Exploratory Research: Definition, Types, Examples

Exploratory Research: Definition, Types, Examples

What is Exploratory Research or Exploratory Studies?

Exploratory research (exploratory study) is a small-scale study of relatively short duration, undertaken when little is known about a situation or problem. An exploratory study helps a researcher to

  • Diagnose a problem;
  • Search for alternatives;
  • Discover new ideas;
  • Develop and sharpen his concepts more clearly;
  • Establish priority among several alternatives;
  • Identify variables of interest;
  • Set research questions and objectives;
  • Formulate hypotheses;
  • Develop an operational definition of variables;
  • Improve his final research design.

The exploratory study helps to save time and money. If the problem appears not as important at first sight, a research project may be abandoned at the initial stage.

Exploratory study progressively narrows down the scope of the research topic and transforms the undefined problems into defined ones, incorporating specific research objectives.

An exploratory study comes to an end when the researcher is fully convinced that he has established the major dimension of the research, and no additional research is needed to conduct the larger study.

Examples of Exploratory Research


Tribal people in Bangladesh have some peculiar and uncommon background characteristics that distinguish them from the rest of the population.

Sporadic information suggests that they have a large family size, low age at marriage, and high mortality.

Because of the fact that researchers in the past did not have easy access to this population, the above conjectures could not be examined scientifically.

A small-scale study was planned to examine these in the face of these peculiarities to launch a large-scale survey.

The planned study is explorative, which will help the researchers to formulate objectives and hypotheses, keeping in view the above peculiarities regarding their distinct demographic characteristics.


The government-supplied oral contraceptive pills (OCP) and condoms are provided free of charge through government field workers and clinics.

Even then, why a significant proportion of women in the lowest quintile prefer to purchase contraceptives produced by Social Marketing Company (SMC) rather than availing of free services is very critical and valuable information for SMC. To explore this, the SMC wants to conduct a study.

They intend to prepare a profile of the SMC brand contraceptive users of the poorest and poor quintile to gather their perception of SMC product and their views on the govt, supplied contraceptives.

We cite one more example from business research (Saleh, 1995)


Nowadays, entrepreneurship has become a focal point in the business community in both government and non-government agencies and in business education in Bangladesh.

This has led to a greatly accelerated effort among researchers to undertake studies on entrepreneurship and small business growth and development.

Although there has been quite a good number of studies focusing on entrepreneurs’ characteristics, there is still a great deal of mystery about women in business, and queries remain about their entrepreneurial characteristics, motivation, and business success.

An exploratory study, therefore, is planned to be conducted with the sole objective of identifying the motivation of women entrepreneurs for business and assessing their entrepreneurial skills.

Types of Exploratory Research Methods

  1. Secondary Data Analysis
  2. Experience Survey
  3. Case Study
  4. Pilot Study
  5. Focus Group Discussion

The exploratory study offers an opportunity to obtain insights into the problem in major ways:

  • Analyzing any existing documents or studies. This is secondary data analysis;
  • Sharing experiences with knowledgeable individuals. This is an experience survey;
  • Investigating the situations informally. This falls under a pilot study;
  • Conducting a case study. The case may be an individual or a group of individuals;
  • Designing a focus group.

Secondary Data Analysis

Electronic data processing dates back to about 50 years, and the large-scale collection and analysis of social science data are not much older.

The most emerging barrier now is the cost of data collection for any scientific study. In recent years, the data processing cost has considerably decreased owing to the availability of increased facilities. This is seriously limiting the research endeavor of the students and professionals.

More and more researchers, however, are overcoming this cost obstacle by engaging in secondary analysis-building research projects around re-analyzing data originally collected by someone else for another purpose.

Secondary data, sometimes also called historical data, are data previously collected and assembled for some project other than one at hand. Studies based on secondary data do not need access to respondents or subjects.

The process thus enables you to avoid the cost of data collection by producing a new set of findings out of old data.

In recent years, survey data are increasingly likely candidates for secondary analysis because of the volume of such data and because of their availability in an inexpensive and well-organized form.

Scientists of various disciplines and students are taking advantage of this abundant database for their research.

The chief advantage of secondary data analysis is that data for such studies are almost always less expensive to collect than acquiring primary data.

Also, secondary analysis can be completed relatively more quickly since it involves less time in the collection procedure. These data are very often available on soft copies.

Studies based on secondary data can help you to explore and decide what further research needs to be done. It further contributes to enriching your research proposal with specific references and citations.

Analysis of available records may often be the only way to obtain quantitative data about the past.

As more and more survey data accumulate, trend studies comparing responses to similar survey questions asked over many years become more practical and valuable for testing or developing theory.

Secondary analysis can often be the basis for an important pilot study.

Before embarking on an extensive and costly study, researchers may use secondary analysis of past research to assess the soundness of their research design, pretest the plausibility of their hypotheses, and determine the strengths and weaknesses of formerly used indicators and question wordings.

More importantly, a secondary study may be used as the sole basis for a research study since in many research situations, one cannot conduct primary research because of physical, legal, or cost constraints.

The most important limitation of secondary analysis is that the information may not meet your specific needs. The most common problems are;

  • The data may be outdated;
  • There may be variations in the operational definition of terms;
  • The units of measurement may be different;
  • The research design and sampling design may not be known or may be inappropriate;
  • There may be no codebook available for re-analyzing the data.

Experience Survey

Although the objectives of an exploratory study may be accomplished with both qualitative and quantitative techniques, yet it relies more heavily on qualitative techniques.

When studies based on secondary data become difficult, researchers may well profit by seeking information from persons experienced in the area of study, tapping into their collective memories and experiences.

A survey involving such persons is referred to as an experience survey.

In essence, they are the key informants (KI) with abundant experience in their area, and the interview with them is known as the key informant interview (K1I).

The purpose of surveying such experts and seeking their opinions is to help sharpen the research problems and clarifying concepts rather than develop conclusive evidence. The outcome of an experience survey may result in a new hypothesis, discarding the old one, or may give information about the practicality of doing the study.

Sharing experiences with the experts may indicate whether certain facilities are available or not, what factors need to be controlled, and who is supposed to cooperate in the study.

An experienced survey is usually informal and involves a small number of people who have been carefully selected. The investigating format to be used in the survey should be flexible enough so that we can explore various avenues that emerge during the interview.

Case Study

A case study is an exploratory social research methodology aimed at intensively investigating one or a few situations identical to the researcher’s problem situations.

Rather than using random samples and following a rigid protocol (strict set of rules) to examine a limited number of variables, case study methods involve an in-depth, longitudinal examination of a single instance or event: a case.

They provide a systematic way of looking at events, collecting data, analyzing data, and reporting the results.

As a result, the researcher may gain a sharpened understanding of why the instance happened as it did, and what might become important to look at more extensively in future research.

Case studies lend themselves to both generating and testing hypotheses.

When selecting a case for the case study, researchers often use information-oriented sampling instead of random sampling. This is because the average case is often not the richest in the information.

Extreme or atypical cases reveal more information because they activate more basic mechanisms and more actors in the situation studied.

Since a case study places emphasis on detail, it provides valuable insight for problem-solving, evaluation, and strategy. In the case of studies, researchers are not trying to establish a representative probability sample, and no attempt is made to meet the minimum design requirements.

Despite these limitations, case studies have a significant scientific role.

A single, well-designed case study can provide a major challenge to theory and provide a source of new hypotheses and direction of research.

Pilot Study

When discussed in the context of an exploratory study, a pilot study refers to a small-scale research study that uses sampling but does not apply the rigorous standard. A pilot study generates primary data, usually for qualitative analysis.

This feature distinguishes a pilot study from secondary data analysis, which gathers background information. A pilot study is a tentative study using relatively unstructured interviews of a handful of respondents or subjects who are similar to those who will be the target of the later survey.

A pilot study is often compared to a theatrical dress rehearsal before a final theatre is staged. These studies are intended to allow the researchers to try out various possibilities before deciding which ones to adopt.

A pilot study nearly always results in a considerable improvement to the survey documents leading to a general increase in the efficiency of the research design.

Such studies can often stimulate new lines of inquiry, prompted by the researchers or unsolicited responses of the respondents or subjects.

They can also suggest new types of data that should be collected, point out and resolve ambiguities in the way that questions are being asked indicate modifications needed in the order of topic covered and help to eliminate fruitless lines of inquiry.

A well- planned pilot study offers an opportunity to the researchers based on its results, as to whether the main study is still worth to carry out or not. Any investigator, who contemplates an exclusive survey, should conduct the pilot study as an opportunity to discover and correct mistakes before they become serious and incurable.

Focus Group Discussion

A focus group discussion (FGD) is a way of reducing the amount of time and personnel required for conducting and analyzing in-depth study and yet getting detailed qualitative information by interviewing a panel of a relatively large number of respondents.

The focus group interview has become so popular that many researchers now consider it to be the only exploratory research tool.

Typically, the panel is made up of 6 to 10 respondents.

The panel is led by a trained moderator or facilitator who meets for 90 minutes to 2 hours at a designated time. The moderator uses group dynamics principles to focus or guide the group in an exchange of ideas, feelings, and experiences on a single topic.

The moderator introduces the topic using a general discussion guide and encourages the group members to discuss the subjects.

In ideal situations, the group discussion will proceed uninterrupted.

Depending on the subject matter of discussion, forming separate groups for different population subsets is often rewarding. This type of homogeneous grouping tends to promote more intense and freer discussions.

It may also be conducted by telephone as an alternative to the face-to-face focus group discussion. This is particularly effective when;

  • It is difficult to reach the target group, particularly when the group members represent experts, professionals, high-level executives, etc.
  • When the target group members are rarely found, and
  • When the group members are so sensitive that anonymity is warranted.

The primary advantage of the focus group interview as an exploratory research tool is its relative flexibility and its ability to quickly and inexpensively understand the core issue of the topic, especially when compared with the rigidity of a formal study.

However, because they are qualitative devices with limitations of sampling accuracy, results from focus group discussions should not be considered a replacement for quantitative analyses.


Exploratory research is conducted when little is known about a situation or problem. Its main purpose is to diagnose problems, search for alternatives, discover new ideas, sharpen concepts, and improve the final research design.

How does exploratory research assist in the research process?

Exploratory research helps in narrowing down the scope of the research topic, transforming undefined problems into defined ones, and determining the major dimensions of the research. It can lead to the decision of whether to proceed with a larger study or abandon a research project at an early stage.

What are the main methods utilized in exploratory research?

The primary methods in exploratory research include secondary data analysis, experience surveys, pilot studies, case studies, and focus group discussions.

What is the role of a case study in exploratory research?

A case study offers an in-depth, longitudinal examination of a specific instance or event. It provides a systematic way to observe events, gather and analyze data, and report results, leading to insights for problem-solving, evaluation, and strategy formulation.

How does a focus group discussion function in exploratory research?

A focus group discussion involves interviewing a panel of 6 to 10 respondents to gain detailed qualitative insights. Led by a trained moderator, the group discusses a single topic, sharing ideas, feelings, and experiences. It’s a flexible method that quickly provides core insights into a topic.