What actually is Grounded Theory? A brief introduction

grounded theory

 

“It’s where you make up as you go along!”

 

For a lot of students, Grounded Theory is used to describe a qualitative analytical method, where you create a coding framework on the fly, from interesting topics that emerge from the data. However, that's not really accurate. There is a lot more to it, and a myriad of different approaches.


Basically, grounded theory aims to create a new theory of interpreting the world, either when it’s an area where there isn’t any existing theory, or you want to challenge what is already out there. An approach that is often overused, it is a valuable way of approaching qualitative research when you aren’t sure what questions to ask. However, it is also a methodological box of worms, with a number of different approaches and confusing literature.


One of my favourite quotes on the subject is from Dey (1999) who says that there are “probably as many versions of grounded theory as there are grounded theorists”. And it can be a problem: a quick search of Google Scholar will show literally hundreds of qualitative research articles with the phrase “grounded theory was used” and no more explanation than this. If you are lucky, you’ll get a reference, probably to Strauss and Corbin (1990). And you can find many examples in peer-reviewed literature describing grounded theory as if there is only one approach.

 

Realistically there are several main types of grounded theory:

 

Classical (CGT)
Classical grounded theory is based on the Glaser and Strauss (1967) book “The Discovery of Grounded Theory”, in which it is envisaged more as a theory generation methodology, rather than just an analytical approach. The idea is that you examine data and discover in it new theory – new ways of explaining the world. Here everything is data, and you should include fieldwork notes as well as other literature in your process. However, a gap is recommended so that literature is not examined first (like when doing a literature review) creating bias too early, but rather engaging with existing theory as something to be challenged.


Here the common coding types are substantive and theoretical – creating an iterative one-two punch which gets you from data to theory. Coding is considered to be very inductive, having less initial focus from the literature.

 

Modified (Straussian)
The way most people think about grounded theory probably links closest to the Strauss and Corbin (1990) interpretation of grounded theory, which is probably more systematic and concerned with coding and structuring qualitative data. It traditionally proposes a three (or sometimes two) stage iterative coding approach, first creating open codes (inductive), then grouping and relating them with axial coding, and finally a process of selective coding. In this approach, you may consider a literature review to be a restrictive process, binding you to prejudices from existing theory. But depending on the different interpretations, modified grounded theory might be more action oriented, and allow more theory to come from the researcher as well as the data. Speaking of which…

 

Constructivist
The seminal work on constructivism here is from Charmaz (2000 or 2006), and it’s about the way researchers create their own interpretations of theory from the data. It aims to challenge the idea that theory can be ‘discovered’ from the data – as if it was just lying there, neutral and waiting to be unearthed. Instead it tries to recognise that theory will always be biased by the way researchers and participants create their own understanding of society and reality. This engagement between participants and researchers is often cited as a key part of the constructivist approach.
Coding stages would typically be open, focused and then theoretical. Whether you see this as being substantively different from the ‘open – axial – selective’ modified grounded theory strategy is up to you. You’ll see many different interpretations and implementations of all these coding approaches, so focus more on choosing the philosophy that lies behind them.

 

Feminist
A lot of the literature here comes from the nursing field, including Kushner and Morrow (2003), Wuest (1995), and Keddy (2006). There are clear connections here with constructivist and post-modern approaches: especially the rejection of positivist interpretations (even in grounded theory!), recognition of multiple possible interpretations of reality, and the examination of diversity, privilege and power relations.

 

Post-modern
Again, a really difficult segmentation to try and label, but for starters think Foucault, power and discourse. Mapping of the social world can be important here, and some writers argue that the practice of trying to generate theory at all is difficult to include in a postmodern interpretation. This is a reaction against the positivist approach some see as inherent in classical grounded theory. For where this leaves the poor researcher practically, there are at least one main suggested approach here from Clarke (2005) who focuses on mapping the social world, including actors and noting what has been left unsaid.

 

There are also what seem to me to be a variety of approaches plus a particular methodology, such as discursive grounded theory where the focus is more on the language used in the data (McCreaddie and Payne 2010). It basically seeks to integrate discourse analysis to look at how participants use language to describe themselves and their worlds. However, I would argue that many different ways of analysing data like discourse analysis can be combined with grounded theory approaches, so I am not sure they are a category of their own right.

 

 

To do grounded theory justice, you really need to do more than read this crude blog post! I’d recommend the chapter on Grounded Theory in Savin-Baden and Howell Major’s (2013) textbook on Qualitative Research. There’s also the wonderfully titled "A Novice Researcher’s First Walk Through the Maze of Grounded Theory" by Evans (2013). Grounding Grounded Theory (Dey 1999) is also a good read – much more critical and humorous than most. However, grounded theory is such a pervasive trope in qualitative research, indeed is seen by some to define qualitative research, that it does require some understanding and engagement.

 

But it’s also worth noting that for practical purposes, it’s not necessary to get involved in all the infighting and debate in the grounded theory literature. For most researchers the best advice is to read a little of each, and decide which approach is going to work best for you based on your research questions and personal preferences. Even better is if you can find another piece of research that describes a grounded theory approach you like, then you can just follow their lead: either citing them or their preferred references. Or, as Dey (1999) notes, you can just create your own approach to grounded theory! Many argue that grounded theory encourages such interpretation and pluralism, just be clear to yourself and your readers what you have chosen to do and why!

 

Analysing text using qualitative software

I'm really happy to see that the talks from the University of Surrey CAQDAS 2014 are now up online (that's 'Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis Software' to you and me). It was a great conference about the current state of software for qualitative analysis, but for me the most interesting talks were from experienced software trainers, about how people actually were using packages in practice.

There were many important findings being shared, but for me one of the most striking was that people spend most of their time coding, and most of what they are coding is text.

In a small survey of CAQDAS users from a qualitative research network in Poland, Haratyk and Kordasiewicz found that 97% of users were coding text, while only 28% were coding images, and 23% directly coding audio. In many ways, the low numbers of people using images and audio are not surprising, but it is a shame. Text is a lot quicker to skip though to find passages compared to audio, and most people (especially researchers) and read a lot faster than people speak. At the moment, most of the software available for qualitative analysis struggles to match audio with meaning, either by syncing up transcripts, or through automatic transcription to help people understand what someone is saying.

Most qualitative researchers use audio as an intermediary stage, to create a recording of a research event, such as in interview or focus group, and have the text typed up word-for-word to analyse. But with this approach you risk losing all of the nuance that we are attuned to hear in the spoken word, emphasis, emotion, sarcasm – and these can subtly or completely transform the meaning of the text. However, since audio is usually much more laborious to work with, I can understand why 97% of people code with text. Still, I always try to keep the audio of an interview close to hand when coding, so that I can listen to any interesting or ambiguous sections, and make sure I am interpreting them fairly.

Since coding text is what most people spend most of their time doing, we spent a lot of time making the text coding process in Quirkos was as good as it could be. We certainly plan to add audio capabilities in the future, but this needs to be carefully done to make sure it connects closely with the text, but can be coded and retrieved as easily as possible.

 

But the main focus of the talk was the gaps in users' theoretical knowledge, that the survey revealed. For example, when asked which analytical framework the researchers used, only 23% described their approach as Grounded Theory. However, when the Grounded Theory approach was described in more detail, 61% of respondents recognised this method as being how they worked. You may recall from the previous top-up, bottom-down blog article that Grounded Theory is essentially finding themes from the text as they appear, rather than having a pre-defined list of what a researcher is looking for. An excellent and detailed overview can be found here.

Did a third of people in this sample really not know what analytical approach they were using? Of course it could be simply that they know it by another name, Emergent Coding for example, or as Dey (1999) laments, there may be “as many versions of grounded theory as there were grounded theorists”.

 

Finally, the study noted users comments on advantages and disadvantages with current software packages. People found that CAQDAS software helped them analyse text faster, and manage lots of different sources. But they also mentioned a difficult learning curve, and licence costs that were more than the monthly salary of a PhD student in Poland. Hopefully Quirkos will be able to help on both of these points...