Exploratory research; definition; methodology; methods; characteristics; examples and advantages

1.1 Definition

Exploratory research is a type of research Classified under “purpose of research” and it is the systematic act of investigating, interrogating or looking for new knowledge in an area which is new. It is an in-depth inquiry to unearth some facts pertaining a particular new phenomenon or issue of concern.


Exploratory type of research is also referred to as formulative research for the researcher aims at discovering new ideas or new conceptual issues so as to build further on that matter. It is common research where the area the researcher is venturing in is new or is not familiar with. A good example of exploratory research applies when we are writing an academic paper, which entails putting efforts to discover the new domain. In other words, it is research conducted to discover the nature of the research problem and it tries to answer questions of "what is this social phenomenon all about? At the end of it all, the objectives to be achieved are familiarity on the subject matter, understanding the bigger picture of the prevailing circumstances, get theoretical foundations and the general idea of the study. For exploratory research, the researcher may use different sources of information such as experience surveys, secondary data analysis, case studies and pilot studies.

Exploratory research methodology


2.1 Definition

Exploratory Research Methodology is the logical process or step by step road map on how to solve a research problem in a new area of study.

Exploratory Research methodology involves choosing a logical procedure on the topic to be studied. That is the research problem, how specific objectives and research hypotheses of the study will be identified/or formulated. Identification of knowledge gaps to be filled, the methods used in identification of the study population and sample size determination, type of data to be collected and how it will be collected and analyzed, data presentation and interpretations thereof and the reporting of the research findings.

The aforementioned description /definition on exploratory research methodology is in tandem to the argument of (Kothari, 1984) who posited that whenever we talk of research methodology, we not only talk of the research methods but also the logic behind the methods we use in the context of our research study. This justifies why one uses a particular method or technique at a particular stage and no other methods so as to make it possible for the researcher himself or others to evaluate the research results.


2.1.1 Questions Exploratory Research Methodology tries to Answer

Exploratory research methodology answers the following questions;

Why a research study has been undertaken,

How the research problem has been defined,

Which way and why the hypothesis has been formulated,

What data have been collected and

What particular method has been adopted?

Why a particular technique of analyzing data has been used and a spectrum of related other enquiries are usually answered.



The following matrix in Table 1.1 portrays the link between Exploratory type of research and the type of research methodology adopted and then an explanation of the logical approach associated with this category and then in the last column, the research method(s) used in formulating the research problem.

2.1.2 Exploratory Research Methodology-Diagrammatic Approach

The following diagram represented by Figure 1.1 is a summary of logical roadmap to be adhered to in exploratory research methodology.

2.2 Logical Steps; Exploratory Research Methodology

The following logical steps describe the exploratory research methodology. From step one to eight, it represents a logical way of how systematically the matter at hand need to be dealt with. Remember that in this approach, the area is a new one and the researcher is after discovering new ideas or concepts.



2.2.1 Step One; Identification of Area of Interest

This is the first step in exploratory research where by the researcher is venturing in a new area where no much knowledge is in the public domain. Now the concern of the researcher is to focus on area of interest. Once he/she narrows to that specific perspective, he/she will ask himself or herself the following questions;


Q1. Do I really have any specific interest in a certain TOPICAL field such as Finance, psychology, Biology and History where I have more knowledge in?

Q2. What are the Thematic issues in this specific topic?

Q3. Am I motivated on some specific aspects in this domain?

Q4. Which specific variables are dominant in this area and are they measurable or observable?

Q5. Is there past theoretical and empirical literature that address those specific variables identified in Q4?

Q6. Am I motivated on some specific aspects in this domain?

If the answer is YES, then he/she goes to Q7

Q7. Which specific variables are dominant in this area and are they measurable or observable?

NB: Remember that step one is part of research methodology which is a logical process. 


2.2.2 Step Two; Define the Research Problem

Exploratory research like any other type of research cannot be undertaken successfully without clearly identifying the research problem. In this step, the researcher will consider research methods such as descriptive, correlational, cause-comparative or experimental so as to formulate the research problem. That is, the researcher will consider how the variables are defined to see if there exists any researchable area. For instance, the “how” an activity is carried out. For instance, online teaching especially during Covid-19 Pandemic period. The research question will be “Has teaching online been done before and how was it done”. This is the key question the researcher aims to answer.


Further, the researcher can also look at whether there is any correlation of variables of interest. For instance, whether the methods used to teach research is related to the time duration taken by a student to accomplish his or her Master program. On the other hand, if the researcher is carrying out an experiment, he or she wants to discover any cause-effect link.

So, this step is only meant to formulate the research problem and it is not a do or die step for if the problem seems to drift otherwise, the study can be altered to be more relevant.


2.2.3 Step Three; Choose Research Method

In this step, the researcher is concerned with how to collect data relevant to guide him or her whether there exists any link of descriptive, correlational, cause-comparative or experimental or a certain pattern of variable movement.

The appropriate data collection methods used to affirm the research problem at hand include and not limited to;

Focus groups,

Secondary research based on past literature

Expert surveys

Open ended questions

Note that these methods are flexible hence can aid in collecting the right information. Therefore, either of them can be adopted.


 2.2.4 Step Four; Collect Relevant Data

Step four is subjective for it is upon the researcher to assess the best philosophy to adopt. It is at the discretion of the researcher to select the most suitable data so as to ensure data collected is a true representation of the population. But first of all, let us remind ourselves of this term research philosophy. What is it and what does it entail?


Definition: Research philosophy refers to a structure/set of beliefs or views and assumptions on how acquisition and development of new knowledge is undertaken (Saunders, 2006).

This means that to get new information, we need to consider what you refer to as your belief on best way of collecting new information. This calls for incorporation of the best research philosophy.

There are basically four key philosophies used in research which include and not limited to;

- Positivism



-Critical Realism  


Generally, research philosophy gives guidelines on the best way to collect new knowledge, and the research methodology to be used in a study. This implies that choice of right philosophy will translate to appropriate knowledge collected that will provide data for correct analysis and correct interpretation of relations between and/or amongst variables in a study. Otherwise, if this is not considered, the results gotten may be insignificant.

NB: Refer to the topic on research philosophy to confirm the advocacy of each philosophy.

2.2.5 Step Five; Define & Re-define the Research Problem

In this stage, the researcher will re-define the research problem to look more relevant to what the researcher in aiming at. Remember that by nature, exploratory research involves talking with others who may have more information about what you would like to learn. The outcome thereof may make one tilt the research problem. Let me use a simple example to demonstrate this point.



Suppose the researcher feels that the link between X and Z is of correlation nature according to his/her initial suggestion. Now, after further exploring on the two variables using the appropriate philosophy, he realizes that the link is of causal-effect relationship. Then the research problem will be revised towards causal-effect relationship and not as earlier suggested by the researcher. You see this is a new area and no prior knowledge is known by the researcher.

2.2.6 Step Six; Establish Research Findings

With the new data, the researcher establishes the research findings. These findings may not lead to a formal conclusion, but that does not mean results aren’t of value. The groups conducted or the surveys carried out will provide the researcher with feedback which can be reviewed for accuracy, viability, and topically relevant information in order to be incorporated into existing body of knowledge.


For instance, the research findings may depict that there is a research problem of a certain nature such as existence of a gap between the needs of the consumers of a particular product and the distribution methods adopted which may have resulted to the unpopularity of the product amongst the users. This is a case of causal-research association.

2.2.7 Step Seven; Interpretation of Research Findings

Research is technical to many people and once data is collected and analyzed; the interpretation thereof can be problematic if one is not conversant with the approach to use to internalize the inner meaning of the research output(s). Once analysis of data is complete, the research findings are supposed to be properly interpreted and the findings be well tackled so as to be in a position to communicate to the audience. You should know that any wrong interpretation of the output will translate to no effective communication to the end users of the research findings and this will render the research endeavors futile. Interpretation of research findings is done by use of computer programs such as e-Views, R, C, STATA, SPSS and excel.

It should be noted that the research findings should be in line with the specific objectives and where the specific objective is not fulfilled or achieved as hypothesized by the researcher, then this should form part of areas of further studies in the future.

2.2.8 Step Eight; Report Writing

Based on the research findings gotten in step seven, the researcher should prepare a report on the extent to which the research problem has been solved and the recommendations to be undertaken by the concerned parties. If the research was being conducted on behalf of the management of a particular organization, then the management, then the researcher needs to advise the client according to the research findings. In the report, he/she should also portray generally the contribution of the research as pertains, policy, theory and practice. 

Exploratory research data collection methods

Research methods are all the techniques that are utilized in all the stages of research processes. They are tools used to ensure the end results of research task are accomplished. These techniques vary from one stage of research process to another. These methods are further classified in to two categories, namely;

  1. a) Pre-Data analysis methods
  2. b) Data Analysis related methods


As per Table 1.1 in this article, the exploratory research methods indicated in that table (refer), namely; Descriptive, Correlational, Cause-comparative and Experimental methods are for the purposes of formulating the research problem and are some of the methods which fall under pre-data analysis category.  However, in this discussion of exploratory research, we will focus first on the TWO main methods of data collection which are also pre-data analysis in nature. That is: Primary and secondary Data Collection Affiliated Methods. 

3.1 Primary Data Collection Affiliated Methods


These are methods under exploratory research which are qualitative in nature and the conclusions about the characteristics of the respondents is inferred. They are further elaborated as follows;

3.1.1 Observation Data Collection Method

It is an approach of collecting data under exploratory research in a more direct manner whereby the researcher physically watches a behavior being portrayed. This is a common approach in behavioral science. The researcher observes things as they happen live without directly asking the respondent to give an opinion. This method is more objective for this method is independent of respondents’ willingness to reply and as such is relatively less demanding of active collaboration on the part of respondents as it is in the case of interview or the questionnaire method.



  1. Simple to apply-one uses his or her body parts such as the eyes. With a little bit of coaching, one can collect data required
  2. Objectivity level is high-no biasness from the side of the respondent for there is no room to give his or her opinion on a subject matter.
  3. Accurate-this method directly collect data on a live event so chances of capturing the correct information or data is very high.
  4. Universally accepted-it is anonymously accepted by many researchers for its reliability and validity characteristics



  1. Not applicable in all cases. For instance, it is not ethical to collect data of one undergoing main operation in hospital theatre.
  2. Uncertainty of the event being observed. That is, the researcher will find it a little bit inconveniencing to do the right timing for the exact time when the event occurs is not known. For instance, frequency of depositing cash in the bank by the business owner due to security logistics.
  3. Portraying of the wrong information by the respondent-when the respondent knows that he or she is being observed, there is high chances of portraying the wrong information for that is human nature. For example, if the researcher wants to learn the reading habits of students in a class. If he or she appears there in person, every student will pretend to be busy hence wrong conclusion is made.



3.1.2 Interview Data Collection Method

This method under exploratory research involves one on one interaction between the researcher (i.e., interviewer) and the respondent (i.e., the interviewee). The researcher presents him or herself to the respondent to engage on some issues of concern that are being studied. The predetermined questions used to unearth information required is structured. Sometimes the questions again may be unstructured.

Interviews can be either be;


Personal interviews- this method involves a person known as the interviewer asking questions generally in a face-to-face contact to the other individual or individuals known as interviewee.

Telephone interviews: This method involves engagement of the respondent through a telephone call. This is common with media houses. This method plays important part in industrial surveys, particularly in developed nations.



  1. High flexibility to both interviewers and the interviewees for the questions can be revised to be more appreciative.
  2. Spontaneous response from the respondents hence being assured of response rate being high as compared to use of questionnaires.
  3. The interviewer has an opportunity to read and record data pertaining the body language in addition to the verbal response. This aids in ensuring that the information collected is holistic.
  4. Locale convenience, that is the interviewer can decide the place for an interview in a reserved and conducive place, unlike the ones conducted through mails which can have a totally diverse atmosphere.
  5. The interviewer can have control over the order in which each question will follow one another and not the necessarily the initial arrangement unlike in the case of a questionnaire. The researcher can also judge the spontaneity of the respondent as well.



  1. Time consuming interviews take a lot of time for the researcher has to prepare and avail himself to where the interviewee is and again take time to allow him/her to respond to the questions comfortably.
  2. Costly for financial budget may escalate when funding the logistics of this type of data collection.
  3. Biasness for this method of data collection can be adversely influenced by the interviewer’s concerns in some demographics such as race, class, age or physical appearance.



3.1.3 Interview Schedule Data Collection Method

Interview Schedule under exploratory research is the instrument utilized by the researcher to collect data from the respondents as one interrogates the person. The schedule is composed of either questions or statements or both with blank spaces to be filled by the researcher. So, what happens is that the researcher asks the questions and as the respondent answers, the researcher puts the responses in the schedule. The schedule acts as a general guide on how the questions should flow to make it more official.

Schedules exist in threefold format, namely; rating schedules, documents schedules, survey schedules and observation schedules.

Rating Schedules applies where a positive or negative opinion is expected from the respondent pertaining a particular phenomenon.  

Documents Schedules applies where the respondent answers the questions based on historical data found in past records which are documented. The researcher has to avail the records to aid the respondent to bank on them.

Survey Schedules are similar to questionnaires but they contain fewer questions. They apply where there is no much information to be gotten from the respondent.

Observation Schedules are schedules suitable for collecting data through observations. In case the data to be collected involves observing the actual activity take place, then these types of schedules are helpful.



  1. Applicable to the unschooled respondents for they may not know how to write.
  2. There is always room for clarifying to the respondent over any difficulty or confusing questions hence efficiency is increased.
  3. Possible to get more reliable data for chances of getting unanswered questions is narrow.



  1. Not common way of collecting data so it is rarely used by researchers.
  2. It does not cover many respondents as it is in the case of a questionnaire. This is because it targets the illiterate.

3.1.4 Questionnaire Data Collection Method

In this approach of data collection under exploratory research, the researcher uses a questionnaire which is engraved with questions covering the study objectives. A questionnaire is a research tool entailing of a sequence of queries for assembling information from respondents through survey or statistical study. The question structure may be a mixture of close-ended questions and/or open-ended questions.


  1. Spontaneous response for respondents answers the questions within a shorter period as possible. Hence not necessary to make physical visit to the respondent as it is in the case of interviews. A good example of such questionnaires with quick response are the mailed questionnaires.
  2. Efficient coverage for a researcher can collect data from a wide spread coverage. This is because these instruments make it possible to conduct many individuals who could not be easily reached with other methods such as face to face interviews.
  3. Cost-Benefit aspect for questionnaires make economic sense to the researcher for they accumulate information at once. The cost of conducting the study using questionnaire technique is financially fair.
  4. Time convenience to the respondent for the respondent is given humble time to fill the questionnaire. This makes the tool become more user friendly and universally acceptable by many respondents according to the willingness gesture of filling it.
  5. Uniformity for the instructions to all the respondents are standardized such that all matters of concern for the study is well understood by all the respondents wherever they are. This avoids disparities in filling the questionnaire. In other words, questionnaire tool does not license much of disparity.
  6. Validity for preparation of a questionnaire requires that validity be tested by undertaking test-re-test process to ensure that the instrument measures what the researcher intents to measure. That is why a supervisor or a senior reviewer need to check through the questions thereof.
  7. Reliability for the preparation of a questionnaire requires that reliability be tested by undertaking tests such as Cronbach’s alpha to ensure that the instrument helps in assessing the internal consistency of the variables. In other words, reliability test aims at assessing the closeness of a group of objects.


  1. Targeted respondents are Inadequate for questionnaire tool focuses on those who know how to read and write. This limits the number of participants who can be reached. It also limits the type of research that is to be undertaken. 
  2. No building of rapport with the respondents for the researcher and the respondent are two distinct persons and have no link at all. Such that the researcher prepares the questionnaires as he or she wishes and on the other hand, the respondent answers the questions therein as he finds it best. This makes the exercise be just a mechanical process and chances of misconception are high.
  3. Missing responses for the questionnaires may not be filled up to 100% level due to either the respondent failing to understand all the questions hence leave some of them blank. This results to incomplete information, which is not reliable to make valid conclusions.
  4. Subjective responses for questionnaires are filled by the respondents in the absence of the researcher and this makes them have a leeway of carelessly filling them hence resulting outcome which is bias. This may make the questionnaire become unreliable.



3.1.5 Depth Interview Data Collection Method

As the name suggests, this method under exploratory research, aims at collecting detailed data that requires careful interrogation of the respondent so as to fully unearth key information. It is an open-ended, discovery-oriented method. It is qualitative in nature and the researcher’s aim is to infer the point of view, experiences, feelings, and perspectives. This kind of an interview is common in the initial stages during larger research project inception. Applicable to communities faced with choice to make pertaining the project to adopt.



  1. The method makes the respondent feel appreciated hence chances of revealing more data details is high.
  2. The method allows the respondent to seek clarification of the unclear issues in the interview which helps in fostering the quality of the face-to-face engagement.
  3. Based on the variation of body language and changes in tone and wordings, the interviewers can gain a deeper understanding.
  4. The interviewers need fewer members to garner beneficial and pertinent comprehensions.
  5. It is possible to recognize vastly appreciated research findings in amore faster manner.



  1. Time consuming. This approach needs a lot of time to prepare and even during the actual data collection for every question is dealt with in details.
  2. Used by the experienced researchers. So, the new practicing researchers face difficulties in handling this method.
  3. This research method has a high-cost implication to the researcher.

3.1.6 Content Analysis Data Collection Method

Content analysis is an instrument under exploratory research that uses analysis approach to reveal hidden meanings, intentions and or interpretations of the respondent. It is a data collection method that is used to establish existence of particular words, concepts or ideas hidden in quantitative data. The process entails quantifying and analyzing the presence, connotations and associations of such definite words, ideas, or perceptions. By relying on the language used in a document, the researcher can be in a position to evaluate a new article to search for partiality or subjectivity. Researchers can then infer the communications in the texts, the writer(s), the audience, and even the culture and time adjacent to the text.

Such data can be accessed from interviews, open-ended questions, field research notes, conversations, or literally any occurrence of communicative language (such as books, essays, discussions, newspaper headlines, speeches, media, historical documents). To achieve the objective of inferring using data analysis, the researcher need to assign codes on the text or categorize the text into meaningful classifications.


Applicability of content analysis

  1. Used where the researcher aims at extracting underlying aspects of an individual, a group or society such as, their intentions, concerns, and communication patterns.
  2. Used in providing a description on a certain behavioral characteristic.
  3. Used to establish the emotional or impassive state of an individual or a group of people.
  4. It is a pre-test tool to improve on an intervention or survey prior to launch.



Natures of Content Analysis

Mainly, content analysis exists in two forms, namely; conceptual analysis and relational analysis.


Conceptual Analysis

In this case, a concept is identified for scrutiny and the process of analyzing entails quantification and counting the presence of this idea. The occurrence of the terms in the data selected is examined, then coded for further interpretation. 


Steps followed in conceptual content analysis

Step one

Start the process of analyzing by first identifying the research question and choose a sample or samples for analysis. The researcher will have to make up his or her mind by deciding the level of analysis, whether word, word sense, phrase, sentence, or themes.


Step two

Assign codes on the text so as to create a manageable content category.


Step three

Analyze your outcomes, make conclusions and provide to your audience a broad view on the results gotten.


Relational Analysis


This type of analysis entails identification of a link between or amongst several variables for interrogation purposes. The researcher is expected to assume that the individual variables are meaningless and in case there is any meaning, it should only arise because there exists a correlation between or amongst the variables under investigation.


Steps followed in Relational analysis

Step one

By use of either affect extraction, proximity analysis or cognitive mapping analysis, choose the correct sample.


Step two

Determine the relationship to analyze.


Step three

Minimize the text to groupings and code for words or outlines.


Step four

Discover the relationship concerning the chosen variables (i.e., factors) and then further asses the strength of the relationship, the nature of the relationship, i.e., whether positive or negative and then assess on the direction which can either be inverse, or direct.

Step five

Assign codes to the associations.
Step six

Undertake a statistical analysis to establish the correlations thereof between or amongst the identified variables.

Step seven

Develop a model to represent the relationship.


Advantages of Content Analysis

  1. Gives both qualitative and quantitative data equal chances to be analyzed.
  2. Good approach in providing deep insights in the long-run for the matter being studied.
  3. Used in complex model development using human thought and language.
  4. Easy to understand although it has detailed processes to be followed.
  5. It gives better and reliable research results especially if concurrently used together with other common research methods such as interviews and observation.


Disadvantages of Content Analysis

  1. Time consuming-due to its complexity in processes involved, it needs a lot of time for it to be useful to the end users.
  2. Chances of increased errors is high.
  3. Relies much on words which can sometimes give the wrong interpretation by the researcher hence missing the point.
  4. Not easy to mechanize or automate the processes thereof.


3.2 Secondary Data Affiliated Collection Methods

This method of data collection under exploratory research is pegged on historical data. Data that has already been collected by somebody else and kept in the stores or data bank. The following are some of the sources of secondary data: - 

  1. Books
  2. Records
  3. Biographies
  4. Newspapers
  5. Published censuses or other statistical data
  6. Data archives
  7. Internet articles
  8. Research articles by other researchers (journals)
  9. Databases, etc.

Secondary data affiliated collection methods are;


3.2.1 Case Study Data Collection Method

Case study method under exploratory research is an approach of data collection which entails qualitative examination where careful and complete observation of an individual or a situation or an institution is carried out. Efforts are made to study each and every characteristic of the unit of focus in its microscopic details and then “case” data generalizations and inferences are done. In other words, case study can also be defined as data collection method or technique where by individual aspect be it an organization or just an occurrence in the life of an individual or a group is analyzed in its connection to any other in the collection.


Characteristics of Case Study Data Collection Method

  1. The researcher considers “one social unit” or “more social units” for

        his study interrogation.

       2.In depth interrogation is key in case study data collection.

  1. Time coverage horizon is usually long for the purposes of portraying the natural history of the unit which can assure the researcher of sufficient information for making the right inferences.
  2. Under this method all possible endeavors are made to collect information concerning all aspects of the unit of observation.
  3. In case study method the mutual correlations are identified for it is necessary to portray the cause-effect links thereof.
  4. Case study method is characterized by hypothesizing of the concept under interrogation.

Characteristics of exploratory research 

How do we distinguish exploratory type of research with other approaches? The following distinctive features separate exploratory research and other types of research.

  1. Flexible: Exploratory research is not limited to one way of approach when one wants to get results but it is open ended such that alterations in the processes can be adopted to suit the research objectives.
  2. New discovery: It entail a new phenomenon to be studied where there is no prior information and if it is there it is scanty.
  3. Dominated by questions with the researcher: The researcher has several questions he/she is looking forward for the investigation to answer. Their nature is of how; why; where; what
  4. Availability of few theories: No much theories which underpin this research exercise.
  5. The research type is inconclusive: Researchers cannot form a conclusion based on exploratory research.
  6. Research problem objective: The main objective of this research is to formulate a research problem that can be pursued in the future.
  7. Qualitative data used: Exploratory research mostly deals with qualitative data. 


  1. Less costly: Exploratory research is not expensive to perform, because it is essentially meant to formulate the research problem hence no many procedures to be adhered to.
  2. It is flexible: It may not follow a particular path strictly.
  3. Lays the basic foundation: This is because it is the stepping stone for further study on a particular matter. Hence those who pursue the issue do not need to start from the scratch.
  4. Appropriate in research problem formulation: The approach helps the researcher to identify the underlying issues to be investigated. Hence it gives researchers more insight into the problem under study. 
  5. Stamps an authority on what is being studied: This type of research lays a foundation on what should be focused on and hence no need to for other researchers to waste time conducting irrelevant research when using an exploratory approach.



  1. It is not conclusive: In other words, we cannot say that the research findings were definite.
  2. Biasness: This research faces challenges of data collected for the respondents may be biased on a certain view.
  3. Outdated information: Exploratory research collects data from secondary sources and relying on such data may be misleading for it may be characterized by being outdated. Most of data collected through secondary sources may be old and outdated. 
  4. Lack of population representation: The data collected from the respondents is of small sample and this may not represent the whole population characteristics.

About the Author - Dr Geoffrey Mbuva(PhD-Finance) is a lecturer of Finance and Accountancy at Kenyatta University, Kenya. He is an enthusiast of teaching and making accounting & research tutorials for his readers.