Grounded Theory Definition

Grounded theory was formulated by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss as a method of research in the social sciences. Owing to its use of comparison of data, it was originally referred to as the “constant comparative method”. The essence of grounded theory is that it is a method of conducting research that takes as a starting point the collection of empirical data. The theory is therefore developed using an inductive approach, collecting specific data and moving from this to a general theory.

Research is undertaken through observation and interviews with the objective of understanding the events and the roles of those participating in the events. The research is undertaken without formulation of any prior hypothesis, so the direction of the research is not influenced by any preconceived notions on the part of the researcher.

Data that emerges from the research is compared to other data as it is collected, and relevant categories are identified. As a result of the comparison of the data and the analysis of categories a theory emerges that is consistent with the data collected. Further data obtained by the researcher is then compared to this theory as the research work progresses.

This approach differs from the type of approach that uses hypothesis testing. The grounded research is not conducted in order to test a hypothesis but with the objective of allowing a theory to emerge from the data. The theory emerges on the basis of the data collected and does not need to be forced on the data by the researcher.

This approach is also reflected in the use of academic literature by the researcher. Whereas a researcher would often review the relevant academic literature on the subject of the study before beginning to collect data, the researcher in an emergent study may consider that a prior study of the relevant literature would influence the collection of data.

Grounded theory would therefore point to an approach which begins with the collection of data and would involve consulting academic literature as this becomes relevant to the direction of the research, as indicated by the data collected. The literature can be compared to the emerging theory as part of the research process, in the same way as other data is compared to the theory. Consultation of the academic literature as it is found to be relevant is therefore an integral part of the process of collecting data.

Grounded theory involves qualitative research in the sense that much of the data does not consist of mere facts or statistics but involves an attempt to look at the reasons why certain actions and behaviours are performed. The understanding of the researcher is therefore applied to the samples to reach judgments about questions such as why certain structures and processes are in place or how decisions are reached.

Why is the Theory Referred to as Grounded?

The theory is “grounded” in the sense that the data is collected from the beginning of the research project and the theory indicated by this data is used to shape the further process of collecting data. The interconnection between the collection of the data and the analysis can be used to increase the understanding of the theory that is emerging from the data.

The first stages of research would use open sampling methods to determine the documents, events and key players to be studied. Later in the research process relational sampling could be used to look at data that confirms the relationships prevailing between certain categories or that indicates the limits of those relationships. More directed sampling would take place toward the end of the research work, involving the collection of samples that can verify the theory that has emerged from the data.

Grounded theory is typified by the regulated processes for collection of data, the analysis of the data and the formulation of a theory from the data. The theory that emerges from the data must possess certain qualities, for example that it must fit the facts, account for the data collected and provide understanding of the phenomena observed. The theory should be sufficiently abstract to be of wider application than just to the specific set of facts and there should be clarity about the conditions under which the theory will apply.


Southern Cross University, Australia