Grounded theory is a systematic methodology that has been largely, but not exclusively, applied to qualitative research conducted by social scientists. The methodology involves the construction of hypotheses and theories through the collecting and analysis of data. Grounded theory involves the application of inductive reasoning. The methodology contrasts with the hypothetico-deductive model used in traditional scientific research.
A study based on grounded theory is likely to begin with a question, or even just with the collection of qualitative data. As researchers review the data collected, ideas or concepts become apparent to the researchers. These ideas/concepts are said to “emerge” from the data. The researchers tag those ideas/concepts with codes that succinctly summarize the ideas/concepts. As more data are collected, and re-reviewed, codes can be grouped into higher-level concepts, and then into categories. These categories may become the basis of a hypothesis or a new theory. Thus, grounded theory is quite different from the traditional scientific model of research, where the researcher chooses an existing theoretical framework, develops one or more hypotheses derived from that framework, and only then collects data for the purpose of assessing the validity of the hypotheses.
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 and professional socialization. Grounded theory methods were developed by two sociologists, Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss.
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. The three aims of the book were to:
- 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;
- Provide a logic for grounded theory;
- 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.
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..
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. From its beginnings, grounded theory methods have become more prominent in fields as diverse as drama, management, manufacturing, and education.
Grounded theory combines traditions in positivist philosophy, general sociology, and, particularly, the symbolic interactionist branch of sociology. According to Ralph, Birks and Chapman, grounded theory is “methodologically dynamic” 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.
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.
According to Glaser, the strategy of grounded theory is to interpret personal meaning in the context of social interaction. The grounded theory system studies “the interrelationship between meaning in the perception of the subjects and their action”.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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. In addition, adherents of grounded theory emphasize a theoretical validity rather than traditional ideas of internal validity or measurement-related validity. Grounded theory adherents are “less charitable when discussing [psychometric] reliability, calling a single method of observation continually yielding an unvarying measurement a quixotic reliability.”
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.