Mar 27, 2010

Grounded Theory

Jing Ke & Sarah Wenglensky
Feb, 2010
Course Title: Research Method

Grounded Theory - Handout

It’s a world view that says not to have a world view when doing research.
---Created by us

The methodology of grounded theory was developed by American sociologists Glaser and Strauss in 1967 to describe a new qualitative research method they used in their research Awareness of Dying in 1965. In this study, they adopted an investigative research method with no preconceived hypothesis and used continually comparative analysis of data. They believe that the theory obtained by this method is truly grounded in the data. For this reason they named the methodology “grounded theory” (Glaser & Strauss, 1967).

The goal of the grounded theory approach is to generate a theory that explains how an aspect of the social world “works”. The goal is to develop a theory that emerges from and is therefore connected to the very reality that the theory is developed to explain.

Key definitions
According to Creswell (2009), grounded theory is “a qualitative strategy of inquiry in which the researcher derives a general, abstract theory of process, action, or interaction grounded in the views of participants in a study.” (p. 13 & 229) This process involves using multiple stages of data collection and the refinement and interrelationships of categories of information (Charmaz, 2006; Strauss and Corbin, 1990, 1998).

Other definitions of grounded theory:
Grounded theory is “a systematic qualitative research methodology in the social sciences emphasizing generation of theory from data in the process of conducting research.” (Martin, et al. 1986)

“The grounded theory approach is a qualitative research method that uses a systematic set of procedures to develop an inductively derived grounded theory about a phenomenon.” (Strauss and Corbin, 1990)

A complete grounded theory research design often contains the elements listed in Table 1. These steps may not be undertaken sequentially in the research; the researchers sometimes need to go back and forth amongst several steps.

Table 1 General elements in a grounded theory research design
1. Question formulating
2. Theoretical sampling
3. Interview transcribing and Contact summary
4. Data chunking and Data naming – Coding
5. Developing conceptual categories
6. Constant comparison
7. Analytic memoing
8. Growing theories

Defining features
Two primary characteristics of grounded theory research design:

1) the constant comparison of data with emerging categories and,
2) theoretical sampling of different groups to maximize the similarities and differences of information (Creswell, 2009, p.13).

Current uses of grounded theory
Grounded theory is a powerful research method for collecting and analyzing data. Traditional research designs which usually rely on a literature review leading to the formation of a hypothesis. Then one tests the hypothesis through experimentation in the real world.

Grounded theory investigates the actualities in the real world and analyses the data with no preconceived ideas or hypothesis (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). In other words, grounded theory suggests that theory emerges inductively from the data (Chesebro & Borisoff, 2007). Though it can be used in different types of research, grounded theory is often adopted to formulate hypotheses or theories based on existing phenomena, or to discover the participants’ main concern and how they continually try to resolve it (Glaser, 1992).

Strengths and weaknesses
Due to the difficulties and weaknesses encountered when applying grounded theory, this methodology is still not widely used or understood by researchers in many disciplines (Allan, 2003).

An effective approach to build new theories and understand new phenomena
High quality of the emergent theory
Emergent research design reflects the idiosyncratic nature of the study
Findings and methods are always refined and negotiated
Requires detailed and systematic procedures for data collection, analysis and theorizing
The resulting theory and hypotheses help generate future investigation into the phenomenon
Requires the researcher to be open minded, and able to look at the data through many lenses
Data collection occurs over time, and at many levels, helping to ensure meaningful results

Huge volumes of data
Time consuming and painstakingly precise process of data collection/analysis
Lots of noise and chaos in the data
Prescribed application required for the data-gathering process
There are tensions between the evolving and inductive style of a flexible study and the systematic approach of grounded theory.
It may be difficult in practice to decide when the categories are “saturated” or when the theory is sufficiently developed
It is not possible to start a research study without some pre-existing theoretical ideas and assumptions
Requires high levels of experience, patience and acumen on the part of the researcher

Data Collection
This is not to suggest that classic grounded theory is free of any theoretical lens but rather that it should not be confined to any one lens; that as a general methodology, classic grounded theory can adopt any epistemological perspective appropriate to the data and the ontological stance of the researcher (Holton, 2009).

Data collection of grounded theory is directed by theoretical sampling, which means that the sampling is based on theoretically relevant constructs. It enables the researcher to select subjects that maximize the potential to discover as many dimensions and conditions related to the phenomenon as possible (Strauss & Corbin, 1998).

Many experiments, in their early stages, use the open sampling methods of identifying individuals, objects or documents. This is so that the data’s relevance to the research question can be assessed early on, before too much time and money has been invested (Davidson, 2002).

Grounded theory data collection is usually but not exclusively by interviews. Actually, any data collection method can be used, like focus groups, observations, informal conversation, group feedback analysis, or any other individual or group activity which yields data (Dick, 2005).

Interview transcribing is probably one of the most time-consuming parts of the research. The researchers are suggested to transform the tape recordings of interviews and other notes into word-by-word transcripts for further analysis. However, some researchers (Glaser, 1992, Dick, 2005) argue that taking key-word notes during the interviews, tape-recording the interviews and checking the notes against the tape recording and converting them to themes afterwards can also do the job well, and is less time-consuming.

Data Analysis and Interpretation
I believe grounded theory draws from literary analysis, and one can see it here. The advice for building theory parallels advice for writing a story. Selective coding is about finding the driver that impels the story forward. (Borgatti)

Grounded theory data analysis involves searching out the concepts behind the actualities by looking for codes, then concepts and finally categories.

1. Codes: coding is a form of content analysis to find and conceptualize the underlying issues amongst the “noise” in the data. During the analysis of an interview, the researcher will become aware that the interviewee is using words and phrases that highlight an issue of importance or interest to the research; they are noted and described in a short phrase. The issue may be mentioned again in the same or similar words and is again noted. This process is called coding and the short descriptor phrase is a code (Allan, 2003).


“Pain relief is a major problem when you have arthritis. Sometimes, the pain is worse than other times, but when it gets really bad, whew! It hurts so bad, you don't want to get out of bed. You don't feel like doing anything. Any relief you get from drugs that you take is only temporary or partial.” (interviewee)

One thing that is being discussed here is PAIN. Implied in the text is that the speaker views pain as having certain properties, one of which is INTENSITY: it varies from a little to a lot. (When is it a lot and when is it little?) When it hurts a lot, there are consequences: don't want to get out of bed, don't feel like doing things (what are other things you don't do when in pain?). In order to solve this problem, you need PAIN RELIEF. One AGENT OF PAIN RELIEF is drugs (what are other members of this category?). Pain relief has a certain DURATION (could be temporary), and EFFECTIVENESS (could be partial).

Coding procedures in Grounded Theory Approaches
Strauss and Corbin (1990) describe some flexible guidelines for coding data when engaging in a Grounded Theory analysis:

Open Coding: form initial categories of information about the phenomenon being studied from the data gathered. This is “the process of breaking down, examining, comparing, conceptualizing, and categorizing data” (p. 61).

Axial Coding: involves assembling the data in new ways after open coding. A coding paradigm (logic diagram) is then developed which:
Identifies a central phenomenon

Explores causal conditions
Identifies the context and intervening conditions
Specifies strategies
Delineates the consequences

Selective Coding: involves the integration of the categories in the axial coding model. In this phase, conditional propositions (or hypotheses) are typically presented. The result of this process of data collection and analysis is a substantive-level theory relevant to a specific problem, issue or group. It is “the process of selecting the core category, systematically relating it to other categories, validating those relationships, and filling in categories that need further refinement and development” (p. 116).

Note 1: the three types of coding are not necessarily sequential; they are likely to overlap. After collecting additional data, the researchers return to analyzing and coding data, and use the insights from that analysis process to inform the next iteration of data collection. This process continues until a strong theoretical understanding of an event, object, setting or phenomenon has emerged. (Constant Comparative Method)

Note 2: as mentioned, the process of naming or labeling objects, categories, and properties is known as coding. Coding can be done very formally and systematically or informally. In grounded theory, it is normally done quite informally. For example, if after coding much text, some new categories are invented; grounded theorists do not normally go back to the earlier text to code for that category. However, maintaining an inventory of codes with their descriptions (i.e., creating a codebook) is useful, along with pointers to text that contain them. In addition, as codes are developed, it is useful to write memos known as code notes that discuss the codes. These memos become fodder for later development into reports.

2. Concepts: codes are then analyzed and those that relate to a common theme are grouped together. This higher order commonality is called a concept (Allan, 2003).

Note: based on our understanding, the process of inducting concepts is overlapping with the three types of coding process (mentioned above). They are basically the same but different researchers give them different descriptions according to their specific research experience.

3. Categories: concepts are then grouped and regrouped to find yet higher order commonalities called categories. It is these concepts and categories that lead to the emergence of a theory (Allan, 2003).

"An effective strategy is, at first, literally to ignore the literature of theory and fact on the area under study, in order to assure that the emergence of categories will not be contaminated by concepts more suited to different areas." (Glaser & Strauss, 1967)

Note: according to Strauss and Corbin (1998), grounded theory has particular types of prescribed categories as components of the theory. But this may not appear appropriate for a particular study.

To Recap: developing a grounded theory model involves systematically analyzing a phenomenon in order to explain how the process occurs inductively (Strauss & Corbin, 1998).

Standards of Validation
Strauss & Corbin (1990) state that there are four primary requirements for judging grounded theory:
1) It should fit the phenomenon, provided it has been carefully derived from diverse data and is adherent to the common reality of the area;
2) It should provide understanding, and be understandable;
3) Because the data is comprehensive, it should provide generality, in that the theory includes extensive variation and is abstract enough to be applicable to a wide variety of contexts; and
4) It should provide control, in the sense of stating the conditions under which the theory applies and describing a reasonable basis for action.

Grounded theory is about adopting a constant comparative method, therefore the conformity and coherence of codes, concepts and categories is also an important indicator for a valid grounded theory. This means that a grounded theory is reliable when there comes no new categories in the data collected. This means one can say the theory is sufficiently developed.

The process under which the theory has been developed can evaluate the quality of a theory. This contrasts with the scientific perspective that how you generate a theory is not as important as its ability to explain new data.

The researcher should not switch their focus from abstraction to description as concepts emerge. Detailed description offers data for conceptual abstraction and the possible emergence of a grounded theory in the future, but cannot be considered grounded theory.

Deciding to use grounded theory means embracing it fully (not pieces of it). It requires the adoption of a systematic set of precise procedures for collection, analysis and articulation of conceptually abstract theory.

Report Writing and Rhetorical Structure
Glaser and Strauss (1967) describe 4 main stages in building grounded theory:

1. Comparing incidents applicable to each category
Begin by coding the data into as many categories as possible. Some categories will be generated by the researcher, and some from the language and data of the research situation. As more instances of the same category code are found ideas about that category can be refined. At this point it's best to stop coding and make a memo of these ideas.

2. Integrating Categories and their Properties
The constant comparative method will begin to evolve from comparing incidents to focusing on emergent properties of the category. Diverse properties will start to become integrated. The resulting theory will begin to emerge by itself.

3. Delimiting the Theory
Eventually the theory comes together, and there are fewer changes to the theory as the researcher compares more incidents. Later modifications include taking out irrelevant properties of categories, and adding details of properties into an outline of interrelated categories. More importantly, the researcher begins to find ways to delimit the theory with a set of higher level concepts. The researcher needs to generalize the theory more as they continue to make constant comparisons against it. The number of categories will be reduced.

New categories are often created halfway through coding, and it usually isn't necessary to go back and code for them. The researcher only needs to code enough to saturate the properties of the category. Later the researcher can evaluate the categories and emergent theory by moving on to new comparison groups.

4. Writing Theory
"When the researcher is convinced that his analytic framework form a systematic substantive theory, that it is a reasonably accurate statement of the matters studied, and that it is couched in a form that others going into the same field could use -- then he can publish his results with confidence" (p. 113).

A Review of Study: Qualitative Tussles in Undertaking a Grounded Theory Study
This paper, by Judith A. Holton, is a methodological critique of Classic Grounded Theory (as developed by Glaser). Holton attempts to identify and clarify some of the key misconceptions in the use and understanding of Grounded Theory. She uses examples of research studies that have been performed under the guise of grounded theory, but are only using fragments of the grounded theory methodology. Holton explains how this does not constitute true grounded theory research.

Key Points
Personal bias: grounded theory literature often states the need to have no preconceived notions or frameworks in mind when conducting the research. It seems impossible to ignore ones worldview (and it is). The point is to be able to look at the phenomenon and emerging data from many lenses.

The data fit: one of the biggest problems (as seen by classic grounded theorists) is when researchers dismiss data altogether because it does not “fit”. In grounded theory the data that does not fit established theories and frameworks is the important data! This is what will lead to a totally new view/interpretation of the phenomenon under study.

Giving in: there is a tendency for researchers who undertake grounded theory to fold, or become lenient in their application of the rigid and time consuming process of data analysis. Grounded theory is time consuming and often frustrating. This must be understood and embraced if the process is to be successful.

Description vs. explanation: explanation of patterns of behaviour is the ultimate goal of grounded theory research. Description of what is happening is often seen as a substitution. These two outcomes are not interchangeable. It is not about accuracy of description, it is about conceptual abstraction, resulting in conceptual hypotheses.

Role of context: the context of the study should not influence data analysis from the outset. The context should be seen as another piece of the puzzle that may or may not be of importance. If it is of importance this will emerge naturally from the participants.

1. What is the phenomenon of interest?
2. Does grounded theory best suit the study of the phenomenon?
3. Is there existing literature on the specific area of interest?
4. Are there theories that adequately explain the occurrences within the phenomenon?
5. What is the role of the researcher in the study?
6. Is the body of literature acting as additional data?
7. Is it ensured the context does not influence data analysis?
8. What is the researchers relationship to the study?
9. What precautions will be taken to ensure unbiased approach of the researcher?
10. How will constant comparative analysis occur?
11. Who are the subjects of interest?
12. What is the data collection method?
13. What are the coding procedures?
14. How will relationships between concepts be identified and categorized?
15. Are the results new explanations of relationships?
16. Is the process constantly reflexive?

Conclusions and Recommendations
The value of grounded theory is in its ability to examine relationships and behaviour within a phenomenon from an unbiased in-depth perspective. That is to say, when a researcher enters a study with no framework or theory they are wish to fit the data into the doors are open to discovering explanations that have yet to be articulated. More importantly, the explanations ultimately come from the participants being studied. When a grounded theory study is executed correctly and rigorously, there is little chance that the resulting explanations have distorted by the researchers personal worldview.

The time and detailed analysis required to properly execute grounded theory methodology makes its use daunting and limited. There are many variables that must be in place (i.e. resources, experience of researcher, acceptance of methodological processes etc…) in order for grounded theory to be successfully carried out. When this occurs the results can be invaluable to the understanding of social phenomena.

Allan, G. (2003). A critique of using grounded theory as a research method. Electronic Journal of Business Research Methods. 2(1).
Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Chesebro, J.W., & Borisoff, D.J. (2007). What makes qualitative research qualitative? Qualitative Research Reports in Communication. 8(1), 3–14
Creswell, J.W. (2009). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Dick, B. (2005). Grounded theory: a thumbnail sketch. [On line] Available at
Glaser, B. (1992). Basics of grounded theory analysis. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press.
Glaser. B.G. & Strauss, A.L. (1967). The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Strategies for Qualitative Research. Aldine Transaction, Inc.
Holton, J. A. (2009). Qualitative Tussles in Undertaking a Grounded Theory Study The Grounded Theory Review, 8(3), 37-49.
Martin, et al. (1986). Grounded Theory and Organizational Research. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 22(2), 141.
Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques (1st ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.


  1. Thank you for this post. I learned about the Grounded theory at its simplest. It'll surely help me in my academe as a reearch student.

  2. Thank you for the writing up,it helped to have better understanding of GT and it will help me to do well in my psychological assignment.

    Kind regards

  3. university of nigeria nsukkaApril 11, 2013 at 2:50 AM

    this is a nice post i learn enough http//

  4. Hello, writing from the UK. I am a trainee clinical psychologist preparing a research exam. Thank you for a concise, well written and accessible summary of GT which is very useful for exam preps.

  5. Thank you. This was explicit for me. I am a research student and using grounded theory. This has surely helped me in understanding my chosen topic more.

  6. Thank you. To make the Grounded Theory is understandable by using your especial way of explanation.

  7. I'm a Practical Theology student and I'd like to employ grounded theory in my short research. I have found this article to be the clearest and most precise on Grounded Theory. Thank you.

  8. Thank you for this explanation. It was very clear and easy to digest. Thank you.

  9. thank you, brilliant explanation. saved me so much time

  10. The value of grounded theory is in its ability to examine relationships and behaviour within a phenomenon from an unbiased in-depth perspective.Thanks for sharing this.qualitative research data analysis

  11. Daoda Socrates CarlonOctober 22, 2015 at 11:38 PM

    You saved me on my thesis project. I am using this theory.

  12. Thank you for this well written summary with relevant citations.
    god bless!

  13. thank u..I understand it better

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  15. Wow thanks a lot for this clear explanation. This is so, well and easily explained. Much appreciated.

  16. Would you please give an example of a grounded research question? I am doing an assignment and am a bit confused.

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