Literature: changing perspectives and roles in a grounded theory project
Grounded theory research involves developing a theory or theoretical framework from the data using a series of coding procedures that differ depending on which authors and philosophical positions are adhered to. This approach is in contrast to the top down approach where an existing theoretical framework is applied to the data and therefore the data is “forced” to fit around pre-defined categories, which in itself, I shall further argue in the thesis, limits creativity and potentially unique insights. In the thesis I shall give various examples of coded data and apply existing frameworks to the data in order to demonstrate the unsuitability of the majority of existing theoretical frameworks for the aims and objectives of my research.
A key aspect of grounded theory and therefore to the development of the emerging theoretical framework is literature, and literature is important for many reasons. Initially I began reading the literature for the purposes of contextualisation and identification of knowledge gaps. Contextualisation means to determine where your research fits within the vast arena of published research literature in order to determine the way in which your research differs from or builds on existing research. Identification of knowledge gaps means to find out what knowledge might potentially be missing or what direction or aspects of the phenomenon of interest have not yet explored fully. I have found the knowledge gaps that I want to address and have situated my research within existing literature therefore this aim has been achieved. Now this has been achieved a part of the reading purposes is to develop philosophical and methodological justifications and arguments for why I want to explore particular phenomena of interest using the research design that I have created.
But that’s not all there is to literature, because more than any other method or methodology grounded theory commands a strong integrative relationship between the emerging theoretical framework and the literature. In other words, the role of existing literature particularly empirical literature (but any and all types of literature shall suffice) goes beyond merely supplying findings that are either in agreement with current research findings or not: it is tightly integrated with all aspects of the emerging theoretical framework and is therefore used to act as extra empirical evidence or data to confirm or disprove hypotheses that form a part of the emerging theoretical framework. Grounded theory advocates a strong relationship between analysis of data, data collection, and exploration of existing empirical literature, leading to findings of existing literature integrated with the emerging framework in order to achieve further theoretical development.
Ok, so, literature is really important to grounded theory research projects at all stages but in my experience this can really only be fully appreciated when you actually begin coding the data. I have coded about half of the first case so far although, and not to go too far off topic here, I’ve reread this first half several times because each time the data is reread, new insights and relationships between different codes and aspects of the data are identified but that is the nature of grounded theory: but more on this in later blog posts. Following the coding of half of the first case and constructed somewhat of a, admittedly rather crude, theoretical framework (crude and rather basic: but we all have to start somewhere!) based on some of the data, I began to reread the literature that I had already referenced in the upgrade paper’s literature review, and I am really starting to understand the way that existing findings might be able to integrate within the emerging theoretical framework in order to achieve further theoretical development.
What I have found, and what other Ph.D. candidates carrying out grounded theory projects might come across, is that perspectives of the literature changes. With me, specific to empirical findings, my perspective had changed from viewing empirical findings as an important measurement of determining what has been discovered and what has yet to be discovered, to an important part of possible theoretical development through proving and disproving hypotheses and relationships.
Going further into this, I am rereading the empirical findings and I can start to find similarities and differences between what has been published and what I have discovered in the data; what I have discovered in the data and my reasoning and philosophising of this data (including developing hypotheses and potential explanations for identified relationships and so on) is guiding my perspective of the literature. I am finding myself saying, “ah! I have identified that in the coded data!” or “oh! I have not thought about that idea before, I wonder in what way that might already confirm what I have already discovered, or in some way guide my thinking about and analysing of the data.”
Essentially, I have transitioned or am making the transition from reading the literature in order to identify methodological issues and knowledge gaps, to forming justifications for the proposed research design and to confirming and disconfirming what has so far been discovered in the data and documented in the form of relationships and hypotheses in the emerging theoretical framework. This is quite a revelation because I had not automatically realised this transition until I actually started rereading the literature following several rereads of the data (and several rewrites of relevant areas of the upgrade paper). It’s like as if I had subconsciously developed a framework in my mind of the data coded so far, and then subconsciously applied this framework to the literature and then came to an immediate realisation of this transition. But this is positive because it shows a progress, a shift, in reading intentions as the research continues to mature and continues to progress, and this can only be a positive thing.
But I have to be careful and approach everything with due caution. I must not and cannot take anything that I read in the literature or any reanalysis of the data as gospel and I cannot therefore immediately reject a hypothesis just because I have coded only half of the first case and have read several papers the offer empirical evidence for the rejection of this hypothesis. This is because as I code through the other half of the case and then several cases after that I might actually find more data that proves the hypothesis. This would actually give me excellent material and platform upon which I can argue for the relevancy and effectiveness of the theoretical framework. But as I say it’s very early in the development of the theoretical framework, and therefore at this moment in time I cannot accept the first set of rejections and confirmations as they come along. It’s better therefore to make notes of existing findings and constantly compare with emerging findings as more data is analysed and coded.
Therefore the hypotheses, relationships, concepts and aspects that have already been constructed as part of the emerging theoretical framework might be proven to be irrelevant and therefore rejected this time next year; or on the other hand be strengthened and confirmed. With grounded theory, you cannot predict at all what you are going to find and what might or might not be confirmed, but that’s the beauty of grounded theory. That’s what attracts me to grounded theory.
The key message from this blog post is this: within a grounded theory project your perspectives of the literature are likely to change as well the aims and objectives of your literature search and analysis of literature. This is fine because it indicates progress and research maturity and your own personal maturity of understanding and being aware of the way in which literature can be used within your research. But don’t take anything as certain and absolute, because later in the process you could come across more literature or more examples in the data that could defeat what you discovered earlier. Best thing is to make lots and lots of notes of everything that you read and observe in the data, and use these notes as reflective points when you are coding data or integrating data from multiple sources. Most of all: have fun! Grounded theory is challenging, but it is equally exciting!