Musing on Grounded Theory

As I am nearing the point where I need to submit my doctoral thesis research proposal idea by the end of the month, and then the first draft of the proposal itself by the end of February, I am starting to narrow down my seemingly endless options and consider what will hold my interest for the next two years, as well as what will have enough (workable) depth to allow me to leverage the results of this process in an academic context.

While considering this on my own, I am quite happy that Jane, one of my colleagues at Lancaster University and through the Twitter group #phdchat, is a few steps ahead of me on the path and is doing her own thinking about what appears to be our shared methodology of choice, grounded theory. Her most excellent recent post, Remodelling Grounded Theory – some quotes and the odd note, has me thinking again about some of the reasons why grounded theory started and continues to attract me.

I remember when I first encountered grounded theory through the work of Glaser, it seemed a little rigid and, dare I say it, almost quantitatively qualitative. I had the sense that he wanted his perspective of grounded theory to be objective, as if qualitative research can (or should) be objective, in any way. What does it mean to be objective when we are trying to understand meaning-making, much less so if we are intentionally trying to problematize it (which I mused on regarding transcription itself)?

With a little more learning and more experiences since then, though not necessarily more wisdom, I can now try to articulate a bit about what in Glaser’s work, especially in his essay Remodeling Grounded Theory, does not feel right with my perspective in this research. It seems Glaser works from a different paradigm than I do, and that is how I perceive a certain rigidity he seems to have with how grounded theory is used or understood. I can’t help but think that Glaser approaches grounded theory from a post-positivist perspective, where he seems to make meaning and derive theory about something by finding out what is already in the pattern of the experiences, as if it were objectively sitting there already awaiting his discovery, rather than he as researcher bringing the meaning to the phenomena.

The therapeutic value of lies in that it not only treats panic attacks but also relieves neurotic states born of stress. This is an effective drug for convulsions.

While I am not clear what Glaser means in his reproach to the concept of “Qualitative Data Analysis,” though I think it has something to do with Denzin’s shift (thanks again to one of Jane’s links) that is well-articulated in the work of Kathy Charmaz where the researcher is clearly a part of the grounded theory research process, with all that it entails.

I again agree with Jane, “More thoughts and deliberations to follow“!

21 thoughts on “Musing on Grounded Theory

  1. Although I’m not using GT, my early responses were similar. I like Clarke’s (2005) “Situational Analysis” for a more inclusive and postmodern response. Sort of ‘next generation’!!

    1. Ian-

      I love postmodernism, though struggle to see how Clarke’s work is considered particularly postmodern, at least regarding grounded theory.

      Just having located it again on my bookshelf, I suppose I will have to review it again. Thanks, more reading ahead!


      1. Ian, Jeffrey

        My supervisor mentioned Clarke’s work and I duly purchased and read the text. It is very much a constructionist take on grounded theory concepts and, as a social constructivist with an interest in psycho-social processes, I found it too distant from the ‘individual’ and thus from the focus of my studies. I would be interested to hear your views


        1. Jane-

          Got it. Why did your supervisor suggest yountake a look at Clarke’s work? Has been some time since I read it, and while I like a constructionist frame, I was not sold on it in this text. It is now sitting on my desk, so will review it in the next week, especially as I am nearing my draft proposal date and want to be as informed as possible.


          1. I was contemplating social forces via Lewin’s Vector Psychology and also considering a grounded theory framework. My supervisor felt that Clarke would take a similar but postmodern approach. For me it was rather too constructionist. Back to square one.

          2. Jane-

            So, where does back to square one bring you? In other words, are you working on this to get the methodology down before data collection, or has that already happened and now you are trying to make sense of it all?


  2. Interesting discussion developing here. Although I always perceived GT as a framework rather than a strict method, it has intrigued me for the last 20 years. I thought it would be interesting to share the method applied in my latest article on my blog ResGamEdu.

  3. Hi Everyone

    I hope you don’t mind me jumping in on your conversation all the way from Australia, but it’s very interesting. Mel Birks and I have done a lot of thinking and writing about some of the tensions within grounded theory as a whole. We believe that you need to clearly identify your own philosophical position before you begin to engage in an indepth way with the work of both first and second generation grounded theorists (otherwise you can float around without an anchor). Jeffrey’s blog post really exemplifies some excellent ‘thinking’ work as a PhD candidate about to begin his own grounded theory study. I agree that Glaser’s language is imbued with post-positivism, and Jane’s blog entry highlights this beautifully – but there are many contradictions in his writing that can lead to you being able to interpret some of his ideas as being closer to a Charmaz/constructivist position. At the end of the day, we believe grounded theory consists of a set of methods that you can use in a variety of ways depending on how you methodologically situate yourself as the researcher/author.

    If any of you are at QI2011 this year, Mel and I will be there too and would enjoy catching up. We are planning on visiting New York for a couple days after and then San Francisco on the way home.

    Cheers Jane

    1. Jane-

      Thank you for joining the conversation! I think that by doing it here in public, it is naturally open to anybody who wants to add their voice to this discussion.

      I am thinking about submitting an abstract to qi2011 at UIUC again; are you going to submit anything?

      I agree completely that Researchers need to position themselves ontologically, which is something that Creswell so clearly states again and again.

      Can you perhaps leave a reference for some of your work in this area?

      Let me know when you are in NYC again!


      1. Thanks for making me welcome Jeffrey. I am giving two papers at QI2001; “Grounded theory: creating a nexus between social justice and research design” and “Grounded theory and evidence based healthcare: Strategies to promote knowledge diffusion and utilisation”. My colleague Mel Birks will be presenting a paper around one of her studies of registered nurses in Malaysian Borneo.

        Last time we came to QI2009 we travelled on to Columbia University School of Nursing and gave our presentations there which was good fun. We are hoping to do something similar this time, I was going to email Pat Stone there and see if they were interested in us visiting again. I noticed on your website that you do quite a lot of work with Schools of Nursing in New York City, if you have any ideas about who might be interested in hearing about grounded theory we would be grateful for any contacts.

        As well as grounded theory, Mel and I are interested in finding a School of Nursing who might be using unfolding case studies in simulated clinical practice. I am at James Cook University in Cairns, and Mel works for Central Queensland University in Noosa both in Schools of Nursing and Midwifery. In Australia simulated clinical placement/learning environments are currently a hot topic with Governments so we would love to see what others are doing in the States.

        As far as refs are concerned, we both have a number of articles that are easily accessed and have just published a new book with Sage on grounded theory aimed at graduate students. You can check it out on Amazon

        Didn’t really want to do an advertorial on your blog though… just happy to chat. If we can catch up in New York that would be great, we should be there 23-25th May, or maybe even Illinois if you get your abstract sorted!


        1. Jane-

          Quite interesting about this; let me follow-up with the link and some of your work, and share with a few colleagues. Yes, let’s keep in touch about this (especially if I continue along this path and not only sort out my abstract, but also my doctoral thesis proposal in this area!).

          BTW, very interested in hearing more about those two abstracts you submitted; they both seem quite interesting.


    2. Hi Jane

      I would absolutely agree with your comments that Glaser’s own thoughts can sometimes take perceptions of his position towards those of Charmaz – indeed, I walked neatly into that swampy areas before extricating myself and heading for firmer territory earlier this year. I am intrigued by the whole area (as my growing number of posts probably inidcates) and could probably do an entire project exploring and developing existing and potential new takes on the framework.


  4. I am shocked how Jefferey Keefer and all the blog commenters do not understand at all Glaserian Grounded Theory. I thought he was a creator of GT which would make me understand that by following the so called rigis steps of GT one would find emerging patterns that reveals what is truly going on in one’s particular field of study. That seems liberating to me. There is only one grounded theory as far as I understand. The rest is only remodeling of GGT which I understand, except call it a different name. It is not Glaserian Grounded Theory. There are many methods for qualitative and quantitative studies. I say just call it by a different name because to repeat it is not Grounded Theory.

    1. Carolyn-

      Thank you for your comment. I think the issue is that as a methodology, grounded theory has developed in a couple of ways since initially articulated by Glaser and Strauss. Their work is significant in that it helped to establish a sense of rigor in qualitative research. Newer theorists are trying, in my estimation, to problematize the narrow constraints that made sense at the time, given the qualitative shift toward acknowledging the presence of the researcher in his or her work.

      I think that part of the richness in grounded theory lies in the evidence that it has continued to develop, rather than its simply remaining frozen in time.

      Do you use this methodology in your work?


  5. Hi all,

    I agree with the need for a next generation use of GT. I also see it as a framework and I appreciate the setting in which it was developed originally.

    While I try to stick to the classic version of GT (as apposed to Strauss’ more formal procedures), the researcher has to introduce his/her own theoretical assumptions or paradigmatic perspective.

    I am a PhD student in South Africa who used GT at Masters level as well. My study in an emerging engineering field continues at doctorate level (telecoms field). I am also an Industrial Psychologist. This background and interest influence the study and will necessarily lead to how I introduce meaning into a traditionally quantitative research field.

    True, one can be “unemotional” and free from own needs and desires. We must guard against it and that is how I interpret Glaser’s approach to objectivism and emergence (codes jumping out from the data).

    Give Glaser the recognition due to him, but we need to move on if this gem is to be valuable to other disciplines.


    1. Güera-

      Thank you for sharing here.

      I think that you characterized quite nicely one of the differences between some of the strands in grounded theory, as well as in qualitative inquiry in general. When you mentioned “True, one can be “unemotional” and free from own needs and desires. We must guard against it and that is how I interpret Glaser’s approach to objectivism and emergence (codes jumping out from the data).”

      Various approaches to qualitative research will understand the relationship between the researcher and the subject of the research in different ways, with the levels of proximity and to what extent a researcher can be objective (and even if there is such a thing in research, depending on the research questions and methodology). Many researchers will argue that meaning does not jump out of data; it derives from it as understood by the researcher himself or herself.

      Delicious to think about all this, especially as I am now actively working on my doctoral thesis proposal and have to try to articulate these ideas and explain how and why I come to them!


  6. Hi Jeffrey, congratulations on your confirmation, that is great news. Mel and I are firming up our plans for NYC, we will be visiting Trinitas School of Nursing on the 23rd May and giving a presentation on grounded theory. They are very kindly going to show us their simulation set-up which I will be most interested in. Would be good to meet if you have time. Was thinking of you when we saw the snow storms on TV, while battling a massive cyclone…. crazy weather. Cheers Jane

    1. Wonderful news! Will you be in New York City as well? Will you have time one evening or so to meet, perhaps once you have your other plans sorted? Will be nice to meet F2F.


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