What is Grounded Theory?

Have you ever wondered what Grounded Theory (GT) is all about? If so, here is a short overview of this qualitative research method. In a nutshell, GT is a framework for analysing qualitative data. The method offers a set of flexible guidelines that help researchers to focus their data collection and analysis with the aim of inductively building theories. Research regularly starts with some theories or ideas that guide the investigation and data gathering process. Whereas with GT the process is more inductive, where data is first collected and let to shape the research outcome. In other words, instead of starting with theories or ideas to be tested with the help of the data, the researcher allows the data to shape their research questions and process. The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research (1967) by Barney G. Glaser and Anselm Strauss was the first book on the method and is one of the most cited books in the field of social science.

In order to understand GT, one has to look at the academic backgrounds of both Glaser and Strauss. Glaser had a traditional positivistic training in quantitative research from Colombia University and Strauss came from University from Chicago with a strong tradition of field research and an interpretative approach called symbolic interactionism. Their collaboration resulted in a very structured and rigorous way of conducting qualitative research. GT, therefore, soon became an accepted form of qualitative research in a largely positivistic world of social science.         

The success and criticism of GT

GT was revolutionary in the sense that it challenged a) separation between theory and research, b) views of qualitative research as mainly a preparation for ‘real’ quantitative measurement, c) opinions that qualitative methods were not rigorous enough, d) beliefs that qualitative methods are vague, fuzzy, and unsystematic, e) division of data collection and analysis, and f) assumptions that qualitative research could generate only descriptive case studies and not develop theory. The fact that Glaser and Strauss not only argued for qualitative research to move toward theory development, but also provided guidelines for the entire research process probably contributed to the success of GT.

Despite its success, GT is not without its weaknesses and has been much criticized as well. Bryman et al. (2011), for example, argue that GT seldom generate any formal theories. Another problem is the confusing and diffuse use of GT terminology in the books written on the method. An example of this is the interchangeably use of the terms ‘categories’ and ‘concepts’. The fragmented terminology use totally contradicts the claim of GT to be a rigorous and structured method. However, the terminology problem has a natural explanation in the early split-up between Glaser and Strauss after the publication of Discovery of Grounded Theory (1967). The two founders of the method have since developed more or less their own versions of GT.

Two versions of GT

Glaser’s book Theoretical Sensitivity (1978) further developed GT but was considered inaccessible to many readers due to Glaser’s abstract terminology and dense writing. Instead, it was Strauss and his later co-author Juliet Corbin who made GT more accessible and known to a wider audience through the books Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists (1987) and Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques (1990). At the same time, Glaser felt that the Strauss approach to GT promoted in the two above books was too rigid and focused too much on development of concepts instead of theories.

A major difference between the two approaches to GT emerges already in the planning stage of the research project. Strauss and Corbin are of the opinion that a research question can and should be formulated before the data collection starts. Glaser opposes this view fiercely and argues that a preconceived research question will force concepts upon the data instead of letting the data reveal concepts. This controversy is clear already from the title Basics of Grounded Theory Analysis: Emergence vs. Forcing that Glaser (1992) chose for his response to Strauss and Corbin.

So, which version of GT is best? That is a problem faced by more or less every researcher interested in GT. Both versions have their pros and cons. Hartman (2001) emphasizes the importance of making a choice, otherwise it is easy to get divided and end up with some kind of useless hybrid version of GT. It is generally considered that Glaser is true to the original idea and Strauss (later together with Corbin) has moved away from it, which of course is not necessarily a bad thing as research methods often develop over time.

Gustav Medberg is a Postdoctoral Researcher and Lecturer at the Department of Marketing at Hanken. His main research interests include financial services, service marketing and management, value creation and destruction, and qualitative research methods.

References

Bryman, A., Bell, E., Mills, A.J. & Yue, A.R, (2011), Business Research Methods. Canadian Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Glaser, B. (1978), Theoretical Sensitivity. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press

Glaser, B. (1992), Basics of grounded theory analysis: Emergence vs. forcing. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press

Glaser, B. & Strauss, A. (1967), The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine

Hartman, J. (2001), Grundad teori. Teorigenerering på empirisk grund. Lund:

Studentlitteratur

Strauss, A. (1987), Qualitative analysis for social scientists. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Strauss, A. & Corbin, J. (1990), Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications