There are several differences between descriptive research and experimental research that are important for anyone conducting research or reading the research of others to understand. Descriptive research, while easier to do, is less suited to explaining a connection between two variables. Experimental research is often seen as more important, but is harder to conduct for several reasons.

Causal Relationship

The most important difference between descriptive research and experimental research is the relationship that can be proven between two variables. In descriptive research, all that can be proven is a correlation. Descriptive research can show a link between two events--a country's average saturated fat consumption and that same country's rate of heart disease, for instance--but not how that relationship actually works, which is an example of something experimental research could be used to demonstrate.


Another key difference between descriptive research and experimental research is the design process. A descriptive research project is fairly straightforward to design, but when designing an experimental project, many additional things have to be considered. Most experimental research, for example, depends on manipulating an independent variable to observe its effect on the dependent variable, but many other incidental variables have to be controlled and accounted for, or the results could be inaccurate or tainted.

Data Source

Descriptive research is primarily concerned with taking available data and trying to tease some insight out of that data using statistical analysis. Experimental researchers will often do this same sort of analysis, the difference being that they are also collecting the data. There is a key difference, then, in where the data of an experiment comes from. Descriptive research will sometimes incorporate the raw data collected from other previous experimental research.

Field of Study

Another important difference between descriptive research and experimental research is the fields of study where the two are commonly used. Both descriptive and experimental research are used throughout the sciences, for instance, but in many of the social sciences primarily descriptive research is used. Many social sciences, like Political Science or Sociology for example, concern themselves with societal issues, and it would not be practical to, for instance, run an experiment on which political ideology resulted in a better run country. Psychology, however, is one example of a social science focused more on individuals, where experimental research is often used.