December 09, 2015

Grounded Theory: possibly Relativist? Combination of various Philosophical perspectives?

I’ve been thinking further recently about Philosophical considerations of the Grounded Theory methodology and previously I mentioned about the possibility of combining or in some way integrating different Philosophical perspectives. Reality can be considered from a couple of main umbrella perspectives. There are perspectives that define reality as existing independent of the mind and the thoughts of the observer, and there are perspectives that define reality as dependent on the mind and the thoughts of the observer. What this means from a pure Philosophical or Ontological perspective is whether or not there really is an objective reality out there, or whether or not reality is simply something that we imagine and build for ourselves. From a methodological perspective, this has implications upon the choice of methodology and methods that are used to explore reality and to gain knowledge of that reality. Interpretivism, Constructivism and Relativism are Philosophical perspectives that describe reality as being dependent on the mind; of the thoughts that exist within the mind and the way in which these thoughts and other mental processes are used to develop a picture of the reality that the observer finds themselves in.

Grounded Theory enables the researcher to construct a theory or to theorise from the actual data itself and not from the data after it has been put through a level of, say, quantitative analysis. It is therefore apparent that whatever theory or theorisation occurs is dependent on the thoughts and the thinking of the researcher, and therefore it is a methodology that assumes that reality can be constructed, especially Charmaz’s Constructivist Grounded Theory, which is the flavour of Grounded Theory picked for my Ph.D. research.

What I have been thinking about is that perhaps Grounded Theory is a methodology that represents a combination of Interpretivism, Constructivism and Relativism. Because Grounded Theory enables each researcher to develop a theory following the development of codes and categories that explain their observations, it is an interpretivist methodology. Because it is an interpretation, each researcher would interpret the data differently and therefore develop different sets of codes and categories. The thoughts and the thinking of the researcher are therefore part of the Grounded Theory process and this is something that Positivist approaches (e.g., experimental designs) would not allow to happen.

Because the researcher is able to develop a theory or to theorise from the data they are therefore constructing a theory that explains their interpretation of that reality, and therefore Grounded Theory can be known as a Constructivist methodology. It is constructivist because reality or an aspect of reality is being constructed by the researcher through the development of that theory, through developing codes and categories as a result of data interpretation.

Relativism is something new that I have thought about. Relativism implies situational context; that the development of a theory therefore is relative only to the context within which the Grounded Theory research takes place. There are many debates about the generalisability (a characteristic that measures if whether or not a theory or findings can be generalised across multiple contexts) of the Grounded Theory methodology, so to suggest that Grounded Theory is a relative methodology might not be so clear cut as it is to suggest that Grounded Theory is both an Interpretivist and a Constructivist methodology. But it is interesting to think about it from the perspective as Grounded Theory enabling the researcher to construct a theory of some aspect of reality (hence Constructivism) through interpreting the data leading to developing codes and categories that explain what they observe in the data (hence Interpretivism) possibly because of the nature of interpretivism that this would be specific to the context of the Grounded Theory research (hence possibly Relativism). As mentioned however there are many debates surrounding the generalisability of Grounded Theory so I will not make any suggestion at this time as to whether or not Grounded Theory could be considered a Relativist methodology. But it will be interesting after the Christmas holiday to think about this more but in the meantime collect a fair amount of literature about this, and other Philosophical debates about Grounded Theory (and heck, more literature about Grounded Theory and everything else in general!)

So, lots of thinking to do next year!

‘till next time folks, remember: if Santa isn’t able to come down the chimney then use the front door!

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