June 05, 2016

Progress On Grounded Theory

During the past week I have been reading about Strauss and Corbin’s version of Grounded Theory from philosophical and methodological perspectives in a continuous attempt to fit the method within the context of a critical realist led mixed methods design. As I have previously stated a little while ago I was a little overwhelmed as I came to realise the unsuitability of Constructivist Grounded Theory along with realising the extent and intensity of debates and discussions about Grounded Theory in general, and the implications this might have on the research design. Thankfully, it is all becoming clearer bit by bit!

Philosophy Of Grounded Theory

Reading through the materials so far again emphasises the importance of Ph.D. candidates engaging with their research at the Philosophical level as this shall enable them to fully understand the context and purposes of not only Grounded Theory in general but the different flavours of the method.

In general, Grounded Theory is automatically assumed to align with relativist or interpretivist philosophy and I suppose in a general sense this is true because all flavours of grounded theory involves an element of researcher interpretation of the data ranging from being guided by some sort of presupposed base of knowledge or theory to adopting a complete open mind. But each flavour of grounded theory has a different philosophical and logical approach to dealing with reality, and it was this understanding of Philosophy following adoption of critical realism that made me realise that constructivist grounded theory is inappropriate.

Variants of Grounded Theory subscribe to different assumptions about reality, although these assumptions have been and some continue to be debated in literature. Glaser and Strauss’ version of Grounded Theory aims to disconnect researcher from participants (value-free) therefore subscribing to a Postivist or Post Positivist approach to analysing qualitative data whilst Charmaz’s Constructivist Grounded Theory assumes a strong connection between researcher and participants (value-laden), therefore theory is a construction grounded in the involvement and interaction between researcher and participants. Whilst the position of both approaches are more or less generally agreed upon, the philosophical positioning of Strauss and Corbin’s approach has been and continues to be subject to debate and uncertainty. Charmaz claims that Strauss and Corbin’s approach to analysing data is positivism, but other researchers suggest that it adopts a more pragmatic approach to research. I’m beginning to develop the perspective that this version of grounded theory can be aligned with the principles of critical realism and other middle ground Philosophies. I have not fully worked it out, it is a complex process, but it is all starting to click into place and therefore I am beginning to understand it!

Method Of Grounded Theory

The aim of grounded theory is to produce a theory that is, you guessed it, grounded in the data, but the terminology used to describe the way that this theory or theorising is produced differs among different versions of grounded theory. Regardless, coding is used to produce this theory or theorising, beginning with the researcher reading through qualitative data (for example, an interview transcript) and breaking down the data into little blocks that represent some sort of action, event, and so on, gives it a label or a name and is therefore converted into an object, which is further defined through properties and dimensions, and are then classified into different classes or categories based on similarities of characteristics between objects, a process known as open coding.
Following this, identified classes are further defined through attributes and dimensions and subcategories are created from these categories as necessary through a process known as axial coding, and then the theory emerges through a process known as selective coding.

Regarding the logical engine behind Strauss and Corbin’s version of grounded theory this has been subject to debate: some authors suggest that it subscribes to an abductive logical reason whilst others suggest that it subscribes to induction, and again other authors suggest there is a mixture of logical engines. There is a potential incompatibility problem here because critical realism subscribes to a retroduction logic, which is different from the theory testing of deduction and the pure theory productive of induction as retroduction deals with the explanations of circumstances and is much more of a creative, abstract approach to explaining observations. There is a research paper that I have found that contributes to discussion of making critical realism and grounded theory’s logical engines compatible with each other so this shall be dealt with in time.

What’s next?

The next immediate task is to develop a more practical understanding of grounded theory and develop my grounded theory method through analysing the trial data. The trial data will be able to guide further development of the method and to really find out if Strauss and Corbin’s approach really best fits the context of research.

From a research design perspective I will have to do more work into figuring out the way that critical realism and grounded theory are compatible and can work with each other. Understanding of this is progressing but there is much yet to learn and discover, and to argue and to try to think about areas that have not really been thought about. But understanding is growing, slowly but surely. This is not to mention however the mixed methods context, so that adds a layer of complexity to the situation. Basically, I have to ensure that Strauss and Corbin’s grounded theory is not only compatible with critical realism but also compatible with other methods in a mixed methods environment, and if proven to be so draw a diagram that illustrates the way that critical realism, mixed methods, and all the methods interact and intersect each other.

Among the chaos and challenges, there is a sense of clarity beginning to form!

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