Grounded theory is a research methodology used primarily in the social sciences whereby the theory underlining the research is formulated based on the available and collected data. This is the opposite of the standard research procedure where data is gathered and inferred as a result of the postulated theory.
To some, the grounded theory methodology may appear to be the antithesis of the traditional scientific method. Instead of beginning the research process by formulating a hypothesis, the research starts by collecting data. From the data, the key points are classified as “codes.” Similar codes are then grouped into units known as “concepts.” The next stage in the process is the examination of the concepts and the formation of “categories” from which the final theory is extrapolated. In a sense, the process can be likened to reverse engineering where a finished item is de-constructed in order to understand how it is works and is built.
Grounded theory is a branch of social research developed by two sociologists, Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss. Their research was conducted around 1970 when they worked together on terminal patients in health care facilities. During the course of their collaboration, they developed what was originally know as the constant comparative method. It later became known as grounded theory. Glaser and Strauss described their work as, “The grounded theory approach is a qualitative research method that uses a systematic set of procedures to develop an inductively derived grounded theory about a phenomenon.”
The Four Foundations Upon Which Grounded Theory is Based
1. The first is Codes that are the key points or “anchors” that are taken from and characterize the data gathered.
2. The second is Concepts that are groupings of similar codes relating to similar content that allows for more convenient manipulation and analysis of data.
3. Categories is the third foundation. These are groups and arrangements of similar concepts that can be examined in order to produce the final or interim theory.
4. Theory is the final result of grounded theory research. It is the explanation or series of explanations that are used to explain, define and rationalize the research subject.
Stages of Grounded Theory
1. The first stage in developing a theory based on grounded theory is data collection. Most data is collected by questions and observation either of individuals or of groups. Some researchers take notes during data collection sessions. Others prefer to use a digital or tape recorder. Some researchers suggest using a combination of both. They take notes of key points and use the taped conversation to confirm or add to data gathered and noted.
2. Coding involves taking the data collected and extracting from it the key points or phrases. If in an interview or a conversation, a subject talks of stress, this could be a code category. These codes are then further examined to group them into similar areas or concepts which are then used to develop the next stage – categorization.
3. Categories involve taking identical or similar codes and grouping them together in order to better understand and analyze them. For example, in looking into an office work environment to discover areas where efficiency might be improved, workers may mention organization of time as being a problem. This would be coded under the heading of “time organization” or something similar.
Categories can also be divided in sub-categories. If one is investigating a work environment and one of the categories decided upon is stress, this could well be divided into sub-categories such as competition related stress, performance related stress and non-work related stress.
4. The final stage of the process is what is known as Writing. This is where the collected data, the concepts and the categories are integrated into a piece of research that presents methodology, results and findings in a coherent and scientific manner. They suggest a theory to support or answer the original question.
Goals of Grounded Theory
Fit: has to do with how closely concepts fit with the incidents they are representing, and this is related to how thoroughly the constant comparison of incidents to concepts was done.
Workability: The theory works when it explains how the problem is being solved with much variation.
Relevance: A relevant study deals with the real concern of participants, evokes “grab” and is not only of academic interest.
Modifiability: A modifiable theory can be altered when new relevant data is compared to existing data.
The Grounded Theory Institute
Glaser founded the Grounded Theory Institute in 1999 as a non-profit web-based organization, which describes itself as “dedicated to the evolving methodology of Dr.Barney G. Glaser, Ph.D.”. The goal of the Institute is to provide an online forum for the discussion of grounded theory, and to publishe the journal, “The Grounded Theory Review.” The Institute also includes the Sociology Press, which Dr. Glaser founded in 1970.