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Grounded theory in research

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3559 words Published: 16th May 2017

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Evaluate the contribution of grounded theory, as an approach to data analysis


The concept of grounded theory is from the Glaser and Strauss’ research in 1967. In 1960s, they made a research for medical personnel to deal with an imminent death of the patient’s field observation in a hospital, and then discovered and developed the grounded theory. In this essay, I will evaluate the grounded theory in 5 parts. The first part is the characteristics of grounded theory; the second part is the procedure of grounded theory; the third part is comparison with other types of research methods and the forth part is the contribution of grounded theory research in management field, and the last part is the future of grounded theory.

1. The characteristics of grounded theory

Some perspectives of grounded theory

In Suddaby’s (2006) view, the grounded theory can be described as:

“Grounded the­ory is best understood historically. The methodology was developed by Glaser and Strauss (1967) as a reaction against the extreme positivism that had per­meated most social research.” (Suddaby 2006, p.633)

And Gephart (2004) points out:

“Glaser and Strauss (1967) proposed grounded theory as a practical method for conducting re­search that focuses on the interpretive process by analysing the “the actual production of meanings and concepts used by social actors in real settings” (Gephart, 2004, p.457).

And another view is Glaser’s perspective (1992, p16), he argues that:

“The grounded theory is a general methodology of analysis linked with data collection that uses a systematically applied set of methods to generate an inductive theory about a substantive area.”

Grounded theory research method is a type of qualitative research which is based on induction. It used in many sociological research areas such as education, religion, and many others. Zhigang (2007) argued that the method is characterized by extracting the theory from the phenomenon to create or enrich existing theoretical system.

In the view of Layder (1993), Grounded theory method is a process of generating a theory, which including constant comparison, thinking, analysis and transformation of information. The characteristics of emphasis on information and more interactive approach, which makes the researchers collect data by making use of a continuous and intimate interactions of the parties and events.

In summary, in the first place, according to Zhigang’s perspective,(2007) the grounded theory is a bottom-up approach to establish substantive theory, which is finding the core concepts reflects the social phenomenon based on systematical data collection, and then generate the relative theory through the links between these concepts. Secondly, grounded theory must be supported by empirical evidence, but it is not the main feature of grounded theory, the main feature is that it generates new theory or idea abstracted form the experience and data analysis. Lastly, in philosophical ideology, grounded theory approach is a paradigm based on the post-positivist, which emphasize on falsifying current theory which has been constructed.

The comparative analysis – the core of data analysis of grounded theory

Strauss & Corbin (1998) pointed out that the grounded theory emphasizes on development of the theory, but also the theory is based on the data collection of realities, and continuing data analysis through the comparison.

The strategy of comparative analysis usually used in sociology research. In grounded theory, it is a very important process. Glaser and Strauss (1967) argued that it should be first contrasted the use of the method with certain other users in the research process, and then define and describe what type of theory be created through comparative analysis. The purpose of comparative analysis, as a strategic method for generating theory, is to obtain the accurate evidence, which is the difference between establishing theory and verifying theory. The evidence collected from some comparative groups, which is used to examine whether the original evidence was correct.

The characteristic of comparative analysis for establishing theory or concept puts a high emphasis on theory as process. In other words, theory is not perfected; it needs develop continuously through comparative analysis. Glaser and Strauss (1967) believed that theory renders the reality of social interaction and its structural context as a process.

The coding

Coding is a key element of the data analysis in grounded theory. BaiKai and YuanBo (2009) argued that the encoding is the usually used technology in the qualitative research which is entirely different from quantitative research. In qualitative research, the purpose of coding is not counted, but rather “deconstruction” of information to form the concept. They would be re-arranged in different categories, in order to promote the comparison of information and proposition of theoretical concepts in one category.

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Zhigang (2007) points out that the effective use of the grounded theory primarily depends on the following two aspects: on the one hand, the researchers should make an effort to choose a meaningful direction or area of research. It is difficult to identify the gaps that may exist in the theoretical proposition; On the one hand, the researchers should pay attention to data collection and collation, and propose some theoretical assumptions and refining the new conclusions in accordance with the principles, steps and techniques of the grounded theory.

2. The procedure of the grounded theory

In Strauss and Corbin’s view (1998), it is important that focus mainly on the process. They believe that the process is more important as describing and coding everything which is continuously changing.

The process of grounded theory research made based on the view of Pandit. N (1996)

Source: Pandit. N (1996) The Creation of Theory: A Recent Application of the Grounded Theory Method

As can be seen clearly, there are mainly 3 phases in the process of grounded theory – research design phase, data collection phase and data analysis. The whole process is started at review of technical literature and finished at reaching closure, but it is need to note here is that if the result is theoretical saturation after the theoretical sampling step, it should be restarted the second step – selecting cases.

According to the Suddaby’s view (2006), There are 2 key points in the method which described by Glaser and Strauss (1967) – “constant comparison,” and “theoretical sampling,” in which data are collected and ana­lysed simultaneously, and “theoretical sampling,” in which decisions about which data should be collected next are determined by the theory that is being constructed. Therefore, the most important steps in the process are data analysis and theoretical sampling, which are the key difference in contrast with other research methods.

3. Comparison with other methods of qualitative research

Grounded theory and other various ways in social research have different advantages and disadvantages. Possibly different types of methods can be used in different areas. Researchers select different research methods, could means that they have different research ideas and objectives. At the same time, selection and use of methods could more depend on the topic or the attribute of research. The necessary requirement of obtaining the valuable research findings is the appropriate combination between objectives and methods of the research.

Comparison with Hypothesis Testing

The Hypothesis testing method is different from the Grounded theory method. The definition of Hypothesis testing can be described as: “Hypothesis testing research investigates a phenomenon in terms of a relationship between an independent and dependent variable, both of which are measurable numerically. This relationship is called a hypothesis. The aim of the research is to test whether the hypothesized relationship is actually true, using statistical methods.” (Auerbach and Silverstein, 2003, p.3)

Although hypothesis testing and grounded theory are good research methods to do the research in some areas, there are some differences between them. The hypothesis testing method is mainly different from the grounded theory in the process of building theory. In hypothesis testing method, the hypothesis or idea has been generated first. Researchers can make hypothesis without any evidence, then they will look for the evidences or collect data and information to support their hypothesis or idea. In contrast, grounded theory is an inductive method which focuses on the discovery and does not rest on hypothesis testing but on building hypotheses according to the data and relative information. Suddaby (2006) point out: “Glaser and Strauss rejected positivist notions of falsification and hypothesis testing and, instead, described an organic process of theory emergence based on how well data fit conceptual categories identified by an observer, by how well the categories explain or predict ongoing interpre­tations, and by how relevant the categories are to the core issues being observed.” (Suddaby, 2006, p.634) It is clear that the hypothesis testing a grounded theory would be used in different fields, such as the hypothesis could be used for working out the mathematics problem and grounded theory could be used in the research in the social areas. Which method can be chosen for research depends on the objectives of the research.

Comparison with Ethnography

Creswell (1998) argued that ethnography involves prolonged observation of the group, typically through participant observation in which the research is immersed in the day to day lives of thepeople or through one on one interviews with members of the group. Clearly, the ethnography method could be more used in the research of human, culture and language etc.

From the view of Creswell (1998, p148), the following table can describe the differences between grounded theory and ethnography in data analysis process.

Data analysis and representation

Grounded theory


Data managing

Create and organize files for data

Create and organize files for data

Reading, Memoing

Read through text, make margin notes, form initial codes

Read through text, make margin notes, form initial codes


Engage in axial coding

Engage in open coding

Analyse data for themes and patterned regularities


Engage in selective coding

Develop a conditional matrix

Interpret and make sense of findings

Representing, Visualizing

Present a visual theory

Present propositions

Present narrative presentation augmented by tables, figures and sketches


Creswell, J. (1998) Qualitative inquiry and research design: choosing among five traditions

As can be seen clearly, the most difference between grounded and ethnography is from classifying step to visualizing step. The 3 core coding steps play an important role in the data analysis of grounded theory, which make the grounded theory can be developed through the constant comparison. And also it is one of the advantages of grounded theory in contrast with other qualitative methods as an approach to data analysis.

Mello and Flint (2009) believe that the grounded theory primarily uses interviews, but also uses observation and documents analysis like an ethnography method. It differs from an ethnography method because of its purpose, which is to build theory. Like many other interpretive qualitative approaches, grounded theory has helped other disciplines open up fruitful new avenues of research.

Hammersley (1990) argues that much ethnography places emphasis on the ‘description’ as an important purpose of research, there are other strands that focus on a form of ‘theoretical description’. However, while Glaser and Strauss think that grounded theory is related to the wider context of qualitative analysis and method. The grounded theory approach is highly distinctive and unlike other types of qualitative methods.

4. Grounded Theory in management research

It is no doubt that the grounded theory can be used in a wide range of research such like nursing, business and management, mathematics and many types of sociology. Then, I will talk about the contribution of grounded theory focus on the business and management area. Firstly, the following table gives some examples of the grounded theory used in management research.

Examples of grounded theory in management research



Senior executives and IT

Systems development

Managing understanding in orgnisations

Organisational culture

Staff perspectives on work

Retailer response to manufactures’

low-cost programmes

Rural women entrepreneurs

Competitive strategy and manufacturing

Process technology

Building co-operation in competitive industries

Consumer behaviour

Advertising and mass media


Career development

Electronic data interchange

Leadership in organisations

Strategic alliances

Ideal business images for women

Tourist behaviour

Employment outcomes

Seeley and Targett (1997)

King (1996), Calloway and Ariav (1995)

Brown (1994, 1995)

Turner (1981, 1988)

Clegg et al. (1996)

Nuefeldt et al. (1996)

Manning et al. (1998)

Egan (1997)

McKinley-Wright (1995)

Schroeder and Congden (1995)

Congden (1995)

Browning et al. (1995)

Houston and Venkatesh (1996)

Goulding (1999b,1999c,2000b,2000c)

Hirschman and Thompson (1997)

Burchill and Fine (1997)

De la Cuesta (1994)

Beard (1989)

Sperber-Richie et al. (1997)

Crook and Kumar (1998)

Parry (1998)

Hunt and Ropo (1995)

Lang (1996)

Kimle and Damhost (1997)

Riley (1995, 1996)

Mullins and Roessier (1998)

Source: Goulding, C. (2002) Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide for Management, Business and Market Researchers

From the table above, it is obvious that the grounded theory can be used in many researches about business and explores a wide range of management problems. “These situations merely serve to demonstrate the transcending nature of grounded theory and its potential for application in the field of management research.” (Goulding, 2002, p.51) Taking the marketing field as an example, “grounded theory has begun theoretical development in the areas of the creation of a market oriented firm, moving away from previous research that merely described what a market oriented firm looks like.” (Gebhardt, Carpenter, and Sherry, 2006, citied in Mello, and Flint (2009) A Refined View of Grounded Theory and Its Application to Logistics Research p.109)

5. Grounded theory in the future

What grounded theory will happen in the future? It is no doubt that the grounded theory will be used for doing research in the wider range of fields. Increasing researchers will choose the grounded theory as the first choice.

Youhui (1996) think that one of the characteristics of grounded theory method is that the discover believe that it is necessary to generate theory in the research of sociology and both data analysis and theory building should be focused in qualitative research and any other research methods. Therefore, the grounded theory method is ideally suited to the areas such as: the existing theoretical system which is not perfected, the phenomenon which is very difficult to effectively explain, or the new areas and phenomenon which has no systematical theory currently.

About the Justifying Grounded Theory in the future, Glaser described it as:

“The future will bring less need to legitimize grounded theory; hence, there will be less need to justify using it. Now, many researchers have to explain it and argue for its use. Its future portends that grounded theory will be as accepted as are other methods (e.g., surveys) and will require little or no explanation to justify its use in a research project.” (Glaser, B.G. 1999, pp.845)

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Charmaz (2005 citied in Denzin, N.K. and Lincoln, Y.S. (2005) Handbook of Qualitative Research) believe that a major strength of the grounded theory is that they provide tools for analysing process, and these tools hold much potential for studying social justice issues. She also believed that coding practices can help us to see our assumptions, as well as those of our research participants. Rather than raising our code to a level of objectively, we can raise questions about how and why we developed certain codes.

Grounded theory has its own advantages, it is to believe that grounded theory will be developed deeper and suitable for the research, Charmaz (2005 citied in Denzin, N.K. and Lincoln, Y.S. (2005) The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research 3rd ed.) write that:

“As its best, grounded theory provides methods to explicate an empirical process in ways that prompt seeing beyond it. By sticking closely to the leads and explicating the relevant process, the researcher can go deeper into meaning and action than given in words. Thus, the focused inquiry of grounded theory, with its progressive inductive analysis, moves the work theoretically and covers more empirical observations than other approaches. In this way, a focused grounded theory portrays a picture of the whole.” (Charmaz, 2005, pp.529)


To sum up, the grounded theory has a wider use range than other methods. For those social areas which lack current theory and some phenomenon which lack enough evidence and explanation, the grounded theory method is an effective analytical technique as an approach of data analysis. This method not only can help researchers to use inductive methods to abstract the basic theory from the phenomenon in the research, but also it is a good way to build and develop the theoretical system gradually to achieve the combination with the current theory effectively. There are many contributions of grounded theory in many different areas such as business, education, medicine and other many others. In terms of many advantages and characteristics of grounded theory, we believe that it will be use in more range of social research as an approach to data analysis and developed more to be accepted by more researchers.


Auerbach, C.F. and Silverstein, L.B. 2003 Qualitative Data: an Introduction to Coding and Analysis. New York University

BaiKai and YuanBo. 2009. The analysis of impression series by Grounded theory Journal of Shaanxi Administration School Vol.23, No.1 pp.15-20

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Creswell, J. 1998. Qualitative inquiry and research design: choosing among five traditions Sage Publications. London

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Mello, J. and Flint D. J. 2009. A Refined View of Grounded Theory and Its Application to Logistics Research Journal of Business Logistics, Vol. 30, No. 1, 107—108

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Suddaby, R. 2006. From The Editors: What Grounded Theory Is Not Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp.633-642

Youhui Hu. (1996) Qualitative Research: Theory, Method and Local Women Case Studies Research Taipei: Juliu Publications

Zhigang Li. 2007. The Study of Grounded Theory in Business Research. Journal of East Forum. Vol.4, pp.90-94


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