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Research is exploratory when you use no earlier model as a basis of your study. The most usual reason for using this approach is that you have no other choice. Normally you would like to take an earlier theory as a support, but there perhaps is none, or all available models come from wrong contexts. On the other hand, even when there is relevant theory and models, sometimes you may prefer not to use them. Reasons for this can be:
Your goal is to document the object as completely as possible, not restricting the description to those topics that have been documented in earlier studies. The object of study differs from all earlier studied objects. The goal of the study is to describe its exceptional character which existing theories are unable to portray. In the light of existing theories the object of study appears as an inexplicable anomaly. Phenomenological pursuit into deep understanding and distrust on earlier descriptions and explanations.
Exploratory research means that hardly anything is known about the matter at the outset of the project. You then have to begin with a rather vague impression of what you should study, and it is also impossible to make a detailed work plan in advance. The gradual process of accumulating intelligence about the object of study means also that it will be impossible to start by defining the concepts of study. You have to start with a preliminary notion of your object of study, and of its context. During the exploratory research project, these provisional concepts then gradually gain precision. In the absence of tried models and definite concepts you must start the exploratory study from what you have: one or more objects of study. It is common that in the beginning of exploratory study you will take a holistic look at the objects. It means that you start by gathering as much information about the objects as possible, and postpone the task of cutting away unnecessary data until you get a better picture about what is necessary. Any object can be looked at from several different viewpoints, either from the angles of various established sciences or just from miscellaneous practical points of view. As soon as possible, you should specify the viewpoint of your study and explain how you understand or "take" the object. This does not
mean that you have to to start your work by clarifying the essence of your object of study, i.e. what the object really is. Instead, you should try to contemplate and clarify how you see the object: should it be defined on micro level as a result of the individuals' instincts, drives and experiences, or maybe on macro level as an expression of development in society. The method of alternating point of view (like in the diagram above) can even be used as a research method. It is especially suited to an explorative researcher working alone. It will deepen his understanding and can sometimes reveal valuable new aspects to the topic, cf. Hermeneutic Research. The progress of a project of study becomes easier as soon as you have defined your point of view and your problem. After this, you will need to gather only such empirical knowledge that is related to the problem; that will enable you to restrict the material you will have to analyse. This does not mean that you should disregard all the cases that do not fit into your conjectures - sometimes anomalies or surprising cases can point the way to important amendments or corrections to existing theory. Sometimes it is difficult to define what is relevant in advance; it only becomes apparent through analysis. In such a case you can simply start by studying one single specimen or case which illustrates the interesting problem, and then you continue studying a gradually growing number of objects until it becomes apparent that you cannot get deeper into the problem. An indication of such a "saturated" state of study is that the study of new items or cases no longer reveals new interesting information. You will often need to gather quite a lot of material before you can define the final goal of your project, and a large part of this material will not be used in the final analysis. The exploratory analysis of empirical field observations starts by checking that the field reports are written down intelligibly and without ambiguity. Often the original reports have been made in hurry; in that case they should be clarified by the initial observer or interviewer. The same person is often best adapted to extricate the significant findings from observations because he/she is able to judge which details are important and which can be left out. In the same time he/she can start building a preliminary model from those patterns which seem to recur often, or estimate how well an earlier known model fits the observations. As soon as the invariance in the data becomes apparent you can omit all the material that is no longer relevant and compress the remaining, relevant information. This compacting is usually done with the help of coding the typical and frequent elements, that is by assigning short names, letters or other symbols to them. By cross-tabulating
the symbols you can get an overall view of all the material, and it will be easier to uncover its structure or rearrange it so that a latent structure becomes visible. Analysis in exploratory research is essentially abstraction and generalization. Abstraction means that you translate the empirical observations, measurements etc. into concepts; generalization means arranging the material so that it disengages from single persons, occurrences etc. and focuses on those structures (invariances) that are common to all or most of the cases. It will seldom be possible to divide exploratory study into such clear phases as is common in the case that the object has been studied earlier. According to Alasuutari (1993 p.22), in qualitative analysis of empirical findings, you can distinguish two phases but these two overlap:
simplification of observations interpretation of results (or "solving the enigma")
In the simplification phase, the material is inspected from the theoretical point of view of the study project, and only the points relevant from this angle are noted. Details differing from one individual to another at random are omitted or pushed aside so that the general lines of the data can be discerned more easily. Simplification continues by finding the relationships between separate observations or cases. Some tools for this work are comparison and classification. The goal is to find the general rule or model that is valid in all or most of the observations. This model can be, for example, development or evolution, causality, or a conscious action to attain an outcome which is typical in normative research. -- In any case the analysis starts from separate cases and aspires to create one or a few general models. "Solving the enigma" does not always mean answering exactly those questions that were asked at the outset of the project. Sometimes the most interesting questions are found at the end of the research, when the researcher has become an expert on the subject. It is often said that "data teach the researcher". The purpose of descriptive exploratory research is to extract a structure from the source material which in the best case can be formed as a rule that governs all the observations and is not known earlier (per the definition of exploratory study). Finding the unknown structure may need some creative innovation, because even the most sophisticated computerized analysis methods cannot automatically uncover which type of structure is concealed in data. Usually you first have to formulate a tentative pattern for the assumed structure in the observations and then you can ask
the computer to estimate how well the data corresponds to the model, cf. Tools for Analysis. In normative studies the exploratory approach is unusual, because the normative target - improving something in the object - in general engages with a known theoretical background which you can take as a basis of your study, thus shifting to the usually more effective method of Research on the Basis of Earlier Theory which is explained in the next paragraph. Nevertheless, sometimes it happens even in normative study that the direction of desirable improvement is initially unclear, and your only choice is to start with the exploratory approach. Such is the situation when you know that the present state of the object of study is unsatisfactory but you do not know exactly what is wrong in it, neither do you know of any superior usable substitutes for it. For example, in the initial stage of action researcheverybody perhaps agrees that the present mode of working is unbearable but all known remedies seem inapplicable, and the participants therefore start making from empty table a descriptive model of the work to be used as a basis of development.
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