Grounded Theory

Backdrop

The roots of grounded theory are in sociology, originating from theoretical experimentations with symbolic interactionism (Charmaz, 2014; Chamberlain-Salaun, Mills, and Usher, 2013). The social processes adumbrated by symbolic interactionism portray social processes with concrete structures, containing implicit or explicit codes of conduct, and procedures which demarcate how interactions reveal and cast the meanings from them. Developing from this premise, grounded theory slowly emerged as an attempt to erect explanatory theories of simple, basic, and elementary social processes by studying them in their natural environments (Glaser and Strauss, 1967, 2009; Glaser, 1978; Zarif, 2012). One of its earliest proponents Strauss and Corbin describe grounded theory as a collection of 6 Cs: causes, contexts, contingencies, consequences, co-variances, and conditions. The 6 Cs enable a researcher to understand the patterns and relationships among those elements (Boychuk, and Morgan; 2004; Klag and Langley, 2013). For grounded theorists knowledge of social realities is achieved through watchful observation of behavior and speech practices.

Pros

Personally, I find grounded theory to be charmingly simple, intuitively attractive, and conducive to creativity. It is also conceptually strong, and I particularly enjoy its highly structured approach to concomitant data collection and analysis, which allows rich and deep data to evolve into a theory. However, before delving into detailed pros and cons of grounded theory, a brief historical consideration is warranted. First of all, within qualitative framework, grounded theory first appeared as a protest toward passive acceptance by researchers of all “great theories” popular at the time, and the certitude that researchers only need to test the theories through quantitative scientific procedures. Earliest grounded theorists endeavored to counter this inaction by subjecting research data to rigorous analysis with a view to developing theoretical analysis (Charmaz, 2003, 2011). Thus grounded theory can be understood as a way of thinking about data in order to conceptualize it (El Hussein, 2015). To accomplish this data is continuously subjected to interrogation until a theory surfaces (Bryant and Charmaz, 2007). Having mentioned this, let us now explore the merits of grounded theory as a method of inquiry in greater details.

Simplicity

Unlike the hypothetico-deductive approach of dominant positivist culture of 3-4 decades ago, grounded theorists extol the potency of inductive reasoning (Charmaz, 2014; Hussein and Hirst, 2016). Though grounded theorists share the affinity for inductive logic with other qualitative colleagues, they posit that researchers should not begin research with a hypothesis or theory and then test if it upholds or not; they should rather first begin with data collection in the research’s native environment, simultaneously analyze it, and finally generate a hypothesis (Smith, 2015; Locke, 2015; Halcomb, 2016). Glaser calls this an enjoyable, meaningful, informative, and empowering venture and claims its appeal lies in the facts of its fitness and simplicity (Glaser and Strauss, 1998). Therefore, much like Nike’s slogan, a research can “just do it” (Glaser, 1998).

Intuitive

Urquhart, Lehmann, and Myers (2009) point out that grounded theory is intuitively appealing to beginner researchers because it allows them to be engrossed deeply in the data. This makes the researcher continuously compare, code, and memo throughout the research term. This echoes Charmaz’s (2006) earlier remark that grounded theory equips neophyte researchers with the necessary principles and heuristic devices to start a research, remain committed to it, and finish it timely. Charmaz further contrasts this with other approaches within qualitative traditions which make researchers treat data however they want—this makes the research process haphazard. Morse, Stern, Corbin, Bowers, Clarke, and Charmaz (2009) further comment that for reasons stated by Charmaz (2006) grounded theory lets new researchers successfully answer their predefined questions, enlighten their thinking process, and reassure them when they hesitate during the actual research experience. Finally, the fact that grounded theory can be applied to almost all disciplines of study and is compatible with any type of data demonstrates its wide applicability (Glaser, 1992).

Creative

A common complaint of grounded theorists with other strands in qualitative and quantitative approaches is of bias springing from a priori assumptions. Grounded theory sidesteps this problem by virtue of completely disregarding existing hypotheses at the beginning of research. Instead it utilizes empirical data to produce concepts. Pioneers of grounded theory—in particular, Glaser (1978)—encourages the neophyte researcher to shun preconceived theoretical data to augment creativity and invest time toward generating new ideas. Morse (2009) also encourages grounded theorists to tread along a process of discovery where themes and interpretations logically surface from the data. Thus researchers can develop meaning from the data and analyze it concurrently via creative, inductive processes. Kriflik, Zanko, and Jones (2005) credit this sequence for leading to original findings from the data compared to grounded theory’s sister qualitative approaches.

Concept

If the reader remembers the introductory section of this paper, the father of symbolic interactionism, Herbert Blumer (1969b) criticized the culture of imprecise conceptualization and blamed it for most of scientific difficulties faced by researchers in a post-positivist era (Snow, 2001). Grounded theorists concurred with this (Strauss and Corbin, 1994; Bowen, 2006) by pointing out that the prime problem in research process for finding an answer is badly defined concepts which obstruct generating precise, agreeable, and realistic interpretation of empirical social (subjective) data. Blumer (1969a, 1969b) prescribed one remedy to this disease: simplification. Simplification of concepts occurs when the relevant is sieved from the irrelevant. Through abundant practice of constant comparison and frequent memo-ing, grounded theory fosters a persistent back-and-forth of data collection and data analysis (Charmaz, 2014; Creswell, 2015). This furnishes concepts with broadening power which are easier to remember and are applicable to a wide range of events. It also facilitates transferability of those concepts to previously unexplored milieus. Grounded theorists today claim one of the greatest achievements of grounded theory to be Glaser and Strauss’s unremitting emphasis on concept generation and its legitimacy in mainstream methodological discourse (Timmermans and Tavory, 2012; Ruppel and Mey, 2015; Charmaz, 2014; Schwandt, 2015). Superior conceptualization is also a unique attribute which makes grounded theory stand apart from its qualitative sister methods.

Insight

Unlike many qualitative methods which rely on broad principles making application and interpretation cumbrous, grounded theory benefits from a robust, structured, and systematic approach to data analysis. The earliest definitions of grounded theory from its pioneers[1] demonstrate the level of emphasis given to the “systematic” nature of both theory generation and procedures to allow for inductive insight into a phenomenon. This improves the efficacy of data analysis to judge, generalize, and compare the results of grounded theory studies. It also helps with ensuring rigor and trustworthiness in the emergent theory (Rolfe, 2006; Cooney, 2011; Starts and Trinidad, 2007.) Stebbins (2001), Denk, Kaufmann, and Carter (2012) point out that the systematic approach distinguishes accidental discovery from deliberate exploration congruent with epistemological and ontological underpinnings of the researcher. The systematic approach is purposive, wide-ranging, and product of forethought. The serendipity approach of accidental discovery, although still scientific, suffers from waste of time and resources because of its overt reliance on fortune—waiting for the Archimedes-like Eureka moment. The grounded theorist, contrarily, places himself/herself actively on the path to discovery.

 

[1] Glaser (1978) defined grounded theory as a systematic generation of theory from data itself obtained systematically from social research. Strauss and Corbin (1994) defined it is a qualitative research method that uses a systematized set of procedures.

Depth

The adventure of research begins with finding data. This data helps dig out the context and structure of informants’’ lives while revealing their feelings, opinions, perspectives, intentions, actions, etc. Thick descriptions are required to procure rich data. Geertz (1973), Charmaz and Mitchell (2001), as well as Corbin and Strauss (1990) recommend taking extensive field notes during observation, gathering narratives from interviews, and assembling respondents’ written personal accounts. Grounded theory makes use of all the techniques above to make sense of the data. But it doesn’t just stop there. It also polishes it to produce insight into participants’ world. Grounded theory underscores data’s coexistence with context to expose what lies beneath the surface. This makes the world appear anew by extracting respondents’ social and subjective life (Charmaz, 2006). Extricating multiple views of participants’ gamut of actions empowers researchers to develop analytic categories to compare data to percolate new ideas (Holton, 2006). Grounded theory fosters this desire by goading the researcher to illumine the otherwise inaccessible views of informants’ lives. Grounded theory stimulates researchers to go back to the data and venture into analysis to decide whether more data is needed to enhance the emerging theoretical framework. This endows researchers with a renewed outlook and creates innovative categories and concepts.

Explore

The grounded theory approach is ideal for exploration. Since it delivers a methodology to develop an understanding of social occurrences which are not pre-defined or pre-theoretically ossified with existing theories and paradigms, it offers a good platform for launching exploratory studies (Engward, 2013.)  This makes grounded theory suitable for examining social processes which have been neglected in mainstream research milieu, or where previous research is narrow or relatively scarce, or on topics where a fresh outlook promises deeper insight (Milliken, 2010). It also makes exploration easier because by definition it acknowledges the situated nature of knowledge and contingent nature of practice, as well as adapting easily to diverse phenomena.

Although I am required to describe some of the weaknesses of ground theory for purpose of this assignment, I should disclose that I am indeed an advocate of grounded theory. Therefore, despite acknowledging its cons, I should point out that none of its demerits are fatal. They are limitations at best which can be overcome with careful attention to details, rigorous hard work, improved skill set, and experience. Some of grounded theory’s shortcomings are as follows.

Grounded theory usually produces huge sums of data which can be daunting to manage. Without proper training and requisite skills, using grounded theory can be a waste of time. Thus new researchers can become overwhelmed by the exhaustive coding requirements of grounded theory (Myers, 2013). Open coding requires not only a great deal of time, but also can be physically and mentally taxing (Charmaz, 2006; Walker and Myrick, 2006). Abstraction process regarding conceptualizations is quite demanding too. It is possible for novel researchers to be so immersed in coding that they can be oblivious to performing the job of discovering ideas and themes from where theory can emerge out of subjective social data. Moreover, grounded theory in hand of inexperienced researchers usually leads to generation of lower level theories. To overcome this, Annells (1996) recommends researchers to be patient and recognize that grounded theory is not “so simple.” It can take months if not years to tweak around the data to generate a theory regarding core themes. Annells (1997) also recommends undertaking grounded theory under the wings of an experienced mentor to share the burden of the journey.

Methodology

Systemic Pitfalls

Annels (1996, 1997) and Myers (2013) hint at the possibilities of novice researcher blurring methodological lines through using purposeful sampling and ignoring theory. Charmaz (2006) points out that while it is acceptable to begin a research with purposive sampling, the researcher should revert to theoretical sampling when data collection process is controlled by emerging theory. Failure in this department will result in shallow conceptual rigor. Researchers also often use small number of data sources and interviews. To avoid this problem Glaser (1992) suggests using both observation and interview for data collection. Failure to do so shifts focus from social process toward lived experiences of subjects.

Grounded theorists themselves are divided whether to do literature review prior to beginning the actual research or not. Its founders Glaser and Strauss (1967) unambiguously urged researchers to write the literature review after finishing analysis so that it doesn’t pollute the findings of the study. Four decades later Corbin and Strauss (2008) echoed the sentiment by saying that there is always something new to discover. Thus they deem it unessential to conduct a full literature review before embarking on a research. Schreiber and Stern (2001) disagree with this position by claiming that theoretical sensitivity is important to avert personal biases, which can threaten the validity and credibility of a study. By sensitivity Schreiber and Stern mean researcher’s own insight into data, which can prepare him or her to interpret the data through own professional background, knowledge, and perspective (McCallin, 2003).

Sub-schools within Grounded Theory

Having multiple traditions inside a school of thought is not inherently negative. However, the divergent educational backgrounds of Glaser and Strauss provoked a fissure inside the grounded theory tradition owing to the founders’ contrasting ontological and epistemological underpinnings. Till date, a minimum of 4 sub-schools can be listed—most prominent being “original” school by Glaser and Strauss (now held only by Glaser who assiduously continues to promulgate the original story), the rebellious Strauss and Corbin school, and the constructivist school. The intra-school debates are mainly concerning verification and conceptual differences in understanding what theory entails. This can be very confusing to the new researcher both prior to beginning the research to determine research question and objectives as well as mid-way through the research during coding and analysis.

Generalizability

Broadly speaking, qualitative researchers care less about generalizability. This is more in quantitative domain. Research questions explored via the lenses of grounded theory enable a unique scope of exploration and reveal potentially intricate and high level concepts which are not restrainted to a particular respondent or environment. Glaser (2002), Ayres, Kavanagh, and Knafl (2003) disagree with their qualitative-minded colleagues that just like quantitative, final product of qualitative studies should be generalization too—no matter what language is used to represent it (Buetow, 2014). Similarly, Lipscomb (2012), Sandelowski and Leeman (2012), and Polit and Beck (2010) berated grounded theorists for their disregard for theory-testing. They believe that knowledge grows through testing and confirmation of theories. Simply building theories after theories without testing them is worthless to overall progress of science. These confirmations take place by systematic replication—the result of which either confirms or rejects the theory. Lack of concern for external validity and generalizability can thus threaten acceptance of a grounded theory oriented study.

Among the children of the qualitative family, grounded theory is arguably the most rebellious and controversial one. It stands out not only for its unorthodox meaning, understanding, and description of phenomena, but also for its inordinate emphasis on theory-production. This approach—like most scientific endeavors—has changed, refined, and evolved over the decades due to scientific community’s perception and treatment of knowledge. Compared to the 1960’s zeitgeist, science is much more humanized today. Facts are seldom taken at face value today unless they run the gauntlet of analysis and critique. Glaser’s original realist ontology is a polar opposite of Strauss and Corbin’s ontology—which is in tune with conventional qualitative researchers. This shift in attitude reflects the overall shift in scientific climate which now is more tolerant of subjectivist and constructed orientation of truth. As a former finance professional and current researcher, I can appreciate the richness the grounded theory movement has brought to the business schools. Finance Professors no longer outright balk at the prospect of research using grounded theories. Some admire, if not apply, it for its flexibility in data connection, analysis and interpretation in complex environments—particularly in my personal interest area of capital markets. Admitting my membership in the post-positivist club, I acknowledge that using grounded theory as a method of inquiry has the potential to furnish unparalleled insights into experiences of stakeholders in my own discipline of finance, and business/economics in general.

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