A great deal of social research is conducted to explore a topic or familiarize oneself with a topic. This typically occurs when a researcher becomes interested in a new topic or when the subject of study itself is relatively new. Often times, exploratory research is done through the use of focus groups or small group discussions, which are frequently used in market research.
Exploratory studies are typically done for three purposes: to satisfy the researcher’s curiosity and desire for better understanding, to test the feasibility of undertaking a more extensive study, and to develop the methods to be employed in any subsequent studies.
Exploratory studies can be extremely valuable in social research. They are essential when a researcher is breaking new ground and they typically yield new insights into a topic for research. They are also a source for grounded theory.
Exploratory studies do have a few downsides, however. The main shortcoming is that they rarely provide satisfactory answers to research questions, although they can hint at the answers and provide direction as to which research methods could provide definitive answers. The reason why exploratory studies themselves are rarely definitive is because the people studied in exploratory research may not be typical of the larger population of interest. That is, the sample is likely not a representative one.
Another major purpose of social research is to describe situations and events. The researcher observes and then describes what he or she observed. One great example of descriptive social research is the U.S. Census. The goal of the census is to describe accurately and precisely several characteristics of the U.S. population, including race/ethnicity, age, sex, household size, income, etc.
Other examples of descriptive social research studies include the calculation of crime rates for various cities, the computation of age-gender profiles of populations by demographers, and a product-marketing survey that describes who uses, or would use, a certain product.
Many qualitative studies set out with the primary goal of description. For example, an ethnography might try to detail the culture of a particular society. At the same time, however, such studies are rarely purely descriptive purposed. Researchers usually go on to examine why the observed patterns exist and what the implications are.
A third major purpose of social research is to explain things. While descriptive studies attempt to answer the what, when, where, and how, explanatory studies attempt to answer the why. For example, reporting the crime rates of different cities is descriptive. Identifying the variables that explain why some cities have higher crime rates than others involves explanation. Likewise, reporting the frequency of church attendance is descriptive, but reporting why some people attend church while others don’t is explanatory.
While there are three distinct purposes of social science research, most studies will have elements of all three. For example, suppose a researcher sets out to evaluate the effectiveness of a new form of psychotherapy. The study will have exploratory aspects as he or she explores possible relevant variables and their effects on the therapy. The researcher will also likely want to describe things such as recovery rate. In addition, he or she will likely want to explain why the new form of therapy works better for some types of people or problems than others.
Babbie, E. (2001). The Practice of Social Research: 9th Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson.