Research decisions are generally guided by one of these three standard goals. Sometimes a study may function with multiple goals.
Time, skills and funds are required to conduct an in-depth explanatory study, which seeks to understand “why” something occurs, as opposed to the more exploratory or descriptive “how” approach. Pitched at the high-stakes level of testing a theory such as social learning theory as it pertains to a new phenomenon or finding fundamentally new ways to explain a relationship, this goal is usually outside the reach of most novice researchers. Explanatory studies often come after descriptive and exploratory studies have set the stage for a more involved investigation. Here is Neuman’s (2009) list of explanatory purposes:
- Test a theory’s predictions or principles
- Elaborate and enrich a theory’s explanation
- Extend a theory to new issues or topics
- Support or refute an explanation or prediction
- Link issues or topics with a general principle
- Determine which of several explanations is best (p. 15)
The intent of most exploratory studies is to improve understanding or pilot a measurement scale or a new way of examining phenomena. Exploratory research involves relatively simple designs. Using samples that are usually small and non-representative, the findings are usually suggestive and revealing as opposed to generalizable and significant.
According to Neuman (2009), some purposes of exploratory research are to:
- Become familiar with the basic facts, setting and concerns
- Create a general mental picture of conditions
- Formulate and focus questions for future research
- Generate new ideas, conjectures or hypotheses
- Determine the feasibility of conducting research
- Develop techniques for measuring and locating future data (p. 15)
Most social research is descriptive in orientation. It is best known for its rich, detailed, accurate accounts of how individuals, groups, organizations and entire societies live, learn or work. The aim is to provide a neutral report that is accurate and full of detail.
Much of the emphasis is on advancing existing scholarship on the topic, especially for conceptual and philosophical debates. Descriptive goals have close affinities with most post-secondary level analytic essays.
According to Neuman (2009), typical purposes for descriptive research are to:
- Provide a detailed, highly accurate picture
- Locate new data that contradict past data
- Create a set of categories or classify types
- Clarify a sequence of steps or stages
- Document a causal process or mechanism
- Report on the background or context of a situation (p. 15)