7.1 Types of research

Learning Objectives

  • Differentiate among exploratory, descriptive, and explanatory research studies


A recent news story on college students’ addictions to electronic gadgets (Lisk, 2011) [1] describes current research findings from Professor Susan Moeller and colleagues from the University of Maryland (http://withoutmedia.wordpress.com). The story raises a number of interesting questions. Just what sorts of gadgets are students addicted to? How do these addictions work? Why do they exist, and who is most likely to experience them?

Social science research is great for answering these types of questions, but to answer them thoroughly, we must take care in designing our research projects. In this chapter, we’ll discuss what aspects of a research project should be considered at the beginning, including specifying the goals of the research, the components that are common across most research projects, and a few other considerations.


the word "design" in black letters with some sharpened pencils underneath

When designing a research project, you should first consider what you hope to accomplish by conducting the research. What do you hope to be able to say about your topic? Do you hope to gain a deep understanding of the phenomenon you’re studying, or would you rather have a broad, but perhaps less deep, understanding? Do you want your research to be used by policymakers or others to shape social life, or is this project more about exploring your curiosities? Your answers to each of these questions will shape your research design.

Exploration, description, and explanation

In the beginning phases, you’ll need to decide whether your research will be exploratory, descriptive, or explanatory. Each has a different purpose, so how you design your research project will be determined in part by this decision.

Researchers conducting exploratory research are typically in 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 and 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 subjects, or even what sorts of questions are reasonable to ask. A researcher wanting to simply satisfy their curiosity about a topic could also conduct exploratory research. For example, an exploratory study may be a suitable step toward understanding the relatively new phenomenon of college students’ addictions to their electronic gadgets.

It is important to note that exploratory designs do not make sense for topic areas with a lot of existing research. For example, it would not make much sense to conduct an exploratory study on common interventions for parents who neglect their children because the topic has already been extensive study in this area. Exploratory questions are best suited to topics that have not been studied. Students may justify an exploratory approach to their project by claiming that there is very little literature on their topic. Most of the time, the student simply needs more direction on where to search, however each semester a few topics are chosen for which there actually is a lack of literature. Perhaps there would be less available literature if a student set out to study child neglect interventions for parents who identify as transgender or parents who are refugees from the Syrian civil war. In that case, an exploratory design would make sense as there is less literature to guide your study.

Another purpose of research is to describe or define a particular phenomenon, termed descriptive research. For example, a social work researcher may want to understand what it means to be a first-generation college student or a resident in a psychiatric group home. In this case, descriptive research would be an appropriate strategy. A descriptive study of college students’ addictions to their electronic gadgets, for example, might aim to describe patterns in how many hours students use gadgets or which sorts of gadgets students tend to use most regularly.

Researchers at the Princeton Review conduct descriptive research each year when they set out to provide students and their parents with information about colleges and universities around the United States. They describe the social life at a school, the cost of admission, and student-to-faculty ratios among other defining aspects. Although students and parents may be able to obtain much of this information on their own, having access to the data gathered by a team of researchers is much more convenient and less time consuming.


three people writing on a clear board with post-it notes, planning something

Social workers often rely on descriptive research to tell them about their service area. Keeping track of the number of children receiving foster care services, their demographic makeup (e.g., race, gender), and length of time in care are excellent examples of descriptive research. On a macro-level, the Centers for Disease Control provides a remarkable amount of descriptive research on mental and physical health conditions. In fact, descriptive research has many useful applications, and you probably rely on findings from descriptive research without even being aware.

Finally, social work researchers often aim to explain why particular phenomena work in the way that they do. Research that answers “why” questions is referred to as explanatory research. In this case, the researcher is trying to identify the causes and effects of whatever phenomenon they are studying. An explanatory study of college students’ addictions to their electronic gadgets might aim to understand why students become addicted. Does the addiction have anything to do with their family histories, extracurricular hobbies and activities, or with whom they spend their time? An explanatory study could answer these kinds of questions.

There are numerous examples of explanatory social scientific investigations. For example, the recent work of Dominique Simons and Sandy Wurtele (2010) [2] sought to discover whether receiving corporal punishment from parents led children to turn to violence in solving their interpersonal conflicts with other children. In their study of 102 families with children between the ages of 3 and 7, the researchers found that experiencing frequent spanking did, in fact, result in children being more likely to accept aggressive problem-solving techniques. Another example of explanatory research can be seen in Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee’s (2011) [3] research study on the connections between popularity and bullying. From their study of 8th, 9th, and 10th graders in 19 North Carolina schools, they found that aggression increased as adolescents’ popularity increased. [4]

The choice between descriptive, exploratory, and explanatory research should be made with your research question in mind. What does your question ask? Are you trying to learn the basics about a new area, establish a clear “why” relationship, or define or describe an activity or concept? In the next section, we will explore how each type of research is associated with different methods, paradigms, and forms of logic.


Key Takeaways

  • Exploratory research is usually conducted when a researcher has just begun an investigation and wishes to understand the topic generally.
  • Descriptive research aims to describe or define the topic at hand.
  • Explanatory research is aims to explain why particular phenomena work in the way that they do.



Descriptive research– describes or defines a particular phenomenon

Explanatory research– explains why particular phenomena work in the way that they do, answers “why” questions

Exploratory research– conducted during the early stages of a project, usually when a researcher wants to test the feasibility of conducting a more extensive study


Image attributions

Pencil by kaboompics CC-0

Two men and one woman in a photo by Rawpixel.com CC-0


  1. Lisk, J. (2011). Addiction to our electronic gadgets. Retrieved from:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lVHZZG5qvw
  2. Simons, D. A., & Wurtele, S. K. (2010). Relationships between parents’ use of corporal punishment and their children’s endorsement of spanking and hitting other children. Child Abuse & Neglect, 34, 639–646.
  3. Faris, R., & Felmlee, D. (2011). Status struggles: Network centrality and gender segregation in same- and cross-gender aggression. American Sociological Review, 76, 48–73. The study has also been covered by several media outlets: Pappas, S. (2011). Popularity increases aggression in kids, study finds. Retrieved from: http://www.livescience.com/11737-popularity-increases-aggression-kids-study-finds.html
  4. This pattern was found until adolescents reached the top 2% in the popularity ranks. After that, aggression declines.


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Scientific Inquiry in Social Work Copyright © 2018 by Matthew DeCarlo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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