Chapter 3: Developing a Research Question

3.2 Exploration, Description, Explanation

As you can see, there is much to think about and many decisions to be made as you begin to define your research question and your research project. Something else you will need to consider in the early stages is whether your research will be exploratory, descriptive, or explanatory. Each of these types of research has a different aim or purpose, consequently, how you design your research project will be determined in part by this decision. In the following paragraphs we will look at these three types of research.

Exploratory research

Researchers conducting exploratory research are typically at the early stages of examining their topics. These sorts of projects are usually conducted when a researcher wants to test the feasibility of conducting a more extensive study; he or she wants to figure out the lay of the land with respect to the particular topic. Perhaps very little prior research has been conducted on this subject. If this is the case, a researcher may wish to do some exploratory work to learn what method to use in collecting data, how best to approach research participants, or even what sorts of questions are reasonable to ask. A researcher wanting to simply satisfy his or her own curiosity about a topic could also conduct exploratory research. Conducting exploratory research on a topic is often a necessary first step, both to satisfy researcher curiosity about the subject and to better understand the phenomenon and the research participants in order to design a larger, subsequent study. See Table 2.1 for examples.

Descriptive research

Sometimes the goal of research is to describe or define a particular phenomenon. In this case, descriptive research would be an appropriate strategy. A descriptive may, for example, aim to describe a pattern. For example, researchers often collect information to describe something for the benefit of the general public. Market researchers rely on descriptive research to tell them what consumers think of their products. In fact, descriptive research has many useful applications, and you probably rely on findings from descriptive research without even being aware that that is what you are doing. See Table 3.1 for examples.

Explanatory research

The third type of research, explanatory research, seeks to answer “why” questions. In this case, the researcher is trying to identify the causes and effects of whatever phenomenon is being studied. An explanatory study of college students’ addictions to their electronic gadgets, for example, might aim to understand why students become addicted. Does it have anything to do with their family histories? Does it have anything to do with their other extracurricular hobbies and activities? Does it have anything to do with the people with whom they spend their time? An explanatory study could answer these kinds of questions. See Table 3.1 for examples.

Table 3.1 Exploratory, descriptive and explanatory research differences (Adapted from Adjei, n.d.).

Exploratory Research Descriptive Research Explanatory Research
Degree of Problem


Key variables not define Key variables not define Key variables not define
Researchable issue example “The quality of service is declining and we don’t know why.” “What have been the trends in organizational downsizing over the past ten years?” “Which of two training programs is more effective for reducing labour turnover?
Researchable issue example “Would people be interested in our new product idea? “Did last year’s product recall have an impact on our company’s share price?” “Can I predict the value of energy stocks if I know the current dividends and growth rates of dividends?”
Researchable issue example “How important is business process reengineering as a strategy? “Has the average merger rate for financial institutions increased in the past decade?” “Do buyers prefer our product in a new package?”