Exploratory Research | Definition, Guide, & Examples
Exploratory research is a methodology approach that investigates research questions that have not previously been studied in depth.
Exploratory research is often qualitative in nature. However, a study with a large sample conducted in an exploratory manner can be quantitative as well. It is also often referred to as interpretive research or a grounded theory approach due to its flexible and open-ended nature.
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When to use exploratory research
Exploratory research is often used when the issue you’re studying is new or when the data collection process is challenging for some reason.
You can use this type of research if you have a general idea or a specific question that you want to study but there is no preexisting knowledge or paradigm with which to study it.
Exploratory research questions
Exploratory research questions are designed to help you understand more about a particular topic of interest. They can help you connect ideas to understand the groundwork of your analysis without adding any preconceived notions or assumptions yet.
Here are some examples:
- What effect does using a digital notebook have on the attention span of middle schoolers?
- What factors influence mental health in undergraduates?
- What outcomes are associated with an authoritative parenting style?
- In what ways does the presence of a non-native accent affect intelligibility?
- How can the use of a grocery delivery service reduce food waste in single-person households?
Exploratory research data collection
Collecting information on a previously unexplored topic can be challenging. Exploratory research can help you narrow down your topic and formulate a clear hypothesis, as well as giving you the “lay of the land” on your topic.
Data collection using exploratory research is often divided into primary and secondary research methods, with data analysis following the same model.
In primary research, your data is collected directly from primary sources: your participants. There is a variety of ways to collect primary data.
Some examples include:
- Survey methodology: Sending a survey out to the student body asking them if they would eat vegan meals
- Focus groups: Compiling groups of 8–10 students and discussing what they think of vegan options for dining hall food
- Interviews: Interviewing students entering and exiting the dining hall, asking if they would eat vegan meals
In secondary research, your data is collected from preexisting primary research, such as experiments or surveys.
Some other examples include:
- Case studies: Health of an all-vegan diet
- Literature reviews: Preexisting research about students’ eating habits and how they have changed over time
- Online polls, surveys, blog posts, or interviews; social media: Have other schools done something similar?
For some subjects, it’s possible to use large-n government data, such as the decennial census or yearly American Community Survey (ACS) open-source data.
Step-by-step example of exploratory research
How you proceed with your exploratory research design depends on the research method you choose to collect your data. In most cases, you will follow five steps.
We’ll walk you through the steps using the following example.
Step 1: Identify your problem
The first step in conducting exploratory research is identifying what the problem is and whether this type of research is the right avenue for you to pursue. Remember that exploratory research is most advantageous when you are investigating a previously unexplored problem.
Step 2: Hypothesize a solution
The next step is to come up with a solution to the problem you’re investigating. Formulate a hypothetical statement to guide your research.
Step 3. Design your methodology
Next, conceptualize your data collection and data analysis methods and write them up in a research design.
Step 4: Collect and analyze data
Next, you proceed with collecting and analyzing your data so you can determine whether your preliminary results are in line with your hypothesis.
In most types of research, you should formulate your hypotheses a priori and refrain from changing them due to the increased risk of Type I errors and data integrity issues. However, in exploratory research, you are allowed to change your hypothesis based on your findings, since you are exploring a previously unexplained phenomenon that could have many explanations.
Step 5: Avenues for future research
Decide if you would like to continue studying your topic. If so, it is likely that you will need to change to another type of research. As exploratory research is often qualitative in nature, you may need to conduct quantitative research with a larger sample size to achieve more generalizable results.
Exploratory vs. explanatory research
It can be easy to confuse exploratory research with explanatory research. To understand the relationship, it can help to remember that exploratory research lays the groundwork for later explanatory research.
Exploratory research investigates research questions that have not been studied in depth. The preliminary results often lay the groundwork for future analysis.
Explanatory research questions tend to start with “why” or “how”, and the goal is to explain why or how a previously studied phenomenon takes place.
Advantages and disadvantages of exploratory research
Like any other research design, exploratory studies have their trade-offs: they provide a unique set of benefits but also come with downsides.
- It can be very helpful in narrowing down a challenging or nebulous problem that has not been previously studied.
- It can serve as a great guide for future research, whether your own or another researcher’s. With new and challenging research problems, adding to the body of research in the early stages can be very fulfilling.
- It is very flexible, cost-effective, and open-ended. You are free to proceed however you think is best.
- It usually lacks conclusive results, and results can be biased or subjective due to a lack of preexisting knowledge on your topic.
- It’s typically not externally valid and generalizable, and it suffers from many of the challenges of qualitative research.
- Since you are not operating within an existing research paradigm, this type of research can be very labor-intensive.
Frequently asked questions about exploratory research
- What is exploratory research?
- What’s the difference between exploratory and explanatory research?
- When should I use exploratory research?
You can use exploratory research if you have a general idea or a specific question that you want to study but there is no preexisting knowledge or paradigm with which to study it.
- What’s the difference between quantitative and qualitative methods?