Grounded theory (20TH CENTURY)

Attempt to relate empirical and theoretical social science.

Theories which seek to explain political or social phenomena must be ‘grounded’ in empirical observation, otherwise they are simple inventions.

Also see: empiricism

Barney G Glaser, The Discovery of Grounded Theory (New York, 1967)


Grounded theory is a general research methodology, a way of thinking about and conceptualizing data. It is used in studies of diverse populations from areas like remarriage after divorce[5] and professional socialization.[6] Grounded theory methods were developed by two sociologists, Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss.[7]

While collaborating on research on dying hospital patients, Glaser and Strauss developed the constant comparative method which later became known as the grounded theory method. They summarized their research in the book Awareness of Dying, which was published in 1965. Glaser and Strauss went on to describe their method in more detail in their 1967 book, The Discovery of Grounded Theory.[7] The three aims of the book were to:

  1. Provide a rationale to justify the idea that the gap between a social science theory and empirical data should be narrowed by firmly grounding a theory in empirical research;
  2. Provide a logic for grounded theory;
  3. Legitimize careful qualitative research, the most important goal, because, by the 1960s, quantitative research methods had gained so much prestige that qualitative research had come to be seen as inadequate.[3]

Grounded theory emerged in a context in which there was a wave of criticism directed at fundamentalist and structuralist theories that were both deductive and speculative in nature.[citation needed].

A turning point in the acceptance of the theory came after the publication of Awareness of Dying. Their work on dying helped establish the influence of grounded theory in medical sociology, psychology, and psychiatry.[3][7] From its beginnings, grounded theory methods have become more prominent in fields as diverse as drama, management, manufacturing, and education.[8]

Philosophical underpinnings

Grounded theory combines traditions in positivist philosophy, general sociology, and, particularly, the symbolic interactionist branch of sociology. According to Ralph, Birks and Chapman,[9] grounded theory is “methodologically dynamic”[7] in the sense that, rather than being a complete methodology, grounded theory provides a means of constructing methods to better understand situations humans find themselves in.

Glaser had a background in positivism, which helped him develop a system of labeling for the purpose of coding study participants’ qualitative responses. He recognized the importance of systematic analysis for qualitative research. He thus helped ensure that grounded theory require the generation of codes, categories, and properties.[10]

Strauss had a background in symbolic interactionism, a theory that aims to understand how people interact with each other in creating symbolic worlds and how an individual’s symbolic world helps to shape a person’s behavior. He viewed individuals as “active” participants in forming their own understanding of the world. Stauss underlined the richness of qualitative research in shedding light on social processes and the complexity of social life.[10]

According to Glaser, the strategy of grounded theory is to interpret personal meaning in the context of social interaction.[11] The grounded theory system studies “the interrelationship between meaning in the perception of the subjects and their action”.[12]

Grounded theory constructs symbolic codes based on categories emerging from recorded qualitative data. The idea is to allow grounded theory methods to help us better understand the phenomenal world of individuals.[10] According to Milliken and Schreiber, another of the grounded theorist’s tasks is to understand the socially-shared meanings that underlie individuals’ behaviors and the reality of the participants being studied.[10]


Grounded theory provides methods for generating hypotheses from qualitative data. After hypotheses are generated, it is up to other researchers to attempt to sustain or reject those hypotheses. Questions asked by the qualitative researcher employing grounded theory include “What is going on?” and “What is the main problem of the participants, and how are they trying to solve it?”

Researchers using grounded theory methods do not aim for the “truth.” Rather, those researchers try to conceptualize what has been taking place in the lives of study participants. When applying grounded theory methods, the researcher does not formulate hypotheses in advance of data collection as is often the case in traditional research, otherwise the hypotheses would be ungrounded in the data. Hypotheses are supposed to emerge from the data.[13]

A goal of the researcher employing grounded theory methods is that of generating concepts that explain the way people resolve their central concerns regardless of time and place. These concepts organize the ground-level data. The concepts become the building blocks of hypotheses. The hypotheses become the constituents of a theory.

In most behavioral research endeavors, persons or patients are units of analysis, whereas in grounded theory the unit of analysis is the incident.[13] Typically several hundred incidents are analyzed in a grounded theory study because every participant usually reports many incidents. When comparing many incidents in a certain area of study, the emerging concepts and their inter-relationships are paramount. Consequently, grounded theory is a general method that can use any kind of data although grounded theory is most commonly applied to qualitative data.[14][15]

Most researchers oriented toward grounded theory do not apply statistical methods to the qualitative data they collect. The results of grounded theory research are not reported in terms of statistically significant findings although there may be probability statements about the relationship between concepts.[16] Internal validity in its traditional research sense is not an issue in grounded theory. Rather, questions of fit, relevance, workability, and modifiability are more important in grounded theory.[7][17][16] In addition, adherents of grounded theory emphasize a theoretical validity rather than traditional ideas of internal validity or measurement-related validity.[18] Grounded theory adherents are “less charitable when discussing [psychometric] reliability, calling a single method of observation continually yielding an unvarying measurement a quixotic reliability.”[18]

A theory that is fitting has concepts that are closely connected to the incidents the theory purports to represent; fit depends on how thoroughly the constant comparison of incidents to concepts has been conducted. A qualitative study driven by grounded theory examines the genuine concerns of study participants; those concerns are not only of academic interest. Grounded theory works when it explains how study participants address the problem at hand and related problems. A theory is modifiable and can be altered when new relevant data are compared to existing data.


Stage Purpose
Codes Identifying anchors that allow the key points of the data to be gathered
Concepts Collections of codes of similar content that allows the data to be grouped
Categories Broad groups of similar concepts that are used to generate a theory
Theory A collection of categories that detail the subject of the research

Once the data are collected, grounded theory analysis involves the following basic steps:

  1. Coding text and theorizing: In grounded theory research, the search for a theory starts with the very first line of the very first interview that one codes. Small chunks of the text are coded line-by-line. Useful concepts are identified where key phrases are marked. The concepts are named. Another chunk of text is then taken and the above-mentioned steps are continued. According to Strauss and Corbin,[19] this process is called open coding. The process involves analyzing data such that conceptual components emerge. The next step involves theorizing, which partly includes pulling concepts together and thinking through how each concept can be related to a larger more inclusive concept. The constant comparative method plays an important role here.
  2. Memoing and theorizing: Memoing is the process by which a researcher writes running notes bearing on each of the concepts being identified. The running notes constitute an intermediate step between coding and the first draft of the completed analysis. Memos are field notes about the concepts and insights that emerge from the observations. Memoing starts with the first concept identified and continues right through the processing of all the concepts. Memoing contributes to theory building.
  3. Integrating, refining and writing up theories: Once coding categories emerge, the next step is to link them together in a theoretical model constructed around a central category that holds the concepts together. The constant comparative method comes into play, along with negative case analysis. Negative case analysis refers to the researcher looking for cases that are inconsistent with the theoretical model.

Theorizing is involved in all these steps. One is required to build and test theory all the way through till the end of a project.[20]

The idea that all is data is a fundamental property of grounded theory. The idea means that everything that the researcher encounters when studying a certain area is data, including not only interviews or observations but anything that helps the researcher generate concepts for the emerging theory. According to Ralph, Birks, and Chapman field notes can come from informal interviews, lectures, seminars, expert group meetings, newspaper articles, Internet mail lists, even television shows, conversations with friends etc.[21]


Coding places incidents into categories and then creates one or more hierarchies out of these categories in terms of categories and subcategories or properties of a categories. A property might be on a continuum such as from low to high, this may be referred to as a dimension.[a] Constant comparison where categories are continually compared to one another is used to create both subcategories and properties.[b] There is some variation in the meanings of the terms code, concept and category with some authors viewing a code as identical to category while others consider a concept to be more abstract than a code, which a code being more like a substantive code.[c] Different researchers have identified different types of codes and encourage different methods of coding, with Struass and Glaser both going on to extend their work with different forms of coding.

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. “grounded theory is multivariate. It happens sequentially, subsequently, simultaneously, serendipitously, and scheduled” (Glaser, 1998).

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 it involves conceptualizing all the incidents in the data, which yields many concepts. These are compared as more data is coded, merged into new concepts, and eventually renamed and modified. The grounded theory researcher goes back and forth while comparing data, constantly modifying, and sharpening the growing theory at the same time they follow the build-up schedule of grounded theory’s different steps.

Strauss and Corbin proposed axial coding and defined it in 1990 as “a set of procedures whereby data are put back together in new ways after open coding, by making connections between categories.”[19] Glaser proposed a similar concept called theoretical coding. Theoretical codes help to develop an integrated theory by weaving fractured concepts into hypotheses that work together. The theory, of which the just-mentioned hypotheses are constituents, explains the main concern of the participants. It is, however, important that the theory is not forced on the data beforehand but is allowed to emerge during the comparative process of grounded theory. Theoretical codes, like substantive codes, should emerge from the process of constantly comparing the data in field notes and memos.

Selective coding is conducted after the researcher has found the core variable or what is thought to be the tentative core. The core explains the behavior of the participants in addressing their main concern. The tentative core is never wrong. It just more or less fits with the data. After the core variable is chosen, researchers selectively code data with the core guiding their coding, not bothering about concepts of little relevance to the core and its sub-cores. In addition, the researcher now selectively samples new data with the core in mind, a process that is called theoretical sampling – a deductive component of grounded theory. Selective coding delimits the scope of the study (Glaser, 1998). Grounded theory is less concerned with data accuracy than with generating concepts that are abstract and general. Selective coding could be conducted by reviewing old field notes and/or memos that have already been coded once at an earlier stage or by coding newly gathered data.

Strauss and Corbin proposed a “coding paradigm” that involved “conditions, context, action/interactional strategies and consequences.” [19]


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 grounded theory study (e.g., during open coding). In memoing, the researcher conceptualizes incidents, helping the process along. Theoretical memos can be anything written or drawn in the context of the constant comparative method, an important component of grounded theory.[23] Memos are important tools to both refine and keep track of ideas that develop when researchers compare incidents to incidents and then concepts to concepts in the evolving theory. In memos, investigators develop ideas about naming concepts and relating them to each other. They examine relationships between concepts with the help of fourfold tables, diagrams, figures, or other means generating comparative power.

Without memoing, the theory is superficial and the concepts generated are 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 people write memos, the ideas become more realistic, being converted from thoughts into words, and thus ideas communicable to the afterworld.

In grounded theory 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.

3 thoughts on “Grounded theory (20TH CENTURY)

  1. Tuan Balcerzak says:

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