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The way I gather, a explorative study is merely trying to identify certain concepts, whereas a explanatory study is trying to explain a A causes B relationship.

Especially with regard to case study research, Yin (book on case studies, 2014), mentions the following:

'For instance, many descriptive case studies deal with the “how” of a situation, whereas many explanatory case studies deal with the “why” of situations.'

But the way I see it, questions with regard to a 'how' situation are often explanatory in nature:

How does using an umbrella influence your sogginess?
How does e-commerce influence internationalisation process?
How does smoking influence heart disease?

Are these questions not explanatory in nature?

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  • Are you conflating "exploratory" with "descriptive"? I think that the meaning of "descriptive" is much closer to "explanatory". I think there may be three concepts here, not two.
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 6, 2021 at 20:52
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    What do you mean "how to differentiate"? What will you do with the answer? Commented Aug 6, 2021 at 21:01
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    Do yourself a favor and give "We need both exploratory and confirmatory" by John Tukey a read. It begins with "We often forget how science and engineering function." Commented Aug 6, 2021 at 21:47
  • It is not about the research questions, it is about the methods and the design. Also, the terms exploratory and explanatory may have slightly different connotations across different fields.
    – Aolon
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 5:26

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