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May 01, 2017

Grounded Theory: Philosophically, Methodologically, and Disciplinary fluid?

Grounded theory initially appeared straightforward but it did not take long to realise its complex nature and intense debates surrounding philosophical, methodological and, most recently discovered, disciplinary issues. I first encountered grounded theory through Charmaz’s Constructivist Grounded Theory and read through her book thinking that it would be most relevant to my philosophical beliefs at the time. As I understood the phenomena of interest and the general context of my research through much reading of existing empirical literature revolving around the phenomena of interest, I began to realise that I’m not a constructivist, but a realist. Constructivism and therefore constructivist grounded theory became increasingly irrelevant because of its leaning towards there being multiple realities (I have a belief in a single reality, but not a single reality that is easily discoverable or understood) and an emphasis of the co-construction of meaning between researcher and participant (context of my research does not facilitate such a relationship). I therefore discovered the works of Glaser and Strauss (1968) and Strauss and Corbin (1990) and to this day it hasn’t been easy to decide which is the most relevant to my research and there is a reason for this, which I shall explain further.

There are several key authors of grounded theory: Glaser and Strauss (1968), Strauss and Corbin (1990), Charmaz (2000), Clarke (2003) and Bryant (2016), with each contextualising grounded theory within different philosophical assumptions and methodological approaches (as in, different coding procedures from what I can currently understand). Charmaz as mentioned contextualised grounded theory within a constructivist philosophy following criticisms of Glaser and Strauss’s approaches as leaning too much towards positivism, whilst Clarke positioned Grounded Theory within the context of post-modernism following criticisms of all previous versions. Bryant makes Grounded Theory relevant to practice-based research by positioning Grounded Theory within a Pragmatist philosophy. All these different versions of Grounded Theory have arguably come about through the professional separation of the pioneers of Grounded Theory: Glaser and Strauss.

Initially, Glaser and Strauss were united in their criticisms of social science research and the dominating positivist, objectivist, theory testing approaches to understanding the social world, and embarked on a mission to change that and eventually developed Grounded Theory, which initially was an inductive approach to develop a theory to explain social phenomena.

After a while however, the disciplinary differences and, therefore, theoretical differences between Glaser and Strauss led to their professional break up with each following their own paths to developing grounded theory, with Glaser’s version becoming known as Classical Grounded Theory, whilst Strauss’ version became known as Straussian Grounded Theory. Discussion of the exact differences between the two is beyond the purpose of this blog post but it suffices to say that Straussian Grounded Theory focusses more on combining theory building and theory testing approaches (inductive-deductive or some form of abductive logic) and consists of an extra coding procedure known as Axial Coding, which has been the subject of much criticism from Glaser and Charmaz, and much debate among other authors.

Glaser himself in various research papers and books has highly criticised Straussian Grounded Theory for being too prescriptive and therefore limiting theoretical creativity; however, Strauss and Corbin have both stated that Grounded Theory researchers should not follow a strict adherence to Grounded Theory procedures, but to view the procedures as a guide and therefore adapt according to their research context. And this, I would argue, is where we find the roots of much diversity and fluidity within grounded theory.

Philosophical and Methodological Fluidity

From the writings of Glaser it appears that he opposes the different versions of grounded theory arguing they have transitioned beyond the point where they can reasonably be called Grounded Theory.

The problem with this opposition however is that it has been argued that Glaser’s Grounded Theory is philosophically neutral and can therefore be aligned with any Philosophical position. It’s almost as if Glaser’s opposition focusses on methodological differences rather than Philosophical differences, but it’s the very argument that Philosophy influences methodology that suggests the existence of both philosophical and methodological fluidity. Glaser’s apparent Philosophical neutrality and Strauss and Corbin’s recommendations not to subscribe to strict adherence of Grounded Theory procedures evidences the existence of this fluidity of movement between differing Philosophical positions therefore enabling different variations to be presented. But there is a near limitless debate about this fluidity from all the key authors of Grounded Theory along with discussions from other methodologists and qualitative researchers, but in general there is movement towards this fluidity within research designs as written by some key contemporary methodological authors, all of which I shall be covering in the thesis to some extent.

Disciplinary fluidity

A paper written by Carter and Little (2007) has recently begun to encourage me to think further about the use of Grounded Theory in my research. They present a series of hypothetical scenarios involving a fictional character named “Anna” and a series of considerations she has had to make when designing a research study, and the eventual selection of grounded theory in her study. Briefly, this is encouraging me now to think more about disciplinary assumptions and disciplinary contexts that shall play host to Grounded Theory, and in what exact way and why certain grounded theory procedures are relevant to the discipline within which the phenomena of interest is situated. Additionally, I have to think more about the genesis of the particular version of grounded theory that I desire to use.

Therefore, currently I plan to use Strauss and Corbin’s variant of Grounded Theory. But I have many questions now particularly surrounding the debate about axial coding. I shall be covering some of these questions and thoughts in the next blog post.


Bryant, A (2017): "Grounded Theory and Grounded Theorising: Pragmatism in Research Practice," Published by Oxford University Press

Carter, S.M., Little, M "Justifying Knowledge, Justifying Method, Taking Action: Epistemologies, Methodologies, and Methods in Qualitative Research," Qualitative Health Research, 17 (10), pp 1316 - 1328

Charmaz, K (2014): "Constructing Grounded Theory" (2nd Edition). Published by Sage

Clark, A.E (2003): "Situational Analyses: Grounded Theory Mapping After The Postmodern Turn," Symbolic Interaction, 26 (4), pp 553 - 576

Glaser, B.G., Strauss, A, L (1967): "The Discovery of Grounded Theory," Published by Aldine Transactions

Strauss, A.L., Corbin, J. (1990): "Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory" Published by Sage. (Note that updated editions have been published throughout the years)

March 12, 2017

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!

December 04, 2016

Reintroducing Grounded Theory As The Research Methodology!

The mixed methods methodology has been dropped due to reasons outlined in the previous blog post. I am now taking the research back to my original idea of using just a grounded theory approach, underpinned by guidance from Strauss and Corbin along with possibly other authors as time progresses but this shall be determined in time. What does this mean exactly for my research? What does this change of methodology mean now? Changes might now occur at three different levels:

Philosophical level

A philosophical question now is whether or not I can proceed with the research using a critical realist philosophy. This will need a great deal of thought beyond the second upgrade paper, but at the moment I am not sure. The idea of critical realism is that ontologically there are events and activities that occur outside of our own thinking and perceiving of them, whilst epistemologically our understanding of these events and activities are continuously fallible and we can never really fully know the truth behind, for example, a process, and why a process occurs.

Perhaps using multiple observations or “cases” of phenomena along with using other methods contained within a grounded theory analysis could promote a critical realist perspective, because whilst the researcher is allowed under grounded theory to generate their thoughts and theorising during coding ultimately all thoughts must be grounded within the data. The theory emerges not from our thoughts and thinking, and perceiving, but from the grounded theory data. A question here though is that it could still be subjective: my grounding of my own thoughts and thinking within the data could still simply be based on the way in which I interpret the data. If this is a case, are there any events and activities that occur outside of our perceiving or thinking of them? If so, what? And how, and why?

Critical realism’s ontology is based on post positivism or empiricism; epistemologically, it subscribes to interpretivism or relativism. Is this really the right way? Do I have to rethink the ontological and epistemological aspects? I am not totally sure at this time; however, philosophically speaking grounded theory is somewhat pragmatic in that it can neatly fit within near any philosophical orientation as long as this is fully understood and justified.

Lots of questions have risen since the trial study particularly with regards to the relationship between the researcher and the participant. From what I can currently understand, philosophical orientations describe the relationship between the researcher and the participant, but what about relationships between researcher and the data where there is a sense of detachment between researcher and participant? What then? Challenging, but exciting, and will be exploring this much more.

Methodological level

Obvious and clear changes: the mixed methods methodology has been dropped. The research design is now based on a grounded theory approach possibly centred on critical realism. I am not sure about adopting a full case study approach due to analytical incompatibilities between case study, critical realism, and grounded theory, but this might be something that I shall have to revisit in the future. It is possible to do a grounded theory within a case study, but then critical realism would have to be dropped.

The methodology now is grounded theory based on principles from Strauss and Corbin and perhaps other grounded theory authors. Potentially, some amendments might be made to grounded theory in order to represent the exact context of the research. These amendments might be based on resolving the philosophical issues some of which have been outlined in the previous section.

A question that has come to me due to potential philosophical issues is deciding whether or not qualitative is the correct term to use to describe grounded theory, because of the relationship between the researcher, the participant and the grounded theory data. This is something that I shall be exploring further.

Practical Level

In more practical terms, the change of methodology will enable me to focus on mastering a single methodology, a single set of methods within grounded theory methodology, and be able to channel my thoughts towards resolving existing philosophical issues either in general, specific to the context of my work, or a mixture of both. Not to mention being able to fully comprehend and propose ways in which existing reliability and validity issues can be resolved.

Placing grounded theory at the level of methodology was the original proposal before I latched onto mixed methods methodology. But interestingly I did not realise or was aware of the practical benefits of using only a grounded theory approach for my research, but now I do realise these benefits, and therefore happy to drop the mixed methods approach.

A key feature of my previous methodology was theory testing and refinement through the use of quantitative findings. This might still occur within qualitative grounded theory through ideas based on theoretical sampling method in order to test the emerging theory, and also use constant comparisons between each case in order to identify similarities and important differences in order to refine the theory. However, should these really be classed as approaches to theory refinement, or simply refining the validity and reliability of qualitative, grounded theory findings?


Plenty of philosophical and methodological challenges are no doubt ahead, but my passion and enthusiasm of philosophy and of grounded theory methodology will no doubt be able to carry me through, resolving any problems that come along, and form solutions that are workable, practical, and lead onto contributing new knowledge and understanding of resolving existing problems that have not yet been resolved, or even identified in the first place.

Key Highlights From The Upgrade Presentation

The upgrade presentation, including the subsequent time spent with the supervisor, took up about four hours. Reflecting back that might appear like a long time, but this was a crucial time where my own concerns were confirmed leading to a change in methodology and explorations of the phenomenon of interest. This blog post highlights the key insights of the upgrade presentation:

Revert Methodology Back To Grounded Theory

Methodological concerns that I had realised and had been playing on my mind since submitting the original upgrade paper, and therefore was too late to do anything about these concerns, were confirmed. As I personally predicted, and hoping for, the grounded theory aspects were well received and my passion for the grounded theory appreciated, but the questionnaire and general mixed methods methodology were dropped as a result of the assessors confirming my own concerns.

Whilst I appreciate that some Ph.D. researchers would view this as a negative outcome; for me, this was a positive outcome. The fact that I realised concerns about the questionnaire aspect before being told by Professors simply builds my confidence in my own ability to identify methodological faults before being told by those far more qualified. Plus, a little while before the presentation began I told myself that as long as I can continue with the grounded theory research that is all that really matters from a methodological perspective. This has been achieved, and therefore I consider this a positive outcome.

Update Upgrade Paper With New Insights

Since the completion of the upgrade paper, I have had new insights and ideas into what exactly I am exploring. Aspects of the upgrade paper are therefore to be rewritten, whilst other aspects (namely the literature review and all references to grounded theory) are to be left as they are. The methodological section is to go through a near complete rewrite in order to completely remove all references to mixed methods and replace with grounded theory. Objectives, research questions, discussions of anticipated findings, and the introduction aspects of the grounded theory trial are to be updated to reflect insights and directions that I have considered since the completion of the upgrade paper.

This is the way the Ph.D. works: you cannot submit a certain paper then stop work till you receive feedback or attend a presentation. The work simply continues at the regular pace. As I explored the data and continued to code data during the trial study, the need to perhaps redefine phenomenon of interest started to emerge during the data coding, and became obvious during the upgrade presentation. Again, this confirmed my own ideas and concerns that I had about my own approaches. Again, a positive outcome.

Use Of Literature And Critique Of Literature

The literature review aspect of the upgrade paper is to be left as it is as the literature review approach impressed the assessors from what I could make out, including the analysis and synthesis of literature and the use of literature to evidence the need for my research. Additionally, the assessors do not appear to have any concerns about my writing and my ability to write a thesis: my supervisor has even encouraged me to write conference and research papers as soon as I am in the position to do so. This is obviously a key, important outcome of the upgrade paper because if they had concerns about my writing and my ability to write a thesis then it would be just silly to continue it.

I personally feel that I can write a thesis. I personally feel that I can write conference and research papers; if anything, the upgrade presentation has simply boosted my confidence in my ability to do so. That’s not to say that I think I know everything: there is still much to learn about constructing a thesis but I am learning and refining my skills all the time. Reading theses certainly has helped.

I have started some literature review work, but will have to put most of the work towards it on hold whilst I update the upgrade paper.

In all however, this was a key, positive outcome!

Use Of Grounded Theory

Assessors appeared to have no problems with my use and understanding of grounded theory nor did they appear to have any problems with the way that I explained the use of grounded theory in the upgrade paper. Although, personally, I might make some changes to relevant aspects of the upgrade paper to upgrade my thoughts of grounded theory that have developed since the original submission of the upgrade paper.


Personally I think I did alright. Could have been better I suppose but the supervisor said that I performed and came across well with what I was saying. What was interesting was the background of the assessors background: they had a background in language (Professorships) and discourse, and were viewing my research from a discursive, linguistic perspective rather than my own technical, process based approach. Never actually thought about what I am doing from a discourse, linguistic approach and I appreciated their insights, and might be something to consider more significantly whilst developing the theory.

What I am particularly pleased about with my own general approach was having my own concerns about my own methodology confirmed, along with being offered the chance to update the paper with insights and ideas that I have developed since the submission of the upgrade paper.

September 25, 2016

All Case Study Aspects Dropped: the case, pun intended, for this

Ok, after much deliberation I have decided to drop all case study elements from my research. Debates and discussions regarding the inclusion of case study elements within a mixed methods context utalising grounded theory vary widely. But for me the case study approach goes against the nature of the research and the research intentions even if it were used for only framing the research questions and the data collection and analysis procedures, because quite frankly relevant approaches from critical realism, mixed methods and grounded theory appear to encompass all that is required, making the case-based study or strategy rather redundant. Despite numerous reasons for being initially attracted to case study aspects e.g., exploration of phenomenon in its natural setting and the carrying out of an intensive and detailed study on a phenomenon, the five key deciders for dropping any mention of a case study are discussed. Note that what is discussed has come not from actually carrying out case study research, but from logic and reason based on my current understanding.

Theoretical incompatibility

Intentions of my research are to develop theory from the grounded theory data within the quantitative strand, test the theory using the quantitative strand, and then use the quantitative data to refine the theory. Case study emphasises not the development of theory, according to key authors Eisenhardt and Yin, but the testing of a theoretical framework, either existing or developed through the analysis of literature, before commencing any case study research.

The emphasis on the theory development through literature and prior to carrying out the research is incompatible with grounded theory, which suggests that an existing theoretical framework should not be forced onto the data but emerge and develop from the data. I accept however that there are theses out there that have not developed a theory prior to carrying out a mixed methods case study, but for me and the intentions of my research that approach would not work.

Additionally, I am unsure of case study’s stance on theory refinement. Plentiful literature describes it as an effective strategy or methodology, depending on the way it is used, for theory development, but nothing on actual theory refinement.

Sampling Incompatibility

From my understanding, everything needs to be designed, developed and explored relevant to the case or a series of cases. Whilst case study research employs a form of purposive sampling of cases, it appears to me that all participants of a particular case must be included in the research with no "outsiders". Whilst this is fine if that is the intention, the mixed methods approach being developed for my research requires different population samples from outside of the cases that shall be explored, and this does not appear to fit within the use of sampling for a case study. If I were to use a sequential explanatory mixed methods this would not be an issue, but because I am developing a sequential exploratory, an amended version, this would be a problem. A problem would involve the fact that the theory would be tested on a population sample different to the participants of the cases explored through grounded theory. The fact the samples shall differ between qualitative and quantitative makes case study incompatible.

Non-Triangulated research

Case study actively encourages triangulation of research findings, meaning that the findings come from different research methods for a variety of purposes including corroborating data and improving research validity. The concurrent triangulation variation of mixed methods was going to be used until it was realised that this would have led to difficulties in the research design and therefore render it unreliable, therefore it was switched to a sequential exploratory approach. Concurrent triangulation would have achieved the triangulation objective of the case study approach, but the sequential exploratory does not: at least, not the in the way it is being used in this research to develop a theory.

Replication Logic

Replication logic is what gives case study a mode of generalisability or in other words the ability to generalise identified events and activities across a series of cases. Replication appears on two levels: literal replication if few cases are explored and theoretical replication if several are selected. The former is used for predicting similar results across cases whilst the latter is used for predicting contrasting results across cases but for reasons that can be anticipated. Yin’s description of replication logic is akin to experimental designs: the focus is on replicating findings in some way, and therefore highlights a positivist approach to research, which would in my opinion oppose the general philosophical stance of grounded theory. Grounded theory is a mode of interpreting data and is therefore not a mode of enforcing a particular theoretical framework upon data in order to find some sort of replication. There is a form of replication that can be found within grounded theory, but this does not come from an enforcement of a theoretical perspective but is allowed to emerge naturally from the data relative to the perspectives and interpretations of the researcher.

Therefore, replication logic appears to be based on replication based on pre-existing theoretical frameworks and assumptions. This is unlikely to work in my research.

Well then!

No, no, I am not going to say that the sequential exploratory mixed methods using grounded theory and questionnaire (more than likely: depends on the findings of the grounded theory) underpinned by critical realism shall be the research design because I might change my mind, but it’s not likely though I have said that before! But that’s the beauty of research: you can never really be certain or absolute of anything.

All of my latest ideas about the research design is to be confirmed as appropriate by the supervisor.


Those of you interested:

Robert Yin’s book on case study methods: Case Study Research: Design and methods. The fourth edition is available on Google books, and all University libraries! Though a bit difficult to get hold of from a University library if you are not a registered student or researcher at that University……

Plus, Kathleen Eisenhardt’s research paper Building Theories From Case Study Research available from The Academy of Management Review journal.

Plus, before any person comments, I realise that is not the formal way to reference materials! Have to adore Harvard referencing………

Case study? Case–based strategy? Not a case–based strategy? What is it then?

Remember the time I posted up a post that began with remember the time when I said that my research design is complete? I’m saying it again: remember the time when I said that my research design is complete? Well, earlier in the day a thought literally struck my ideas of a case study down, stamped all over them, and performed some sort of war dance over them chanting in some intelligible language. So, I will not dance about and sing claiming that I have found my research design because, given that I am a critical realist, to claim that I have found an absolute research design would be complete and utter nonsense.

Regardless, the intention was never to implement a full case study design as the research uses a particular variant of the mixed methods methodology. Whilst mixed methods can be used within a case study design, I have come to realise that the type of mixed methods that I am proposing (an amended version of Creswell’s sequential exploratory to reflect better the theory refinement phase) and the types of methods being used is making me question the use and role of a case study approach.

So I began thinking about the idea of calling case implementation a case-based strategy for framing the research questions and acting as a general guide for guiding the mixed methods data collection and analysis sequences, but it was realised that this didn’t really make much sense because it would only apply to the qualitative aspect and not the quantitative aspect, and also from what I understand all phases of a sequential mixed methods approach would have to study the same participants because it is about studying a single case e.g., a group of people, an organisation and so on. Sequential exploratory calls for different population samples, though sharing the same basic characteristics, for both qualitative and quantitative strands.

A key question that has been playing on my mind is, is it really the right way to call something a case study or even a case study strategy if some of the key aspects of such an approach are not going to be utalised? Can you really mould and combine bits of different methodologies and methods and call it by a particular name e.g., is it really right to call my study an exploratory mixed methods case study on X phenomenon if most of the key functions of a case study shall not be used?

If not, then what can I call it? What does it all even mean?


Could my research be case-based? There are clear examples of cases existing, with a case being defined as simply an instance of a phenomenon of interest e.g., I am exploring a particular process of learning so a case would simply be defined as a separate but related instance of this phenomenon. In terms of Education think of a “case” as a classroom, or an individual student, or a group of learners.

A discussion on the academic site ResearcherGate included a comment suggesting that within a sequential mixed methods design, a case study can be used as part of the qualitative component but because my research design has been amended slightly to reflect theory refinement, it kind of goes beyond the limit of what a case study is supposed to achieve, in my opinion from what I can currently understand. Another debate revolves around if whether or not aspects of case study can really be used within a grounded theory exploration, and opinions on this appear to vary widely with some supporters of this idea whilst former Ph.D. candidates stated that their examiners were critical of this approach. An interesting comment suggests that if an approach uses an existing theoretical framework upon the data then it is difficult to call this grounded theory, because all versions of grounded theory does not work strictly within a theoretical framework. The commentator suggests that if a project contains more case study principles than grounded theory principles then it would be incorrect to call it a grounded theory study, which makes sense. If on the other hand, as another commentator alluded, and as my research appears to be leaning towards, the project contains more grounded theory elements than case study elements then it would be wrong to call that something like a case study grounded theory project, because it would not be adhering to case study principles.

So perhaps I have to think of my research in terms of it being case-based, and not actually call it a case study or even a case strategy. Interestingly I have just read a research paper that states that studying cases is not exclusive to case study research, but can be present in all approaches that adhere to qualitative assumptions and this includes grounded theory.

Ultimately, is there really a need for any reference to case study or case strategy if all what I need in reference to studying instances (cases?) qualitatively resides within a grounded theory approach?

Something to think about!

August 21, 2016

Slightly Amended Research Design

Since the research methodology chapter of the thesis is going to be around ten thousand to fifteen thousand words, it’s impossible to really explain all aspects of the research design in a blog post of less than a thousand words. Firstly because I’ll probably bore people to the point they would rather listen to One Direction, and secondly because understanding the relationship between all the components is a continuous and ongoing task.

The mixed methods variety has changed and the research is now encapsulated within a case study approach. The research design is now a critical realist multiple-case based sequential exploratory mixed methods design. So, why the change? The change came about through a conversation with the supervisor and the progress of the trial study.

Sequential Exploratory Mixed Methods

The trial study, as indicated in the previous blog post, has been and still is a serious, reflective exercise of the research activity and the research design. The previous preferred mixed methods flavour was concurrent triangulation meaning that the questionnaire data collection and analysis and grounded theory analysis would have been carried out at the same time, or concurrently.

This proved to be problematic during the trial study as it became apparent that the emerging theory’s constructs would not have been testable or explored further using the quantitative instrument. Why is this? Because the concurrent nature would have meant the construction of the questionnaire occurring before quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis, leaving no room for further amendments to it. This would have led to the research being susceptible to validity problems and potential gaps in the theory therefore the theory’s integrity, relevance, completeness and even generalisability would have been questioned. After returning to the research methodological literature (Ph.D. potentials reading this will come to know the iterative nature of the Ph.D.) I found that the sequential exploratory approach to be more suitable.

The sequential exploratory variety of mixed methods involves the qualitative phase occurring first therefore the grounded theory method shall be used to generate an emerging, developing theory from the data. The constructs that emerge from the data shall then be converted to a format suitable for development of a quantitative instrument (likely to be a questionnaire) and then the third phase shall be the quantitative phase where aspects of the theory shall be tested for generalisability across different contexts. This solves the identified problem therefore the quantitative instrument shall take into account constructs found in the literature along with constructs built from the grounded theory data, with in some cases both sets being used to support each other with regards to evidencing the need to explore certain constructs further.

Case Study

A case study has been defined in so many ways and can be used in various ways such as either a strategy or as a methodology. A case study enables the researcher to explore a particular case, or multiple cases, in substantial detail hence it is suitable for mixed methods research, in order to generate significant understanding of the phenomenon of interest. It is the depth of detail the case study brings to the research that makes it an attractive option. It is not usually famed for allowing generalisability of data but this is determined by the type of case study that is being used. Multiple-case study using mixed methods enables more of a generalizable approach to be considered.

For this research, case study shall be used as a general strategy for guiding the quantitative and qualitative phases of the mixed methods and their respective methods, whilst the case study strategy is being guided by critical realism.

This research shall adopt the variety known as a multiple-case study, which means that multiple cases or instances of the similar activity shall be explored using grounded theory (hence, a relationship between case study and grounded theory) in order to increase the validity of the findings, with the selection of the cases being determined by the findings of the first case. The multiple-case study has been deemed as appropriate given the nature of grounded theory’s approach towards sampling of data, and given the depth of detail that case study allows.

Summary thoughts

The blog post doesn’t do the research design justice, as for example I have only lightly touched on the relationship between critical realism, case study, mixed methods, and grounded theory. Understanding this relationship between the different components is ongoing and progressing and will be explained more in the upgrade paper and fully elaborated in the thesis. But it is enough on here to say that I am convinced that these amendments to the research are correct and the way that the design should be. But I must not have the mindset where I am absolutely sure that the research design is correct as it has to pass the upgrade assessment panel later this year.

It’s been challenging working towards the research design, but it’s been a rewarding experience. A key activity at this time is to further understand the relationship between critical realism, case study, mixed methods and grounded theory, and that is no easy feat.

So, the research design shall not change! Till next time, that is!

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!

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!

April 25, 2016

Rambling Update On Progress!

The Trial Study Up And Running!

After gaining permissions from my supervisor and the admin of an online discussion forum, the discussion forum aspect of the trial study has begun! The aim of this aspect of the trial study is to determine the most suitable discussion activities for the main study and this is being determined through quantity of replies and extent to which the participants are taking part in the activities. The trial study has already indicated the topics that are worthy of pursuing further with the main study and also the topics that are not quite as popular and therefore not worth pursuing further, but even then this aspect is making an important contribution to the trial study.

What is most important is that I already have enough qualitative data for analysis and therefore to experiment with the developing Grounded Theory method. The qualitative data shall be used to experiment with this Grounded Theory method in order to assist with further developing the method ideas and to propose a Grounded Theory approach that is appropriate for the type of qualitative data being analysed. It shall no doubt be proven that you can read as many textbooks and papers on Grounded Theory as you desire, but you cannot actually beat being hands on with a method and really putting it through its paces with real, workable data. That is not to say that textbook reading is not important: this needs to be done in order to understand Grounded Theory at the Philosophical level, its place in the wider context of research methods, to understand its history and reasons of use, understand the processes and activities, and to understand its many critiques and debate points, but actually using it is just as important to your learning of Grounded Theory and any other research method.

The discussion trial is going well, and is due to carry on for a little while though since I already have the required data for the trial study I am likely to shut the trial down soon enough after finding out the results of interventions that I have made to spice up the activities that are lacking in use. Needless to say that I am pleased that it appears that the discussion trial’s aims and objectives so far is on track to being achieved.

In the meantime, I shall be working towards redeveloping the questionnaire and organise for a trial run for the questionnaire to take place.

The Upgrade Paper

Because the trial period has begun and all permissions granted I have been able to work on the Upgrade Paper through discussing the trial and its initial findings. I’ve also been rereading and reediting the paper particularly better describing the problem area and introducing the key authors and key literature referring to the phenomena of interest. I have also been introducing my own ideas and reasons why the phenomenon of interest needs to be investigated in a different way and in ways not presented in existing literature. Obviously I will be going into this further in the thesis, but for the upgrade paper I am trying to introduce my ideas and offer argumentation and reasons behind those ideas, based on existing literature.

Quite pleased with the paper so far. It is not allowed to go too far past four thousand words and that is going to be a challenge! Might sound like a lot of words to play with, but when you have a lot of ideas that you want to get across it is quite a challenge to explain everything in four thousand words. The core idea is to present key ideas, key authors, key basis of building the ideas, and the main aspects of the methodology, ethical issues, trial discussions, and anticipated findings and problems. Bit of a challenge trying to get all that into four thousand words (heck this post has just past six hundred words of waffle!) but it shall be done!

Critical Realism? Or not?

As some of you know, I did originally select critical realism as the philosophical basis of my mixed methods research, but I’m not a hundred percent sure now. The other philosophical perspectives are not suitable, therefore this does mean that I do like critical realism’s ontological and epistemological perspective of reality. Where there are problems now with the use of critical realism is its definition and focus on the relationship between structure and agent. From what I can currently understand (obviously need to do more reading, and learning is continuous) critical realism at the application level focusses on the relationship between a power structure (institution, policy, etc) and the agent (humans). From what I can understand at the moment there does not appear to be any literature that moves critical realism away from this idea of exploring the relationship between structure and agent, and focus on the specific aspects of my research because it is not being developed to explore such a relationship or to measure the impact that a structure has on an agent.

There appears to be however a main contributor of critical realism that does insist on the importance of moving away from power relations between structure and agent and focus more on aspects more appropriate for my research. But this I shall have to read further into.

What does all this mean? Well, given that the other philosophical perspectives of mixed methods are not really that suitable, if I cannot apply critical realism as defined by the main contributors I shall have to create a derivative of critical realism that better explores reality and learning context in the way that the research intends. I shall talk more about this in another blog post.

Making progress!

Which is the main thing, though I have to say that I didn’t expect to be challenged by critical realism in quite the way that I anticipated, but that really is the beauty of research and the Ph.D. in general: you are challenged to question your views of reality and find out if the way you think you view reality is really the way that you view reality. It’s all interesting and I shall be reading more into critical realism soon, as well as continuing with developing the questionnaire and continue to write the upgrade paper!

Till next time: keep it real(ism),or if not just keep it (critical) real(ism)!

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