Exploratory Research Methods

The role of qualitative research cannot be replaced by the use of a quantitative research approach. The two approaches are complementary. In terms of understanding social phenomena from the context of the participants or a given society, qualitative research is often instrumental. It not only helps collect data that would not be collected using quantitative methods but also helps understand phenomena from the perspective of the actors in a particular environment.

Researchers use various approaches and methods in undertaking their work. The commonly used methods are qualitative and quantitative methods. The methods may be chosen based on the objectives of the research and the type of data that is needed. One of the differences between qualitative and quantitative methods is that qualitative methods are used to collect data that cannot be quantified while quantitative techniques are employed for data that can be quantified. Though the two methods are equally important to the researchers, qualitative methods are considered to be more significant. Qualitative research uncovers and correctly describes phenomena and thus provides insights to the theoretical frameworks (Jackson, 2013). The qualitative study is useful when a researcher is not aware of the phenomenon of interest. Therefore, in as much as the quantitative research would be significant in terms of testing of the theory and hypotheses, it is the qualitative exploratory research that delves deep to explore problems at hand (Gravetter & Forzano, 2012). The following sections discuss observational methods involved in qualitative research. 

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What is a case study?

The case study involves a researcher exploring the occurrence of a phenomenon that affects one or more individuals, groups, events and social setting hoping to reveal facts, patterns and trends that are true to a group (Jackson, 2014). The methodology focuses on the case and thoroughly describes complex phenomena to enhance deeper understanding. The focus may be on events, issues, programs or people’s interaction (Lapan, Quartaroli & Riemer, 2012). Sometimes, a naturalistic observation study may be considered as a case study since it is an observational method that provides the description of a phenomenon (Cozby & Bates, 2012).

Researchers who use case studies strive for in-depth understanding of a single phenomenon and similar cases. However, a case study is never confined to the study of an individual but could extend to research involving organizations, institutions, political structures, communities or situations (Gravetter & Forzano, 2012).

When are case studies used?

Researchers use case studies in various occasions depending on their objectives and situations at hand. For example, a case study may be used if a better understanding of the existent situation is necessary and thus gives rise to a descriptive case study which presents a picture of the phenomenon in details and may serve as the initial step for subsequent research (Gravetter & Forzano, 2012). In some cases, the method may be handy if there are no theories or knowledge about the unique and rare phenomenon. For example, case studies have been used in rare and unusual clinical cases such as multiple personalities and brain injuries. In rare scenarios like these, it is impractical to gather groups for investigation, and thus, treatment of such conditions would be based on case studies (Gravetter & Forzano, 2012).

Case studies may be used as a tool when there is a need to teach and provide exception rules. In past studies, the method has been applied to expose some flaws in controversial methods of treating phobias. A case study that had demonstrated a new therapy known as a cognitive desensitization is based on the idea that clients could be tricked to believe that their phobia could be cured upon belief and change of thinking was nullified through repeated case studies (Gravetter & Forzano, 2012). Moreover, as a teaching tool, case studies provide a natural learning environment which is conducive for students’ understanding.

According to Yin (2012), there are specific instances when a researcher may use a case study. They include situations when there is a theory that suggests a particular outcome in a given context and thus one is forced to choose a case that provides an appropriate context. Moreover, researchers may intend to answer questions of “how” and “why” for a certain unique or rare situation by an in-depth study. In some cases, researchers may opt for case studies when they are unable to manipulate the behavior of a phenomenon or individuals that involved in the study (Yin, 2012).

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What is psychobiography?

Psychobiography is a case study methodology in which a researcher applies psychological theory to understand the personality and focuses on the analysis of a single life, most often a famous, exceptional or historical figure (Lapan, Quartaroli & Riemer, 2012). The goal of this methodology is often focused on one aspect of a person’s life. For example, contemporary psychobiography research focuses on the lives of famous personalities such as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Adolph Hitler, Abraham Lincoln, Saddam Hussein, and Marilyn Monroe (Lapan, Quartaroli & Riemer, 2012).

Archival Research

What is archival research?

Archives are historical records. Therefore, an archival research involves looking at the historical records (archives) to measure or record behaviors or find past accounts of events in order to answer research questions (Gravetter & Forzano, 2012).

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In archival research, the existing documents provide an incredible wealth of information to the researcher. The researchers employing this method are never confronted with the problems of getting participants to the study and observe them due to the readily existing data and thus it is less time-consuming (Jackson, 2013). Though the archival research is less time-consuming, the data may be difficult to use. Some of the records may be inaccessible, and the reliability of the data can be questionable since the researcher does not control the primary data collection (Crosby & Bates, 2012). Furthermore, the researchers are never certain to obtain valid data due to individual and selection bias. Moreover, some of the data may have been purged over time (Jackson, 2013).

What are the major sources of archival data?

There are many sources of archival data. Statistical Records from the U.S. Census Bureau is a good example. The bureau maintains an extensive set of statistical records. However, statistical records may also be obtained from any public or private organizations, state and local agencies, such as the Educational Testing Service or National Opinion Research, that maintain such records Center (Jackson, 2013).

Other than the organizations, archival data can be obtained from survey archives. These are data pertaining to past surveys and conclusions of past researches stored in computers and databases. Furthermore, archival research may be sourced from media such as written and mass communication. These sources include the contents of magazines or newspapers, hospital admittance records, the data in the library, historical letters or diaries and private papers (Jackson, 2013). These data may be retrieved in hard or soft copies, and some of the sources or archived materials, such as e-mail messages and online speeches, are retrieved from the Internet sources for archival research. In some cases, communities have interesting cultures and history which are often captured by ethnographers and anthropologists (Gravetter & Forzano, 2012).

Content Analysis

What is content analysis?

Content analysis is a systematic and objective analysis of existing documents. Content analysis is applied in qualitative materials, such as archival record materials, to reduce them to smaller forms which are manageable (Stacks, 2011). The information obtained from in-depth interviews, participant observations, case studies and focus groups are broken down into units that can be categorized and counted or quantified. Therefore, content analysis is considered to be a transition between the qualitative methods and quantitative methodology. It is advantageous in terms of providing logical and statistical bases that enhance understanding of how such researches and information are created (Stacks, 2011).

According to Stacks (2011), content analysis is a qualitative method since it uses data derived from qualitative sources such as open-ended questionnaires, or media messages. However, as a quantitative method, it is used to establish social research tools to make observations, the sampling of the larger population in determining the mode of a given phenomenon. The objectivity and systematic approach of content analysis ensure that the research contents cannot be altered due to the set “rules” or coding systems that allow the information quantification. Such a system thus describes the message(s) under study with a higher degree of reliability and validity (Stacks, 2011).

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The content analysis should be undertaken with due objectivity and a proper plan. The following steps should be observed while conducting the content analysis. First is a review of researches relevant to the problem or situation under study. Second is the identification of content and the third step is the specification of the actual units to be counted. The fourth and fifth steps involve creation of systems through which the units are to be categorized and selection of the study or message is conducted respectively. The last step in content analysis involves completion of actual counting of units, categorization and ascertainment of the process reliability (Stacks, 2011).


There are various approaches applied in qualitative studies and research. Application of observational methods enables exploratory researchers to delve deep to problems under study. Most of the qualitative research emphasizes the need for a flow of research in a natural setting without manipulation of the interesting phenomenon. Through case studies provide the in-depth understanding of phenomena, its use in researches should be carefully evaluated due to the possible biasness in interpreting the observations. However, the content analysis remains imperative in any research by ensuring the reliability and validity of the research outcome. Finally, qualitative methods are time-consuming. They involve a great deal of planning and organization, nevertheless, qualitative researchers use the approach aiming at objectifying, simplifying and quantifying their observations.


  1. Cozby, P. C., & Bates, S. C. (2012). Methods in behavioral research. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill Higher Education.
  2. Gravetter, F. J., & Forzano, L.-A. B. (2012). Research methods for the behavioral sciences. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
  3. Jackson, Sherri L. (2013). Research methods: A modular approach. Stamford, Cengage Learning.
  4. Lapan, S. D., Quartaroli, M. T., & Riemer, F. J. (2012). Qualitative research: An introduction to methods and designs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  5. Stacks, D. W. (2011). Primer of public relations research. New York: Guilford Press
  6. Yin, R. K. (2012). Applications of case study research. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE.
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