The Power of GT

A method note

Michael R. Montgomery, MA, MSc, BSc (Hons)

My interest in Grounded Theory (GT) came through my admiration of the work of Brené Brown (2012, 2010). Unusually, in the commercial publication of her work she was explicit in how her work on shame came about by her commitment to GT. She offers three of the biggest challenges to becoming a GT researcher. Unfortunately, I had already began my own study and was pulling my hair out, before remembering them.

Three challenges for the GT researcher

  1. Acknowledging that it is virtually impossible to understand grounded theory prior to using it.
  2. Developing the courage to let the research participants define the research problem.
  3. Letting go of your own interests and preconceived ideas to ‘trust in emergence’.

Really, it is virtually impossible to understand GT prior to using it. Glaser (1992, p.21) is categorical: ‘getting started in grounded theory research and analysis is as much a part of the methodological process as are the ensuing phases if the research’. He urges the researcher to just start. This poses a lot of challenges, particularly for perfectionists or people who like to know everything before beginning anything new.

Challenge 2 is a biggie, as is Challenge 3.

Barney Glaser has stated that ‘GT is the study of a concept’.  For me GT was the experience of studying a concept. But before I could get close to that experience I had to let of go of my preconceptions, assumptions, and initial concepts and how they related to my motivation to conduct the study. I had already learnt the truth of the first challenge and now was faced with overcoming the next two.

This can be an extremely challenging ask, especially if the researcher is familiar with the world that they wish to study. In my case, a psychotherapist who has experienced client’s disclosing suicidal ideation and who wants to prove what he thinks he already knows about this phenomenon, by analysing data from other therapists.

Openness

It was a long and slightly painful road to get to the point where I could make the above confession. As I rocketed away from all that was familiar, the different aspects of my interests had to be jettisoned off to leave the familiarity of the home planet and to venture towards the uncertainly of what planet GT may entail.

As dramatic and as necessary as this stage of jettison was, it was not a case of forgetting all of my previous experience and interests but rather a letting go of them as a core interest of the study. If they had merit then they would earn their way back into the data. As Dey’s summary of the approach central to engaging optimally with the data suggests: ‘open mind not empty head’ (1993, p.229). Barney prizes the novice researcher in their ability to remain open (2014, p.174), or in my own experience, ‘openness forces itself upon the novice GT researcher’.

Level zero

This study, as for many of the best GT studies, was not achieved without the invaluable support of mentoring. If you have seen the film Kung Fu Panda you will remember Po asked the Master could he start at level zero. The Master replied with incredulity, that ‘there is no level zero’. After Po gives a demonstration of his Kung Fu skills or lack of, the Master says exasperated that ‘there is now a level zero’.

I discovered I was at level zero after I conducted my second GT interview and attempted to analyse the data. I realised that I knew many of the bits of GT but didn’t know how to join it up. I needed a Master, a mentor and a friend who could guide me out of the darkness of early GT experience. I already had the supportive words of Barney in his many guidebooks but now it was time for something a little more two way.

Mentoring

If you have reached the point of your existence when you realise life is finite, you will also then appreciate that people who shoot from the hip, say it like it is, and don’t molly coddle are the best mentors and friends to have around; they don’t waste precious time. This was Helen Scott, my GT mentor, my captain.

In a very focused and firm way she kept reflecting to me that I was beginning the study with way too many preconceptions. I had a range of ideas that were important to me without any evidence that they were important to the participants. Even when thinking to ask participants straightforward questions like ‘what modality informs your practice?’ I was told repeatedly that such matters would have to earn their way into the data. A phrase that I found harrowing in its capacity to shatter my professional world view and my overall approach to research. This for me was the absolute turning point in understanding the essence of what GT is, and what it is not. But it takes a significant amount of self-reflection and honesty to admit to oneself that one is approaching research from the perspective of verification. As Barney describes it:

“It is not that the experienced formed cannot remain open. It is just that few seldom do. Confident knowing is its own downfall in GT: almost non-stoppable. The greater the light, the greater the darkness does not seem to apply. Rather the greater the light, the more the formed see clearly ‘in advance’ or preconceive the theory.” (Glaser, 2014, p.174)

Barney goes on to quote Brene Brown’s original dissertation:

‘Initially I set out, on what I thought was a well-travelled path, to find empirical evidence of what I knew to be true. I soon realized that conducting research centering on what matters to research participants — grounded theory research — means there is no path and, certainly, there is no way of knowing what you will find. This research began as a narrow quest to verify if one small group of helping professionals utilized a practice I believed ‘essential to good helping.’ Through the use of grounded theory, I was forced to challenge my own interests, investments and preconceived ideas in order to understand the concerns, interests and ideas of the research participants. The process evolved from ‘I think this is important — are you doing it?’ to ‘what do you think is important to helping and why?’ This evolution transformed my narrow quest for verification into the development of a complex theory…”

After a handful mentoring sessions, which consisted of a well needed metaphorical battering by my mentor, I returned to the field with a new-found paradoxical confidence in the uncertainty that was before me. I engaged the participants with the most general of spill questions and something extraordinary happened very quickly. It became clear through analysis that the participants were less interested in the area of suicidal ideation and more interested in their responsibility to their client, and how to resolve it.

The Wow moment

Letting go of my research interests (and potential sneaky theory that I wanted to validate) allowed a space for the concerns of the participants to emerge. Of course, I immediately knew that these concerns were relevant because they immediately resonated with me as a therapist, after all I shared their world. It was hard to contain the ‘wow moment’ realising that I had found gold beyond what I had ever set out to achieve.

The next big realisation for me speaks to the absolute power of GT. If the core concern of the therapists’ was responsibility, this meant that the code of suicidal ideation was interchangeable with any risk behaviour for which the therapist had responsibility. Immediately I realised by letting go of my preconceptions and focusing on the concerns of the participants, I opened the study to much more significant and far reaching implications.

Although a small study, there were the foundations for considering a more formal theory. If a therapist’s risk-taking, intuition, and initiative were impacted by the McDonaldization of their environment – audit culture and the overbearing consequences for non-compliance to rules and regulations (Montogomery, 2017) – what other roles might also be impacted. After distributing the grounded theory generated from the study, I was contacted by colleagues who said they were seeing the theory in other walks of like: the power of GT when a theory has immediate grab.

References

Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly. London: Penguin.
Brown, B. (2010). Gifts of Imperfection. London: Penguin.
Dey, I. (1999). Grounding Grounded Theory. London: Emerald Publishing.
Glaser, B. (2014). Choosing Classic Grounded Theory. USA: Sociology Press.
Montgomery, M (2017) … submitted for publication

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