November 12, 2015

The Epistemology of Grounded Theory: brief thoughts on intial readings

During the past week, I shall admit, I have found the prospect of using Grounded Theory to be a little bit daunting. Books and other literature written by Strauss and Glaser, Strauss and Corbin, and Charmaz are the key literature in defining different main flavours of Grounded Theory, and whilst they all share commonality on some aspects of Grounded Theory (e.g., that it leads to some sort of new theory) they differ significantly on others (e.g., placement and role of the literature, what is actually produced, and epistemological positioning). The key understanding that I currently have on Grounded Theory from the literature that I have read so far and continue to read is that the application of Grounded Theory is extremely diverse and can be suited to fit the research agenda. That’s not to say, however, that Grounded Theory can be twisted and distorted completely out of proportion and original conceptions too much, but it is to say that it appears to offer a very flexible implementation and according to some of the Ph.D. theses I have had a read through that uses Grounded Theory, not every feature and instruction of Grounded Theory needs to be implemented. It really depends on the context and direction of the research. Understandably therefore, there is a myriad of literature which argues for and against different flavours of Grounded Theory, present different versions of Grounded Theory, applies and argues for and against different features of Grounded Theory, and tackles an assortment of different characteristics of Grounded Theory such as validity, reliability, rigour and limitations. Another important aspect of Grounded Theory and something that I shall probably need to tackle first in the thesis is the Epistemological orientation of Grounded Theory.

Epistemology, which is a branch of Philosophy that tackles the understanding of what knowledge is, the way we acquire knowledge of reality and the sources used to acquire this knowledge, might appear to be completely irrelevant to a particular research project but it is very important to be able to tackle epistemological problems of Grounded Theory or any other research method that you choose to adopt. This is because Epistemology in research deals with methodological problems and considerations around the way that particular method or methodology collects data and understands the way in which knowledge of reality should be acquired. This is something that is not really tackled in Ph.D. theses according to commentary from some Professors, so this is an area that I am keen to explore to a much greater depth than I had considered during the first year.

Remember that methodology defines the overall umbrella of the research design. A research design can therefore be experimental or quasi-experimental (therefore quantitative) or either of a selection of different qualitative methodologies such as case based or phenomenology. Quantitative data is usually associated with Positivist or Post Positivists perspectives of reality (that reality is fixed and knowledge is already there therefore easily obtainable through deconstructing this reality into a series of statistically calculable variables and their relationships) whilst qualitative data is associated with Interpretivist or Constructivist perspectives of reality (where it is believed that reality is not fixed or constant and therefore people construct different realities or different perspectives of a particular phenomenon). It is quite important for me to understand and further develop my understanding of this because Grounded Theory can work with both, and this is where I have found Grounded Theory to be a little daunting (as well as its actual application but this is another matter for another blog post and the more I read the more I am understanding its application anyway but it all takes time) because for many months I have read textbooks that suggest Grounded Theory is or should be associated only with an Interpretivist or Constructivist perspective. So to read that this is actually incorrect and that the original authors of Grounded Theory, Strauss and Glaser, intended it to be used with both quantitative and qualitative data, was quite interesting indeed and again this is an area that I need to understand further. This is made all the more interesting when Grounded Theory is used as a method of analysing qualitative data within a Mixed Methods methodology. With Mixed Method methodologies, the epistemological position is Pragmatism; therefore, there comes epistemological issues with the fact that an interpretivist or constructivist epistemologically based method is being used within a design that is inherently pragmatic.

Confused yet?!

There is a plethora of literature that argues back and forth, forwards and backwards about the epistemological stance of Grounded Theory. Without a doubt, I shall have to get to grips with this literature further, and through this understanding of the literature develop a particular stance and argue this stance in the thesis. This is important as there appears to be a general consensus for all Ph.D. candidates regardless of research method and methodology to involve themselves and really explore and argue epistemological positions, the compatibility issues, and so on.

A current initial thought of mine is that Grounded Theory could be viewed as a general interpretivist methodology, as it has been suggested in some Ph.D. theses that what is actually developed is an interpretation or perspective of the data, and not actually a strict theory.

This is just the beginning.

‘tii next blog post, remember children: don’t believe everything you read in your textbooks at school, but at the same time don’t challenge your teachers about it because you’ll get detention and be accused of being disruptive and unteachable (just kidden!)

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