Grounded Theory Methodologies for Social Justice Projects

In the second of the two pre-conference sessions at ICQI, this one by Kathy Charmaz, I am looking forward to understanding grounded theory by one of the known experts in this methodology. She studied with both Strauss and Glaser.

Nice to have intros all the way around, with who people are and what they do. Always seems like such a basic thing, but I find it as a way of forcing the articulation of self-identity. Living with my developing understanding of identity, it is always interesting to consider these sorts of experiences. People here in the session all seem so interesting, with fascinating areas of current and doctoral studies. Lots of people here from qualitative nursing studies and social work.

Kathy is speaking about grounded theory and its relationship to social justice. She sees this broadly, from inequalities to disabilities to the justice system to eradication of oppression. Grounded theory has flexible guidelines, so it fits nicely in these areas. While grounded theory comes out of sociology, it can be applied in different areas and the strategies used by anybody. Grounded theory was influenced by a reaction to grand theories — grounded theory seeks to theorize about more focused  situations. Grounded theory is also an iterative process to go back and forth between the data and the analysis.

Grounded theory is a systematic approach to inquiry. It is:

  • inductive (you do not have the framework in mind before you begin)
  • comparative (compare bits of data with other data)
  • interactive (constantly interact with your data) — a lot of grounded theory is focused around documents

If you do interviews, then transcribe your own interviews. This helps you to understand your interview styles and then better understanding your data analysis.

It is common that people claim they use grounded theory though they really are not. This may be because they claim it to link this to the literature, as well as  because many people commonly do not understand it. It will  be helpful to clearly state whose work you are following if you use grounded theory (e.g., Glaser, Strauss and Corbin, Charmaz, etc.). Glaser adopted the language of quantitative research and brought it to his qualitative work. The theoretical sampling is not to try to get the equal sampling that is usually representative of the large group — this is done after the analysis is started, so you categorize your work and then check it out.

If you do multiple interviews of the same people, mention the number of interviews and then the number of people who were interviewed in total.

Try not to read all the theories that are out there before engaging in the grounded theory, as those theories may influence what you find, rather than as research in and for itself.

Social justice inquiry:

  1. takes an explicit value stance
  2. analyzes power in multiple forms
  3. attends to fairness, equity, equality, democratic process, status, hierarchy, and individual rights and obligations
  4. requires looking at both situated realities and ideals
  5. addresses contested meanings of “shoulds” and “oughts”
  6. prompts reassessment of our roles as national and world citizens
  7. explores tentions between complicity and consciousness, choice and constraint, indifference and compassion, inclusion and exclusion, poverty and privilege, and barriers and opportunities
  8. aims to create good societies and a better world

Kathy spoke extensively around research involved with social justice topics, as well as how to do effective social justice studies.

Ahh, now the practicalities of grounded theory strategies. Kathy believes there are only 2 levels of coding that are needed. Initial coding is the first level. She (following Glaser) uses gerunds (-ing end of verbs that act as nouns) which then helps to see things across data (based on the work of Glaser). Kathy also recommends line-by-line coding, as it helps you see things that you would otherwise miss. Your area that you are trying to investigate would drive the sort of coding you use.

Then, for the guidelines for initial coding, ask:

  • what is this data a study of?
  • what does this data suggest? Pronmounce?
  • From whose point of view?
  • What theoretical category does this datum indicate?
  • What might be lefft unstated?

I asked about the fourth bullet, as I wanted  to clarify that the theoretical category (such as identity) was not equated with theoretical framework (such as transformative learning). Those are different concepts, as grounded theory develops one’s own theory or framework about a phenomenon. Very useful distinction.

Kathy then suggested some ways of coding:

  • remain open
  • stay close to the data
  • keep your codes simple and precise
  • construct short codes
  • preserve actions
  • compare data with data
  • move quickly through the data

We just did an example of first level, gerund-based line-by-line or within-paragraph coding. Using these gerunds in this way for coding certainly helps to demonstrate what is within the situation.

Then, after that initial level of coding, time for Selective of Focused Coding (which is to select the most important codes that were already identified) that leads to the categories that begin to appear.

Then, clustering is the next step. This is not a formal part of traditional grounded theory work, though has been developed by Kathy as she used to teach writing and she found this visual organization of larger categories (hubs) with the focused codes coming out from the center (like spokes). This cluster diagram, like mindmapping or brainstorming, is useful to determine if we are really getting the main points of the analysis.

Next, comes Memo-writing when you write memos based on things that are happening, what you notice, what you wish you could have noticed earlier, etc. You have material in narrative form, and is the step between coding and writing the first draft of the paper. This involved defining the categories from the data that were collected, and not from the literature (or anything  outside of the experience). This is the key aspect, it seems to me, about grounded theory–take the categories only from the data. There is some very valuable discussion about the necessity of memo-writing. This seems like a wonderful example of a theshold concept as per Jan Meyer and Ray Land.

Finally comes the Theoretical Sampling, by which is meant “seeking pertinent data to develop your emerging theory.” This is when the researcher elaborates and refines the categories that constitute the theory.

While I feel there is a lot more to grounded theory than I learned, I do recognize that I know enough to feel confident to try using grounded theory (as I have Kathy’s book Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide through Qualitative Analysis, though never quite understood it as now I think I do now).

Another fantastic pre-conference workshop that was, again, worth the price of admission!!