A comprehensive guide to types of research

Research is the process of systematically collecting, documenting, and studying data about observable phenomena, like a specific topic, issue, or event. No matter your field of study — whether it’s medicine, business, psychology, or anything else — the goal of doing research is usually to investigate, describe, or explain an idea.

Classifying types of research 

Different kinds of research are best suited to different academic fields or purposes. As a result, it can be challenging to determine which research type best suits your work. This article explains four classifications of research types to help you choose which one is best for your purposes.

The types of research are grouped according to the following criteria:

  • Purpose of the research
  • The type of information the research collects
  • Scope of the research
  • Time frame of the research

Purpose of the research

We can categorize research based on its intent or purpose into two subgroups: theoretical research and applied research.

Theoretical research

Researchers conduct this type of research to learn more about and explain a specific subject or phenomenon. Theoretical research is often based on a hypothesis, a possible explanation about why a phenomenon occurs. Because a researcher can form a hypothesis from limited evidence, we can’t assume it’s the truth; rather, it serves as the starting point for further research.

Simply put, theoretical research generates as much information about a specific topic as possible before practically applying the knowledge. It involves studying a subject, analyzing the data collected, and making inferences to answer a theoretical question. Theoretical research is best used in academia — in the fields of mathematics and philosophy, for example — where there’s no specific emphasis on the real-life applications of the findings.

In addition, while theoretical research helps solidify the logic of a theory, it can be difficult or impossible in some cases to apply that theory practically. So, without further applied research, it’s unsuitable for specific areas of study where the practical application of a theory is paramount, such as medicine.

Regardless, it serves as the starting point for further research. Snehal Singh, a researcher at Market Research Future, gives an example of where theoretical research could be helpful in medicine: “When researching COVID-19, for instance, theoretical research would be more towards understanding the impact of COVID at the ENT [ear, nose, and throat] stage, its causes, and the various effects in the human body.”

Applied research

Applied research is useful for finding practical solutions to real-life problems. Researchers usually conduct applied research after preliminary research to prove a theory. This research is critical to the scientific and medical fields, as it generates applicable methods for tackling real-world problems.

There are two subcategories of applied research: technological and scientific. Technological applied research deals with finding more effective ways to use machines, systems, or processes to produce useful goods and services.

Scientific applied research, on the other hand, involves measuring variables that affect the observed phenomenon. It also helps researchers predict human behavior related to a particular subject.

An example of technological applied research is an inquiry into how Web3, a new iteration of the World Wide Web that incorporates blockchain technology, can be used to solve real-world problems. Meanwhile, an example of scientific applied research is studying how well older adults will adapt to Web3 innovations.

The type of information collected

There are two types of research based on the kind of information researchers collect: primary and secondary research.

Primary research

Primary research involves collecting information directly from first-hand sources. It requires researchers to obtain data from the research subjects directly. Researchers can conduct primary research in many ways and with various tools, such as questionnaires and surveys.

Some direct forms of primary research include interviews and focus groups. Observation is a form of primary research that usually doesn’t involve direct interaction with the research subjects, but rather a careful study of their interactions with their environment. Primary research is essential in fields such as medicine, psychology, and business where researchers need live feedback from the observed subjects.

Primary research tends to produce very specific, timely results, but it may be expensive to conduct. An example of primary research is collecting feedback from a focus group’s discussion on what they like about a hair care product commercial.

Secondary research

Secondary research involves collating already-collected data from secondhand sources. These sources could be published (e.g., industry records, online journals, government records, etc.) or unpublished (e.g., diaries, letters, etc.). Researchers can use secondary research when there’s no need for direct or specific feedback from the observed subjects.

It’s relatively easier and cheaper to conduct secondary research compared to primary research. However, secondary sources could be outdated and provide less specific results. An example of this type of research is extracting information about a company from a newspaper article.

Scope of the research

Based on the scope the research aims to cover, we can categorize it into three types: exploratory, descriptive, and explanatory research.

Exploratory research

Exploratory research is a method researchers use to analyze a lesser-known subject. It’s usually a preliminary probe into an under-researched subject or one people don’t understand well to define a new area for research. Exploratory research typically serves as the basis for further research, and it can help researchers uncover new information about an otherwise obscure topic.

However, because exploratory research examines new topics or areas, there may be a limited  amount of data available on the subject. That means researchers won’t be able to base their research on established theories. “For example, I would say a generic study into the implications of COVID-19 on the global economy would be exploratory research,” says Singh.

Descriptive research

Researchers conduct descriptive research to describe a situation, concept, or phenomenon. However, this kind of research doesn’t usually address the phenomenon’s cause.

It’s also important to note that researchers aren’t allowed to intervene in the observed phenomenon while conducting this kind of research. They must take this precaution to ensure that their research subjects continue to act naturally without the interference of external factors.

Many academic, psychological, and medical research studies are descriptive. An example would be investigating the peculiar mating ritual of male golden pheasants in the wild.

Explanatory research

Explanatory research is the most common type of research. It involves comprehensively dissecting the cause and effect of a certain phenomenon. Explanatory research focuses on answering “why” questions, like, “Why is the green pitcher plant species going extinct?” It goes deeper than exploratory and descriptive research and thoroughly explains the reason for an observed event or situation.

Researchers carrying out explanatory research also observe, analyze, and document the interactions of the observed object with its environment under varying conditions. When observing a phenomenon, they measure how it responds to the influence of external stimuli.

Explanatory research is arguably the best kind of research because it’s comprehensive and provides reference material for secondary research. However, it can be a time-consuming and expensive approach.

This kind of research best suits studies in medicine, academia, business, and psychology.

Time frame for the research

We can also categorize research by the time frame in which researchers carry it out, either as longitudinal or cross-sectional research.

Longitudinal research

Longitudinal research refers to monitoring events, persons, or groups over a relatively long period to track changes in variables such as behavior or physical and psychological development. It deals with observing a specific phenomenon, person, or group over time to notice changes in their behavior under certain circumstances.

“For instance, if I want to understand brand loyalty and how consumers perceive skin care products, then it’s best to use longitudinal research, since customers are going to be using these products on themselves for a long time,” Singh explains.

Longitudinal research is immensely useful because it can help predict future patterns based on changes that have been observed already. For example, explains Singh, “If a product has been in the market over a period of time, how are they reacting to the new variants that are coming up? Are they moving from brand A to brand B? And if they are, why? These kinds of questions take time to answer, and cross-sectional studies will not suffice.”

However, the downside of longitudinal research is that it can be a resource-intensive approach. It requires long-term commitment because trends or patterns may take time to emerge. In addition, participants may drop off along the way, and this may negatively impact the results. Overall, however, well-conducted longitudinal research can provide valuable insights and is well-suited for long-term market research.

Cross-sectional research

Cross-sectional research refers to studying or observing particular events, objects, or people and their interactions with their environment within a short period. The term “cross-sectional research” comes from the word cross-section, which means a random selection or sample serving as a representative of a wider group.

This kind of research is best for quick market analysis, but it’s also useful in education, medicine, and psychology for quickly examining the behaviors and patterns of research subjects or events. It takes less time than longitudinal research.

Singh says that “an advantage of cross-sectional research is that you can compare different samples at a given point in time. For instance, if a researcher wants to understand the relationship between two factors, this research method could be used in a very cost-effective manner and in a shorter span of time.”

However, the data researchers collect from this kind of research can quickly become outdated and insignificant. An example of cross-sectional research is a study to understand the pay gap between men and women at the same career level in a particular location.

A simplified data collection process with Jotform

No matter what type of research you’re conducting, Jotform can help you get the job done. Offering customizable research tools such as form templates, a survey maker, and questionnaire templates, Jotform makes it easier to collect data and organize it into easy-to-read, shareable tables. To learn more about all the ways Jotform can make your research easier, sign up for a free account today.

This article is originally published on Jan 20, 2023, and updated on Jan 25, 2023.

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