All entries for May 2016

May 29, 2016

Reconsidering The Grounded Theory Method

Reconsidering Grounded Theory

After much thinking, I have come to the decision that whilst Grounded Theory is still an important part of the research, Constructivist Grounded Theory is no longer appropriate because of the incompatibility between its philosophical underpinnings and the philosophical underpinnings of my own research. This decision is all a part of a journey towards considering the positioning of Grounded Theory and also attempts at reconciling differing philosophical perspectives given that the research is mixed methods.

As the longer term readers shall know, Constructivist Grounded Theory was initially adopted as an overall research design with interpretivism or constructivism being the dominant philosophical perspective of the research. I became aware that the philosophical underpinnings of Constructivist Grounded Theory were incompatible with my own philosophical beliefs about reality and the way we come to know reality, and of my increasing understanding of empirical literature therefore it was reconceptualised as a method within the context of a mixed method research design. At this time, earlier this year, I was not fully aware of a philosophical underpinning for the mixed methods design. I shifted through various positions and settled with critical realism, but even as I continue to explore critical realism to a much more substantial level I am beginning to critique the position, although I am beginning to find agreement with its ontological and epistemological basis (more on this in the future).

The problem I have with Constructivist Grounded Theory is that by its nature and title it is fundamentally different to critical realism. Because critical realism is the philosophical basis, the underpinning, of the research, every aspect of the research design must have some sort of alignment with critical realism. Critical realism understands reality not only through its absolute existence independent of the mind and not only through multiple instances via the experiences and beliefs of people, but also (and emphasises) through understanding reality as a stratified, layered entity concerning itself not just with what is observable or what is experienced, but what really is and the reasons why aspects of reality really are what they are. What causes what we observe? What causes what we experience? Those are two important questions when trying to understand reality from a critical realist perspective. Constructivism understands reality only through the experiences of the observers of that reality therefore Constructivist Grounded Theory’s approach to understanding reality and therefore theoretical development are grounded in the concepts of the experiences of the observers. That is not what I want to achieve when it comes to qualitatively understanding reality and the phenomenon of investigation, so I have had to move away from that approach.

Absolute minefield of arguments

Having made the decision to move away from Constructivist Grounded Theory I decided to return to exploring other grounded theory varieties. Reconsidering Grounded Theory and reconciling differing philosophical perspectives is ongoing and during the past week I have felt slightly overwhelmed at the sheer amount of discussion and debate that exists within the field of grounded theory. Just to give you an idea of the extent of argumentation, the grounded theory approach has three different sets of main contributors: Glaser and Strauss (original Classic Grounded Theory), Strauss and Corbin (what is coined as the Straussian Grounded Theory) and Charmaz (Constructivist Grounded Theory). There are various others (such as feminist grounded theory) but they hold little or no relevance for my research.

All these main authors have written extensive books and papers about their respective version of grounded theory, and another set of papers that critique the work of the other main authors. Strauss moved away from the conventions of the Classic Grounded Theory and along with Corbin took part in a series of published debates with Glaser. They all criticised each other in terms of their definitions, philosophical underpinnings and assumptions, the process, and products of each other's version of Grounded Theory. This took place, and continues to do so, through an exchange of published papers where each paper developed upon ideas from previous papers, refuted challenges from the opponents, and then challenged ideas published in their opponent papers, which in turn were further challenged in subsequent opponent papers and so the cycle continues. When Charmaz entered the arena, she criticised both Glaser and Strauss and Corbin’s versions of grounded theory for promoting a positivist stance of grounded theory when it should be more constructivist, which is what she proposed. In turn, and in time, Glaser, Strauss and Corbin were critical about Charmaz’s approach, and in turn Charmaz published papers that argued against what they were saying, which in turn led to more papers published that refuted her claims and presented further arguments, and so on.

You can imagine therefore the rather mesh network of arguments and debates across all aspects of grounded theory among the main authors but that’s far from the complete picture. To add to the incredibly comprehensive and complex arena of argumentation, there are different groups of writers that support or argue against Glaser, Strauss and Corbin, or Charmaz, bringing with them their own sets of arguments and sometimes even offering a different flavour of a main brand of Grounded Theory. Again, the papers contain challenges to published ideas and development of other ideas, whilst other published papers refute and challenge these ideas, which are then challenged in other papers. The sheer vastness, complexity, comprehensiveness and complicated networking of arguments and refutations, and so on, is simply incredible and beyond the understanding of many. I did attempt to take in all aspects of argumentation but this left me feeling slightly overwhelmed and wonder where in this complicated and scary minefield of debates do I start to understand it all and where do I begin to fit my own arguments as they develop.

What next?

Even after giving myself time to think about it all, it is still incredible. Even as I write this blog post I am simply in awe of the debates and discussions and I just cannot describe it. All I can say is, it really is a case where are no right or wrong answers and that the effectiveness of whatever grounded theory approach I adopt is grounded (no pun intended) upon the strength of my argumentation for using such an approach. But I have submissions to make and a thesis to work on, so I have had to give myself time to think and to come up with at least a basic strategy so that I know where I can start to wade through this complicated mess, whilst at the same time heeding the words of my supervisor when he said that it is probably impossible to go through absolutely everything.

Having given myself some time to think about these arguments I have decided to study and really go into everything published by the main authors of grounded theory in order to find out which version is the most appropriate. This, I think, will be most appropriate for the Upgrade paper as I can use the main authors as the key authors of grounded theory, and build my arguments for adopting a particular version of grounded theory through critiquing their publications. That’s the only way I can do this. The thesis can expand on this argumentation in time but at the moment I am most concerned with the Upgrade paper. Initial reading of these arguments point to Straussian Grounded Theory being the most appropriate, but I shall have to delve into the method first before deciding.

In summary it really is a complex minefield of debates and discussions, but it has to be known that the same level of intensity exists in all types of quantitative and qualitative research.

‘till next time, keep thinking!

May 24, 2016

Reflection on the Literature Review so far

The development of the literature review of the thesis is not likely to officially begin till after the upgrade process although this has not stopped me from continuously thinking about the concept of a literature review, its aims and purpose, its structure and layout, and the approach of synthesising and analysing the literature that is to be included. Despite all the other work that needs to be completed in the early stages of the Ph.D., there is argument to suggest that there are important considerations in the early stages of the Ph.D. that can and will influence the literature review at a later time. The following represents my own advice based on the experiences so far on the Ph.D.

Think about it early, and never stop thinking about it

Think about the literature review right at the beginning of the Ph.D even when you are developing your proposal as part of your Ph.D. application. Form draft initial thoughts about what you want to achieve with the literature review and think about what authors you might want to include. I began thinking about the literature review at the beginning through for example deciding upon some of the authors and concepts that I want to include in the review. This however is a continuous and ongoing process because the literature review itself is a continuous, ongoing, dynamic document. There is no room for absolutism in my opinion when constructing a literature review.

Concepts change, your own understanding changes, your research shall change, the context shall change, the methods and methodology might change, and therefore your selection of literature shall change, and this especially the selection of literature shall change constantly as your understanding matures. Embrace it, feel challenged, push yourself and never give up!

Think about it early, think about it before starting the Ph.D., never stop thinking about it, and when you have written the literature review treat it as a first draft and keep thinking about it.

Make sure you record every idea, thought, inspiration, anything that comes to your mind about the literature that you read, or what you experience or observe no matter if it’s small or insignificant. Remember: my own research began as a small near insignificant observation on a teaching course that no other person picked up even though it was right in front of them!

Do not subscribe to a particular method too soon

This is quite important from my experience. To briefly explain, there are various methods used to analyse and synthesis existing literature: meta synthesis, meta-analysis, meta ethnography, narrative synthesis, critical interpretive synthesis, and mixed methods synthesis, to name a few.

Around the middle to latter part of the first year I decided to develop a critical interpretive synthesis approach, but the problem at this time was I had not fully realised the research design. At this time (and as has been thoroughly discussed on this blog) I was planning on adopting a Grounded Theory research design and was going to integrate critical interpretive synthesis data with grounded theory data. However, when I realised the faults of the research design I changed from grounded theory to a mixed methods design and subsequently realised that the critical interpretive synthesis approach was no longer suitable because it generates a theory from the literature and not the research data. I need to rethink the approach that I am going to be using to analyse and synthesis the literature.

Decide what types of literature that is to be included

This is a key factor in deciding the approach that is chosen to analyse and synthesis literature. My literature review shall be complex containing both quantitative and qualitative literature, with each type consisting of different methods, tasks, contexts and Philosophical perspectives. I have selected this extensive set of literature because it suits the mixed methods research design: because data in my research shall be generated from both quantitative and qualitative approaches, it makes sense to analyse both quantitative and qualitative literature.

The analysis of the literature shall be within the context of different concepts that define the general phenomenon of investigation. Defining concepts and developing conceptual understanding shall assist with allocating and categorising literature and therefore make the process of literature management a little easier. My research so far consists of four or five concepts, but conceptual understanding of these concepts are continuously developing, which influences the way in which literature is categorised and also the need to select and evaluate further literature. I shall explain this in a later blog post.

Decide on your research design

This, in addition to deciding the types of literature to be included in the literature analysis and synthesis, is a key factor in deciding which method to use to analyse and synthesis the literature.

Particular research designs shall make particular approaches to analysing and synthesising the literature unusable. A pure quantitative research design might work well with a critical interpretive analysis approach because the purpose of the critical interpretive analysis is to generate a theory from the literature, which can then be tested using a quantitative research design. A critical interpretive analysis therefore would not be suitable for a grounded theory based research design because a theory should be generated from the literature and not from the research data.

It’s an ongoing document

A literature review is continuously developing right up to the point of the point of formally submitting the thesis. It would be completely pointless to write a literature review in the first year of the Ph.D. and then submit it as it is with the thesis submission (around a couple to several years later) and not include any further, latest research. This would be identified in the viva as a serious flaw as the post graduate researcher would have failed to keep with up to date developments in their field and would reduce the authenticity and uniqueness of the research.


The key point of this blog post is to emphasise the importance of thinking about the literature review as early as you can. Considerations include: type of literature to include, the approach to synthesising and analysing the literature, and the overall research methodology. Remember that the overall research design and the type of literature selected will influence the approach to literature synthesis and analysis.

It is a lot of work and should not be taken lightly!

May 09, 2016

Update on recent Ph.D. activities

Initial stage of the first research trial a success!

The first part of the trial study, a social learning activity, has just been completed and thankfully there is enough data generated to achieve the aims and objectives of this first part. The objective of this part of the trial was simple: get data! There is enough data now to help with testing a grounded theory method being developed to analyse that particular type of data, and after having a quick read through the data there is enough there to make me think about other possibilities and challenges that the particular type of task shall bring when implemented in the full study. Also, the data will help me with further developments to that particular task.

Realising these possibilities and challenges are all a part of this stage of not only the trail study but the Ph.D. research in general, and I am pleased that I have been able to identify these possibilities and challenges as I can demonstrate in the upgrade paper that I have been really thinking about the research and the implications of the research design.

I shall be focussing on developing the grounded theory method and thinking more about the design of the task itself in the near future.

Next stage of trial study

The next stage in the trial study is to complete the development of the questionnaire and then launch that in a trial study. I have redeveloped it from the previous trial study and I have the belief that it is more effective now and is closer to the objectives of the research. I am also continuing to search for literature that attempts to explore the phenomenon of interest using the questionnaire method in the same or similar way, but have not found such literature so far. I have found literature that assists with justifying the development of the questionnaire, and that is just as important as I shall more than likely be asked in the Upgrade presentation questions referring to the questionnaire’s genesis.

The Upgrade Paper

The findings of the trial study shall be reported in the Upgrade paper, which shall be about four thousand words in length and it shall be a challenge in itself to try to get everything into that word count, hence a reason I started writing it earlier this year even though it’s due in September. The idea though is not to slot everything into four thousand words as that would be impossible, but the objective is to try to explain the key ideas and key directions of the research. A part of the Upgrade paper shall be used to explain the context and findings of the trial study and this includes assessing the reliability, workability, feasibility, soundness, design, and implementation of developing methodologies and data collection and data analysis methods.

The Upgrade paper shall also report on the soundness and depth of the Philosophical orientation of the research and its connection to the research problem, and the way in which the research questions shall be answered. Additionally my ability to argue certain points and evaluation other Philosophical and methodological positions within the upgrade paper shall also be assessed. I have completed the second (or third, or fourth, I’ve lost count!) draft of the earlier sections (Introduction, problem background and rationale, and the literature review) and have begun first drafts of the later chapters (particularly the methodology chapter and the writing of the trial study)

Beyond the upgrade paper

Beyond the upgrade paper, due in September, and the upgrade process presentation and assessment, due to be done around October or November time, is carrying out the full study, and start writing the first draft of the thesis. I have lots of notes for the earlier background, literature review and methodology chapters (though ideas are constantly being generated so note making is continuous) but haven’t put it all into a draft format yet.

A reason for this is because I had to be sure that I have chosen the right research design first, because the research design can influence the way in which a thesis and therefore each chapter is written. The thesis is you could say the product or is highly influenced by the research design: a thesis is written and presented differently with a mixed methods methodology than for example just a qualitative methodology. This is reflected all the way through the thesis and with the literature review in particular I have to be careful with the way I write that chapter as I shall be analysing and writing about both existing quantitative and qualitative literature, and both are obviously very different types of literature that entail different ways of thinking about their findings and their general context. That is going to be an interesting chapter to write and something that I shall have to consider more in the future.

Phew! Lots to do then!

Yes, absolutely, but what I am happy with is that I have my assumptions about reality (based on critical realism, but developing arguments of critical realism: more on this soon), I have my methodology selected (mixed methods) and the methods of data collection (questionnaire, grounded theory, and possibly others if time and opportunity allows) and analysis (descriptive and inferential statistics, and categorical, open and possible axial coding) although with the quantitative analysis these methods need to be contemplated upon and considered more carefully to develop a possible framework of quantitative analysis, but bearing in mind that I won’t really know for sure what specific analytical techniques shall be needed till I obtain the actual data. Categorical, open and axial coding are analytical methods used with Grounded Theory, though there is an element of uncertainty with axial coding because there is debate as to whether or not this should always be used, so shall need to explore that further and find out if I really need to use it in the context of my research.

What I am focussed on at the moment is getting this trial study completed as well as the upgrade paper whilst also locating and analysing more literature (but this is an ongoing task anyway as part of a researcher), so that is enough to get on with for the time being otherwise if I try to do everything I’ll just feel completely and utterly overwhelmed!

All a bit scary, but also quite exciting!

May 2016

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