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Research Methods in the Social Sciences

Exploratory Design*

Definition and Purpose

An exploratory design is conducted about a research problem when there are few or no earlier studies to refer to. The focus is on gaining insights and familiarity for later investigation or undertaken when problems are in a preliminary stage of investigation.

The goals of exploratory research are intended to produce the following possible insights:

  • Familiarity with basic details, settings and concerns.
  • Well grounded picture of the situation being developed.
  • Generation of new ideas and assumption, development of tentative theories or hypotheses.
  • Determination about whether a study is feasible in the future.
  • Issues get refined for more systematic investigation and formulation of new research questions.
  • Direction for future research and techniques get developed.

What do these studies tell you?

  1. Design is a useful approach for gaining background information on a particular topic.
  2. Exploratory research is flexible and can address research questions of all types (what, why, how).
  3. Provides an opportunity to define new terms and clarify existing concepts.
  4. Exploratory research is often used to generate formal hypotheses and develop more precise research problems.
  5. Exploratory studies help establish research priorities.

What these studies don't tell you?

  1. Exploratory research generally utilizes small sample sizes and, thus, findings are typically not generalizable to the population at large.
  2. The exploratory nature of the research inhibits an ability to make definitive conclusions about the findings.
  3. The research process underpinning exploratory studies is flexible but often unstructured, leading to only tentative results that have limited value in decision-making.
  4. Design lacks rigorous standards applied to methods of data gathering and analysis because one of the areas for exploration could be to determine what method or methodologies could best fit the research problem.


Sample Exploratory Studies