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5.1 Goals of the Research Project

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand and describe the differences among exploratory, descriptive, and explanatory research.
  2. Define and provide an example of idiographic research.
  3. Define and provide an example of nomothetic research.
  4. Identify circumstances under which research would be defined as applied and compare those to circumstances under which research would be defined as basic.

A recent news story about college students’ addictions to electronic gadgets (Lisk, 2011)Lisk, J. (2011). Addiction to our electronic gadgets. Retrieved from describes findings from some current research by Professor Susan Moeller and colleagues from the University of Maryland ( The story raises a number of interesting questions. Just what sorts of gadgets are students addicted to? How do these addictions work? Why do they exist, and who is most likely to experience them?

Figure 5.1

According to a recent news story, college students are becoming increasingly addicted to electronic gadgets. What are some possible research questions a sociologist might pose about this phenomenon?

Sociological research is great for answering just these sorts of questions. But in order to answer our questions well, we must take care in designing our research projects. In this chapter, we’ll consider what aspects of a research project should be considered at the beginning, including specifying the goals of the research, the components that are common across most research projects, and a few other considerations.

One of the first things to think about when designing a research project is what you hope to accomplish, in very general terms, by conducting the research. What do you hope to be able to say about your topic? Do you hope to gain a deep understanding of whatever phenomenon it is that you’re studying, or would you rather have a broad, but perhaps less deep, understanding? Do you want your research to be used by policymakers or others to shape social life, or is this project more about exploring your curiosities? Your answers to each of these questions will shape your research design.

Exploration, Description, Explanation

You’ll need to decide in the beginning phases whether your research will be exploratory, descriptive, or explanatory. Each has a different purpose, so how you design your research project will be determined in part by this decision.

Researchers conducting exploratory researchResearch that aims to satisfy a researcher’s curiosity about a topic or test the feasibility of a more extensive study. are typically at the early stages of examining their topics. These sorts of projects are usually conducted when a researcher wants to test the feasibility of conducting a more extensive study; he or she wants to figure out the lay of the land, with respect to the particular topic. Perhaps very little prior research has been conducted on this subject. If this is the case, a researcher may wish to do some exploratory work to learn what method to use in collecting data, how best to approach research subjects, or even what sorts of questions are reasonable to ask. A researcher wanting to simply satisfy his or her own curiosity about a topic could also conduct exploratory research. In the case of the study of college students’ addictions to their electronic gadgets, a researcher conducting exploratory research on this topic may simply wish to learn more about students’ use of these gadgets. Because these addictions seem to be a relatively new phenomenon, an exploratory study of the topic might make sense as an initial first step toward understanding it.

In my research on child-free adults, I was unsure what the results might be when first embarking on the study. There was very little empirical research on the topic, so the initial goal of the research was simply to get a better grasp of what child-free people’s lives are like and how their decision to be child free shapes their relationships and everyday experiences. Conducting exploratory research on the topic was a necessary first step, both to satisfy my curiosity about the subject and to better understand the phenomenon and the research participants in order to design a larger, subsequent study.

Sometimes the goal of research is to describe or define a particular phenomenon. In this case, descriptive researchResearch that aims to describe or define. would be an appropriate strategy. A descriptive study of college students’ addictions to their electronic gadgets, for example, might aim to describe patterns in how use of gadgets varies by gender or college major or which sorts of gadgets students tend to use most regularly.

Researchers at the Princeton Review conduct descriptive research each year when they set out to provide students and their parents with information about colleges and universities around the United States ( They describe the social life at a school, the cost of admission, and student-to-faculty ratios (to name just a few of the categories reported). Although students and parents may be able to obtain much of this information on their own, having access to the data gathered by a team of researchers is much more convenient and less time consuming.

Market researchers also rely on descriptive research to tell them what consumers think of their products. In fact, descriptive research has many useful applications, and you probably rely on findings from descriptive research without even being aware that that is what you are doing.

Figure 5.2

Students and their parents rely on descriptive research when they consult the Princeton Review’s analysis of colleges and universities around the United States.

Finally, sociological researchers often aim to explain why particular phenomena work in the way that they do. Research that answers “why” questions is referred to as explanatory researchResearch that aims to identify causes and effects.. In this case, the researcher is trying to identify the causes and effects of whatever phenomenon he or she is studying. An explanatory study of college students’ addictions to their electronic gadgets might aim to understand why students become addicted. Does it have anything to do with their family histories? With their other extracurricular hobbies and activities? With whom they spend their time? An explanatory study could answer these kinds of questions.

There are numerous examples of explanatory social scientific investigations. For example, in a recent study, Dominique Simons and Sandy Wurtele (2010)Simons, D. A., & Wurtele, S. K. (2010). Relationships between parents’ use of corporal punishment and their children’s endorsement of spanking and hitting other children. Child Abuse & Neglect, 34, 639–646. sought to discover whether receiving corporal punishment from parents led children to turn to violence in solving their interpersonal conflicts with other children. In their study of 102 families with children between the ages of 3 and 7, the researchers found that experiencing frequent spanking did, in fact, result in children being more likely to accept aggressive problem-solving techniques. Another example of explanatory research can be seen in Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee’s research (2011; American Sociological Association, 2011)Faris, R., & Felmlee, D. (2011). Status struggles: Network centrality and gender segregation in same- and cross-gender aggression. American Sociological Review, 76, 48–73; the American Sociological Association wrote a press release summarizing findings from the study. You can read it at The study has also been covered by several media outlets: Pappas, S. (2011). Popularity increases aggression in kids, study finds. Retrieved from on the connections between popularity and bullying. They found, from their study of 8th, 9th, and 10th graders in 19 North Carolina schools, that as adolescents’ popularity increases, so, too, does their aggression.This pattern was found until adolescents reached the top 2% in the popularity ranks. After that, aggression declines.

Figure 5.3

Faris and Felmlee found that teenage bullying increases with popularity.

Idiographic or Nomothetic?

Once you decide whether you will conduct exploratory, descriptive, or explanatory research, you will need to determine whether you want your research to be idiographic or nomothetic. A decision to conduct idiographic researchExhaustive, detailed descriptions or explanations of a singular or very small number of individuals, phenomena, or groups. means that you will attempt to explain or describe your phenomenon exhaustively. While you might have to sacrifice some breadth of understanding if you opt for an idiographic explanation, you will gain a much deeper, richer understanding of whatever phenomenon or group you are studying than you would if you were to pursue nomothetic research. A decision to conduct nomothetic researchGeneral, broad descriptions or explanations of many individuals, phenomena, or groups., on the other hand, means that you will aim to provide a more general, sweeping explanation or description of your topic. In this case, you sacrifice depth of understanding in favor of breadth of understanding.

Let’s look at some specific examples. As a graduate student, I conducted an in-depth study of breast cancer activism (Blackstone, 2003).Blackstone, A. (2003). Racing for the cure and taking back the night: Constructing gender, politics, and public participation in women’s activist/volunteer work. PhD dissertation, Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN. To do so, I joined an organization of local activists and participated in just about every aspect of the organization over a period of about 18 months. Perhaps it goes without saying, but over the course of a year and a half of participant observation, I learned quite a bit about this organization and its members. In other words, the study revealed the particular idiosyncrasies of the group, but it did not reveal much about the inner workings of other breast cancer activist organizations. Armed with an in-depth understanding about this single group, the study made a contribution to knowledge about how activists operate. For one thing, the organization I observed happened to be one of the largest and most well known of its type at the time, and many other organizations in the movement looked to this organization for ideas about how to operate. Understanding how this model organization worked was important for future activist efforts in a variety of organizations. Further, the study revealed far more intimate details of the inner workings of an activist organization than had it, say, instead been a survey of the top 50 breast cancer organizations in the United States (though that would have been an interesting study as well).

Figure 5.4

Blackstone conducted idiographic research to understand activism in the breast cancer movement.

My collaborative research on workplace sexual harassment (Uggen & Blackstone, 2004),Uggen, C., & Blackstone, A. (2004). Sexual harassment as a gendered expression of power. American Sociological Review, 69, 64–92. on the other hand, aims to provide more sweeping descriptions and explanations. For this nomothetic research project, we mailed surveys to a large sample of young workers who look very much like their peers in terms of their jobs, social class background, gender, and other categories. Because of these similarities, we have been able to speak generally about what young workers’ experiences with sexual harassment are like. In an idiographic study of the same topic, the research team might follow a few workers around every day for a long period of time or conduct a series of very detailed, and lengthy, interviews with 10 or 15 workers.

Applied or Basic?

Finally, you will need to decide what sort of contribution you hope to make with your research. Do you want others to be able to use your research to shape social life? If so, you may wish to conduct a study that policymakers could use to change or create a specific policy. Perhaps, on the other hand, you wish to conduct a study that will contribute to sociological theories or knowledge without having a specific applied use in mind. In the example of the news story on students’ addictions to technological gadgets, an applied study of this topic might aim to understand how to treat such addictions. A basic study of the same topic, on the other hand, might examine existing theories of addiction and consider how this new type of addiction does or does not apply; perhaps your study could suggest ways that such theories may be tweaked to encompass technological addictions.

In Chapter 1 "Introduction", we learned about both applied and basic research. When designing your research project, think about where you envision your work fitting in on the applied–basic continuum. Recognize, however, that even basic research may ultimately be used for some applied purpose. Similarly, your applied research might not turn out to be applicable to the particular real-world social problem you were trying to solve, but it might better our theoretical understanding of some phenomenon. In other words, deciding now whether your research will be basic or applied doesn’t mean that will be its sole purpose forever. Basic research may ultimately be applied, and applied research can certainly contribute to general knowledge. Nevertheless, it is important to think in advance about what contribution(s) you hope to make with your research.

Key Takeaways

  • Exploratory research is usually conducted when a researcher has just begun an investigation and wishes to understand her or his topic generally.
  • Descriptive research is research that aims to describe or define the topic at hand.
  • Explanatory research is research that aims to explain why particular phenomena work in the way that they do.
  • Idiographic investigations are exhaustive; nomothetic investigations are more general.
  • While researchers may start out having some idea about whether they aim to conduct applied or basic research, it is also important to keep in mind that applied research may contribute to basic understandings and that basic research may turn out to have some useful application.


  1. Describe a scenario in which exploratory research might be the best approach. Similarly, describe a scenario in which descriptive and then explanatory research would be the preferred approach.
  2. Which are you more drawn to personally, applied or basic research? Why?