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Introduction to

Classic Grounded Theory

Dr Andy Lowe,
Fellow of the Grounded Theory Institute, Mill Valley,
What is Grounded Theory?
• Developed by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss and
detailed in their seminal work The Discovery of
Grounded Theory (1967)
• A research methodology for the inductive and systematic
development of theory from data- “Discovery of theory
from data” (Glaser & Strauss 1967)
• Developed to counter the prevalence of hypothetical-
deductive approaches to research
What is Grounded Theory?
• A set of procedures to develop theory about a
phenomenon by accounting for its main concerns,
processes and relationships.
• Usually associated with qualitative research, but
embraces both qualitative and quantitative data
• “All is data”
Where is GT used?
• Used widely in nursing research
• In Information Systems and Software (Baskerville &
Pries-Heje 1999; Orlikowski 1993; Toraskar 1991; Trauth
& Jessup 2000; Urquhart 1997, 2001).
• In business research, GT has been applied to marketing,
leadership, management and accounting areas (Douglas
2003; Fernandez 2004; Goulding 1999; Hunt & Ropo,
1995; Locke 2001; Lowe 1995, 1998; Ng & Hase 2008;
Parry, 1998).
Why use GT?
• You may be in an area where there is little or no theory in
• You may not agree with existing theories.
• You may want to evolve and take ownership of a theory
over your lifetime.
• You may not want to test existing hypothesis (you want to
• You may want to mix qualitative and quantitative data.
• You may want to collect a broad range of data beyond
more structured methods.

(Hayhoe, 2005)
Variants of GT
• Serious divergence between the two founding fathers
over the aims and procedures of GT methodology,
resulting in a split
• Two camps of GT- Glaserian GT (also known as
Orthodox or Classic GT) and Straussian GT
• Also an emerging ‘Constructivist GT’ (Charmaz 2008)
• Comparing Classic/Glaserian GT and Straussian GT-
(see comparison next slide)
Glaser/Classic GT Strauss & Corbin/Evolved GT
Ontological and Epistemological •Objective reality •Relativism
positions (‘real’ reality) (truth is enacted)
•Critical realism
Influence on Methodologies •Positivist •Relativist pragmatism
•Between post-positivism and
•Interpretive of perspectives and voices of

Literature reviews Once the core category has emerged, the Literature is used before the study to suggest
literature is used as data and incorporated sensitizing concepts, and during data
into the theory using constant comparison analysis to support theory development

Coding and Diagramming •Three forms of codes- open, selective, •Complex coding methods as strategies to
and theoretical examine the interface between structure and
•18 coding families to draw on to process
develop conceptual analysis •Focused on one particular coding family,
the “6Cs,” ie the causes, consequences, and
conditions affecting categories identified by
the researcher
•Conditional/consequential matrix- to
expand the dimensions of analytic work
•Intensive use of diagramming

Outcomes Set of well-integrated conceptual Verified theory of a phenomenon that allows

hypotheses, organized around a core an understanding and management of the
category, that fits the situation, and can problem
be used for further research
Research Question (?)
• GT does not start with research question, and no
preconceived hypothesis
• GT begins with a research situation, or an ‘area of
• Attempt to understand what is happening in a
substantive area, and the subjects’ main concerns
Theoretical Sampling
• Typical sampling concerns like sample sizes and selection
of informants are not predetermined
• Theoretical sampling principle: the emerging theory dictates
the sampling and data collection process (Glaser & Strauss
• Enter the field by going “…to the most obvious places and
the most likely informants in search of information”
• Subsequent sampling will be dictated by the emergent
concepts and theory, to ensure that the data guides the
development of theory.
Classic GT has 2 stages: Straussian GT has 3 stages:
• Substantive coding • Open coding
- Open Coding
• Axial coding
- Selective coding
• Theoretical coding • Selective coding
Substantive Coding
Open Coding
• ‘Run the data open’ … ‘fracturing of the data’ into analytic
pieces, as many as possible, categories and their
properties. (Glaser 1978)
data for incidents that indicate concepts, and to explore
similarities and differences within the data and to offer a
guide for collecting other data
• Not preconceived codes but in-vivo codes and theoretical
Core Category
Concept-indicator model Questions used in Open Coding:

Concept - What is this data a study of?

- What’s going on here?
- What category does this incident
- What is actually happening in the
I1 I2 I3 I4 I5 I6 I7 I8 I9

(Adapted from Glaser, 1978)

The Core Category
• Aim of open coding is to achieve the core variable or core
• The core category accounts for most of the variation in the
patterns of behaviour in the data, and it represents the
main theme of the substantive area of inquiry
• Most other categories and their properties should relate to
the core category, and the integration and density of the
theory will depend on the discovery of a significant core
The Core Category


- Opening up the data - Classify concepts - Develop theoretical framework
- In vivo coding - Properties
- Dimensions

Direction of analytic sequence/constant comparison process

(Adapted from Harwood, 2002)

Theoretical Memoing
• Theoretical memos should be constantly written
throughout the research process.
• TMs enable conceptual representations be made of the
empirical descriptions in the data.
• TMs increase the level of abstraction by moving from the
descriptive to the conceptualization stages (Ng & Hase
• TMs are the building blocks of theory development
(Haslam 2002)
Selective Coding
• Once the core category is identified, open coding ceases
and delimitation commences.
• Further collection, analysis and coding of data will be
limited to only those categories relevant to the core
• Theoretical sampling ends when each new case or data
yields diminishing returns, ie. the core category is
saturated. The theoretical construct fits the data and no
new significant insights can be gained when it is
compared to new data (Gasson 2004)
Theoretical Coding
• Theoretical code = a relational model through which all
substantive codes and categories are related to the core
category (Hernandez 2009) .
• Substantive codes are built up into a substantive theory as
they are integrated into a cohesive structure by the
emergent theoretical code, ie “…they weave the fractured
story back together again…” (Glaser, 1978)
• Although several theoretical codes can emerge as being
relevant, the one that is selected will be the one that can
most fully integrate the substantive theory.
Theoretical Codes
Examples of Theoretical codes:

The 6 Cs The Basics Family Process Family

- Causes - Basic social process - Stages, Staging, Phases, Phasing
- Contingencies - Basic social structural process - Progressions, Passages, Transitions,
- Consequences - Basic social structural conditions Trajectories
- Covariance - Basic social psychological - Gradations, Steps, Shaping
- Contexts process - Ranks, Ordering, Chains
- Conditions - Basic psychological process - Sequencing, Temporaling, Cycling

There are many more theoretical codes, and probably even

more that have not been discovered.
Sorting of Memos
• Theoretical coding is largely accomplished when
researchers sort the theoretical memos they have written
over the course of the coding process (Glaser 1978).
• Sorting- arranging the memos into piles according to
similarities, connections and conceptual orderings (Glaser
• Sorting the memos becomes the basis for the writing up of
the study.
Grounded theory data collection and analysis process framework
Substantive Area
the field

Data Substantive Substantive Theoretical

collection coding- coding- coding
Open coding Selective Theory

Concepts Core Sorting of

Categories category memos
Properties Literature
Theoretical reviews
memos Integration of
memos and
codes into

Theoretical Constant comparison Theoretical

sampling begins saturation
Theoretical Sensitivity
• Theoretical sensitivity- the ability to recognize theoretical
codes as they appear in the data

How to obtain theoretical sensitivity?

• Know as many theoretical codes as possible
• Remain open and trust in emergence
• Avoid preconceived or ‘pet theory’ (Glaser 2003), or to
become doctrinaire (Glaser 1978)
• Also avoid dependence on theoretical codes within a
theoretical perspective in area of trained origin (Lowe 2010)
• Interview yourself (Lowe 2010) if you have expert
knowledge about the area under study
Literature Review
• Glaser strongly warned against a literature review at the
start of the research process to avoid preconceived
• But reading in unrelated fields for ideas (theoretical
sensitivity) is encouraged (Niekerk & Roode 2009)
• The bulk of the literature review will begin after the
emergent theory is sufficiently established in the coding
process (Fernandez 2004)
• The literature is considered ‘data’ to be compared to the
grounded data and subsequently integrated with the
emergent theory.
How to Judge a CGT
A GT product is judged on fit, relevance, workability and
modifiability (Glaser 1978):
• Fit- the categories of the theory must fit the data or reality (in
the eyes of the subjects, practitioners, and researchers in the
• Workability- the theory should be able to explain what
happens (it can explain the major variations in behaviour in
the area of concern to the subjects), interpret what is
happening and predict what will happen in an area of
substantive or formal inquiry
• Relevance- the theory must be relevant to the action in the
area (if it fits and works, then it has relevance)
• Modifiability- it can modify to account for new data
Problems with CGT
• How to deal with preconceptions?

• Which version of GT to use?

• Difficulties with coding

• The ability to conceptualize

• The ability to tolerate confusion

• Novice researchers and minus mentees

Thank you.
(…and let the grilling begin)
How to deal with preconceptions
• Preconceptions are unavoidable
• Declare your preconceptions at the outset
• Think of what you know as ‘data’
• Interview yourself
• Avoid literature review in the substantive and related
area until after much of the theory has emerged
• Commit to theoretical sensitivity
• Trust in emergence
• Focus on conceptualization
Epistemology Theoretical Methodology Methods
Objectivism Positivism (and Post- Experimental Sampling Sampling measurement and
Constructivism Positivism) Survey research scaling
Subjectivism Interpretivism Ethnography Questionnaire
• Symbolic Phenomenological Observation
interactionism research • Participant
• Phenomenology Grounded theory • Non-participant
• Hermeneutics Heuristic research Interview
Critical Inquiry Action Research Focus group
Feminism Discourse Analysis Case study
Postmodernism Feminist standpoint Life history
Etc. research Narrative
Etc. Visual ethnographic methods
Statistical analysis
Data reduction
Theme identification
Comparative analysis
Cognitive mapping
Interpretative methods
Document analysis
Content analysis
Conversation analysis
What makes a good core category?
• It must be central- relate to as many categories and their
properties as possible (more than other candidates for
the core category).
• it must occur frequently
• it takes more time to saturate the core category than
other categories
• it relates meaningfully and easily with other categories
• it has clear and grabbing implication for formal theory
• it has considerable carry through
• it is completely variable
• it is also a dimension of the problem at hand
(Glaser 1978)
Classic GT Product
• CGT is not focused on units (or properties of a unit like
people, group or organization)
• CGT focuses on conceptualizing processes (properties
of a process)
• Concepts that are abstracts of time, place and people,
and have enduring grab (Glaser, 2002)
• CGT transcends descriptions
Basic Social Process (BSP)
• BSPs are a type of core category
• Examples- basic social psychological process (BSPP)
and basic social structural process (BSSP)
• BSPP – behavioral processes like ‘motivating staff’,
‘becoming a manager’, etc
• BSSP- social structures in a process, like centralization,
outsourcing, recruiting, etc.
• BSPs are suited to processes that occur over time
• BSPs have stages
Some advise for CGT researchers
• Do not tape record interviews or transcribe data
• Short interviews, 10-20 minutes
• Do not use computer softwares for analysis like Atlas.ti,
NVivo, etc...
• Enter the field quickly!
• Theoretical Pacing and the Zen of Conceptualizing
• Declare which version of GT you are using
Coding example
Text fragment
Pain relief is a major problem when you have arthritis. Sometimes, the pain is
worse than other times, but when it gets really bad, whew! It hurts so bad,
you don't want to get out of bed. You don't feel like doing anything. Any relief
you get from drugs that you take is only temporary or partial.

One thing that is being discussed here is PAIN.

Pain has certain properties, like INTENSITY: it varies from a little to a lot.
(When is it a lot and when is it little?)
When it hurts a lot, there are CONSEQUENCES: don't want to get out of bed,
don't feel like doing things (anything else?)
In order to solve this problem, you need PAIN RELIEF. One AGENT OF PAIN
RELIEF is drugs (what are other members of this category?). Pain relief has a
certain DURATION (could be temporary), and EFFECTIVENESS (could be