What is grounded theory?

Introduction to the research method of grounded theory

For more best practices see our method overview

Definition of grounded theory

Grounded theory is a social science research method that involves the collection and analysis of mainly qualitative data with the aim of generating theory. It does not represent a single method but rather a series of interlocking procedures. The Grounded Theory aims to formulate a new theory by analyzing interviews, observations, and other empirical data. The process of data collection and analysis alternates until new analyses no longer provide new knowledge.

Key principles of grounded theory

At its core, grounded theory is an inductive research
Inductive refers to a logical reasoning process in which general conclusions are drawn from specific observations or instances. It involves deriving generalized principles or rules based on observed patterns or specific examples. Inductive reasoning moves from the specific to the broader, forming hypotheses or generalizations from specific cases.
method that focuses on constructing theory from qualitative data. Unlike traditional deductive approaches
Deductive refers to a logical reasoning process in which specific conclusions are drawn from general principles or premises. It involves moving from the broader to the more specific, applying established rules or principles to reach a specific conclusion.
that test pre-existing theories, grounded theory seeks to generate new theories by grounding them in empirical evidence. The central idea behind grounded theory is to develop a comprehensive understanding of a particular phenomenon through constant comparison and Theoretical Sampling.

Conceptualization through constant comparison

Grounded theory involves a constant process of comparing and contrasting data collected from multiple sources. This iterative process allows researchers to identify patterns, categories, and relationships within the data, gradually developing conceptual frameworks and theoretical insights.

Theoretical Sampling

Grounded theory employs Theoretical Sampling, which involves selecting participants or data sources based on their potential to contribute to the emerging theory. Researchers purposively sample individuals, events, or contexts that can offer diverse perspectives and enrich the theoretical understanding. Theoretical Sampling allows for the exploration of new dimensions, confirmation of existing patterns, and saturation of categories (Theoretical Saturation).

Coding and categorization

Coding is a fundamental aspect of grounded theory, where researchers systematically analyze the data by labeling and categorizing different segments. Initially, Open Coding involves identifying and assigning labels to meaningful segments of data. Axial Coding follows, focusing on identifying relationships between different codes and categories. Finally, Selective Coding synthesizes the categories and develops a coherent theoretical framework.

The process of grounded theory

Grounded theory research typically follows a cyclical process, involving several iterative stages:

Data collection

Grounded theory research begins with data collection, often through various qualitative methods such as interviews, observations, or document analysis. The data collection process is iterative, allowing researchers to refine their research questions and theoretical focus as they progress.

Initial coding

Once the data is collected, researchers engage in the first of the three Coding phases, Open Coding, which involves breaking down the data into meaningful segments and assigning initial labels or codes. This process is aimed at capturing the core ideas and concepts present in the data without forcing preconceived notions or theories.

Theoretical Sampling and constant comparison

As the initial Coding progresses, researchers engage in Theoretical Sampling, actively selecting new participants or data sources based on the emerging theoretical insights. Theoretical Sampling allows researchers to explore new dimensions, confirm existing patterns, and saturate categories, ensuring a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon under study. Constant comparison is a parallel process that involves comparing new data with previously coded data to identify similarities, differences, and emerging patterns. This iterative comparison helps refine the emerging theory and identify areas that require further exploration.

Category development

Through constant comparison and Theoretical Sampling, researchers identify recurring patterns and themes within the data. These patterns and themes form the basis for category development. Categories are conceptual labels that group related codes together, facilitating the organization and synthesis of the data. Researchers refine and revise the categories as they progress, ensuring that they capture the complexity and nuances of the phenomenon under study.

Theoretical integration

Once the categories are developed, researchers engage in theoretical integration. This process involves connecting the categories and developing a coherent theoretical framework. Researchers revisit the data, reevaluate the relationships between categories, and refine the emerging theory. Theoretical integration allows for a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon, as the researcher identifies the core concepts, relationships, and processes that explain the observed patterns within the data.

Applications of grounded theory

Grounded theory has broad applications in various fields of research, including sociology, psychology, education, and healthcare. Some key applications include:
  • Theory Development: Grounded theory provides a robust framework for theory development. By systematically analyzing qualitative data, researchers can generate new theories that capture the complexity and nuances of social phenomena. These theories are grounded in empirical evidence and can contribute to the existing knowledge base.
  • Exploring Complex Phenomena: Grounded theory is particularly useful in exploring complex and poorly understood phenomena. By allowing researchers to immerse themselves in the data, understand the perspectives of participants, and identify patterns and relationships, grounded theory enables a comprehensive understanding of complex social phenomena.
  • Practical Applications: Grounded theory findings can inform practical applications and interventions. By understanding the underlying processes and factors influencing a phenomenon, researchers can develop targeted interventions, policies, or strategies to address societal issues or improve professional practices.

Conclusion on trounded theory as a method for qualitative research

Grounded theory is a powerful qualitative research method that allows researchers to develop theories grounded in empirical evidence. By following a systematic and iterative process of data collection, Coding, constant comparison, and Theoretical Sampling, researchers can generate new insights, identify patterns, and develop comprehensive theoretical frameworks. Grounded theory has diverse applications and contributes to theory development and the understanding of complex social phenomena. As researchers continue to refine and adapt the method, grounded theory remains a valuable approach for qualitative research in the social sciences.

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