Grounded theory

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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 15 July 2017


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"...grounded theory is a general research method (and thus not owned by any one school or discipline) that should guide the researcher on matters of data collection (where quantitative or qualitative data is used eg. video, images, text, observations, spoken word etc.) ...and details strict procedures for data analysis..." — Glaser, 1992

Grounded theory is a theory that is revealed through the systematic gathering and analysis of information during the research process; its objective is the building of an empirically-based theory in relation to social phenomena about which little analysis has previously been done. As such, GT is an inductive-analytical-qualitative type of research and its intent is to generate or discover a theory, in particular a theory that is grounded (hence the name). As a somewhat abstract schema, grounded theory refers to a particular circumstance, one where individuals interact, take actions or engage in a process in response to something (Creswell, 1998). Grounded theory is also described as a research method where a theory develops from the data, which emerges from three main areas of a study; namely, major concepts, categories and propositions -- what might be viewed as "hypotheses". Concepts are the key elements of analysis in grounded theory and developed from the conceptualization of the data. Strauss & Corbin, authors of "Basics of Qualitative research: Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques" are two of the biggest proponents of GT; they defined it as: "...a qualitative research method that uses a systematic set of procedures to develop an inductively derived grounded theory about a phenomenon".

The primary objective of grounded theory, therefore, is to expand on an explanation of a phenomenon by identifying the key elements of it and categorizing the relationships of elements to the context and process of the experiment. In other words, the goal is to go from the general to the specific without losing sight of what makes the subject unique.

Example of LIS research using GT

Salient quotes

  • The theory is emergent -- discovered in the data, Glaser will say. The methods can be emergent (from the data) too. This is an important issue, worth more attention.
  • The distinction between "emergence and forcing", as Glaser frames it, is fundamental to understanding the methodology. Grounded theory has its own sources of rigour and responsive to the situation in which the research was done. There is a continuing search for evidence which disconfirms the emerging theory. It is driven by the data in such a way that the final shape of the theory is likely to provide a good fit to the situation.

Four stages of analysis

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 explanations that explain the subject of the research


  • researchers need to set aside, as much as possible, theoretical ideas or notions so that the analytical, substantive theory can emerge
  • despite the evolving inductive nature of this form of qualitative inquiry, researchers must recognize this as a systematic approach to research with specific steps in data analysis
  • researchers need to face the difficulty of determining when the categories are saturated or when the theory is sufficiently detailed
  • in GT you are asking yourself: What is going on here? What is the situation? How is the person managing the situation? what categories (plural) are suggested by that sentence?
  • carry out data analysis with the first survey in mind; code subsequent interviews (or data from other sources) with the emerging theory in mind; that’s constant comparison: initially comparing data set to data set; later comparing data to theory. As you do this, be aware of any theoretical ideas that come to mind. If any do, note them down immediately.


Coding is the disaggregation of core themes during qualitative data analysis. A specific type of coding called axial coding is a process of relating codes (categories and concepts) to each other through inductive and deductive thinking. The basic framework of relationships is understood according to Strauss who proposes the use of a "coding paradigm" to include categories related to I) the phenomenon under study, II) conditions related to that phenomenon (context, intervening-structural-conditions or causal conditions), III) actions and interactional strategies aimed at managing or handling the phenomenon and IV) consequences of the actions/interactions related to the phenomenon.

The implicit or explicit theoretical framework necessary to identify categories in empirical data is derived from a "general model of action rooted in pragmatist and interactionist social theory". This model or theoretical framework underlines the importance of "analysing and modelling action and interaction strategies of the actors". Coding is a cornerstone of Strauss and Corbin’s (1990, 1998) approach but is regarded by Charmaz (2006) as highly structured and even optional.

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