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Grounded theory is a general research method for behavioral science developed by the sociologists Barney Glaser (b. 1930) (trained in quantitative sociology by Paul Lazarsfeld) and Anselm Strauss (1916-1996) (trained in symbolic interactionism by Herbert Blumer). The successful collaboration of Glaser and Strauss in research on dying in hospitals evolved into the "constant comparative method", or grounded theory (GT). The name underscores the generation of theory from data.

GT is the most quoted method by researchers doing qualitative data analysis in the world according to database searches (Google, Medline, CINAHL, Psyclit, Econlit).

Most chapters in the first GT methodology "The Discovery of Grounded Theory" (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) were written by Glaser, trained in methodology generation. Glaser alone wrote the second methodology "Theoretical Sensitivity" (Glaser, 1978) and has since written five more books on the method and edited five readers with a collection of GT articles and dissertations (see Literature at end). The Grounded Theory Review is a peer-reviewed journal publishing grounded theories and articles on different aspects of doing GT.

Strauss and Juliet Corbin (Strauss & Corbin 1990) took GT in a different direction from what Glaser had outlined in Theoretical Sensitivity and the 1967 book. There was a clash of ideas between the discoverers and Glaser in 1992 wrote a book arguing against the Strauss & Corbin book chapter by chapter.

Hence GT was divided into Strauss & Corbin’s method, see grounded theory (Strauss) and Glaser’s GT with the original ideas from 1967 and 1978 still in operation. The following article deals with GT according to Glaser.

Goals of grounded theory

The goal of a GT is to formulate hypotheses based on conceptual ideas that others may try to verify. The hypotheses are generated by constantly comparing conceptualized data on different levels of abstraction, and these comparisons contain deductive steps. GT does not aim for the "truth" but to conceptualize "what's going on" using empirical data. GT is thus a systematic generation of theory from data that contains both inductive and deductive thinking. In a way GT resembles what many researchers do when retrospectively formulating new hypotheses to fit data. However, in GT the researcher does not pretend to have formulated the hypotheses in advance since preformed hypotheses are prohibited (Glaser & Strauss 1967).

In most research endeavors persons or patients are units of analysis, whereas in GT the unit of analysis is the incident (Glaser & Strauss 1967). The number often amounts to several hundred in a GT study since every participant normally reports many incidents. When comparing many incidents in a certain area, the emerging concepts and their relationships are in reality probability statements. Consequently, GT is not a qualitative method but a general method that can use any kind of data (Glaser, 2001). However, although working with probabilities, most GT studies are considered as qualitative since statistical methods are not used, and figures not presented. The results of GT is hence not reporting of facts but probability statements about the relationship between concepts, or an integrated set of conceptual hypotheses developed from empirical data (Glaser 1998). Validity in its traditional sense is consequently not an issue in GT, which instead should be judged by fit, relevance, workability, and modifiability (Glaser & Strauss 1967, Glaser 1978, Glaser 1998).

Fit has to do with how closely concepts fit with the incidents they are representing, and this is related to how thoroughly the constant comparison of incidents to concepts was done.

Relevance. A relevant study deals with the real concern of participants, evokes "grab" (captures the attention) and is not only of academic interest.

Workability. The theory works when it explains how the problem is being solved with much variation.

Modifiability. A modifiable theory can be altered when new relevant data is compared to existing data. A GT is never right or wrong, it just has more or less fit, relevance, workability and modifiability. The goal of a GT is to discover the participants’ main concern and how they continually try to resolve it. The questions you keep on asking in GT are "What’s going on?" and "What is the main problem of the participants and how are they trying to solve it?" These questions will be answered by the core variable and its subcores and properties in due course. If your research goal is accurate description then another method should be chosen since GT is not a descriptive method. Instead it has the goal of generating concepts that explain people’s actions regardless of time and place. The descriptive parts of a GT are there mainly to illustrate the concepts.

GT nomenclature

A concept is the overall element and includes the categories which are conceptual elements standing by themselves, and properties of categories, which are conceptual aspects of categories (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The core variable explains most of the participants’ main concern with as much variation as possible. It has the most powerful properties to picture what’s going on, but with as few properties as possible needed to do so. A popular type of core variable can be theoretically modeled as a basic social process that accounts for most of the variation in change over time, context, and behavior in the studied area. "GT is multivariate. It happens sequentially, subsequently, simultaneously, serendipitously, and scheduled" (Glaser, 1998).

All is data is a fundamental property of GT which means that everything that gets in the researcher’s way when studying a certain area is data. Not only interviews or observations but anything is data that helps the researcher generating concepts for the emerging theory. Field notes can come from informal interviews, lectures, seminars, expert group meetings, newspaper articles, Internet mail lists, even television shows, conversations with friends etc. It is even possible, and sometimes a good idea, for a researcher with much knowledge in the studied area to interview herself, treating that interview like any other data, coding and comparing it to other data and generating concepts from it. This may sound silly since you don’t have to interview yourself to know what you know, but you don’t know it on the conceptual level! And GT deals with conceptual level data.

Open coding or substantive coding is conceptualizing on the first level of abstraction. Written data from field notes or transcripts are conceptualized line by line. In the beginning of a study everything is coded in order to find out about the problem and how it is being resolved. The coding is often done in the margin of the field notes. This phase is often tedious since you are conceptualizing all incidents in the data, which yields many concepts. These are compared as you code more data, and merged into new concepts, and eventually renamed and modified. The GT researcher goes back and forth while comparing data, constantly modifying, and sharpening the growing theory at the same time as she follows the build-up schedule of GT’s different steps.

Selective coding is done after having found the core variable or what is thought to be the core, the tentative core. The core explains the behavior of the participants in resolving their main concern. The tentative core is never wrong. It just more or less fits with the data. After having chosen your core variable you selectively code data with the core guiding your coding, not bothering about concepts with little importance to the core and its subcores. Also, you now selectively sample new data with the core in mind, which is called theoretical sampling – a deductive part of GT. Selective coding delimits the study, which makes it move fast. This is indeed encouraged while doing GT (Glaser, 1998) since GT is not concerned with data accuracy as in descriptive research but is about generating concepts that are abstract of time, place and people. Selective coding could be done by going over old field notes or memos which are already coded once at an earlier stage or by coding newly gathered data.

Theoretical codes integrate the theory by weaving the fractured concepts into hypotheses that work together in a theory explaining the main concern of the participants. Theoretical coding means that the researcher applies a theoretical model to the data. It is important that this model is not forced beforehand but has emerged during the comparative process of GT. So the theoretical codes just as substantives codes should emerge from the process of constantly comparing the data in field notes and memos.

Memoing

Theoretical memoing is "the core stage of grounded theory methodology" (Glaser 1998). "Memos are the theorizing write-up of ideas about substantive codes and their theoretically coded relationships as they emerge during coding, collecting and analyzing data, and during memoing" (Glaser 1998).

Memoing is also important in the early phase of a GT study such as open coding The researcher is then conceptualizing incidents, and memoing helps this process. Theoretical memos can be anything written or drawn in the constant comparison that makes up a GT. Memos are important tools to both refine and keep track of ideas that develop when you compare incidents to incidents and then concepts to concepts in the evolving theory. In memos you develop ideas about naming concepts and relating them to each other. In memos you try the relationships between concepts in two-by-two tables, in diagrams or figures or whatever makes the ideas flow, and generates comparative power. Without memoing the theory is superficial and the concepts generated not very original. Memoing works as an accumulation of written ideas into a bank of ideas about concepts and how they relate to each other. This bank contains rich parts of what will later be the written theory. Memoing is total creative freedom without rules of writing, grammar or style (Glaser 1998). The writing must be an instrument for outflow of ideas, and nothing else. When you write memos the ideas become more realistic, being converted from thoughts in your mind to words, and thus ideas communicable to the afterworld. In GT the preconscious processing that occurs when coding and comparing is recognized. The researcher is encouraged to register ideas about the ongoing study that eventually pop up in everyday situations, and awareness of the serendipity of the method is also necessary to achieve good results.

Sorting

In the next step memos are sorted, which is the key to formulate the theory for presentation to others. Sorting puts fractured data back together. During sorting lots of new ideas emerge, which in turn are recorded in new memos giving the memo-on-memos phenomenon. Sorting memos generates theory that explains the main action in the studied area. A theory written from unsorted memos may be rich in ideas but the connection between concepts is weak.

Writing

Writing up the sorted memo piles follows after sorting, and at this stage the theory is close to the written GT product. The different categories are now related to each other and the core variable. The theoretical density should be dosed so concepts are mixed with description in words, tables, or figures to optimize readability. In the later rewriting the relevant literature is woven in to put the theory in a scholarly context. Finally, the GT is edited for style and language and eventually submitted for publication.

No pre-research literature review, no taping and no talk

GT according to Glaser gives the researcher freedom to generate new concepts explaining human behavior. This freedom is optimal when the researcher refrains from taping interviews, doing a pre research literature review, and talking about the research before it is written up. These rules makes GT different from most other methods using qualitative data.

No pre-research literature review. Studying the literature of the area under study gives preconceptions about what to find and the researcher gets desensitized by borrowed concepts. Instead, grounded theories in other areas, and GT method books increase theoretical sensitivity. The literature should instead be read in the sorting stage being treated as more data to code and compare with what has already been coded and generated.

No taping. Taping and transcribing interviews is common in qualitative research, but is counterproductive and a waste of time in GT which moves fast when the researcher delimits her data by field-noting interviews and soon after generates concepts that fit with data, are relevant and work in explaining what participants are doing to resolve their main concern.

No talk. Talking about the theory before it is written up drains the researcher of motivational energy. Talking can either render praise or criticism, and both diminish the motivational drive to write memos that develop and refine the concepts and the theory (Glaser 1998). Positive feedback makes you content with what you've got and negative feedback hampers your self-confidence. Talking about the GT should be restricted to persons capable of helping the researcher without influencing her final judgments.

More online grounded theory

At the Grounded Theory Institute, a non-profit web based organization (www.groundedtheory.com) you can discuss the method at the online forum and get the books referred to above from Sociology Press (http://www.sociologypress.com/book.htm). The GT books by Glaser are necessary to pursue skillful PhD-research using classic grounded theory. For GT researchers with limited monetary resources this homepage is a must since you can get a lot of free advice if you cannot afford the books.

Grounded Theory Online is a very practical site designed to guide GT researchers through the GT journey. The getting started pages (http://www.groundedtheoryonline.com/what-is-grounded-theory) are designed to inform those considering using GT. Fellows of the Grounded Theory Institute also offer online seminars and mentoring and coaching services to those who are using Glaserian Grounded Theory.

Literature

  • Glaser BG, Strauss A. Discovery of Grounded Theory. Strategies for Qualitative Research. Sociology Press [1], 1967
  • Glaser BG. Theoretical Sensitivity: Advances in the methodology of Grounded Theory. Sociology Press [2], 1978.
  • Strauss A, Corbin J. Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques. Sage, 1990.
  • Glaser BG. Basics of Grounded Theory Analysis. Emergence vs Forcing. Sociology Press [3], 1992
  • Glaser BG (ed). Examples of Grounded Theory: A Reader. Sociology Press [4], 1993.
  • Glaser BG (ed). More Grounded Theory Methodology: A Reader. Sociology Press [5], 1994.
  • Glaser BG (ed). Grounded Theory 1984-1994. A Reader (two volumes). Sociology Press [6], 1995.
  • Glaser BG (ed). Gerund Grounded Theory: The Basic Social Process Dissertation. Sociology Press [7], 1996.
  • Glaser BG. Doing Grounded Theory - Issues and Discussions. Sociology Press [8], 1998.
  • Glaser BG. The Grounded Theory Perspective I: Conceptualization Contrasted with Description. Sociology Press [9], 2001.
  • Glaser BG. The Grounded Theory Perspective II: Description's Remodeling of Grounded Theory. Sociology Press [10], 2003.
  • Glaser BG. The Grounded Theory Perspective III: Theoretical coding. Sociology Press, 2005.sv: grundad teori
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