Advantages & Disadvantages of Descriptive Research

Advantages and Disadvantages of Descriptive Research

The following module provides an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of using descriptive research.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the advantages and benefits of using descriptive research methods
  • Describe the disadvantages and limitations of using descriptive research methods


Before considering the advantages and disadvantages of descriptive research, it is helpful to review descriptive research and the terms associated with it, as well as be introduced to a discussion of the most commonly discussed advantages and disadvantages.  The Slideshare presentation below, Descriptive Research Methodologies, recaps the basics types of descriptive methods, but also includes a discussion of benefits and limitations. It primarily focuses on the use of descriptive research in educational settings, however the basic principles can be applied across disciplines.


Many of the benefits and limitations of the specific descriptive research methods have been alluded to in previous modules in this series.  Following is a summary regarding both the advantages and the disadvantages of using descriptive research methodology in general.

Benefits and Advantages

  • Subjects or participants are observed in a natural and unchanged environment. An example would be an anthropologist who wants to study a tribe without interfering with their normal activities or behaviors.
  • Descriptive research may be a pre-cursor to future research because it can be helpful in identifying variables that can be tested. A researcher may be looking at the health outcomes for the children of low income families living in a particular neighborhood.  The finding may point the researcher to specific variables that may be impacting health that warrant further study.
  • The data collection allows for gathering in-depth information that may be either quantitative (surveys) or qualitative (observations or case studies) in nature. This allows for a multifaceted approach to data collection and analysis.
  • Descriptive studies result in rich data that is collected in large amounts.
  • Surveys can be used by companies and organizations to study in beliefs, attitudes, behaviors and habits of members of a target audience, company or other organization.

Limitations and Disadvantages

  • Participants or subjects may not be truthful or may not behave naturally when they know they are being observed.
  • Descriptive studies cannot be used to correlate variables or determine cause and effect.
  • Confidentiality can be an issue.
  • Researcher bias may play a role in many ways. For example, the choice and wording of questions for the questionnaire may be influenced the bias of the researcher. The researcher may also make subjective choice about which information to record and emphasize in the findings.
  • No variables are manipulated, therefore statistical analysis is not possible. Because of this, some scientists regard descriptive studies as unreliable and unscientific.
  • The results are not repeatable and typically the study cannot be replicated.
  • Findings may be open to interpretation.

Advantages and disadvantages specific to the three basic types of descriptive research were covered in more detail in each of those modules in this series.


Suggested Readings

  • Bernard, H. R., & Bernard, H. R. (2012). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Sage.
  • Creswell, J. W. (2013). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage publications.
  • Gall, M. D., Borg, W. R., & Gall, J. P. (1996). Educational research: An introduction . Longman Publishing.
  • Grimes, D. A., & Schulz, K. F. (2002). Descriptive studies: what they can and cannot do. The Lancet, 359(9301), 145-149.
  • Knupfer, N. N., & McLellan, H. (1996). Descriptive research methodologies. Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, 1196-1212.
  • Mertens, D. M. (1998). Research methods in education and psychology: Integrating diversity with quantitative & qualitative approaches.
  • Neuman, W. L., & Neuman, W. L. (2006). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches.
  • Punch, K. F. (2013). Introduction to social research: Quantitative and qualitative approaches. Sage.
  • Rosenthal, R., & Rosnow, R. L. (1991). Essentials of behavioral research: Methods and data analysis. McGraw-Hill Humanities Social.

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