Grounded Theory

Grounded theory belongs to the family of qualitative research, which is based on subjective, textual data as opposed to quantitative data. It is one of four primary qualitative approaches – the others being phenomenology, field research and ethnography. This approach is credited to two sociologists, Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss in the 1960s.

Whereas traditional methods seek to validate existing hypotheses, grounded theory generates its hypotheses and resultant theories from data – using inductive reasoning primarily (Glaser later included deductive reasoning as part of his methodology.) Some advocates of the scientific method believe that it does not matter how one arrives at a hypothesis; only the method is important. Grounded theory derives its name because it posits that a hypothesis must be rooted (or grounded) in systematic observation.

• Basis of the grounded approach

Every study must start somewhere, and it would be impossible to begin without an idea of what needs to be investigated. In traditional research, a theory and its hypotheses would form this platform. Grounded theory uses a number of generative questions, whose purpose is to guide the research. However, these questions are inherently dynamic, flexible, and do not serve to restrict the scope of the research.

• Research process

Grounded theory is essentially an iterative process that uses a series of generative questions as a starting point. The next step is to identify core theoretical concepts based on the data extracted. These concepts, in turn, form the basis of prototype theories, which are formed through “tentative linkages” of the core concepts and data.

Through revisionism in the latter stages of research, a “conceptually dense theory” should emerge. As an iterative process, the results of grounded theory do not form scientific laws or seek to uncover truths, but merely a primary theory that can be validated, repudiated or modified by subsequent research.

•Key analytic strategies involved in grounded research

Grounded theory uses three primary analytic strategies in its research process:

Coding: This involves categorizing collected data into classes and describing “implications and details of these categories.” In the early stages, open coding would be utilized, but in the latter stages selective coding would be employed towards the formation of the conceptually dense theory.

Documentation: Known as theoretical memoing, this involves the researcher recording thoughts throughout the research process. However, memoing is more important in the seminal stage of research.

Illustration: Iterative diagrams seek to represent the development of the theory by illustrating the tentative linkages between the core concepts and data.

• Divergence in grounded theory

Although Glaser and Strauss developed grounded theory, they had disagreements over the methodology and scope of grounded theory. Thus, there is a dichotomy in grounded theory based on the paradigms associated with Strauss (Straussian) and Glaser (Glaserian). The divergence can be thought of as being centred on the extent to which deductive methods are included in the grounded approach. Being a qualitative research method, this intellectual disagreement was never resolved.

Despite the debate over how grounded theory should be done, it is considered a qualitative research method that can use data analysis and deductive reasoning. Grounded theory provides a framework for validating hypotheses and developing theories from vague questions in a field of interest.


Social Research Methods