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“Comparative research” is a phrase that characterizes one of the three mostly commonly used scientific methods. Other common types include descriptive and experimental research.

Comparative research is rather like a combination (or hybrid) of descriptive and experimental research. As in descriptive research, in comparative research your teacher will ask you to systematically observe and carefully describe the observable and/or measurable characteristics of an object, event, or system. Unlike in descriptive research, however, in comparative research your teacher will ask you to systematically observe and carefully describe these observable and/or measurable characteristics at two (or more) different times and/or in two (or more) different locations, organisms, or groups.

In this way, comparative research is similar to experimental research, which also aims to alter–or manipulate–some aspect of the conditions in which the objects, events, or systems occur, unfold, or reside. Unlike in experimental research, however, in comparative research the scientist does not subject any of the objects, events, or systems to an experimental treatment. In other words, the objects, events, or systems under consideration are all allowed to exist each in somewhat ‘natural’ settings and/or in relatively ‘typical’ situations.

Comparative research does not answer questions about “how,” “when,” or “why” similarities and differences exist between objects, events, or systems. Rather, it addresses a “what” question–for example, What are the observable and/or measurable similarities and differences between ant 1 and ant 2? Star A and star B? A pond in both summer and winter? This means that, like descriptive investigations, comparative investigations are first and foremost exploratory. In other words, they are used when little is known about a topic. However, since comparative investigations often lead to the generation of hypotheses and predictions, which can then be tested by experimental research, comparative research is also considered generative.

Like descriptive investigations, comparative investigations typically involve the systematic observation and detailed descriptions of objects, organisms, populations, instances, situations, or phenomena in such a way that the descriptions could be replicated by other scientists. To be systematic means that comparative investigations must be characterized by both rigor and consistency. Your science teacher will talk with you in more detail about these two important terms–rigor and consistency–during your comparative investigations.

To learn more about descriptive research, you can visit the excellent Visionlearning site, but if you’d rather begin trying to master some of the key skills and sensibilities needed to do comparative research well, then proceed directly to the exercises.

Last updated: July 2019