Definition and History of Grounded Theory


Grounded theory is a research methodology that aims to generate a theory from the systematic analysis of data. It was developed by sociologists Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss in the 1960s as a way to explore and understand social phenomenon. Since then, grounded theory has been widely used across various disciplines, including sociology, psychology, nursing, education, and management to name a few.

The primary objective of grounded theory is to develop a theoretical explanation for a phenomenon by collecting and analyzing data without any preconceived notions or assumptions. Unlike traditional research that follows a deductive approach, where hypotheses are developed and tested based on existing theories, grounded theory uses an inductive approach, starting with data collection and gradually developing theoretical concepts.

The key idea behind grounded theory is that researchers should let the data speak for itself, rather than imposing their own ideas and beliefs onto the interpretation of the data. This approach is especially useful when studying complex and poorly understood phenomena, as it allows for new and unexpected insights to emerge from the data.

There are three main principles that underpin grounded theory: constant comparison, theoretical sampling, and theoretical saturation. Constant comparison involves repeatedly comparing new data to previously collected data to identify patterns and relationships. Theoretical sampling is the process of selecting participants and gathering data based on emerging theoretical concepts, rather than predetermined categories or characteristics. Theoretical saturation refers to the point at which no new data is providing additional insights or challenging existing theories, indicating that theoretical concepts have been fully developed.

The process of conducting grounded theory research involves several stages, including data collection, coding, and constant comparison. Data collection can occur through various methods, such as interviews, observations, and document analysis. The data is then systematically coded by breaking it down into smaller segments and assigning labels to it. These codes are then compared and categorized, leading to the development of theoretical concepts. This process continues until theoretical saturation is achieved, and a new theory is generated.

One of the strengths of grounded theory is its ability to generate new theoretical concepts that are grounded in data instead of relying on existing theories. This approach is particularly useful when studying complex social phenomena that have not been extensively researched, as it allows for an in-depth exploration of the topic. Additionally, grounded theory provides a flexible and iterative approach to research, allowing the researcher to adapt and refine the study as new data and insights emerge.

A classic example of grounded theory can be seen in Glaser and Strauss’ original study on the experience of dying. Through their research, they identified the concept of “awareness context,” which refers to how individuals become aware of their impending death and how they respond to it. This concept has since been widely used in various disciplines to understand how people experience and cope with the end of life.

In recent years, there has been some criticism of grounded theory, particularly regarding its reliance on the researcher’s interpretation of the data. Some argue that this approach could lead to biased interpretations and may neglect important perspectives or voices from the data. However, proponents of grounded theory argue that the constant comparison and theoretical sampling processes act as checks and balances to minimize researcher bias.

In conclusion, grounded theory is a highly specialized and practical research methodology that has been widely used for over 50 years to explore and understand various social phenomena. Its emphasis on letting the data speak for itself and its ability to generate new theoretical concepts make it a valuable tool in social science research. As the world continuously evolves, grounded theory continues to provide a flexible and adaptive approach to studying complex and emerging social phenomena, making it a significant contribution to the field of research.