather information on the behaviors and characteristics being studied without having to rely on respondents for honest and accurate responses. 

The observational method is considered the most effective method for carrying out descriptive research. It involves the collection of both qualitative and quantitative data. You can leverage offline survey tools to gather data digitally, even without the internet. 

Quantitative observation should be related to or understood in terms of quantity and can be analyzed with the use of statistical data analysis methods. A few examples of quantitative observations include age, weight, height, etc. 

Qualitative observations, on the other hand, involve monitoring variables whose values do not need to be related to numerical measurements. 

When employing this research method, the researcher can choose to be a complete observer, an observer as a participant, a participant as an observer, or a full participant. 

The observational method is generally used in psychological, social, and market research to obtain data that explains how people behave in real-life settings.

What are the types of descriptive research design surveys?

The following are the different types of descriptive survey studies:

1. Census survey

A census survey is a kind of survey where information is gathered from all units of a population. Data collected through a census study is highly generalizable to the population as all or most units of the population are sampled. 

2. Sample survey 

A sample survey involves gathering information from a small subgroup of the entire population. When selecting a sample, the aim is to select a group of individuals representing the target population so that the data collected can be generalized to the larger population. Sample groups allow research to be conducted in a fast and cost-effective way. 

3. Cross-sectional survey 

In this type of survey, the standardized data is collected from a cross-section of the pre-determined population at a given point in time. There are two main types of cross-sectional surveys ; those with a single variable and those with two or more variables. 

4. Longitudinal survey

Longitudinal surveys are used in longitudinal studies where the same variables are observed over a long period of time. This allows researchers to investigate the status of variables at different points in time. There are three main types of longitudinal studies ; trend, panel, and cohort.

5. Comparative survey

Comparative surveys are used to compare the status of two or more variables. The variables are compared using specific criteria that must be delineated as criterion variables. 

6. Evaluative survey

An evaluative survey is generally used to evaluate a program, policy, or curriculum. It involves gathering information that can be used to rate the effectiveness and worthwhileness of a program or policy, or institution. 

7. Documentary survey

A documentary survey involves gathering and analyzing information using pre-existing data that is already available. This data can be research papers, review articles, books, official records, etc. In documentary studies, the researcher evaluates the available literature on the research topic.

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6 Steps to conduct a descriptive research design

Use the following steps to conduct a study using the descriptive method of research:

Step-1: Outline the research objective

The next step is to identify and outline the objectives of your research and then translate these objectives into criteria of investigation. You must clearly identify the different issues and questions in the context of which the knowledge of the situation must be surveyed. 

This must be framed in the form of objectives. Once you’ve clearly stated your criteria and objectives, you must also specify the nature of the data that must be gathered. 

Step-2: Determine the tools and techniques to be used for data collection

In this step, you must determine the tools you will employ for the data collection process. Some examples of different tools that can be used are interviews, questionnaires, observation schedules, reaction scales, etc. 

In this stage, you will have to identify which tools and techniques are relevant and valid to your study. Leverage robust survey software that offers you multiple channels, thus enabling you to utilize various channels to gather insights. 

Step-3: Define​​ the target population and sample group

In the fourth step, you will have to outline your target population. The target population is the group of individuals that you are examining in your research study. Additionally, unless you are conducting a census study and collecting data from the entire population, you must select a sample group.

You can also use an audience panel to accelerate your research. A survey panel gives you access to diverse respondents so you can create your ideal panel. 

Additional read: Types of sampling methods .

Step-4: Select a method for data collection

In the data collection stage, you must have a clear plan of how your data will be collected. This involves clearly outlining the type of data you require, the tools that will be used to gather it, the level of training required by researchers to collect the data, the time required for data collection and fieldwork, and so on. 

As you collect data, keep your research question and objectives in mind and aim to gather authentic and objective data without personal bias. 

Step-5: Analyse the data collected

Once you’ve collected your data, you reach the sixth stage of descriptive research: data analysis. In this stage, you will have to evaluate all the data collected from all your different sources, quantify and qualify them, and then categorize them component-wise. 

If you are working with quantitative and qualitative data, you must employ a range of different quantitative and qualitative analysis techniques to analyze the data collected. 

Leverage survey analytics software that allows you to run statistical analysis and observe data on a live dashboard.  

Step-6: Write the report

The final step of survey research involves writing the report. As survey research involves working with extensive data, it is important to keep the focus of the investigation in mind. The report must be precise and objective-oriented.

This sums up our article on descriptive research design. This research method helps uncover the hidden element of a customer’s behavior. It helps you create a foundation for your research by helping you create an outline of your research subject.

Net Promoter ® , NPS ® , NPS Prism ® , and the NPS-related emoticons are registered trademarks of Bain & Company, Inc., Satmetrix Systems, Inc., and Fred Reichheld. Net Promoter Score℠ and Net Promoter System℠ are service marks of Bain & Company, Inc., Satmetrix Systems, Inc., and Fred Reichheld.

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Qualitative Descriptive Research and Case Study Research: A Comparison

Applying qualitative research to the field of nursing allows shedding light on various issues such as the nature of specific phenomena, the perception of a problem by nurses and patients, and other concerns. Qualitative research encompasses a range of methods for the analysis of key variables, which define the focus and the tools used in the process (Holly, 2013). The adoption of qualitative descriptive research and a case study are typically seen as the most common options (Dang & Dearholt, 2017). However, although the described methods may seem similar, the differences in the approaches that they suggest define the specifics of their application. While a qualitative case study implies mostly general analysis of observations and documentation, qualitative descriptive research requires a precise focus on a particular group of participants that will be studied.

Similarly, qualitative descriptive research is quite different from the research method known as action research. In contrast to qualitative descriptive research, action research implies taking field notes while collecting the necessary data within a focus group (Holly, 2013). Therefore, it could be argued that the focus of action research is slightly narrower than the one of qualitative descriptive research (Singla, Jones, Edwards, & Kumar, 2015). Nevertheless, both approaches toward the analysis of variables require access to essential documentation and patient records to perform a comprehensive assessment of the key factors. Despite being quite similar in their basic premise of studying qualitative relationships between key variables, the existing types of qualitative research suggest different types of assessment and perspectives (Holly, 2013). Thus, the choice of a qualitative research method hinges on study objectives, types of relationships that it seeks to explore, and other factors.

Dang, D., & Dearholt, S. L. (2017). Johns Hopkins nursing evidence-based practice: Model and guidelines (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Sigma Theta Tau.

Holly, C. (Ed.). (2013). Scholarly inquiry and the DNP Capstone . New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Singla, M., Jones, M., Edwards, I., & Kumar, S. (2015). Physiotherapists’ assessment of patients’ psychosocial status: Are we standing on thin ice? A qualitative descriptive study. Manual Therapy, 20 (2), 328-334. Web.

Cite this paper

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Formplus Blog

One of the components of research is getting enough information about the research problem—the what, how, when and where answers, which is why descriptive research is an important type of research. It is very useful when conducting research whose aim is to identify characteristics, frequencies, trends, correlations, and categories.

This research method takes a problem with little to no relevant information and gives it a befitting description using qualitative and quantitative research method s. Descriptive research aims to accurately describe a research problem.

In the subsequent sections, we will be explaining what descriptive research means, its types, examples, and data collection methods.

What is Descriptive Research?

Descriptive research is a type of research that describes a population, situation, or phenomenon that is being studied. It focuses on answering the how, what, when, and where questions If a research problem, rather than the why.

This is mainly because it is important to have a proper understanding of what a research problem is about before investigating why it exists in the first place. 

For example, an investor considering an investment in the ever-changing Amsterdam housing market needs to understand what the current state of the market is, how it changes (increasing or decreasing), and when it changes (time of the year) before asking for the why. This is where descriptive research comes in.

What Are The Types of Descriptive Research?

Descriptive research is classified into different types according to the kind of approach that is used in conducting descriptive research. The different types of descriptive research are highlighted below:

Descriptive survey research uses surveys to gather data about varying subjects. This data aims to know the extent to which different conditions can be obtained among these subjects. 

For example, a researcher wants to determine the qualification of employed professionals in Maryland. He uses a survey as his research instrument , and each item on the survey related to qualifications is subjected to a Yes/No answer. 

This way, the researcher can describe the qualifications possessed by the employed demographics of this community. 

This is an extension of the descriptive survey, with the addition being the normative element. In the descriptive-normative survey, the results of the study should be compared with the norm.

For example, an organization that wishes to test the skills of its employees by a team may have them take a skills test. The skills tests are the evaluation tool in this case, and the result of this test is compared with the norm of each role.

If the score of the team is one standard deviation above the mean, it is very satisfactory, if within the mean, satisfactory, and one standard deviation below the mean is unsatisfactory.

This is a quantitative description technique that seeks to answer questions about real-life situations. For example, a researcher researching the income of the employees in a company, and the relationship with their performance.

A survey will be carried out to gather enough data about the income of the employees, then their performance will be evaluated and compared to their income. This will help determine whether a higher income means better performance and low income means lower performance or vice versa.

The descriptive-analysis method of research describes a subject by further analyzing it, which in this case involves dividing it into 2 parts. For example, the HR personnel of a company that wishes to analyze the job role of each employee of the company may divide the employees into the people that work at the Headquarters in the US and those that work from Oslo, Norway office.

A questionnaire is devised to analyze the job role of employees with similar salaries and who work in similar positions.

This method is employed in biological sciences for the classification of plants and animals. A researcher who wishes to classify the sea animals into different species will collect samples from various search stations, then classify them accordingly.

In descriptive-comparative research, the researcher considers 2 variables that are not manipulated, and establish a formal procedure to conclude that one is better than the other. For example, an examination body wants to determine the better method of conducting tests between paper-based and computer-based tests.

A random sample of potential participants of the test may be asked to use the 2 different methods, and factors like failure rates, time factors, and others will be evaluated to arrive at the best method.

Correlative surveys are used to determine whether the relationship between 2 variables is positive, negative, or neutral. That is, if 2 variables, say X and Y are directly proportional, inversely proportional or are not related to each other.

Examples of Descriptive Research

There are different examples of descriptive research, that may be highlighted from its types, uses, and applications. However, we will be restricting ourselves to only 3 distinct examples in this article.

An academic institution may wish 2 compare the performance of its junior high school students in English language and Mathematics. This may be used to classify students based on 2 major groups, with one group going ahead to study while courses, while the other study courses in the Arts & Humanities field.

Students who are more proficient in mathematics will be encouraged to go into STEM and vice versa. Institutions may also use this data to identify student’s weak points and work on ways to assist them.

During major scientific classification of plants, animals, and periodic table elements, the characteristics and components of each subject are evaluated and used to determine how they are classified.

For example, living things may be classified into kingdom Plantae or kingdom animal is depending on their nature. Further classification may group animals into mammals, pieces, vertebrae, invertebrae, etc. 

All these classifications are made a result of descriptive research which describes what they are.

When studying human behaviour based on a factor or event, the researcher observes the characteristics, behaviour, and reaction, then use if to conclude. A company willing to sell to its target market needs to first study the behaviour of the market.

This may be done by observing how its target reacts to a competitor’s product, then use it to determine their behaviour.

What are the Characteristics of Descriptive Research?  

The characteristics of descriptive research can be highlighted from its definition, applications, data collection methods, and examples. Some characteristics of descriptive research are:

Descriptive research uses a quantitative research method by collecting quantifiable information to be used for statistical analysis of the population sample. This is very common when dealing with research in the physical sciences.

It can also be carried out using the qualitative research method, to properly describe the research problem. This is because descriptive research is more explanatory than exploratory or experimental.

In descriptive research, researchers cannot control the variables like they do in experimental research. 

The results of descriptive research can be further analyzed and used in other research methods. It can also inform the next line of research, including the research method that should be used.

This is because it provides basic information about the research problem, which may give birth to other questions like why a particular thing is the way it is.

Why Use Descriptive Research Design?  

Descriptive research can be used to investigate the background of a research problem and get the required information needed to carry out further research. It is used in multiple ways by different organizations, and especially when getting the required information about their target audience.

It is used to determine the characteristics of the subjects, including their traits, behaviour, opinion, etc. This information may be gathered with the use of surveys, which are shared with the respondents who in this case, are the research subjects.

For example, a survey evaluating the number of hours millennials in a community spends on the internet weekly, will help a service provider make informed business decisions regarding the market potential of the community.

It helps to measure the changes in data over some time through statistical methods. Consider the case of individuals who want to invest in stock markets, so they evaluate the changes in prices of the available stocks to make a decision investment decision.

Brokerage companies are however the ones who carry out the descriptive research process, while individuals can view the data trends and make decisions.

Descriptive research is also used to compare how different demographics respond to certain variables. For example, an organization may study how people with different income levels react to the launch of a new Apple phone.

This kind of research may take a survey that will help determine which group of individuals are purchasing the new Apple phone. Do the low-income earners also purchase the phone, or only the high-income earners do?

Further research using another technique will explain why low-income earners are purchasing the phone even though they can barely afford it. This will help inform strategies that will lure other low-income earners and increase company sales.

When you are not sure about the validity of an existing condition, you can use descriptive research to ascertain the underlying patterns of the research object. This is because descriptive research methods make an in-depth analysis of each variable before making conclusions.

Descriptive research is conducted over some time to ascertain the changes observed at each point in time. The higher the number of times it is conducted, the more authentic the conclusion will be. 

What are the Disadvantages of Descriptive Research?  

Respondents may either decide not to respond to questions or give incorrect responses if they feel the questions are too confidential. When researchers use observational methods, respondents may also decide to behave in a particular manner because they feel they are being watched.

What are the Data Collection Methods in Descriptive Research?  

There are 3 main data collection methods in descriptive research, namely; observational method, case study method, and survey research.

1. Observational Method

The observational method allows researchers to collect data based on their view of the behaviour and characteristics of the respondent, with the respondents themselves not directly having an input. It is often used in market research, psychology, and some other social science research to understand human behaviour.

It is also an important aspect of physical scientific research, with it being one of the most effective methods of conducting descriptive research . This process can be said to be either quantitative or qualitative.

Quantitative observation involved the objective collection of numerical data , whose results can be analyzed using numerical and statistical methods. 

Qualitative observation, on the other hand, involves the monitoring of characteristics and not the measurement of numbers. The researcher makes his observation from a distance, records it, and is used to inform conclusions.

2. Case Study Method

A case study is a sample group (an individual, a group of people, organizations, events, etc.) whose characteristics are used to describe the characteristics of a larger group in which the case study is a subgroup. The information gathered from investigating a case study may be generalized to serve the larger group.

This generalization, may, however, be risky because case studies are not sufficient to make accurate predictions about larger groups. Case studies are a poor case of generalization.

3. Survey Research

This is a very popular data collection method in research designs. In survey research, researchers create a survey or questionnaire and distribute it to respondents who give answers. 

Generally, it is used to obtain quick information directly from the primary source and also conducting rigorous quantitative and qualitative research. In some cases, survey research uses a blend of both qualitative and quantitative strategies.

Survey research can be carried out both online and offline using the following methods

What Are The Differences Between Descriptive and Correlational Research?  

Before going into the differences between descriptive and correlation research, we need to have a proper understanding of what correlation research is about. Therefore, we will be giving a summary of the correlation research below.

Correlational research is a type of descriptive research, which is used to measure the relationship between 2 variables, with the researcher having no control over them. It aims to find whether there is; positive correlation (both variables change in the same direction), negative correlation (the variables change in the opposite direction), or zero correlation (there is no relationship between the variables).

Correlational research may be used in 2 situations;

(i) when trying to find out if there is a relationship between two variables, and

(ii) when a causal relationship is suspected between two variables, but it is impractical or unethical to conduct experimental research that manipulates one of the variables. 

Below are some of the differences between correlational and descriptive research:

Descriptive research aims is a type of research that provides an in-depth understanding of the study population, while correlational research is the type of research that measures the relationship between 2 variables. 

Descriptive research provides descriptive data explaining what the research subject is about, while correlation research explores the relationship between data and not their description.

 Predictions cannot be made in descriptive research while correlation research accommodates the possibility of making predictions.


The uniqueness of descriptive research partly lies in its ability to explore both quantitative and qualitative research methods. Therefore, when conducting descriptive research, researchers have the opportunity to use a wide variety of techniques that aids the research process.

Descriptive research explores research problems in-depth, beyond the surface level thereby giving a detailed description of the research subject. That way, it can aid further research in the field, including other research methods .

It is also very useful in solving real-life problems in various fields of social science, physical science, and education.


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Suppose an apparel brand wants to understand the fashion purchasing trends among New York’s buyers, then it must conduct a demographic survey of the specific region, gather population data, and then conduct descriptive research on this demographic segment. The study will then uncover details on “what is the purchasing pattern of New York buyers,” but will not cover any investigative information about “ why ” the patterns exist. Because for the apparel brand trying to break into this market, understanding the nature of their market is the study’s main goal. Let’s talk about it.

Content Index

What is descriptive research?

Characteristics of descriptive research, applications of descriptive research with examples, advantages of descriptive research, descriptive research methods, examples of descriptive research.

Descriptive research is a research method describing the characteristics of the population or phenomenon studied. This descriptive methodology focuses more on the “what” of the research subject than the “why” of the research subject.

The method primarily focuses on describing the nature of a demographic segment without focusing on “why” a particular phenomenon occurs. In other words, it “describes” the research subject without covering “why” it happens.

Gather research insights

The term descriptive research then refers to research questions, design of the study, and data analysis conducted on that topic. We call it an observational research method because none of the research study variables are influenced in any capacity.

Some distinctive characteristics of descriptive research are:

A descriptive research method can be used in multiple ways and for various reasons. Before getting into any survey , though, the survey goals and survey design are crucial. Despite following these steps, there is no way to know if one will meet the research outcome. How to use descriptive research? To understand the end objective of research goals, below are some ways organizations currently use descriptive research today:

Some of the significant advantages of descriptive research are:

Advantages of descriptive research

There are three distinctive methods to conduct descriptive research. They are:

The observational method is the most effective method to conduct this research, and researchers make use of both quantitative and qualitative observations.

A quantitative observation is the objective collection of data primarily focused on numbers and values. It suggests “associated with, of or depicted in terms of a quantity.” Results of quantitative observation are derived using statistical and numerical analysis methods. It implies observation of any entity associated with a numeric value such as age, shape, weight, volume, scale, etc. For example, the researcher can track if current customers will refer the brand using a simple Net Promoter Score question .

Qualitative observation doesn’t involve measurements or numbers but instead just monitoring characteristics. In this case, the researcher observes the respondents from a distance. Since the respondents are in a comfortable environment, the characteristics observed are natural and effective. In a descriptive research design, the researcher can choose to be either a complete observer, an observer as a participant, a participant as an observer, or a full participant. For example, in a supermarket, a researcher can from afar monitor and track the customers’ selection and purchasing trends. This offers a more in-depth insight into the purchasing experience of the customer.

Case studies involve in-depth research and study of individuals or groups. Case studies lead to a hypothesis and widen a further scope of studying a phenomenon. However, case studies should not be used to determine cause and effect as they can’t make accurate predictions because there could be a bias on the researcher’s part. The other reason why case studies are not a reliable way of conducting descriptive research is that there could be an atypical respondent in the survey. Describing them leads to weak generalizations and moving away from external validity.

In survey research, respondents answer through surveys or questionnaires or polls . They are a popular market research tool to collect feedback from respondents. A study to gather useful data should have the right survey questions. It should be a balanced mix of open-ended questions and close ended-questions . The survey method can be conducted online or offline, making it the go-to option for descriptive research where the sample size is enormous.

Some examples of descriptive research are:

Some other problems and research questions that can lead to descriptive research are:


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    Descriptive case studies describe a phenomenon in detail. They are used to develop an understanding of a complex issue. Explanatory Case Studies. Explanatory

  10. Descriptive Research Design

    The case study method involves the in-depth research of individuals or groups of individuals. Case studies involve gathering detailed data on a narrowly defined

  11. Qualitative Descriptive Research and Case Study Research

    While a qualitative case study implies mostly general analysis of observations and documentation, qualitative descriptive research requires a

  12. What is a descriptive case study?

    A descriptive case study is a study that looks at the background of a person or groups of people and uses a descriptive narrative about how they deal with

  13. Descriptive Research Designs: Types, Examples & Methods

    What are the Data Collection Methods in Descriptive Research? · 1. Observational Method · 2. Case Study Method · 3. Survey Research.

  14. Descriptive Research: Definition, Characteristics, Methods + Examples

    Data collection: A researcher can conduct descriptive research using specific methods like observational method, case study method, and survey method.