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British Journal of Social Work (2012) 42, 371387

Advance Access publication May 22, 2011

Critical Realist Grounded Theory: A New

Approach for Social Work Research
Carolyn Oliver*

Correspondence to Carolyn Oliver, School of Social Work, 2080 West Mall, The University of
British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z2, Canada. E-mail:

This article explores the potential for grounded theory to be adapted for use within a
critical realist paradigm. Critical realism can provide a solid philosophical framework
for social work research, but its lack of connection to a familiar research methodology
may be limiting its application. Grounded theory is one of the most widely used and
well-described methodologies in the social sciences. Its recent adaptation by constructivist and critical researchers demonstrates the ways in which concerns about the methodologys empiricism, individualism and focus on induction might be resolved to meet the
needs of critical realist inquiry. Critical realism and grounded theory then become highly
compatible, sharing a focus on abduction and commitment to fallibilism and the interconnectedness of practice and theory. Attending to evidence and meaning, individual
agency and social structure, theory-building and the pursuit of practical emancipatory
goals, the resulting approach is ideally suited to social work research.
Keywords: Critical realism, grounded theory, research approach, methodology

Accepted: April 2011

Critical realism offers a solid philosophical base for social work research
(Houston, 2001), but, more than thirty years after the publication of its
seminal works (Bhaskar, 1978, 1986, 1989), it has had limited influence
on our discipline. This may be due to the inaccessible language of many
of its texts, written from a philosophy of science perspective and seemingly
disconnected from daily practice (Pratt, 1995). It may also be due to the lack

# The Author 2011. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of

The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.

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Carolyn Oliver is a social worker who researches and teaches in the child welfare field in
Vancouver, Canada.

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of attention paid to what a critical realist perspective means for research

methodology. Critical realism has been dubbed a philosophy in search of
a method (Yeung, 1997, p. 51) and some critical realists argue against aligning with specific methodologies so as to preserve inquiry as a pragmatic
process determined by the question under study (Danermark et al., 2002).
For their part, social science methodologists have tended to discuss
method with reference to positivist, post-positivist, constructivist and critical philosophical paradigms (Lincoln and Guba, 2005), leaving little room
to consider the implications of a critical realist perspective spanning those
traditional divides. As a result, the examination of what critical realism
means for how we actually do research has not moved far beyond general
guidelines like using mixed methodology, conceptualisation and the retroductive technique. In this article, I examine the compatibility of critical
realism and grounded theory, arguing that, together, they offer an accessible and congruent research approach of particular relevance to social work.
My starting point is that broad theoretical commitments shape how methodologies deal with the central issues of truth and evidence (Lincoln and
Guba, 2005). The standoff over evidence-based practice, however, shows
the extent to which this relationship between theory and practice is contested in our field. At one extreme are those, influenced by logical positivism, who seek theory-free empirical fact from a position of objectivity
(Thyer, 2001; Trinder and Reynolds, 2000). They tend to see little need
to interrogate the individualist, rationalist assumptions underpinning their
approach. At the other are those, influenced by a range of constructivist
and critical ideas, who deem all facts to be theory-laden, seek multiple
socially constructed truths and see transparency about theoretical allegiances as essential to credibility (Parton, 2002; Pease, 2010). While the
battle between quantitative and qualitative methodologies may have
abated with the conclusion that all have a role to play (Arnd-Caddigan
and Pozzuto, 2006), the value of the various epistemological positions in
which they are embedded remains in dispute.
Realism can bridge the divide (Sheppard, 1998; Taylor and White, 2001)
in a debate driven by stereotypes on both sides (Gould, 2004). Critical
realism can do this while meeting the demand for more critical approaches
in social work research (Pease, 2010). It marries the positivists search for
evidence of a reality external to human consciousness with the insistence
that all meaning to be made of that reality is socially constructed. It
accepts that the social constructions themselves can constitute what we
know as the reality of our social worlds. This makes it a useful approach
for a field in which social workers must balance respect for individual
meaning-making with evidence to test that meaning-making for its correspondence to an external reality (Houston, 2001). It offers the kind of
nuanced understanding that social workers often seek as the ultimate
goal . . . is not to identify generalisable laws (positivism) or to identify the
lived experience or beliefs of social actors (interpretivism); it is to

Critical Realist Grounded Theory 373

Critical realism
Roy Bhaskar founded critical realism in the 1970s and this article draws primarily on his early works prior to the dialectical and spiritual writings that
many see as distracting from the philosophys core ideas (Potter, 2006).
A key feature of critical realism is the rejection of the epistemic fallacy
(Bhaskar, 1978, p. 36) which conflates reality with our knowledge of it.

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develop deeper levels of explanation and understanding (McEvoy and

Richards, 2006, p. 69).
This is not a call, however, to methodological orthodoxy. Tensions
between competing perspectives can open up new angles of vision and
opportunities for transformative action (Arnd-Caddigan and Pozzuto,
2006; Lorenz, 2004). They reflect contradictions at the heart of social
work, characterised as it is by theoretical plurality, competing practice traditions, diverse client populations and a mandate both to care and to control
(Parton, 2000). This inclusiveness may constitute social works defining disciplinary feature (Shaw et al., 2006) or its greatest obstacle to the specialised
knowledge base on which claims to disciplinary distinction rely (Thyer,
2002). It does, however, create the need for an array of research approaches
to meet objectives as varied as empowering users, assessing what works and
furthering professional accountability. The principles underpinning critical
realist-grounded theory require that it not be seen as a means to prematurely shut down the paradigm debate (Lorenz, 2004). Rather, it is
offered as one of many research approaches that cater particularly well to
social workers needs.
There is a practical purpose in examining the compatibility of critical
realism and grounded theory. Busy social work researchers may be more
willing to take up a critical realist perspective if does not entail reinventing
the methodological wheel. Grounded theory has an impressive track record
in the applied disciplines and is characterised by accessible and highly
developed methodological guidelines (Kushner and Morrow, 2003).
While it has been dismissed by some critical realists for its empiricism, rigidity and focus on induction (Danermark et al., 2002), these criticisms fail to
take into account the ways in which the methodology has developed over
recent years. The regeneration of grounded theory by critical and postmodern theorists suggests both its flexibility and the ways in which it can be
adapted to the needs of critical realist inquiry. Grounded theory can
provide critical realisms method and, in doing so, tie research more
firmly to practice. Clarke (2003) proposed that symbolic interactionist
theory and grounded theory method be seen as a coherent theory/
methods package. For social work research, however, joining grounded
theory with the more expansive and progressive philosophy of critical
realism may better serve the professions ethical and functional goals.

374 Carolyn Oliver

To claim objective truth for ones statements is to lay ones cards on the
table, to expose oneself to the possibility of refutation. It is to make clear
one is talking about something . . . this makes it possible for others to
point out features of that something that are not as claimed, and hence to
disprove your opinion (Collier, 1994, pp. 13 14).

The reality envisaged by Bhaskar is a complex, multi-layered, multicausal web of interacting forces, much like that experienced in social
work practice. Bhaskar proposes that our social world operates in a
similar way to the natural world, where phenomena can be broken down
into progressively more basic stratified layers. A structure is the inner composition making each object what it is and not something else (Danermark
et al., 2002, p. 47). It is a particular combination of internally and necessarily
related objects that acts as a generative mechanism (Bhaskar, 1978) for
phenomena at a higher ontological level. All phenomena can be explained
in part by, but not reduced to, their underlying generative mechanisms. This
means that a clients abusive behaviour towards his spouse may be generated in part by his interrelated beliefs about power and control, which
may be generated in part by broader social discourses, which, in turn,
emerge from the intersection of oppressive political and economic structures. In our complex social world, multiple causal mechanisms, including
the interpretations of each situation made by each individual, constantly
interact with, negate and reinforce each other. Generative mechanisms
are neither determinative nor all-explaining. Our client may change his behaviour if any number of competing causal mechanisms (a social workers

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Bhaskar would see the poverty, disability and violence experienced by our
clients not merely as part of their narrative or a function of our beliefs about
them, but as present whether or not we and our clients choose to acknowledge them. Critical realism presupposes an objective reality which exists
independently of our thoughts and whose discovery is one purpose of
knowledge acquisition. However, it also holds that all description of that
reality is mediated through the filters of language, meaning-making and
social context. It is impossible to step outside our own perspectivism and
so the gap between the real world and our knowledge of it can never be
closed. This does not imply that all beliefs are equally valid in the sense
that there are no rational grounds for preferring one to another
(Bhaskar, 1986, p. 72) or that we must descend to the abyss of relativism
(Taylor and White, 2001, p. 53) which threatens social works moral
purpose (Clark, 2006). While reality cannot be known for sure, it can be
described with better or worse, truer or less true, accounts. Our assessments
of our clients lives will never be our clients lives or capture all the nuances
of their experience, but most social workers can tell the difference between
a well-informed accurate account and its reverse. The obligation to search
for the account that comes closest to approximating and explaining what is
real provides the moral impetus for inquiry:

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intervention? a newly found stake in the political system?) get in the way.
Rejecting simple linear causality, critical realism describes a social world
in which there are multiple opportunities for intervention and change.
What does this mean for knowledge? The continuous interplay of generative mechanisms and the looping relationship between ideation and reality
(Hacking, 1999) make our social reality shifting and unpredictable. All
knowledge must then be seen as tentative and fallible. This reflects the
ambiguity at the heart of a social work endeavour in which even the most
actuarial risk assessment tools fall short of providing predictive certainty
(Callahan and Swift, 2006) and good practice requires the humility to
listen to other perspectives and to abandon our own in the face of countervailing evidence. The best we can hope for is to uncover approximate evidence of tendencies rather than proofs allowing prediction as in open
systems counter-instances do not disprove the operation of a tendency,
since counter-tendencies exist and it cannot be predicted which will
prevail (Collier, 1994, p. 210). These tendencies reflect patterns that may
occur naturally or may be the result of mental models and social institutions
we develop to induce a state of quasi-closure on our reality. It is these
regularities that provide the stability on which we base judgements and
take action in an ever-changing world (Downward et al., 2002).
Critical realists seek vertical explanations which link events and experiences to their underlying generative mechanisms rather than their antecedent events and experiences. Bhaskar distinguishes between the empirical
domain, the actual domain of events occurring whether or not we experience them and the underlying real domain of structures generating those
events. We come to understand the real and actual domains by inferring
from their experienced effects. Social workers do this every time we
assess simply from a clients behaviour that she has suffered trauma; we
do not need to witness the traumatic event itself. Critical realism provides
a theoretical framework that allows this examination of rationally deduced
phenomena below the level of Humeian sense-data at which positivist and
post-positivist science traditionally stops. It allows the theorising to go
beyond what is immediately knowable but maintains an obligation to test
that theorising in the crucible of real-world experience and against competing theories. We must seek empirical evidence for any emergent ideas about
our clients trauma history to check whether this or alternative theories best
explains how she acts. The goal is the best available empirically supported
account that renders intelligible more of the phenomena in question than
competing explanations (Will, 1980).
Critical realism has an explicit emancipatory goal and provides a framework wherein surface appearances may be challenged by examination of
the structures that generate them: Social science does not only bring into
view beliefs, their falsehood and their causal relations with the social structure; it also reveals human needs, their frustration, and the relation of those
needs and that frustration to the social structure (Collier, 1994, p. 182). An

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Grounded theory
Grounded theory is a research methodology whose purpose is the systematic development of theory. Originating with the work of Glaser and Strauss
(1967), it is now one of the most widely used qualitative methodologies in
the social sciences (Strauss and Corbin, 1997) and identified as particularly
relevant to social work (Gilgun, 1994). While there are significant differences in how grounded theory has evolved under different epistemological
paradigms, all approaches share core characteristics. The methodology
developed in reaction to the dominant deductive method of
mid-twentieth-century science, whereby hypotheses derived from theory
were tested empirically. Grounded theory aimed instead to develop new
theory inductively through a process of concurrent data collection and
analysis (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). The researcher immediately analyses
and codes incoming data (Glaser, 1978) and, in a process called theoretical
sampling, chooses new data sources for their potential to develop emergent
analytical insights. Memos written throughout the study capture the
researchers internal analytic dialogue, prompt reflexivity and become
further data for coding and analysis.
Early detailed coding of every data line or event is intended to break
open the data to consider all possible meanings (Corbin and Strauss,
2008, p. 59) and to move the researcher away from her preconceptions.
The researcher progressively links codes into higher-level categories or conceptual themes. This conceptual development relies on a process of constant comparative analysis whereby the researcher compares information
between and within categories to interrogate how the properties and dimensions of each category vary under different conditions (Glaser and Strauss,
1967). A researcher interested in the behaviour of abused children may
identify a group of references within her data that she codes avoiding
detection. Comparing each of these references to each other and to
other conceptual categories helps her to describe the circumstances in

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explanatory critique (Bhaskar, 1986) will illuminate the disjuncture

between the belief that social workers burn out because they are bad
workers and the structural causes of burnout in organisational factors
like demand overload and inadequate support (Maslach et al., 2001). It
will then go further to explore the value of the individual pathology narrative to institutions that may lack the will and money to address the real
causes. Bhaskars perception of truth as a moral good means that, all
things being equal, we should address the causes of inequity and false
belief by exposing and challenging the institutions that generate and maintain them. Critical realism thereby supports a programme of action that
goes beyond surface tinkering (burnout workshops and advice to exercise)
to tackle the deeper roots of needs and false beliefs.

Critical Realist Grounded Theory 377

which the participants take action to avoid detection, how, when and why
their actions to avoid detection vary and thus to describe in greater detail
the limits and use of the concept. The outcome of this progressively abstract
analysis is a description of the relationships between conceptual categories
and their synthesis into a theory explaining the maximum amount of variation within the issue of concern.

The compatibility of critical realism and grounded theory

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What is required of a critical realist methodology and how well does

grounded theory meet these requirements? The first requirement of a suitable methodology is that it can operate across the traditional epistemological paradigms spanned by critical realism. Grounded theory was always
intended to be useful within a broad range of theoretical perspectives
(Glaser and Strauss, 1967) and proved its adaptability from the start by
accommodating the very different philosophical needs of its creators.
Glaser, a University of Columbia mathematician, was always an unrepentant positivist. He pursued generalisable theory about an objective reality
through the systematic application of method by a neutral observer. He
continues to protect grounded theorys inductive nature by encouraging
researchers to approach inquiry without substantive knowledge or preconceived analytical frameworks. In contrast, Strauss approached the methodology from a symbolic interactionist perspective informed by Pragmatism
(Peirce, 1992) and his Chicago School sociologist roots. He saw individuals
co-constructing knowledge and drawing on shared meanings to interpret
their unique situations. While sharing Glasers realism, he foreshadowed
what later came to be known as postmodern assumptions: the instability
of situations . . . social worlds seen as mutually constitutive/coproduced
through negotiations . . .; negotiations as central social processes hailing
that things can always be otherwise (Clarke, 2003, pp. 556 7).
While these approaches remain popular, the second generation of
grounded theorists (Morse et al., 2009) has, over the last decade, significantly reshaped the methodology. Defying the criticism that GT does
not consider the significance and consequences of the double hermeneutic
of social science (Danermark et al., 2002, p. 137), they maintain that
knowledge rests on social constructions. We construct research processes
and products, but these constructions occur under pre-existing structural
conditions, arise in emergent situations and are influenced by the researchers perspectives, privileges, positions, interactions and geographical
locations (Charmaz, 2009, p. 130). Constructivists have used grounded
theory to make explicit the assumptions and unspoken knowledge of participants, elicit their meaning-making rather than make claims about an
objective reality and develop contextualised theory for practical
application. Criticalists have seen grounded theory research as a means to

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critique and transform dominant social structures (Wuest, 2001). Explicit

about their theoretical allegiances, they draw on analytical categories like
gender and class to code and question the data (Kushner and Morrow,
2003; Gibson, 2007). They theoretically sample structural conditions and
borrow participatory research techniques (Wuest et al., 2002). These
newer approaches have shown grounded theory methodology to be
capable of handling the preconceived analytical categories, concern with
broader social structures and explicitly normative purpose inherent in critical realist inquiry.
The implications of grounded theory have now been developed within so
many theoretical perspectives that the methodology is best seen as an
umbrella covering several different variants, emphases, and directions
and ways to think about data (Charmaz, 2009, p. 128). There is every
reason to believe it can adapt again to the needs of critical realism, particularly as that philosophy is said to be able to support any empirical method
(Scott, 2005). A critical realist grounded theory would draw inspiration
from the hermeneutical bent and fluidity of the constructivist approach.
It would, however, challenge the tendency of many contemporary grounded
theorists to throw the real baby out with the relativist bathwater in the claim
that it is not the event itself that is the issue in studies, because each person
experiences and gives meaning to events in light of his or her own biography
or experiences (Corbin and Strauss, 2008, p. 10). Critical realist grounded
theory would address both the event itself and the meanings made of it,
approach data with the preconceived analytical concepts of emergence
and generative mechanisms and pursue emancipatory, rather than merely
descriptive, goals.
The second requirement of a critical realist methodology is that it allows
for the conceptualisation and reconceptualisation (Pratt, 1995) demanded
by the belief that all understanding is partial, tentative and temporary.
Grounded theory is well placed to operationalise critical realisms fallibilism. The approach is founded on the requirement to abandon preconceptions in the pursuit of intellectual leads. Its methods of open coding,
constant comparison and questioning the data are intended to push the
researcher beyond her received understandings (Corbin and Strauss,
2008). It is unique among research methodologies in eschewing even the
most flexible of predetermined interview and sampling plans in favour of
the theoretical sampling whereby the researcher is like a detective. He
or she follows the leads of the concepts, never quite certain where they
will lead, but always open to what might be uncovered (Corbin and
Strauss, 2008, p. 144). The research question itself is often inducted from
the data as the researcher discovers from the participants the central
issue requiring resolution. Even grounded theorys traditional concept of
saturation has been reframed to embrace the fluidity of knowledge creation. It is now rarely presented as a fixed point at which truth has been
extracted from the data. All theory is modifiable (Glaser, 1998) and analysis

Critical Realist Grounded Theory 379

Retroduction is the central tool of critical realist inquiry. It means asking of
observed phenomena the transcendental question what must be true for
this to be the case? before abstracting potential causal mechanisms and
seeking empirical evidence for the abstractions (Bhaskar, 1986). It involves
the reflexivity about theoretical positioning and recurrent iterative movement between theory and evidence seen by many as central to social
work knowledge (Sheppard, 1998; Taylor and White, 2001). While it has
been proposed as a methodology in its own right (Sarre, 1987), a lack of
practice examples supports situating the retroductive technique within a
more familiar research approach.
The tension between retroduction and grounded theorys traditional
reliance on induction must be resolved before grounded theory can be
used as a critical realist methodology. Critical realists have objected that
causal mechanisms do not speak for themselves (which is one of the

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stops when you dont think you have missed much of anything. You think
these are the most important elements. (Of course there are many others,
but they dont seem to make a difference to the stories you would tell)
(Clarke, 2003, p. 571). It is a small stretch from this to seeing saturation
as the point in a critical realist study at which the theory arising from
inquiry has, for the time being, greater explanatory power than its rivals.
The third requirement of a critical realist methodology is that it embraces
epistemic relativism or the idea that there are many ways of knowing. Critical realist studies have tended to use mixed-method approaches, typically
using statistical analysis to ascertain patterns or regularities in empirical
phenomena, and then qualitative inquiry to probe for depth explanation
(Kazi, 2003). However, an alternative strategy is to use multiple data collection and analysis approaches within the framework of grounded theory.
A central tenet of grounded theory is all is data (Glaser, 1998) and,
although it is commonly characterised as a qualitative methodology,
Glaser and Strauss (1967) perceived it to be a general method. It is entirely
possible for grounded theory studies to mix quantitative and qualitative
data (Fernandez et al., 2007; Glaser, 1999). Even wholly qualitative
studies typically use multiple data sources and combine interviews, observation and textual analysis. This enables triangulation for reasons that
appear contradictory within traditional paradigms but which become coherent when seen from a critical realist perspective (McEvoy and Richards,
2006). Triangulation can examine convergence on, and tentative confirmation of, a real tendency. At the same time, it offers more complete understanding by bringing together the information gained from different
perspectives and prompting interrogation of emergent contradictions
(Olsen, 2004).

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points where realists part company with grounded theory), active thought
experimentation is needed before research even begins (Hart et al., 2004,
p. 166). Before constructivists redeveloped the method for their own
ends, grounded theorys ambivalence about any analytical slant that
might force the data through preconceived conceptual frameworks
(Glaser, 1998) made it ill-suited to a critical realism relying on theory to
propose generative mechanisms for observed phenomena. Most contemporary grounded theorists, however, now see the method as proceeding
either by a pattern of reverberating induction fostering deduction and so
forth (Glaser, 1998, p. 43) or by abduction. Abduction is not new to
grounded theory; it was described as the route to knowledge by Charles
Sanders Peirce, whose Pragmatist ideas heavily influenced early symbolic
interactionist strains of the methodology (Peirce, 1992). However, in their
efforts to develop a more flexible approach, constructivists have increasingly emphasised abduction as its key epistemological strategy. Abduction
entails considering all possible theoretical explanations for the data,
framing hypotheses for each possible explanation, checking them empirically by examining data and pursuing the most plausible explanation
(Charmaz, 2006, p. 188).
The shift from pure induction to abduction means that grounded theory
now typically accommodates researchers pre-existing theoretical knowledge, hunches and hypotheses as necessary points of departure
(Charmaz, 2006, p. 17) and building blocks for the development of more
abstract theory. The only caveat is that the researcher be transparent
about any starting position and consider it provisional, tentative and
likely to be replaced as inquiry proceeds (Corbin and Strauss, 2008).
Many grounded theorists are now explicit about the theories on which
they draw when proposing possible hypotheses for observed patterns and
relationships. Some draw on these theories in response to emergent patterns in their data, while others detach their conceptualisation entirely
from participants concerns, analysing for gender and identity issues even
if these issues are not important to participants (Clarke, 2009). Active
thought experimentation is increasingly acknowledged as central to the
design and conduct of grounded theory studies, as our findings are a
product of data plus what the researcher brings to the analysis (Corbin
and Strauss, 2008, p. 33).
Retroduction is simply abduction with a specific question in mind. A critical realist grounded theory would ask of the data what must be true for this
to be the case? or what makes this possible? and seek an explanation in
generative mechanisms at a deeper ontological level. This is no stretch
for a methodology that already encourages researchers to ask what are
the larger structural issues here and how do these events play into or
effect what I am seeing? (Corbin and Strauss, 2008). Critical realist
studies draw on theory to seek all possible vertical explanations for a
phenomenon. It is this vertical analysis that would be the distinguishing

Critical Realist Grounded Theory 381

Agency and structure

For critical realists, the central relation of social reality is that between
agency and structure (Scott, 2005). Our actions are influenced but not
determined by social structures at all levels and in any areas: organization
structures, small group structures, the social structures of the dyad or the
triad, the structures of street life, communication structures, linguistic structures, personality structures, and so on (Danermark et al., 2002, p. 47). Both
the individual and society matter, as they exist on different ontological
levels, possess distinct properties and cannot be subsumed into one
another. Social structures pre-exist agential operations, and in turn
human beings reflexively monitor the social world, individually or collectively exerting an influence, and changing relatively enduring but emergent
structures (Scott, 2005). A critical realist methodology must therefore have
the dual focus on agency and structure, the individual and wider society,
which has been identified as a distinctive feature of social work research
(Orme and Briar-Lawson, 2010) and practice (Parton, 2000).
There can be little doubt that grounded theory is capable of exploring
individual perspectives. All variations are concerned with how individual
participants make meaning and take action within their worlds. Grounded
theorists begin by analysing individual events and perceptions in a microcoding process which forces the focus onto the particular. Grounded
theory gives a social workers respect to individual agency, thoughts and
motivations, which are often elicited through unstructured interviews to
allow maximum opportunity for participants to tell their truths. In contrast
to phenomenological approaches, the researcher seeks participants theories and beliefs, not just their stories. Grounded theory thus

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mark of a critical realist grounded theory. Instead of establishing the action

sequence of a social process over time (Glaser and Strauss, 1967), it would
explain action by reference to the deeper generative mechanisms from
which it emerges.
All concepts would still need to earn their way into the final analysis
through evidence of grounding in the real experience of those they describe
(Glaser, 2002). Sayers concept of practical adequacy (Sayer, 2000, p. 43) is
helpful here and mirrors the grounded theory idea of fit, which refers to
how closely the theory corresponds to the incidents it claims to represent
(Glaser and Strauss, 1967). Sayer describes a critical realist explanation
as useful if it is true, in other words if things tend to operate in accordance
with the explanation. Demonstrating a pragmatism that resonates with
many social workers, both critical realism and grounded theory require
that we ask of our thinking does it match the real world better than
other theories or not? Let us test it, Let us put the questions to nature
and revise our beliefs in light of the answer (Collier, 1994, p. 84).

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operationalises the proposition that reasons are causes for actions

(Bhaskar, 1986). If reasons act as psychological mechanisms for action
(Carter and New, 2004, p. 12), explanations for human behaviour must
start with participants own analyses of their intentions. A critical realist
grounded theory would simply continue this regression by moving from
individual action to reasons to rules to structures (Sayer, 1984), and see
attention to individual meaning-making as an integral step to understanding
While grounded theory can get stuck at the empiricist level of participants opinions and behaviour (Yeung, 1997), most contemporary
approaches now move beyond the knowing subject (Clarke, 2009,
p. 200) to consider the absences, silences, hidden positions and structural
discourses echoing through individual accounts. They recognise that
what we see, when, how and to what extent we see it are not straightforward . . . actions, interpretations and influences may be unstated or go
unrecognised. Our task is to make it explicit in our analyses (Charmaz,
2009, p. 130). Critical realist grounded theorists would go further to
examine the structural roots of contradictions between what is said and
unsaid. When social workers speak of relationship-based practice but
struggle to recall personal knowledge of their clients, they might explore
for tensions between client care and neo-liberal discourses of managerialism and efficiency. Examining the contradictions between appearance
and deeper structure provides the counter-phenomenal knowledge that
makes scientific inquiry both necessary and a force for human emancipation
(Bhaskar, 1986).
To be a critical realist methodology, grounded theory must attend to
social structure as well as individual action. Grounded theorists have long
been interested in contextualising action within broader social structures
and meanings, recognising that to understand experience, that experience
must be located within and cant be divorced from, the larger events in a
social, political, cultural, racial, gender-related, informational, and technological framework and therefore these are essential aspects of our analyses
(Corbin and Strauss, 2008, p. 8). The conditional matrix (Strauss and
Corbin, 1998) is a widely used grounded theory tool to situate action
within its wider contexts, and social worlds/arenas maps and positional
maps (Clarke, 2003) now help the researcher to interrogate relationships
between collective actors, their arenas of commitment and the discursive
positions they take. Under the influence of constructivists and criticalists,
social, economic and ideological structures have become more central.
Grounded theorists examine power by asking who defines and controls
basic social processes, under what conditions and for whose benefit
(Charmaz, 2006). Structural conditions like policy and service provision
are theoretically sampled to examine forces like the social determinants
of womens health (Wuest et al., 2002). Social structures now frequently

Critical Realist Grounded Theory 383

The relevance to social work research

Critical realism shares with social work an emancipatory agenda and the
belief that emancipation is more than a cognitive concept. People must
feel the need for change in order to embrace it (Bhaskar, 1986). Grounded
theory offers a route whereby social workers might feel this need and
experience the potential for research to further the professions ethical
goals. The methodology requires their active participation in studies and
explicitly values their opinions and theories. It is a means to research that
is local, context-specific and can integrate practitioners experiential knowledge and address their concerns (Gilgun, 1994). Arguably, it is this kind of
research that offers the best chance to emotionally engage practitioners and
build relationships between researchers, policy makers and service providers to reinforce the theory practice connection in a profession in which
research has often struggled to impact the front line (Trocme et al., 2009).

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provide data for analysis, analytical perspectives from which to view the
data and the context for individual action.
The goal of critical realist grounded theory is explanatory theory tracing
the line of a tendency from its deepest known generative mechanism to its
realised effect in an open social system. Critical realists seek contextualised
explanations achieved by first describing and conceptualizing the properties and causal mechanisms generating and enabling events . . . and then
describing how different mechanisms manifest themselves under specific
conditions (Danermark et al., 2002, p. 76). This fits with grounded
theorys analytical process whereby the properties and dimensions of conceptual categories are developed through attention to context and the cognitive work of constant comparative analysis. The resulting theory answers
the critical realist question what works for whom in what circumstances?
(Pawson and Tilley, 1997, p. 210) and does double duty as a proximal
description of regularity in the real world and as a stabilising metaphor to
guide action (Downward et al., 2002). Grounded theory has long produced
these types of contextualised plausible accounts (Charmaz, 2006) whose
intent is to have practical consequences by providing a language for joint
action (Corbin and Strauss, 2008). The methodology moves the researcher
beyond the rich description and giving voice typical of other methodologies that only hold up a mirror to the experiences of others. It presents
the act of conceptualisation as potentially transformative as a theory can
alter your viewpoint and change your consciousness. Through it you can
see the world from a different vantage point and create new meanings of
it (Charmaz, 2006, p. 128). Thus, grounded theory embodies the intimate
relationship between theory and practice envisaged by critical realism:
the practical importance of theory is that a theory can reform a practice.
Theory is the growing point of a practice (Collier, 1994, p. 15).

384 Carolyn Oliver

Many thanks to Dr Richard Sullivan, Dr Grant Charles and Dr Deborah
OConnor for your teaching and support.

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Grounded theory methodology also takes care of an important ethical

problem and significant barrier to research in the social work field. It
offers to bring research to practice more safely. While the final theory is
rooted in participants experiences, it is constructed by the researcher and
contains the researchers words and thoughts, not those of participants.
Studies typically include at least thirty participants and findings constitute
a conceptual synthesis of individual contributions rather than the detail
of those contributions. Grounded theory does not demand the revealing
description and focus on a few individuals or bounded group, typical of
methodologies like phenomenology or case study, which can identify and
endanger research participants in unsafe organisations. Research with
social workers can falter in bureaucracies that tend to value compliance
and the appearance of competence over critical analysis. In the child
welfare field in particular, there is a long history of a blame culture silencing critique (MacDonald, 1990). The power issues inherent in asking
clients to give potentially identifying feedback have tended to exclude
them from research until after they have received service, thus denying
serving agencies an important source of current information. Grounded
theory offers some protection by distancing participants from research conclusions, aggregating contributions to enhance anonymity and encouraging
the critical analysis so important to the field.
We need research approaches that work for the profession if we are to
support the development of practice cultures that value research. Critical
realist grounded theory is one way forward. Honouring both theory and
practice, individual agency and social structure, it enables the pursuit of
emancipatory goals. It offers to produce knowledge that is relevant to practitioners by grounding findings in the experiences of those it seeks to
inform. It explores that which is socially constructed while meeting the
demand made by the proponents of evidence-based practice for methodology that allows for the emergence of other than foregone conclusions
(Barth, 2008). We do not need a new methodology for critical realism.
Grounded theory is user-friendly, clearly delineated and compatible with
critical realist tenets. A critical realist grounded theory approach has the
potential to produce theory that portrays fullness of experience, reveals
taken-for-granted meanings (Charmaz, 2005) and has the grab (Glaser,
2002) to help people feel they can explain what they see. In the busy and
complex worlds in which they operate, this may be the kind of research
to which social workers can attend.

Critical Realist Grounded Theory 385


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