Explanatory research is designed to do exactly what it sounds like: explain, and explore. You ask questions, learn about your target market, and develop hypotheses for testing in your study. This article will take you through some of the types of explanatory research and what they are used for.

What is Explanatory Research?

Explanatory research is defined as a strategy used for collecting data for the purpose of explaining a phenomenon. Because the phenomenon being studied began with a single piece of data, it is up to the researcher to collect more pieces of data. 

In other words, explanatory research is a method used to investigate a phenomenon (a situation worth studying) that had not been studied before or had not been well explained previously in a proper way. It is a process in which the purpose is to find out what would be a potential answer to the problem.

This method of research enables you to find out what does not work as well as what does and once you have found this information, you can take measures for developing better alternatives that would improve the process being studied. The goal of explanatory research is to answer the question “How,” and it is most often conducted by people who want to understand why something works the way it does, or why something happens as it does.

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By using this method, researchers are able to explain why something is happening and how it happens. In other words, explanatory research can be used to “explain” something, by providing the right context. This is usually done through the use of surveys and interviews.

Importance of Explanatory Research

Explanatory research helps researchers to better understand a subject, but it does not help them to predict what might happen in the future. Explanatory research is also known by other names, such as ex post facto (Latin for “after the fact”) and causal research.

The most important goal of explanatory research is to help understand a given phenomenon. This can be done through basic or applied research

Basic explanatory research, also known as pure or fundamental research, is conducted without any specific real-world application in mind. Applied explanatory research attempts to develop new knowledge that can be used to improve humans’ everyday lives. 

Read: How to Write a Thesis Statement for Your Research: Tips + Examples

For example, you might want to know why people buy certain products, why companies change their business processes, or what motivates people in the workplace. Explanatory research starts with a theory or hypothesis and then gathers evidence to prove or disprove the theory. 

Most explanatory research uses surveys to gather information from a pool of respondents. The results will then provide information about the target population as a whole.

Purpose of Explanatory Research

The purpose of explanatory research is to explore a topic and develop a deeper understanding of it so that it can be described or explained more fully. The researcher sets out with a specific question or hypothesis in mind, which will guide the data collection and analysis process.

Explanatory research can take any number of forms, from experimental studies in which researchers test a hypothesis by manipulating variables, to interviews and surveys that are used to gather insights from participants about their experiences. Explanatory research seeks neither to generate new knowledge nor solve a specific problem; rather it seeks to understand why something happens.

For example, imagine that you would like to know whether one’s age affects his or her ability to use a particular type of computer software. You develop the hypothesis that older people will have more difficulty using the software than younger people. 

In order to test your hypothesis and learn more about the relationship between age and software usage, you design and conduct an explanatory study.

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Characteristics of Explanatory Research

Explanatory research is used to explain something that has already happened but it doesn’t try to control anything, nor does it seek to predict what will happen. Instead, its aim is to understand what has happened when it comes to a certain phenomenon.

Here are some of the characteristics of explanatory research, they include:

  • It is used when the researcher wants to explain the relationship between two variables that the researcher cannot manipulate. This means that the researcher must rely on secondary data instead to understand the variables.
  • In explanatory research, the data is collected before the study begins and is usually collected by a different individual/organization than that of the researcher.
  • Explanatory research does not involve random sampling or random allocation (the process of assigning subjects and participants to different study groups).

Types of Explanatory Research

Explanatory research generally focuses on the “why” questions. For example, a business might ask why customers aren’t buying their product or how they can improve their sales process. Types of explanatory research include:

1. Case studies: Case studies allow researchers to examine companies that experienced the same situation as them. This helps them understand what worked and what didn’t work for the other company.

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2. Literature research: Literature research involves examining and reviewing existing academic literature on a topic related to your projects, such as a particular strategy or method. Literature research allows researchers to see how other people have discussed a similar problem and how they arrived at their conclusions.

3. Observations: Observations involve gathering information by observing events without interfering with them. They’re useful for gathering information about social interactions, such as who talks to whom on a subway platform or how people react to certain ads in public spaces, like billboards and bus shelters.

4. Pilot studies: Pilot studies are small versions of larger studies that help researchers prepare for larger studies by testing out methods, procedures, or instruments before using them in the final study design.

Read: Research Report: Definition, Types + [Writing Guide]

5. Focus groups: Focus groups involves gathering a group of people so participants can share opinions, instead of answering questions

Difference between Explanatory and Exploratory Research

Explanatory research is a type of research that answers the question “why.” It explains why something happens and it helps to understand what caused something to happen.

Explanatory research always has a clear objective in mind, and it’s all about the execution of that objective. Its main focus is to answer questions like “why?” and “how?”

Exploratory research on the other hand is a form of observational research, meaning that it involves observing and measuring what already exists. Exploratory research is also used when the researcher doesn’t know what they’re looking for. 

Its purpose is to help researchers better understand a subject so that they can develop a theory. It is not about drawing any conclusion but about learning more about the subject. 

Examples of Explanatory Research

Explanatory research will make it easier to find explanations for things that are difficult to understand. 

Example 1

For example, if you’re trying to figure out why someone got sick, explanatory research can help you look at all of your options and figure out what happened.

In this way, it is also used in order to determine whether or not something was caused by a person or an event. If a person was involved, you might want to consider looking at other people who may have been involved as well.

It can also be useful for determining whether or not the person who caused the problem has changed over time. This can be especially helpful when you’re dealing with a long-term relationship where there have been many changes.

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Example 2

Let us assume a researcher wants to figure out what happened during an accident and how it happened. 

Explanatory research will try to understand if a person was driving while intoxicated, or if the person had been under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of their death. If they were not, then they may have had some other medical condition that caused them to pass away unexpectedly.

In the two examples, explanatory research wanted to answer the question of what happened and why did it happen.

Advantages of Explanatory Research

Here are some of the advantages of explanatory research:

  1. Explanatory research can explain how something happened
  2. It also helps to understand a cause of a phenomenon
  3. It is great in predicting what will happen in the future based on observations made today.
  4. It is also a great way to start your research if you are unfamiliar with the subject.

Disadvantages of Explanatory Research

Explanatory research is beneficial in many ways as listed above, but here are a few of the disadvantages of explanatory research.

1. Clarity on what is not known: The first disadvantage is that this kind of research is not always clear about what is and isn’t known. Which means it doesn’t always make the best use of existing information or knowledge.

You need to be specific about what you know already and how much more there might be left for future studies in order for this kind of research project to be useful at all times. This can help avoid wasting time by focusing on an issue that has already been studied enough without knowing it yet (or vice versa).

2. No clear hypothesis: Another disadvantage is that when designing experiments using this method there often isn’t any clear hypothesis about what will happen next which makes it impossible for scientists to predict


Explanatory research is taking a topic and explaining it thoroughly so that audiences have a better understanding of the topic in question. With explanatory research, having great explanations takes on more importance, so if you are a researcher in the social science field, you might want to put it to use.

  • busayo.longe
  • on 8 min read


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