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Grounded theory is either of two different paradigms in sociological work. After common beginnings (The Discovery of Grounded Theory, Glaser & Strauss, 1967), two different methodologies emerged. This article deals with grounded theory in the tradition of Anselm Strauss. See grounded theory (Glaser) for information about the second tradition.
The grounded theory approach
Generally speaking, grounded theory is an approach for looking systematically at (mostly) qualitative data (like transcripts of interviews or protocols of observations) aiming at the generation of theory. Sometimes, grounded theory reaches farther: it combines a specific style of research (or a paradigm) with pragmatic theory of action and with some methodological guidelines.
This approach was written down and systematized in the 1960s by Anselm Strauss (himself a student of Herbert Blumer) and Barney Glaser (a student of Paul Lazarsfeld), while working together in studying the sociology of illness at the University of California. For and with their studies, they developed a methodology, that was then made explicit and became the founding stone for an important branch of qualitative sociology.
Important concepts of grounded theory are categories, codes and codings. The research principle behind grounded theory is neither inductive nor deductive, but combines both in a way of abductive reasoning (coming from the works of Charles S. Peirce). This leads to a research practice where data sampling, data analysis and theory development are not seen as distinct and disjunct, but as different steps to be repeated until one can describe and explain the phenomenon that is to be researched. This stopping point is reached when new data does not change the emerging theory anymore.
Grounded theory according to Glaser emphasizes induction or emergence, and the individual researchers creativity within a clear frame of stages, while Strauss is more interested in validation criteria and a systematical approach. This methodical way of creating grounded theory (and still be acceptable to scientific standards) is explained in Strauss/Corbin (1990).
In an interview that was conducted shortly before Strauss' death, he named three basic elements every grounded theory approach should include (Legewie/Schervier-Legewie (2004)). These three elements are:
- Theoretical sensitive coding, that is generating theoretical strong concepts from the data to explain the phenomenon researched;
- theoretical sampling, that is deciding whom to interview or what to observe next according to the state of theory generation, and that implies to start data analysis with the first interview, and write down memos and hypothesis early;
- and the need to compare between phenomena and contexts to make the theory strong.
- Barney G. Glaser; Anselm L. Strauss: The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Strategies for Qualitative Research (1967)
- Anselm L. Strauss: Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists (1987)
- Anselm L. Strauss; Juliet Corbin: Basics of Qualitative Research (1990)
- Anselm L. Strauss; Juliet Corbin: "Grounded Theory Research: Procedures, Canons and Evaluative Criteria", in: Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 19. Jg, S. 418 ff. (1990)
- Legewie, Heiner & Schervier-Legewie, Barbara (September 2004). "Forschung ist harte Arbeit, es ist immer ein Stück Leiden damit verbunden. Deshalb muss es auf der anderen Seite Spaß machen". Anselm Strauss interviewed by Heiner Legewie and Barbara Schervier-Legewie. Forum: Qualitative Social Research On-line Journal, 5(3), Art. 22. Interview as MP3 audio (english) / edited German translation of interview. Accessed on May 20, 2005.
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