Beki Grinter

Grounded Theory

In empirical, HCI, research on August 30, 2010 at 8:49 pm

Right, this has been coming for a while.

Grounded Theory is not an excuse to go out and study something when you have no idea what’s going to happen. That’s just madness.

Stepping back. Sometimes I hear that Grounded Theory allows you to go into the field, collect data, and only develop questions during analysis. That’s the part that worries me. Research is very expensive, not just financially, but far more importantly, in terms of time hence the madness described above.

So lets clear some some misconceptions.

1) It’s impossible not to have research questions. Perhaps they are not very well formed one (this is something people could easily say of me, I tend to work by instinct as much as by questions), but it’s pretty important to have questions—a sense that something is of interest. I’d go further though, I think it’s impossible not to have a particular set of hopes and interests, and even desires for the outcomes. Grounded Theory suggests that you capture these prior to going into the field. These are valuable resource and an important check (to check to the extent possible that you’re not leading the analysis towards the assumptions that you had before going in.

2) If you interview someone you almost certainly have to have expressable questions. Just saying.

So, Grounded Theory is a balance between exploring the data, and being open to developing new lines of questioning based on previously ill-understood, not-understood phenomena captured in the data.

Now, I also think Grounded Theory is tempting because it comes with a series of steps. Open coding, axial coding, and selective coding suggest that if appropriately followed a Grounded Theory will result. Many other intepretivist approaches do not come with those steps. Instead the reader has to pay close attention to the theory that drives the empirical work. One has to understand why, say, accounts matter to the ethnomethodological agenda, and then understand that the study of phenomena is likely drive in part to further illuminate the concept with respect to the particular setting.

If you want an example of something that also has a “steps” like feel to it, but is not Grounded Theory, try the Thinking Topics approach by Lofland and Lofland.

And if you want to understand the theory of Grounded Theory, try reading The Discovery of Grounded Theory.

So, what I am about to say is open to discussion (as if the rest is not 🙂 but its open to debate about whether and how much Grounded Theory is driven by data. Google if you will.

I have reasons to believe that it’s not entirely driven by the data, but that other factors come into play. First, you can structure grounded theory using any other theory developed by the method. Strauss says so, although Glaser may disagree (most people are following Straussian Grounded Theory as opposed to Glaserian Grounded Theory and the two differ).

Second, it seems to me that the questions you ask of the data during Straussian coding suggest certain types of outcome. The analysis, and the things that it sought to explain tends to have a temporal quality, it promotes an understanding of an arc of time. Causes, consequences, who did what to whom. All very temporal indeed. Many of the Grounded Theories I’ve read explore trajectories of work, of people interacting and acting towards an outcome (whether predicted or not). If you read enough of them you begin to get a feel for some commonalities, what they may work well at explaining. And since you’re not reading any related work (oh yes you should) you start to get a feel for the occasions when Grounded Theory might be most useful.

Third, surely the process of data collection in dispersed with analysis is also the reason that Grounded Theory is not entirely data driven. Data collection that follows a period of analysis must surely be driven by analytic concerns as well as data concerns. Gaps in the analysis that need to be addressed fuel the generation of further questions. I don’t think you can do Grounded Theory, at least not completely on one round of data collection, there must be cycles of collection and analysis, collection and analysis. This is also my defense for knowing when the process ends, when the analysis is complete. When there is nothing else left to explain. Surely then, and only then, you have a Grounded Theory that you can say the following of: that it describes the the world, that it is rhetorically powerful by being clear and persuasive, that it has inferential power (if a similar phenomenon is encountered the theory helps understand what may result), and that it has application.

While I’m here, let me clear up something else. I don’t want to read a Grounded Theory that doesn’t present what the theory is a theory about. I have a theory in mind, it’s a theory about why the division of labor among software developers, despite the goals of modularity, leads to the creation of dependencies that must be coordinated in order for code to successfully compile and run. Further, this theory shows how organizational hierarchies create distance that exacerbates the types of dependencies that exist and their ability to be coordinated. It enumerates dependencies that exist among individuals, between groups and divisions of a corporation, and those that span multiple corporations, and offers strategies for their coordination.

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by clifflampe, Sadat Shami, Christopher Lueg, Mor Naaman, Beki Grinter and others. Beki Grinter said: and trying to set the record straight (as I see it) about Grounded Theory […]

  2. […] Beki Grinter has been doing a splendid job commenting briefly and powerfully about grounded theory research; paying specific attention to its use in studies of computerization. A recent post I am especially fond of is linked here: […]

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