Category Archives: Descriptive research

Primer on Research Design: Part 1-Description

A research design is the investigator-chosen, overarching study framework that facilitates getting the most accurate answer to a hypothesis or question. Think of research design as similar to the framing of a house during construction. Just as house-framing provides structure and limits to walls, floors, and ceilings, so does a research design provide structure and limits to a host of protocol details.

Tip. The two major categories of research design are: 1) Non-experimental, observation only and 2) Experimental testing of an intervention.


Non-experimental studies that examine one variable at a time.

When little is known and no theory exists on a topic, descriptive research begins to build theory by identifying and defining key, related concepts (variables). Although a descriptive study may explore several variables, only one of those is measured at a time; there is no examination of relationships between variables. Descriptive studies create a picture of what exists by analyzing quantitative or qualitative

data to answer questions like, “What is [variable x]?” or “How often does it occur?” Examples of such one-variable questions are “What are the experiences of first-time fathers?” or “How many falls occur in the emergency room?” (Variables are in italics.)  The former question produces qualitative data, and the latter, quantitative.

Descriptive results raise important questions for further study, and findings are rarely generalizable. You can see this especially in a descriptive case study: an in-depth exploration of a single event or phenomena that is limited to a particular time and place. Given case study limitations, opinions differ on whether they even qualify as research.

Descriptive research that arises from constructivist or advocacy assumptions merits particular attention. In these designs, researchers collect in-depth qualitative information about only one variable and then critically reflect on that data in order to uncover emerging themes or theories. Often broad data are collected in a natural setting in which researchers exercise little control over other variables. Sample size is not pre-determined, data collection and analysis are concurrent, and the researcher collects and analyzes data until no new ideas emerge (data saturation). The most basic qualitative descriptive method is perhaps content analysis, sometimes called narrative descriptive analysis, in which researchers uncover themes within informant descriptions. Figure 4 identifies major qualitative traditions beyond content analysis and case studies.

Alert! All qualitative studies are descriptive, but not all descriptive studies are qualitative.

Box 1. Descriptive Qualitative Designs

DesignFocusDiscipline of Origin
EthnographyUncovers phenomena within a given culture, such as meanings, communications, and mores.Anthropology
Grounded TheoryIdentifies a  basic social problem and the process that participants use to confront it.Sociology
PhenomenologyDocuments the “lived experience” of informants going through a particular event or situation.Psychology
Community participatory actionSeeks positive social change and empowerment of an oppressed community by engaging them in every step of the research process.Marxist political theory
FeministSeeks positive social change and empowerment of women as an oppressed group.Marxist political theory

Research: What it is and isn’t


Research is using the scientific process to ask and answer questions by examining new or existing data for patterns. The data are measurements of variables of interest. The simplest definition of a variable is that it is something that varies, such as height, income, or country of origin. For example, a researcher might be interested in collecting data on triceps skin fold thickness to assess the nutritional status of preschool children. Skin fold thickness will vary.

Research is often categorized in different ways in terms of: data, design, broad aims, and logic.

Qualitative Data
  • Design. Study design is the overall plan for conducting a research study, and there are three basic designs: descriptive, correlational, and experimental.
    1. Descriptive research attempts to answer the question, “What exists?” It tells us what the situation is, but it cannot explain why things are the way they are. e.g., How much money do nurses make?
    2. Correlational research answers the question: “What is the relationship” between variables (e.g., age and attitudes toward work). It cannot explain why those variables are or are not related. e.g., relationship between nurse caring and patient satisfaction
    3. Experimental research tries to answer “Why” question by examining cause and effect connections. e.g., gum chewing after surgery speeds return of bowel function. Gum chewing is a potential cause or “the why”
  • Aims. Studies, too, may be either applied research or basic research. Applied research is when the overall purpose of the research is to uncover knowledge that may be immediately used in practice (e.g., whether a scheduled postpartum quiet time facilitates breastfeeding). In contrast, basic research is when the new knowledge has no immediate application (e.g., identifying receptors on a cell wall).
  • Logic. Study logic may be inductive or deductive. Inductive reasoning is used in qualitative research; it starts with specific bits of information and moves toward generalizations [e.g., This patient’s pain is reduced after listening to music (specific); that means that music listening reduces all patients pain (general)]. Deductive reasoning is typical of quantitative research; it starts with generalizations and moves toward specifics [e.g., If listening to music relaxes people (general), then it may reduce post-operative pain (specific)]. Of course the logical conclusions in each case should be tested with research!


Research as a scientific process is not going to the library or searching online to find information. It is also different from processes of applying research and non-research evidence to practice (called Evidence-Based Practice or EBP). And it is not the same as Quality Improvement (QI). See Two Roads Diverged for a flowchart to help differentiate research, QI and EBP.

reposting: dispelling the nice or naughty myth–retrospective observational study of santa claus

Check out this re-post of my Christmas-y blog: