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Grounded Theory Research

Corbin and Strauss (1990) say that “Grounded theorists share a conviction with many other qualitative researchers that the usual canons of ‘good science’ should be retained, but require redefinition in order to fit the realities of qualitative research and the complexities of social phenomena,” (p.4).They suggest that the canons of science need to be re-evaluated.

Corbin and Strauss mention two principles in grounded theory, Pragmatism and Symbolic Interactionism: “The first principle pertains to change. Since phenomena are not conceived of as static but as continually changing in response to evolving conditions, an important component of the method is to build change, through process, into the method. The second principle pertains to a clear stand on the issue of ‘determinism.’ Strict determinism is rejected, as is non-determinism. Actors are seen as having, though not always utilizing, the means of controlling their destinies by their responses  to conditions. They are able to make choices according to their perceptions, which are often accurate, about the options they encounter” (p.5).

In other words, grounded theory needs to include change into the method; it needs to understand and accept the idea of process. Secondly, it needs to have a view on determinism that is not ‘strict’; namely, that people make choices based on their perceptions. While they can control what happens by their responses, they do not always do so.

In addition, Corbin and Strauss say that “Data Collection and Analysis are Interrelated Processes” and that “The carrying out of procedures of data collection and analysis systematically and sequentially enables the research process to capture all potentially relevant aspects of the topic as soon as they are perceived. This process is a major source of the effectiveness of the grounded theory approach” (p.6). So what makes Grounded Theory effective is that it is systematic and sequential. Although, not all research theory could capture all potentially relevant aspects of a topic as they are perceived.

Basically, what Corbin and Strauss are here suggesting is a bit of transparency with regards to research methods. That is, “researchers using grounded theory procedures should discuss their procedural operations, even if briefly” (p.20) so that people know how to judge the research. If the procedural operations are presented up front, readers can understand how the research was performed, and can take it for its own value without either imposing standards that don’t fit or wondering about the efficacy of the methods used. It would make everyone pay more attention to the way research is done, and would make it easier “to identify and convey the limitations of their studies” (p.20).

So basically, Grounded Research is about being up front and open about HOW the research is done, in order to better identify the limits of that research, so that either those limits can be explored in later works, or so that they research can be taken with the appropriate grain of salt given said limit.

Strauss and Corbin (1990) suggest that a researcher does not begin a project with a preconceived theory in mind. The researcher begins with an area of study and allows the theory to emerge from the data. Theory derived from data is more likely to resemble the “reality” than is theory derived by putting together a series of concepts based on experience or solely through speculation. However, Smith (1997) suggested that general reading of the literature may be carried out to obtain a feel for the issues at work in the subject area, and identify any gaps to be filled using grounded theory. The researcher is able, therefore to approach the subject with some background knowledge, but it is important that the reading is not too extensive as the theories should evolve from the data itself, producing a grounded theory. In these particular studies both researchers have acquired background knowledge on the areas under investigation, however, the literature for both studies will be used to confirm or challenge the theory after the point at which theoretical saturation is reached.

The Elements Of Grounded Theory

The three basic elements of grounded theory are concepts, categories and propositions. Concepts are the basic units of analysis since it is from conceptualisation of data, not the actual data per se, that theory is developed. Corbin and Strauss (1990, p. 7) state:

Theories can’t be built with actual incidents or activities as observed or reported; that is, from “raw data.” The incidents, events, happenings are taken as, or analysed as, potential indicators of phenomena, which are thereby given conceptual labels. If a respondent says to the researcher, “Each day I spread my activities over the morning, resting between shaving and bathing,” then the researcher might label this phenomenon as “pacing.” As the researcher encounters other incidents, and when after comparison to the first, they appear to resemble the same phenomena, then these, too, can be labelled as “pacing.” Only by comparing incidents and naming like phenomena with the same term can the theorist accumulate the basic units for theory.

The second element of grounded theory, categories, are defined by Corbin and Strauss (1990, p. 7) thus:

Categories are higher in level and more abstract than the concepts they represent. They are generated through the same analytic process of making comparisons to highlight similarities and differences that is used to produce lower level concepts. Categories are the “cornerstones” of developing theory. They provide the means by which the theory can be integrated. We can show how the grouping of concepts forms categories by continuing with the example presented above. In addition to the concept of “pacing,” the analyst might generate the concepts of “self-medicating,” “resting,” and “watching one’s diet.” While coding, the analyst may note that, although these concepts are different in form, they seem to represent activities directed toward a similar process: keeping an illness under control. They could be grouped under a more abstract heading, the category: “Self Strategies for Controlling Illness.”

The third element of grounded theory are propositions which indicate generalised relationships between discrete categories and between a category and its concepts.

The generation and development of concepts, categories and propositions is an iterative process. Grounded theory is not generated a priori and then subsequently tested. Rather, it is,

inductively derived from the study of the phenomenon it represents. That is, discovered, developed, and provisionally verified through systematic data collection and analysis of data pertaining to that phenomenon. Therefore, data collection, analysis, and theory should stand in reciprocal relationship with each other. One does not begin with a theory, and then prove it. Rather, one begins with an area of study and what is relevant to that area is allowed to emerge. (Strauss and Corbin, 1990, p. 23. Emphasis added.)


Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (1990). Grounded theory research: Procedures, canons, and evaluative criteria. Qualitative Sociology, 13, 3-21.

Smith, K. & Biley, F. (1997). Understanding grounded theory: Principles and evaluation, Nurse Researcher, 4(3)

Strauss, A. and Corbin, J. (1990) Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques. Thousand Oaks: Sage

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