Criticisms of Grounded Theory and Its Applications


Grounded theory, developed by sociologists Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss, is a qualitative research method used to analyze and develop theories from data collected through observations and interviews. It has been widely used in various fields, such as sociology, psychology, and management, and has greatly contributed to advancing knowledge and understanding in these areas. However, like any research method, grounded theory is not without criticisms. In this article, we will discuss some of the main criticisms of grounded theory and its applications in research, with a focus on providing practical examples to illustrate each point.

One of the primary criticisms of grounded theory is its lack of a clear and systematic approach. Unlike other research methods, such as quantitative research, grounded theory does not have a strict structure or set of guidelines to follow. This can make it challenging for researchers, especially those who are new to this method, to conduct their study in a consistent and well-organized manner. Without a proper structure, there is a risk of bias and subjectivity in the data interpretation, which can compromise the validity of the findings.

For example, consider a study that aims to develop a theory on the relationship between social media usage and self-esteem among teenagers. A researcher using grounded theory might conduct interviews with a group of teenagers and analyze their responses to identify patterns and themes. However, without a clear structure, the researcher may focus on certain aspects of the data, such as the negative impact of social media on self-esteem, while neglecting other perspectives, leading to a biased and incomplete theory.

Another criticism of grounded theory is the potential for oversimplification and lack of generalizability. As the theory is developed from the data collected from a specific group of participants, it may not be applicable to other populations or contexts. This can be a limitation, particularly for studies that aim to draw broader conclusions or recommendations based on the theory generated using grounded theory.

For instance, let’s consider a study on the emerging trends in remote work and its impact on work-life balance. A researcher using grounded theory may conduct interviews with employees from a particular industry and develop a theory on how remote work has affected their work-life balance. While the theory may be applicable to this specific group of employees, it may not accurately reflect the experiences of employees in other industries or countries. This lack of generalizability can limit the practical applications of the theory and its relevance to a broader audience.

Moreover, some critics argue that grounded theory lacks theoretical sampling, which means that the data collection process may not be adequately targeted and may not accurately represent the entire population being studied. This can result in a narrow and biased analysis, leading to skewed findings and an incomplete theory. Additionally, grounded theory may also be prone to researcher bias, as the researcher’s preconceived notions and beliefs may influence the data collection and analysis process.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at a study on the factors influencing consumer behavior in the fashion industry. A researcher using grounded theory may only choose to interview customers who are frequent shoppers and have a particular income level, leading to a biased and limited understanding of consumer behavior in the industry. In contrast, a more targeted and structured approach, such as theoretical sampling used in quantitative research, would ensure a more representative sample and reduce the risk of bias.

Another criticism of grounded theory is its lack of emphasis on the role of literature and existing theories. While the method emphasizes the importance of deriving theories from data, it may overlook the valuable insights and theories already established in the literature. In doing so, it may miss the opportunity to build upon existing knowledge and may produce theories that are inconsistent or contradictory to established theories.

For instance, consider a study on employee motivation in the workplace using grounded theory. Without considering existing theories on motivation, such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or Herzberg’s two-factor theory, the resulting theory may overlook critical factors and fail to provide a comprehensive understanding of employee motivation.

In conclusion, although grounded theory has been a widely used and valuable research method, it is not without criticisms. Its lack of a clear and systematic approach, potential for oversimplification and lack of generalizability, lack of theoretical sampling, and lack of emphasis on existing literature are some of the main criticisms. However, by being aware of these limitations and incorporating them into the research design, researchers can use grounded theory to produce high-quality and valuable theories that contribute to the advancement of knowledge and understanding in various fields.