Category Archives: Descriptive research

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: