If we have decided, once the literature review has been done, that our research is worthwhile and we must do it, the next step is to visualize the scope it will have. Scopes should not be considered as “types” of research because, rather than a classification, they constitute a continuum of “causality” that a study can have. This reflection is important, because the scope of the study depends on the research strategy.
Thus, the design, procedures and other components of the process will be different in studies of exploratory, descriptive, correlational or explanatory scope. But in practice, any research can include elements from more than one of these four areas. Exploratory studies serve to prepare the ground and are usually prior to research with descriptive, correlational or explanatory scope. Descriptive studies are usually the basis of correlational research. This in turn provides information for explanatory studies that generate a sense of understanding and are highly structured. Research in a specific field of knowledge may include different scopes at different stages of its development.
How can we start our research?
It is possible for an investigation to be initiated as exploratory. It can then be descriptive and correlational and end up as explanatory. However, the question necessarily arises: what does it depend on whether our study is initiated as exploratory, descriptive, correlational or explanatory?
The answer is not simple. We will say that it depends fundamentally on two factors: the state of knowledge about the research problem, shown by the literature review, as well as the perspective that is intended to give the study. But before delving into this answer, it is necessary to talk about each of the scopes of the research.
What are exploratory scope studies?
Exploratory studies are conducted when the objective is to examine a research topic or problem that is poorly studied, that presents many doubts or that has not been addressed before. That is, when the literature review reveals that there are only guides and ideas not investigated and vaguely related to the study problem. It is also used if you want to investigate issues and areas from new perspectives (Anfara and Mertz, 2015).
Such would be the case for researchers who intend to analyze unknown or novel phenomena. It can be a newly occurring disease, a catastrophe that has occurred in a place where there has never been a disaster. Another example may be the concerns arising from the decipherment of the human genetic code and the cloning of living beings. It can also be a new property observed in the black holes of the Universe, the emergence of a totally innovative means of communication or the vision of a historical fact transformed by the discovery of evidence that was previously hidden.
The increase in life expectancy beyond 100 years, the future population that will inhabit the Moon, the global warming of the Earth to unsuspected levels, profound changes in the conception of marriage or the ideology of a religion, would be facts that would generate much exploratory research.
What is the first thing we should do?
Exploratory studies are like taking a trip to an unknown site, of which we have not seen any documentaries or read any books, but simply someone made a brief comment about the place. When you arrive, we don’t know what attractions to visit, what museums to go to, where you eat well, what people are like. In other words, we ignore much of the site. The first thing we do is explore. We must ask about what to do and where to go to the taxi driver or the bus driver who will take us to the hotel where we will stay. In addition, we must ask who attends us at the reception, the waiter, the bartender of the hotel and, in a way, how many people we see friendly.
Of course, if we do not look for information about the place and it exists, we lose the opportunity to save money and a lot of time. In this way, we can see a not so pleasant and money-intensive show, while we miss a fascinating and cheaper one. Of course, in the case of scientific research, an inadequate review of the literature brings more negative consequences than the simple frustration of spending on something that ultimately dispers us.
Exploratory studies are used to familiarize ourselves with relatively unknown phenomena, to obtain information about the possibility of conducting more complete research on a specific context, to investigate new problems, to identify promising concepts or variables, to prioritize future research or to suggest claims and postulates. These types of studies are common in research, especially in situations where there is little information.
Such was the case with Sigmund Freud’s early research, which arose from the idea that hysteria problems were related to sexual difficulties. Likewise, the pioneering studies on AIDS, ivan Pavlov’s initial experiments on conditioned reflexes and inhibitions, the content analysis of the first music videos. Other examples include Elton Mayo’s investigations at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant, studies of terrorism following the attacks on New York’s Twin Towers in 2001, among other events.
Exploratory studies rarely constitute something in themselves, they usually determine trends, identify areas, environments, contexts and study situations, possible relationships between variables. They can also set the “tone” for more elaborate and rigorous subsequent research. These investigations are characterized by being more flexible in their method compared to descriptive, correlational or explanatory, and are broader and more dispersed. They also involve greater “risk” and require great patience, serenity and receptivity on the part of the researcher.
What are descriptive studies?
Often, the researcher’s goal is to describe phenomena, situations, contexts, and events. That is, to detail what they are and manifest. Descriptive studies seek to specify the properties, characteristics and profiles of people, groups, communities, processes, objects or any other phenomenon that is subjected to analysis. They only intend to measure or collect information independently or jointly about the concepts or variables with which they relate. Their goal is not to indicate how they relate (Saldaña, 2015).
How we can describe the results
For example, an organizational researcher who aims to describe several industrial companies in Lima, in terms of their complexity, technology, size, centralization and capacity for innovation. It measures these variables and through its results will describe:
1) What degree of horizontal (subdivision of tasks), vertical (number of hierarchical levels) and spatial (number of workplaces) differentiation, as well as the number of objectives that companies have defined (complexity).
2) What degree of automation they have (technology).
3) how many people work in them (size).
4) What degree of freedom in decision-making the different levels have and how many of them have access to decision-making (centralization of decisions).
(5) The extent to which working methods or machinery are modernized or changed (capacity for innovation). However, the researcher does not intend to analyze with his study whether companies with more automated technology are the ones that tend to be more complex (relate technology to complexity) or tell us if the capacity for innovation is greater in less centralized companies (correlate the capacity for innovation with centralization).
The same goes for the clinical psychologist who must describe an individual’s personality. It will be limited to measuring it in its differentdimensions (hypochondria, depression, hysteria, masculinity-femininity, social introversion, etc.), to later be able to describe it. He is not interested in analyzing whether the increase in depression is associated with greater social introversion. On the other hand, if it established relationships between dimensions or associated personality with the aggressiveness of the individual, its study would be basically correlational and not descriptive.
Just as exploratory studies serve primarily to discover and foreshadow, descriptive studies are useful for accurately showing the angles or dimensions of a phenomenon, event, community, context, or situation.
In this type of study the researcher must be able to define, or at least visualize, what is to be measured (what concepts, variables, components, etc.) and on what or who the data will be collected (people, groups, communities, objects, animals, facts, etc.). For example, if we are going to measure variables in schools, it is necessary to indicate what types of these we will have to include (public, private, administered by religious, lay, of a certain pedagogical orientation, of one gender or another, mixed, etc.). If we are going to collect data on stone materials, we must point out which ones. The description can be profound, although in any case it is based on the measurement of one or more attributes of the phenomenon of interest.
What are correlational scope studies?
Correlational studies aim to answer research questions such as the following: does the patient’s self-esteem increase as psychotherapy towards him progresses? Is there a difference between the performance of high-tech computer companies and the return of the shares of companies belonging to other lower-tech businesses on the Buenos Aires stock exchange, do peasants who adopt an innovation more quickly have greater cosmopolitanism than peasants who adopt it later?
This type of study aims to understand the relationship or the degree of association that exists between two or more concepts, categories or variables in a context. Sometimes only the relationship between two variables is analyzed, but often relationships between three, four or more variables are studied. Correlational studies, in assessing the degree of association between two or more variables, measure each of them (supposedly related) and then quantify and analyze the link. These correlations are based on the hypotheses being tested.
For example, a researcher who wants to analyze the association between work motivation and productivity, say, in several industrial companies with more than a thousand workers in the city of Santa Fe in Bogotá, Colombia, would measure the motivation and productivity of individuals, and then analyze whether or not the most motivated workers are the most productive. It is important to note that, in most cases, the measurements of the variables to be correlated come from the participants themselves. It is not common to correlate measurements of one variable made in particular people with measurements of another variable made in indifferent people. Thus, to establish the relationship between motivation and productivity, it would not be valid to correlate motivation measurements in Colombian workers with productivity measurements in Peruvian workers.
The main utility of correlational studies is to know how a concept or variable can behave when understanding the behavior of other linked variables. That is, try to predict the approximate value that a group of individuals or cases will have in a variable, depending on the value they have in the related variable(s) (Hartley, 1994). A perhaps simple example, but one that helps to understand the predictive purpose of correlational studies, would be to associate the study time for an exam with the grade obtained in it.
What if the variables are not correlated
Thus, in a group of students, it is measured how much each one dedicates to study for the exam and also obtains their grades (measures of the other variable). It is then determined whether the two variables are related, which means that one varies when the other also does. The correlation can be positive or negative. If positive, it means that students with high values in one variable will also tend to show high values in the other variable. If negative, it means that subjects with high values in one variable will tend to show low values in the other. For example, those who studied longer for the statistical examination would tend to get a lower grade.
If there is no correlation between the variables, this tells us that they fluctuate without following a systematic pattern between them. In this way, there will be students who have high values in one of the two variables and low in the other, subjects who have high values in one variable and high in the other, students with low values in one and low in the other, and students with medium values in the two variables.
What if the variables are correlated
In the example above, there will be those who spend a lot of time studying for the exam and get high grades, but also those who spend a lot of time and get low grades. There will be others who spend little time and get good grades, but also those who spend little and do poorly on the exam.
If two variables are correlated and the magnitude of the association is known, there are bases to predict, with greater or lesser accuracy, the approximate value that a group of people will have in one variable, knowing what value they have in the other. The correlational studies differ from the descriptive ones mainly in that, while the latter focus on accurately measuring the individual variables (some of which can be measured independently in the same research), the former evaluate, with the greatest possible precision, the degree of linkage between two or more variables, being able to include several pairs of evaluations of this nature in the same research (commonly more than one correl is included ation).
Correlational research has, to some extent, an explanatory value, even if it is partial, since knowing that two concepts or variables are related provides some explanatory information. For example, if vocabulary acquisition by a group of children of a certain age (say three to five years old) is related to exposure to an educational television program. That fact provides some degree of explanation for how children acquire some concepts.
Also, if the similarity of the couple values of certain Guatemalan indigenous communities is related to the likelihood that they will marry, this information helps us explain why some of these couples marry and others do not. The greater the number of variables associated in the study and the greater the strength of their relationships, the more complete the explanation. In the example of the decision to marry, if it is found that, in addition to the similarity, the variables are also related: time to meet, relationship of the families of the bride and groom, occupation of the groom, physical attractiveness and traditionalism, the degree of explanation of the decision to marry will be greater. In addition, if we add more variables related to that decision, the explanation will be more complete.
It happens that two variables are apparently related, but that is not actually the case. This is known in the field of research as spurious correlation.
Suppose we conduct research with children, whose ages range from eight to twelve years, in order to analyze which variables are related to intelligence and measure it through IQ tests. Suppose also that the following tendency occurs: the greater the height, the greater the intelligence; that physically taller children tend to score higher on the IQ test, compared to children of smaller stature.
These results would not make sense. We could not say that height is correlated with intelligence, even if the results of the study indicated so. This is the case with the following: maturation is associated with responses to an intelligence test. Thus, 12-year-olds (on average taller) have developed more cognitive skills to respond to the test (comprehension, association, retention, etc.) than 11-year-olds. These, in turn, have developed them to a greater extent than those of 10 years, and so on until reaching those of 8 years (on average those of smaller stature), who have less skills than others to respond to the intelligence test. We are dealing with a spurious correlation, the “explanation of which” is not only partial, but wrong. Explanatory research would be needed to know how and why the variables are supposedly related.
What are explanatory scope studies?
Explanatory studies go beyond the description of concepts or phenomena or the establishment of relationships between concepts. That is, they aim to answer for the causes of physical or social events and phenomena. As the name suggests, its interest is to explain why a phenomenon occurs and under what conditions it manifests itself, or why two or more variables are related.
For example, publicizing the intentions of the electorate is a descriptive activity (indicating, according to an opinion poll before the elections, how many people “will” vote for the candidates in question is a descriptive study) and relating those intentions to concepts such as the age and sex of the voters or the magnitude of the propaganda effort made by the parties to which the candidates belong (correlational study). It is different from pointing out why someone should vote for one candidate and others for others (explanatory study).
Again making an analogy with the example of the psychoanalyst and his patients, an explanatory study would be similar to the doctor talking about why Ana and Luis are carried as they are carried (not how they are carried, which would correspond to a correlational level). Assuming that their marriage got it “well” and that the relationship was perceived by both of them as satisfactory, the doctor would explain why this is the case. In addition, I would explain why they do certain activities and spend some time together.
Degree of structuring of explanatory studies
Explanatory research is more structured than studies with other scopes. In fact, they involve the purposes of these (exploration, description and correlation or association). In addition to providing a sense of understanding of the phenomenon to which they refer.
Can the same research include different scopes?
Sometimes research can be characterized as basically exploratory, descriptive, correlational or explanatory, but not placed solely as such.
That is, even if a study is essentially exploratory, it will contain descriptive elements. Or, a correlational study will include descriptive components, and the same goes for the other scopes. It should also be remembered that it is possible for an investigation to start as exploratory or descriptive and then become correlational and even explanatory. For example, a researcher thinking about a study to determine why certain people (from a certain country) evade taxes. Its initial objective would be explanatory.
However, the researcher, when reviewing the literature, does not find any antecedent that applies to its context (the references were generated in very different nations from the socio-economic point of view, of the tax legislation, of the mentality of the inhabitants, etc.). Then you should begin to explore the phenomenon, through some interviews with staff working in the Ministry of Taxation (or its equivalent), taxpayers (originators) and university professors who teach on tax issues, and then generate data on the levels of tax evasion.
He later describes the phenomenon more accurately and associates it with several variables: it correlates the degree of tax evasion with the level of income (do those who earn more evade taxes to a greater or lesser extent?), the profession (are there differences in the degree of tax evasion between doctors, engineers, lawyers, communicators, psychologists, etc.?), the age (the older there will be less tax evasion?). Finally, he goes on to explain why people evade taxes (causes of tax evasion) and who evades the most. The study begins as exploratory, and then is descriptive, correlational and explanatory (it cannot be located only in one of the above types).
What does it depend on whether an investigation is initiated as exploratory, descriptive, correlational or explanatory?
As mentioned above, there are two main factors that influence whether a research is initiated as exploratory, descriptive, correlational or explanatory:
a) The current knowledge of the research topic revealed by the literature review.
b) The perspective that the researcher intends to give to his study.
Current knowledge of the research topic
According to Howell (2013), this factor points to three possibilities of influence.
First, the literature may reveal that there is no background on the topic in question or that they are not applicable to the context in which the study is to be conducted, so the research should be initiated as exploratory
If the literature reveals uneded guides and ideas that are not linked to the research problem, the situation is similar. That is, the study would start as exploratory. For example, if we want to carry out an investigation into the use of drugs in certain prisons and we want to know: to what extent they occur … drugs, how they are introduced into prisons …, who is involved in their distribution …, etc., but we find that there is no background and we do not have a clear and precise idea about the phenomenon, the study would be initiated as exploratory.
Second, the literature can reveal that there are “chunks” of theory with moderate empirical support.
That is, descriptive studies that have detected and defined certain variables and generalizations. In these cases, our research can be initiated as descriptive or correlational, since certain variables have been discovered on which to base the study. It is also possible to add variables to be measured.
If we think about describing the use of television by a specific group of children, we will find research that suggests variables to take into account: time they spend daily watching television, content they watch more often, activities they do while watching television, etc. To these we can add others, such as parental control over children’s use of television. The study will be correlated when the background provides us with generalizations that link variables (hypotheses) on which to work, for example: the higher the socioeconomic level, the less time spent watching television.
Thirdly, the literature can reveal to us that there are one or more theories that apply to our research problem.
In these cases, the study can be initiated as explanatory. If we want to evaluate why certain executives are more intrinsically motivated towards their work than others, when reviewing the literature we will find the theory of the relationship between the characteristics of work and intrinsic motivation, which has empirical evidence from various contexts. Then we will think about conducting a study to explain the phenomenon in our context.
The perspective given to the study
On the other hand, the meaning or perspective that the researcher gives to your study will determine how to start it. If you think about conducting research on a topic already studied, but want to give it a different meaning, the study can be initiated as exploratory. In this way, leadership has been investigated in a wide variety of contexts and situations (in organizations of different sizes and characteristics, with line workers, managers, supervisors, etc.; teaching-learning process; in various movements and in many more environments).
Prisons have also been studied as a form of organization. However, it may be intended to investigate to analyze the characteristics of women leaders in prisons or inmates of the city of San José, Costa Rica, as well as the factors that make them exercise that leadership. The study would be initiated as exploratory, if there is no developed background on the reasons for this phenomenon (leadership).
Which of the four scopes for a study is best?
The authors have heard this question from the students, and the answer is very simple: everyone. The three areas of the quantitative research process are equally valid and important and have contributed to the advancement of the different sciences. Each has its own objectives and its raison d’être. In this sense, a student should not worry about whether their study will be or will begin being exploratory, descriptive, correlational or explanatory, but should be interested in doing well and contribute to the knowledge of a phenomenon.
Whether the investigation is of one kind or another, or includes elements of one or more of them, depends on how the investigation problem is approached and the background. The investigation must be done “tailored” to the problem that arises; because it is not said a priori: “I am going to do an exploratory or descriptive study”, but first the problem is raised and the literature is reviewed and then it is analyzed whether the research will have one or the other scope.
What happens to the problem approach when the scope of the study is defined?
After the literature review, the approach to the problem may remain unchanged, radically modified or undergo some adjustments. The same is true once we have defined the scope or scope of our research.
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Anfara, V. A., Mertz, N. T. (2015). Theoretical frameworks in qualitative research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Hartley, J. F. (1994). Case studies in organizational research. In Cassell, C., Symon, G. (Eds.), Qualitative methods in organizational research: A practical guide (pp. 209–229). London, England: Sage.
Howell, K. H. (2013). An introduction to the philosophy of methodology. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Saldaña, J. (2015). Thinking qualitatively: Methods of mind. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
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