UCLA Labor Center

Descriptive Statistics Resources

Putting it all Together

Now that you understand the difference between descriptive statistics and inferential statistics–and how researchers utilize descriptive statistics to describe data collected–we can conclude that a descriptive study is utilized to identify patterns, trends, and causal links.  To clarify, data for a descriptive study is collected without changing the environment (i.e., there is no manipulation of quantitative data or a conducting of an experiment).  

Descriptive studies can also be referred to as “correlational” (aka causal links) or “observational” (aka quantitative descriptive summaries). However, just because your descriptive summary is quantitative based, it does not mean that descriptive study researchers are removed from working with participants of the study or organizations.  Descriptive studies are also an advocacy tool and can for example, provide information about naturally occurring health status of a particular group. In summary, descriptive studies  can illustrate relationships that in turn help facilitate interventions for communities.  

Types of Descriptive Studies

  • Cross-sectional study, Transversal Study, and/or Prevalene Study- is a type of observational study in which the researchers collects data from a population.  This data represents a sample of the population and the data is collected at one specific point in time.

  • Longitudinal study- Is also an observational research method in which data is gathered from the same subjects (sample) repeatedly over time.  The process of collecting longitudinal research can extend over years and even decades, depending on the objective of the study.  

Descriptive studies are particularly useful in describing current phenomenons/issues and are oftentimes the first step in quantitative research, laying the foundation for inferential statistics studies (answering the “what is”), whereby a researcher can then manipulate data and conduct experiments to test quantitative hypothesis (answering the “how” or “why”).  In addition, descriptive studies also serve as a foundation for qualitative research, whereby a researcher can use descriptive statistics to provide context and then utilize qualitative methodologies to further understand the respective issue or phenomena (also answering the “how” or “why”). 

Descriptive Statistics in Action

The studies below illustrate the aforementioned descriptive methodologies and demonstrate how cross-sectional studies and longitudinal studies can be utilized to develop equitable interventions.


The California Endowment’s #Health4All campaign highlights the important contributions of undocumented Californians to our state’s communities and economy, while raising awareness of their lack of access to affordable health care coverage. Though the Affordable Care Act has expanded access to healthcare for millions of Californians, over 1 million undocumented Californians will remain uninsured. Undocumented Californians are students, mothers, fathers, neighbors and community members. Illness affects everyone, and a person’s place of birth shouldn’t determine if they can or cannot receive necessary medical treatment. That’s why The California Endowment’s #Health4All campaign is helping to drive a dialogue to move our healthcare system to one that is inclusive of ALL Californians.  View the video to see how the researchers incorporate data into their campaign:

#Health4All utilized data from the California Simulation of Insurance Markets to develop their campaign, you can download the policy report here.

Lucia, L., Dietz, M., Jacobs, K., Chen, X, & Kominski, G. F. (2015). Which Californians will Lack Health Insurance under the Affordable Care Act? Berkeley, CA: Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

In this policy report, the authors use the UC Berkeley-UCLA California Simulation of Insurance Markets (CalSIM) model to make projections about how individuals and firms decide about health insurance. This study is in response to the passage of the Affordable Care Act.  The simulation projected that up to half of Californians who lack health insurance are undocumented immigrants. Other individuals who are eligible for health insurance but will not enroll for health insurance  because the difficult enrollment process, affordability concerns, and immigration-related worries. These individuals are projected to be Latina/o, have limited English Proficiency, or are low-income. This study is helpful in keeping the communities who will still be uninsured into the affordable healthcare insurance conversation, which can help shape the policy implementation of the act.

Mapping Police Brutality

Amid grief and outrage over the killings of two unarmed African Americans in Chicago, a year-end report from the Mapping Police Violence research project says police nationwide killed at least 1,152 people in 2015. In 14 cities, every single police victim was African-American. And across the country, police killings had little correlation with crime rates and population size. Democracy now discuss the findings with Sam Sinyangwe, a statistician who worked on the Mapping Police Violence project:


Click here to access the Mapping Police Brutality Project

Click here to access how descriptive data was generated into different types of graphs and charts

Click here to download a peer reviewed study about racial bias and police killings