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What can grounded theory do for you?


Grounded Theory is used to understand patterns of human behaviour i.e. what people doIt will enable you to understand the main concern of a substantive population and how that concern is resolved or processed. It can help you better understand the issues your employees face, or the concerns of your clients, customers or end users: it will help you understand what causes their pain and what they do about it (or what causes their delight and how they relish it).

The benefit to you is knowing what needs to change in order to improve the experiences of your target population.

Grounded Theory can be used wherever human behaviour needs to be understoodFor example, Helen Scott has worked with grounded theory studies in health care, education, business, technology, journalism, psychology, international relations, construction and many others.

Grounded Theory can be used with smaller or larger populations, locally or globally. The bigger the area of interest under study, the more powerful the output (see for example, Krieger’s study on transnational politics below); whilst the smaller the area, the more specific are the implications.  For studies of all sizes, grounded theory is particularly adept at identifying the inter-relationships between structural, social and social-psychological processes providing critical insights about patterns of human behaviour and their practical implications (e.g. Gibson et al’s “Exploratory Qualitative Study Examining the Social and Psychological Processes Involved in Regular Dental Attendance”).

Grounded theory can be used by policy makers and by practitioners.  For example it can be used to understand the tax compliance behaviours of a population in order to inform the development of tax policy. Or it can be used to understand the behaviours of smallholders growing crops to reveal potential implications for regulators and pesticide manufacturers. It can be used just as well to understand the experiences of participants undertaking a short course as a means to inform course design, or to understand the experiences of visitors to an attraction.

To discuss how Grounded Theory might be useful to you, contact helen.scott@grounded-solutions.comHelen  is delighted to work with you on qualitative or mixed method research or evaluation projects, as a research consultant and qualitative analyst, as part of a team or as sole researcher.

Grounded theory is different

Grounded theory uses qualitative data from many different sources: interview, biography, film, radio, newspapers, television, diaries, journals, blogs, surveys etc. As long as the data is from the ‘area of interest’, it can be used. The results of quantitative analysis can also be used as data.

Grounded theory is exploratory: this means that we cannot know beforehand what we will find. In the early stages data collection needs to be conducted in as open a way as possible, to allow what is significant to participants to surface.

Grounded theory is initially an inductive approach: data is simultaneously collected and analysed until a theory begins to emerge. At a particular point in a theory’s development, the method becomes more deductive: the emerging theory now directs which future data to collect and analysis is delimited to densifying and integrating the theory.

Grounded theories can be applied

Of immediate relevance to the area under study, a grounded theory can also be carefully applied in full or in part to other areas of interest/populations (Glaser, 2014). This is unlike other qualitative methods which are usually limited to unit based descriptions that have no practical application.

The range of applications of grounded theory has yet to be discovered. We know that it can be used to inform policy (e.g. Poverty in Greenland); to ground design of new programmes/services/systems (e.g. Grounded Action) and used in evaluation to inform design and/or implementation of programmes/services/social-technological systems (e.g. Rigour and Relevance in Information Systems). There will be more.

Review the examples below for ideas on how grounded theory might work for you.  See the second tab for more details on how grounded theory can be used for formative and summative project/programme/service/system, evaluations and how it might also inform an impact evaluation of an intervention. 


Examples of grounded theories

Shapeshifting Performance – Brian Stevens

Delivering a project on time and at budget, within an pressurised environment of continuous change, is the main concern for the project managers in this study. Since projects are designed as tightly coupled systems, disruption of the mechanisms that connect and integrate project components must be identified and restored fast else plans collapse and projects fail. 

Shapeshifting is the process of identifying and mastering change as it occurs. When shapeshifting, project managers discover the problem, barter for resources (time & budget) and integrate solutions that move the project forward: that restore or repair the plan’s graphed shape.

The ability to shapeshift varies with level of expertise. ‘Master experts’ are adept at processing change, whilst ‘novice experts’ require more detail, direction and support. Over time novice experts harness the processing power of shapeshifting as a means to become master experts.

The beauty of this theory is in explaining how successful project managers deliver projects on time and at budget. In doing so, it offers a theory of control to project managers focused on sustaining the plan; a theory of practical development for ‘novice experts’ seeking to become masters; it focuses attention on the need for adaptive plan designs.


Temporal integration – Helen M P Scott

The main concern of adult online learners is finding time to study: their problem is integrating the ‘time design’ of the course into their own ‘personal commitment structures’. Time here, is conceptualised as hard and framed rather than as a fluid resource. Different types of learners are more or less successful at integrating their studies and experience different degrees of ‘time tension’. ‘Jugglers’ generally succeed, ‘Strugglers’ experience the most pain, ‘Fade-aways’ and ‘Leavers’ leave silently or violently, respectively.

The problem of student departure is significant to educational organisations as drop-out rates in online learning are high. This theory can be applied to enable course designers to design for persistence and can be used by learners to anticipate problems and adopt successful integrative strategies.

SCOTT, H. (2007). The Temporal Integration of Connected Study into a Structured Life: A Grounded Theory. University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth. Also:


Opportunising – Olavur Christiansen

Of concern to the business leaders in this study, is the growth or survival of their organisation: the problem is perpetual. Business leaders address the problem by ‘opportunising’, which Christiansen defines as “the recurrent creation of convenient occasions for the deliberate pursuit of competitive advantage in business”. The main stages of this process are: perpetual opportunising (conditional befriending and prospecting) and triggering opportunities (weighing up and moment capturing). A process of configuration matching is carried out in parallel with the aim of adapting the organisation’s structures to enable the ‘recurrent exploitation of business opportunities’. Understanding successful patterns of behaviour can enable their intentional exploitation.

CHRISTIANSEN, O. (2007).  Opportunizing: a classic grounded theory on business and management. In B. G. Glaser & J. A. Holton (Eds.), The Grounded Theory Seminar Reader 2007. Mill Valley, California: Sociology Press.


Rehumanising knowledge work – Judith A Holton

A concern of knowledge workers is the ‘dehumanising impact of a rapidly changing workplace’ caused for example by changing work patterns and redundancies. The dehumanisation of work threatens workers’ autonomy and potentially their identity, adversely affecting productivity. Valued knowledge work is characterised by ‘authenticity’, ‘sharing’, ‘depth and meaning’, ‘recognition and respect’ and ‘safety and healing’. This study explains how workers create fluctuating support networks to rediscover value in their work in a three stage process of: finding and likening; igniting passions; mutual engagement.

In raising awareness of the value of the psychological infrastructure of an organisation, this study reveals the potential for revitalising an organisation through re-igniting individual passions and energy for work. This can have a positive impact on productivity and especially quality of work.

HOLTON, J. A. (2007).  Rehumanising knowledge work through fluctuating support networks: a grounded theory. In B. G. Glaser & J. A. Holton (Eds.), The Grounded Theory Seminar Reader 2007. Mill Valley, California: Sociology Press. Also:


Reshaping the Big Agenda: Transnational Politics and Domestic Resistance – Yulia Privalova Krieger

“This study explores the relationship between the different external and domestic policy actors and their strategies to influence the direction of domestic reforms in practice” (Krieger, 2014).

The main concern of the international agencies in this study, is the determined, domestic resistance to social policy reform. All three interested parties process attempted reform by ‘reshaping the big agenda’, thus all parties engage in:

  • Defining/redefining the problem (normative reframing)
  • Positioning solutions (mobilising solutions toolbox/resources to position solutions). The ‘Hardcore’ who are the beneficiaries of current practices ‘claim and protest’; Politicians ‘appease’ and ‘play the fools game’ by ‘promising’, ‘substituting’ and/or ‘delaying’; Bureaucrats ‘trim the fat’.

The surprise in this study is the power and resilience of ‘hardcore’ and its potential lies in future actors being able to apply this theory in other contexts in order to ‘strategise for success’.

KRIEGER, YP 2014, ‘Reshaping the Big Agenda: transnational Politics and Domestic Resistance ; financial crisis and social protection reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina‘, Doctor of Philosophy, Maastricht University.

Using grounded theory for evaluation


 Try it!

On 24th June, 2017 I explained to Dr Barney G. Glaser that I understood that the full power of grounded theory is only achieved by adhering to the tenets of grounded theory and properly implementing the grounded theory procedures. I also explained that I wanted to apply the grounded theory method for use in commercial research and evaluation work and that this would mean careful adaption of the procedures (which would impact on the tenets). He asked me twice if I was sure. I said “yes”. And I told him of some recent projects where useful work was done. He told me that I should memo about what I was doing and that grounded theory was developed for academia but I should “try it”. So I am.

Using grounded theory for evaluation purposes is then, exploratory work, but like grounded theory, evaluation as an endeavour is developing: definitions of what ‘evaluation’ is are evolving and commissioners of evaluation work are seeking innovative methods.

Where to try it

Grounded theory will be useful where evaluation work seeks a systematic and rigorous method for understanding the impact of an intervention, service, project, programme or policy on human behaviours.

The greatest opportunity for grounded theory is in formative evaluation since the practical implications arising from a study can be used to improve design of the service, project, programme or policy in the current context. It also has great potential for use in summative evaluation since the theory can be carefully applied, in whole or in part, to other contexts (Glaser, 2014).

Impact evaluation can involve collecting data before and after an intervention for the purposes of comparison. It is conceivable that a grounded theory can also be conducted before and after an intervention. Not only can differences between the theories be explored, but the practical implications of the modified theory can be carefully applied in other contexts (Glaser, 2014).

For impact evaluation however, it may be more effective to use grounded theory in conjunction with other methods, and to conduct one grounded theory after the intervention.

Conducting an evaluation using grounded theory can help answer questions such as:

  • Are we meeting the needs of our users/patients/clients/population?
  • How are people responding to our service, project, programme or policy?
  • What do our users/patients/clients/population do following our service, project, programme or policy?
  • What happens to our users/patients/clients/population following our service, project, programme or policy?
  • Are people changing their behaviours following this intervention?
  • How are people changing their behaviours following this intervention?

Email Helen to explore how grounded theory might work for your evaluation project.

Grounding anger management – Odis E. Simmons PhD

Odis Simmons conducted an grounded theory analysis of an anger management programme in the USA. He writes of participants:

What I discovered was that from their point of view, the anger that put them in their current situation was a consequence of the paucity of respect and power in their daily lives which led to “things never going my way.” Although they were willing to accept what they viewed as their “fair share” of responsibility for anger situations, they resented what they viewed as the “unfairness” of always being the bad guy when others involved were seen as their innocent victims. The interviews indicated that they thought the program was just one more experience of these things. The extent to which their views were or weren’t accurate didn’t change the fact that an effective anger management program needed to address these main concerns.

Simmons went on to develop an anger management programme specifically designed to address the participants’ concerns, which is still running 25 years later. (Simmons, 2017)