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What is explanatory research?

Last updated

12 June 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

The search for knowledge and understanding never stops in the field of research. Researchers are always finding new techniques to help analyze and make sense of the world. Explanatory research is one such technique. It provides a new perspective on various areas of study.

So, what exactly is explanatory research? This article will provide an in-depth overview of everything you need to know about explanatory research and its purpose. You’ll also get to know the different types of explanatory research and how they’re conducted.

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Explanatory research: definition

Explanatory research is a technique used to gain a deeper understanding of the underlying reasons for, causes of, and relationships behind a particular phenomenon that has yet to be extensively studied.

Researchers use this method to understand why and how a particular phenomenon occurs the way it does. Since there is limited information regarding the phenomenon being studied, it’s up to the researcher to develop fresh ideas and collect more data.

Explanatory research tests new theories and establishes cause-and-effect relationships between different study variables. It usually involves several data collection methods, including surveys, interviews, experiments, and observation.

The results and conclusions drawn from explanatory research give researchers a deeper understanding and help predict future occurrences.

Descriptive research vs. explanatory research

Descriptive research aims to define or summarize an event or population without explaining why it exists. It focuses on acquiring and conveying facts.

On the other hand, explanatory research aims to explain why a phenomenon occurs by working to understand the causes and correlations between variables.

Unlike descriptive research, which focuses on providing descriptions and characteristics of a given phenomenon, explanatory research goes a step further to explain different mechanisms and the reasons behind them. Explanatory research is never concerned with producing new knowledge or solving problems. Instead, it aims to explain why and how something happens.

Exploratory research vs. explanatory research

Explanatory research explains why specific phenomena function as they do. Meanwhile, exploratory research examines and investigates an issue that is not clearly defined. Both methods are crucial for problem analysis.

Researchers use exploratory research at the outset to discover new ideas, concepts, and opportunities. Once exploratory research has identified a potential area of interest or problem, researchers employ explanatory research to delve further into the specific subject matter.

Researchers employ the explanatory research technique when they want to explain why and how something occurs in a certain way. Researchers who employ this approach usually have an outcome in mind, and carrying it out is their top priority.

When to use explanatory research

Explanatory research may be helpful in the following situations:

  • When testing a theoretical model: explanatory research can help researchers develop a theory. It can provide sufficient evidence to validate or refine existing theories based on the available data.

  • When establishing causality: this research method can determine the cause-and-effect relationships between study variables and determine which variable influences the predicted outcome most. Explanatory research explores all the factors that lead to a certain outcome or phenomenon.

  • When making informed decisions: the results and conclusions drawn from explanatory research can provide a basis for informed decision-making. It can be helpful in different industries and sectors. For example, entrepreneurs in the business sector can use explanatory research to implement informed marketing strategies to increase sales and generate more revenue.

  • When addressing research gaps: a research gap is an unresolved problem or unanswered question due to inadequate research in that space. Researchers can use explanatory research to gather information about a certain phenomenon and fill research gaps. It also enables researchers to answer previously unanswered questions and explain different mechanisms that haven’t yet been studied.

  • When conducting program evaluation: researchers can also use the technique to determine the effectiveness of a particular program and identify all the factors that are likely to contribute to its success or failure.

Types of explanatory research

Here are the different types of explanatory research:

  • Case study research: this method involves the in-depth analysis of a given individual, company, organization, or event. It allows researchers to study individuals or organizations that have faced the same situation. This way, they can determine what worked for them and what didn’t.

  • Experimental research: this involves manipulating independent variables and observing how they affect dependent variables. This method allows researchers to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between different variables.

  • Quasi-experimental research: this type of research is quite similar to experimental research, but it lacks complete control over variables. It’s best suited to situations where manipulating certain variables is difficult or impossible.

  • Correlational research: this involves identifying underlying relationships between two or more variables without manipulating them. It determines the strength and direction of the relationship between different variables.

  • Historical research: this method involves studying past events to gain a better understanding of their causes and effects. It’s mostly used in fields like history and sociology.

  • Survey research: this type of explanatory research involves collecting data using a set of structured questionnaires or interviews given to a representative sample of participants. It helps researchers gather information about individuals’ attitudes, opinions, and behaviors toward certain phenomena.

  • Observational research: this involves directly observing and recording people in their natural setting, like the home, the office, or a shop. By studying their actions, needs, and challenges, researchers can gain valuable insights into their behavior, preferences, and pain points. This results in explanatory conclusions.

How to conduct explanatory research

Take the following steps when conducting explanatory research:

Develop the research question

The first step is to familiarize yourself with the topic you’re interested in and clearly articulate your specific goals. This will help you define the research question you want to answer or the problem you want to solve. Doing this will guide your research and ensure you collect the right data.

Formulate a hypothesis

The next step is to formulate a hypothesis that will address your expectations. Some researchers find that literature material has already covered their topic in the past. If this is the case with you, you can use such material as the main foundation of your hypothesis. However, if it doesn’t exist, you must formulate a hypothesis based on your own instincts or literature material on closely related topics.

Select the research type

Choose an appropriate research type based on your research questions, available resources, and timeline. Consider the level of control you need over the variables.

Next, design and develop instruments such as surveys, interview guides, or observation guidelines to gather relevant data.

Collect the data

Collecting data involves implementing the research instruments and gathering information from a representative sample of your target audience. Ensure proper data collection protocol, ethical considerations, and appropriate documentation for the data you collect.

Analyze the data

Once you have collected the data you need for your research, you’ll need to organize, code, and interpret it.

Use appropriate analytical methods, such as statistical analysis or thematic coding, to uncover patterns, relationships, and explanations that address your research goals and questions. You may have to suggest or conduct further research based on the results to elaborate on certain areas.

Communicate the results

Finally, communicate your results to relevant stakeholders, such as team members, clients, or other involved partners. Present your insights clearly and concisely through reports, slides, or visualizations. Provide actionable recommendations and avenues for future research.

Examples of explanatory research

Here are some real-life examples of explanatory research:

Understanding what causes high crime rates in big cities

Law enforcement organizations use explanatory research to pinpoint what causes high crime rates in particular cities. They gather information about various influencing factors, such as gang involvement, drug misuse, family structures, and firearm availability.

They then use regression analysis to examine the data further to understand the factors contributing to the high crime rates.

Factors that influence students’ academic performance

Educators and stakeholders in the Department of Education use questionnaires and interviews to gather data on factors that affect academic performance. These factors include parental engagement, learning styles, motivation, teaching quality, and peer pressure.

The data is used to ascertain how these variables affect students’ academic performance.

Examining what causes economic disparity in certain areas

Researchers use correlational and experimental research approaches to gather information on variables like education levels, household income, and employment rates. They use the information to examine the causes of economic disparity in certain regions.

Advantages of explanatory research

Here are some of the benefits you can expect from explanatory research:

  • Deeper understanding: the technique helps fill research gaps in previous studies by explaining the reasons, causes, and relationships behind particular behaviors or phenomena.

  • Competitive edge: by understanding the underlying factors that drive customer satisfaction and behavior, companies can create more engaging products and desirable services.

  • Predictable capabilities: it helps researchers and teams make predictions regarding certain phenomena like user behavior or future iterations of product features.

  • Informed decision-making: explanatory research generates insights that can help individuals make informed decisions in various sectors.

Disadvantages of explanatory research

Explanatory research is a great approach for better understanding various phenomena, but it has some limitations.

  • It’s time-consuming: explanatory research can be a time-consuming process, requiring careful planning, data collection, analysis, and interpretation. The technique might extend your timeline.

  • It’s resource intensive: explanatory research often requires a significant allocation of resources, including financial, human, and technological. This could pose challenges for organizations with limited budgets or constraints.

  • You have limited control over real-world factors: this type of research often takes place in controlled environments. Researchers may find this limits their ability to capture real-world complexities and variables that influence a particular behavior or phenomenon.

  • Depth and breadth are difficult to balance: explanatory research mainly focuses on a narrow hypothesis, which can limit the scope of the research and prevent researchers from understanding a problem more broadly.

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