What is Grounded Theory?

Grounded Theory is 

  • a research method that will enable you to 
  • develop a theory which 
  • offers an explanation about 
  • the main concern of the population of your substantive area and 
  • how that concern is resolved or processed. 
For example in my study, the main concern of learners is finding the time to study and temporal integration is the core category which explains how the concern is resolved or processed. That is: Jugglers and Strugglers employ successful temporal integration strategies enabling them to study whilst Fade-aways and Leavers are less successful in devising and adopting temporal integration strategies. Understanding how temporal integration does or does not happen has implications for learning design and learner persistence. 

For the nurses of  Nathanial's study, their main concern was moral distress and the core category which processed their concern was moral reckoning. For McCallin's' interdisciplinary teams the main concern was client service delivery and the core category - pluralistic dialoguing. We recommend that you read these studies to get an idea of what a Grounded Theory is - and is not. You will find many examples of Grounded Theory in this Reader

Grounded Theory is a general research method (and thus is not owned by any one school or discipline); which guides you on matters of data collection (where you can use quantitative data or qualitative data of any type e.g. video, images, text, observations, spoken word etc.); and details strict procedures for data analysis.

Grounded Theory is a research tool which enables you to seek out and conceptualise the latent social patterns and structures of your area of interest through the process of constant comparison. (A bit like being the x-ray machine of the social world? Though just take the quick idea from that metaphor as it doesn't bear too much examination!) Initially you will use an inductive approach to generate substantive codes from your data, later your developing theory will suggest to you where to go next to collect data and which, more-focussed, questions to ask; which is the deductive phase of the Grounded Theory process. (See page 37 of Theoretical Sensitivity)

Grounded Theory is first and foremost a research method

But the term 'Grounded Theory' is used in two ways; (1) if you adhere to the strictures of Grounded-Theory-the-research-method you will engage in a research process that will produce (2) a theory-which-is-grounded-in-data ie. a Grounded Theory. Thus both the research method and the output of the research process have the same name - which can be confusing! 

How do you do Grounded Theory?

The methodological stages are:
  1. Identify your substantive area - your area of interest. Examples of substantive areas included dying (Glaser, 1967), online learning (Scott, 2007), a cafe (Rosenbaum, 2006), nursing practice (Nathanial,2007), management studies (Holton, 2007), work processes (Gynnild, 2007), interdisciplinary teams (McCallin, 2007).  Your study will be about the perspective of one (or more) of the groups of people of the substantive area who will comprise your substantive population e.g. patients, doctors, nurses and social workers (Glaser 1967), online learners (Scott 2007), nurses who have practiced in direct contact with patients (Nathanial, 2007),  knowledge workers (Holton, 2007 ) journalists (Gynnild, 2006), health professionals (McCallin, 2007).
  2. Collect data pertaining to the substantive area. A Grounded Theory may use qualitative data, quantitative data (e.g. Glaser 1964 and Glaser 2008) or a mixture of the two. Thus data types include but are not restricted to
    • collecting observations of the substantive area itself and activities occurring within the substantive area; 
    • accessing public or private record irrespective of form (e.g.  photograph, diary, painting, sculpture, biography, television broadcast, news report, survey, government or organisational document, etc.);
    • conversing with individuals or a group of individuals,  face-to-face or remotely [synchronously (e.g telephone, text chat) or asynchronously (e.g. email or wiki)]. 
  3. Open code your data as you collect it. Open coding and data collection are integrated activities thus the data collection stage and open coding stage occur simultaneously and continue until the core category is recognised/selected. (Note: there may be more than one potential core category).  Open coding simply means code everything for everything – more on that in the getting started section. Eventually the core category and the main concern become apparent; where the core category explains the behaviour in the substantive area i.e. it explains how the main concern is resolved or processed. For example in my study the main concern was finding time to study and the core category was ‘temporal integration’. See Chapter 4 of Theoretical Sensitivity and Chapter 9 of Doing Grounded Theory for guidance on open coding (1).
  4. Write memos throughout the entire process; The development of your theory is captured in your memos; few memos = thin theory. Method memos chronicle tussles with the method and help write the chapter on method. But most importantly theoretical memos are written about codes and their (potential) relationships with other codes. It's a low risk activity, so don't be concerned about writing 'bad' memos; your memos will mature as your skill and your theory develop. For excellent guidance on how to write memos see Chapter 5 of Theoretical Sensitivity and in particular page 89. 
  5. Conduct selective coding and theoretical sampling; Now that the core category and main concern are recognised; open coding stops and selective coding – coding only for the core category and related categories – begins. Further sampling is directed by the developing theory (who do I need to ask to learn more about these issues?) and used to saturate the core category and related categories. . See page 141 of Doing Grounded Theory for an explanation of when a code can be considered saturated and page 52 of Discovery for a discussion on comparison groups.  When your categories are saturated:
  6. Sort your memos and find the Theoretical Code(s) which best organises your substantive codes. (See Chapter 4 of Theoretical Sensitivity and Grounded Theory Perspectives III) When you feel the theory is well formed
  7. Read the literature and integrate with your theory through selective coding. 
  8. Write up your theory. Job done!
If you follow the method as Glaser describes, you will end up with a theory. The quality of that theory will depend upon your skills and the skills you develop as you research. You can read more about the terms used and the shape of a grounded theory here. 

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(1) These are just two examples of where Glaser discusses open coding ... there are others, these are offered as a guide.

© helen scott 2009