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1.5: Types of Scientific Research

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  • Depending on the purpose of research, scientific research projects can be grouped into three types: exploratory, descriptive, and explanatory. Exploratory research is often conducted in new areas of inquiry, where the goals of the research are: (1) to scope out the magnitude or extent of a particular phenomenon, problem, or behavior, (2) to generate some initial ideas (or “hunches”) about that phenomenon, or (3) to test the feasibility of undertaking a more extensive study regarding that phenomenon. For instance, if the citizens of a country are generally dissatisfied with governmental policies regarding during an economic recession, exploratory research may be directed at measuring the extent of citizens’ dissatisfaction, understanding how such dissatisfaction is manifested, such as the frequency of public protests, and the presumed causes of such dissatisfaction, such as ineffective government policies in dealing with inflation, interest rates, unemployment, or higher taxes. Such research may include examination of publicly reported figures, such as estimates of economic indicators, such as gross domestic product (GDP), unemployment, and consumer price index, as archived by third-party sources, obtained through interviews of experts, eminent economists, or key government officials, and/or derived from studying historical examples of dealing with similar problems. This research may not lead to a very accurate understanding of the target problem, but may be worthwhile in scoping out the nature and extent of the problem and serve as a useful precursor to more in-depth research.

    Descriptive research is directed at making careful observations and detailed documentation of a phenomenon of interest. These observations must be based on the scientific method (i.e., must be replicable, precise, etc.), and therefore, are more reliable than casual observations by untrained people. Examples of descriptive research are tabulation of demographic statistics by the United States Census Bureau or employment statistics by the Bureau of Labor, who use the same or similar instruments for estimating employment by sector or population growth by ethnicity over multiple employment surveys or censuses. If any changes are made to the measuring instruments, estimates are provided with and without the changed instrumentation to allow the readers to make a fair before-and-after comparison regarding population or employment trends. Other descriptive research may include chronicling ethnographic reports of gang activities among adolescent youth in urban populations, the persistence or evolution of religious, cultural, or ethnic practices in select communities, and the role of technologies such as Twitter and instant messaging in the spread of democracy movements in Middle Eastern countries.

    Explanatory research seeks explanations of observed phenomena, problems, or behaviors. While descriptive research examines the what, where, and when of a phenomenon, explanatory research seeks answers to why and how types of questions. It attempts to “connect the dots” in research, by identifying causal factors and outcomes of the target phenomenon. Examples include understanding the reasons behind adolescent crime or gang violence, with the goal of prescribing strategies to overcome such societal ailments. Most academic or doctoral research belongs to the explanation category, though some amount of exploratory and/or descriptive research may also be needed during initial phases of academic research. Seeking explanations for observed events requires strong theoretical and interpretation skills, along with intuition, insights, and personal experience. Those who can do it well are also the most prized scientists in their disciplines.