Causal Research (Explanatory research)

Causal research, also known as explanatory research is conducted in order to identify the extent and nature of cause-and-effect relationships. Causal research can be conducted in order to assess impacts of specific changes on existing norms, various processes etc.

Causal studies focus on an analysis of a situation or a specific problem to explain the patterns of relationships between variables. Experiments are the most popular primary data collection methods in studies with causal research design.

The presence of cause cause-and-effect relationships can be confirmed only if specific causal evidence exists. Causal evidence has three important components:

1. Temporal sequence. The cause must occur before the effect. For example, it would not be appropriate to credit the increase in sales to rebranding efforts if the increase had started before the rebranding.

2. Concomitant variation. The variation must be systematic between the two variables. For example, if a company doesn’t change its employee training and development practices, then changes in customer satisfaction cannot be caused by employee training and development.

3. Nonspurious association. Any covarioaton between a cause and an effect must be true and not simply due to other variable. In other words, there should be no a ‘third’ factor that relates to both, cause, as well as, effect.

The table below compares the main characteristics of causal research to exploratory and descriptive research designs:[1]

Causal research Exploratory research Descriptive research
Amount of uncertainty characterising decision situation Clearly defined Highly ambiguous Partially defined
Key research statement Research hypotheses Research question Research question
When conducted? Later stages of decision making Early stage of decision making Later stages of decision making
Usual research approach Highly structured Unstructured Structured
Examples ‘Will consumers buy more products in a blue package?’

‘Which of two advertising campaigns will be more effective?’

‘Our sales are declining for no apparent reason’

‘What kinds of new products are fast-food consumers interested in?’

‘What kind of people patronize our stores compared to our primary competitor?’

‘What product features are the most important to our customers?’

Main characteristics of research designs

 Examples of Causal Research (Explanatory Research)

The following are examples of research objectives for causal research design:

  • To assess the impacts of foreign direct investment on the levels of economic growth in Taiwan
  • To analyse the effects of re-branding initiatives on the levels of customer loyalty
  • To identify the nature of impact of work process re-engineering on the levels of employee motivation

Advantages of Causal Research (Explanatory Research)

  • Causal studies may play an instrumental role in terms of identifying reasons behind a wide range of processes, as well as, assessing the impacts of changes on existing norms, processes etc.
  • Causal studies usually offer the advantages of replication if necessity arises
  • This type of studies are associated with greater levels of internal validity due to systematic selection of subjects

Disadvantages of Causal Research (Explanatory Research)

  • Coincidences in events may be perceived as cause-and-effect relationships. For example, Punxatawney Phil was able to forecast the duration of winter for five consecutive years, nevertheless, it is just a rodent without intellect and forecasting powers, i.e. it was a coincidence.
  • It can be difficult to reach appropriate conclusions on the basis of causal research findings. This is due to the impact of a wide range of factors and variables in social environment. In other words, while casualty can be inferred, it cannot be proved with a high level of certainty.
  • It certain cases, while correlation between two variables can be effectively established; identifying which variable is a cause and which one is the impact can be a difficult task to accomplish.


My e-book, The Ultimate Guide to Writing a Dissertation in Business Studies: a step by step assistance contains discussions of theory and application of research designs. The e-book also explains all stages of the research process starting from the selection of the research area to writing personal reflection. Important elements of dissertations such as research philosophyresearch approachmethods of data collectiondata analysis and sampling are explained in this e-book in simple words.

John Dudovskiy

Causal Research (Explanatory research)

[1] Source: Zikmund, W.G., Babin, J., Carr, J. & Griffin, M. (2012) “Business Research Methods: with Qualtrics Printed Access Card” Cengage Learning