Types of Descriptive Studies

In this article two types, or methods, of study are considered separately to facilitate the discussion on the design of descriptive studies, the case method and the statistical method. The separation is required because analysis of results is approached differently in the two instances.

Case Method: case studies are more appropriate to exploratory research than descriptive. They are not widely used in descriptive research, but they are worth some comment in the descriptive context and perhaps should be used more than they have to be in the past.

When the case method is used in exploratory research, the purpose is to discover new ideas about relationships which are then tested by conclusive research. In many instances however, case studies are the last formal research undertaken. If any conclusions are drawn from the case studies, the testing of these conclusions occurs only as they are out into practice. The distinction between the case method in exploratory research and the case method in descriptive research, then, is largely a distinction based on the inability of the results. If further testing is planned, the work is exploratory. The procedure in either instance is much the same except that more flexibility is maintained in exploratory work. In descriptive research, the procedure may be more formalized, so that the points to be investigated are definitely known, and analysis can approach the quantitative used with the statistical method.

Statistical Method: The statistical method is the most widely used method in marketing research and is the method usually implied when a survey is referred to. The name comes from the statistical techniques that are used in analyzing the data collected – techniques that vary from simple means and percentages to very sophisticated techniques that require computers to manipulate the data. It should be kept in mind that the data are descriptive data such as how often potato chips are purchased, does the family own a microwave oven, or was the personal computer software bought by mail or at a retail store.

The statistical method differs from the case method in the number of cases studied and in the comprehensiveness of the study of each case. While the case method involves in-depth study of a few cases, the statistical method involves the study of a few factors in a larger number of cases. As more cases are involved, the statistical method must use different methods of analysis – methods designed for mass data. Instead of comparing individual cases by analogy, the statistical method ceases to identify individual cases and focuses instead on classes, average, percentages, measures of dispersion, and more sophisticated statistical procedures.

The term statistical method is unfortunate as it suggests that other types of studies do not use statistical techniques, which is not true. The term is used widely in social research, and no better term has been found to describe the method. The term survey is normally used to denote what is called statistical method, but survey is also used to denote all methods of collecting data by interviewing and is used with latter connotation here.

Use of Statistical Method: More marketing research studies are done by the statistical method than by any other. Data may be collected for statistical studies by observation or by interviewing. Data compiled in the accounting department showing sales by type of customer or by geographical area provide an example of the statistical method. Surveys to find the occupations of persons buying personal computers, or identify the extent of use of cable TV, or to measure the increase in telephone bills after the breakup of AT&T are also examples of the statistical method.

Concrete illustration will help clarify the nature of these statistical studies. In the early 1980s, Sears entered the credit card market with its Discover card in competition with Visa and Master Card. Sears’s goal was to have 10 to12 million Discover card accounts by the end of a particular year and the statistical studies conducted were to ascertain the feasibility of achieving the target.