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The term grounded theory refers to systematic guidelines for data gathering, coding, synthesizing, categorizing, and integrating concepts to generate middle-range theory. Data collection and analysis proceed simultaneously and each informs the other. In their cutting-edge book, The Discovery of Grounded Theory (1967), Barney G. Glaser and
Anselm L. Strauss proposed that: (1) qualitative inquiry could make significant theoretical and empirical contributions, rather than merely serve as a precursor to quantitative research; (2) researchers could codify qualitative analysis in systematic ways; and (3) the divide between theory and methods was artificial.
Glaser built on his quantitative training at Columbia University with its underpinnings in positivism and assumptions about discovery, externality, neutrality, and parsimony. Strauss brought Chicago School traditions of ethnographic field-work, pragmatist philosophy, and symbolic interactionism to grounded theory. Later divisions between Glaser and Strauss, their separate versions of grounded theory, and a new variant of it make grounded theory a contested method. Despite epistemological and practice differences, all grounded theorists assume that: (1) theory construction is a major objective of grounded theory, (2) the logic of grounded theory differs from quantitative research, and (3) the grounded theory emerges from rigorous data analysis, not from adopting preconceived theories. When involved in conducting their studies, diverse grounded theorists agree on the following strategies: (1) collecting and analyzing data simultaneously; (2) using comparative methods during each analytic stage; (3) devising analytic categories early in the research process; (4) engaging in analytic writing throughout; and (5) sampling for the purpose of developing ideas.
Coding in grounded theory is at least a two-phased process: initial and focused. During initial coding, researchers ask: ”What category does this incident indicate? What is actually happening in the data?” (Glaser 1978: 57). Close examination of data combined with comparisons between data prompts researchers to see their data in new ways. Initial coding also alerts the researcher to potential in vivo codes given in the setting or in participants’ direct statements. As researchers engage in comparing and coding data, certain codes assume greater analytic power than other codes and often appear more frequently. They select these codes as focused codes to sift through large batches of data. This coding also provides the grist to interrogate the data and to contemplate what’s missing in it.
Memowriting is the pivotal intermediate strategy that bridges coding and report writing. Memos are analytic notes covering all the researcher’s ideas and questions about the codes that occur at the moment. In early memos, grounded theorists raise certain codes to preliminary categories and then explore them. In later memos, they develop specific categories through making incisive comparisons, and begin to integrate their categories. Hence, they compare category with category, as well as compare data with the relevant category.
After establishing analytic categories, researchers typically need to seek more data to fill out these categories through theoretical sampling, a selective, systematic, and strategic way of gathering specific additional data. Theoretical sampling increases the definitiveness, generality, and usefulness of the emerging theory.
Strauss and Corbin’s Basics of Qualitative Research (1990) revised grounded theory. They introduced new techniques, treated grounded theory as a set of procedures, and advocated verification. Glaser (1992) repudiated their approach. He viewed grounded theory as a method of theory construction, not of verification, and saw their innovations as forcing data into preconceived categories.
The next major revision of grounded theory emerged when Charmaz (2006) distinguished between constructivist grounded theory and the earlier versions. Constructivist grounded theory: (1) places priority on the studied phenomenon rather than techniques of studying it; (2) takes reflexivity and research relationships into account; (3) assumes that both data and analyses are social constructions; (4) studies how participants create meanings and actions; (5) seeks an insider’s view to the extent possible; and (6) acknowledges that analyses are contextually situated in time, place, culture, and situation.
- Charmaz, K. (2006) Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide Through Qualitative Analysis. Sage, London.
- Glaser, B. G. (1978) Theoretical Sensitivity. Sociology Press, Mill Valley, CA.
- Glaser, B. G. (1992) Basics of Grounded Theory Analysis. Sociology Press, Mill Valley, CA.
- Strauss, A. L. & Corbin, J. (1990) Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques. Sage, Newbury Park, CA.