The Discovery of Grounded Theory

The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative ResearchThe Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research by Barney G. Glaser

I have now, after three months, finished reading this seminal work on qualitative methods by Corbin and Strauss. I have heard this is the book that defined rigor in qualitative research once and for all. I am not surprised at all.

The book lays out a complete system of building theories from qualitative data. Yes, it is a difficult book to read. But it is ground-breaking, even after fifty years. (Anyhow, most academic books from 1960’s are difficult to read.) The book has given me an understanding of theory building that I did not have before. What I found pleasantly surprising is the lean approach it promotes. For instance, they encourage the researcher not to blindly transcribe and code all data before starting to generate theory. Rather: Do some transcribing, some coding, and some theory building. Then focus your further data collection on important things. The constant comparative method discussed in chapter V is very much the father of the lean startup movement, with its own ”minimal viable product”! I recommend this book.

Here is a longer list of the main concepts in the book that I made for myself as a summary of points to take away:

  • The focus of the book is on creating theory instead of verifying theory. The authors believed at the time of writing that too few theories were built in sociology.
  • The focus is on creating theories directly from empirical data collected from the field, as opposed to armchair theory building. This is where the name ”grounded” comes from.
  • The authors discuss the two approaches to creating theory, i.e. creating theory deductively by the development of a priori assumptions and prepositions, versus creating theory inductively from empirical evidence. They believe the deductive approach is contradictory to the idea of theory itself: ”Generating a theory involves a process of research” (pp. 6).
  • The book aims at laying out a method that can create theories from qualitative data, a process that up until then was weak and generated lengthy accounts and ”impressionistic” theories.
  • The grounded theory is a process of creating theories through comparative analysis: ”Our strategy of comparative analysis for generating theory puts a high emphasis on theory as process; that is, theory as an ever-developing entity, not a perfected product” (pp.32).
  • Theories are constituted by ”conceptual categories”, ”conceptual properties” of these categories, and ”hypotheses”, or generalized relations among the categories and their properties: ”In discovering theory, one generates conceptual categories or their properties from evidence; then the evidence from which the category emerged is used to illustrate the concept” (pp.23).
  • Theories are built through comparing cases that differ in aspects that are important for the conceptual categories and their properties. E.g. a case from empowering patients in a hospital might end up with the conceptual category of ”knowledge about own disease.” Another case from a municipality might verify this category and introduce new properties for it.
  • Two central types of theory discussed are ”substantive theory” and ”formal theory”. Substantive theory is directly built on data from a specific case in a specific settings, and is the first step in building grounded theories. Formal theories are generalizations that can be developed by comparing cases: ”Ignoring this first task–discovering substantive theory relevant for a given substantive area–is the result, in most instances, of believing that formal theories can be applied directly to a substantive area, and will supply most or all of the necessary concepts and hypotheses. The consequence is often a forcing of data, as well as a neglect of relevant concepts and hypotheses that might emerge” (pp. 34).
  • The idea of forcing ”round data” into ”square categories”, i.e. not using data directly to generate categories and properties, is central to grounded theory. You should change your theories not your data.
  • Theoretical concepts need to be ”analytic” and ”sensitizing”. Analytic means they should be sufficiently generalized to designate characteristics of concrete entities, not the entities themselves. Sensitizing means to yield a meaningful picture, abetted by apt illustrations that enable one to grasp the reference in terms of one’s own experience.
  • Theoretical sampling is ”the process of data collection for generating theory whereby the analyst jointly collects, codes and analyzes his data and decides what data to collect next and where to find them, in order to develop his theory as it emerges” (pp.45).
  • Theoretical sensitivity is a crucial property of the qualitative researcher, i.e. to be able to see theory as it emerges from data, as opposed to being pre-determined about hypotheses.
  • Theoretical sampling needs to focus on cases that have ”theoretical purpose and relevance”. Theoretical relevance means that the researcher will choose any cases that ”help generate, to the fullest extent, as many properties of the categories as possible, and that will help relate categories to each other and to their properties” (pp.49). The focus is not on verifying but in generating theory, which implies an ”ongoing inclusion” of cases instead of pre-determined protocols. Compare this to the development of ”research protocols” in quantitative research, and the concept of ”fishing expedition” that is actually seen as negative and damaging to the research.
  • How to properly do theoretical sampling in comparative analysis: ”When beginning his generation of a substantive theory, the sociologist establishes the basic categories and their properties by minimizing differences in comparative groups. Once this basic work is accomplished, however, he should turn to maximizing differences among comparison groups, in accordance with the kind of theory he wishes to develop (substantive or formal) and with the requirements of his emergent theory” (pp. 57).
  • Theoretical saturation means that ”no additional data are being found whereby the sociologist can develop properties of the category…One reaches theoretical saturation by joint collection and analysis of data” (pp.61). Theoretical sampling is used to reach theoretical saturation. Theoretical sampling is very much different than statistical sampling, which focuses on ”large enough numbers”. Random sampling is not necessary for theoretical sampling.
  • ”Slices of data” are ”different views or vantage points from which to understand a category and to develop its properties” (pp.65).
  • The ”depth of theoretical sampling refers to the amount of data collected on a group and on a category” (pp.69).
  • Temporal aspects of theoretical sampling: ”it is impossible to engage in theoretical sampling without coding and analyzing at the same time” (pp.71). At the beginning there is more collection than coding and analysis.
  • Constant comparative method of qualitative analysis says that you do not code all data first and then analyze it. ”while coding an incident for a category, compare it with the previous incidents in the same and different groups coded in the same category” (pp.107). ”stop coding and record a memo on your ideas”, ”Thus the theory develops, as different categories and their properties tend to become integrated through constant comparisons that force the analyst to make some related theoretical sense of each comparison” (pp.109).
  • This is where it becomes lean: ”The universe of data that the constant comparative method uses is based on the reduction of the theory and the delimitation and saturation of categories. Thus, the collected universe of data is first delimitated and then, if necessary, carefully extended by a return to data collection according to the requirements of theoretical sampling…the analyst spends his time and effort only on data relevant to his categories” (pp.112).
  • Chapter VI in the book provides a comprehensive analysis of a number of publications, and discusses how well they comply with the grounded theory idea. A checklist for classifying the mode of analysis in each publication is used. called the accounting scheme:
    1. Is the author’s main emphasis upon verifying or generating theory?
    2. Is he more interested in substantive or formal theory?
    3. What is the scope of theory used in the publication?
    4. To what degree is the theory grounded?
    5. How dense in conceptual detail is the theory?
    6. What kind of data are used, and in what capacity, in relation to the theory?
    7. To what degree is the theory integrated?
    8. How much clarity does the author reveal about the type of theory he uses?
  • Chapter VII discusses using various kinds of data as qualitative data. The user of documents is discussed beyond a kind of introduction to the field, but more as real data similar to an interview: ”Every book, every magazine article, represents at least one person who is equivalent to the anthropologist’s informant or the sociologist’s interviewee” (pp.163). See also my review of Prior’s book Using documents in social research.
  • Chapter VIII is about using quantitative data for theoretical elaboration. This is interesting because quantitative data is often used for verification. But according to the authors it can also be analyzed with theory generation in mind: ”Typically, discovery made through quantitative data is treated only as a byproduct of the ’main work’” (pp.185). However, the researcher can do a post-analysis of quantitative data with the goal of generating theory: ”It is easier to analyze previously collected data, for then his [researcher’s] only responsibility is to generate theory” (pp.187).
  • On the credibility of grounded theory, beautifully written: ”A field worker knows that he knows, not only because he has been in the field and because he has carefully discovered and generated hypotheses, but also because ’in his bones’ he feels the worth of his final analysis. He has been living with partial analyses for many months, testing them each step of the way, until he has built his theory. What is more, if he has participated in the social life of his subject, then he has been living by his analyses, testing them not only by observation and interview but also by daily living” (pp.225).

There is much more in this book to write about. But I give up here.

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