Beki Grinter

Grounded Theory Equals More Than Just Open Coding

In empirical, HCI, research on March 28, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Some time ago I wrote a lengthy post on some of the abuses I see of Grounded Theory.

Today I want to focus on one of the most frequent forms of abuse that I forgot to single out for attention in that post and yet is common. Grounded Theory, (the Straussarian version), has three coding steps. Open Coding is the process of breaking down the data from observation or interviews into categories. Axial Coding develops out these categories in a variety of ways including developing connections among the categories by coming to see them as causes, consequences and more. Finally Selective Coding is the process of selecting a single category that becomes the foundation of the Grounded Theory, which happens through both continued development of multiple categories until they are fully connected (or eliminated) as part of the explanation (which is the theory). To follow the method of Grounded Theory means that you follow all of these steps.

And yet, one of the most frequent abuses of Grounded Theory I see is people citing that they have used Grounded Theory but they have in fact only done Open Coding. Imagine what would happen if you only completed part of the experiment. Would anyone believe that the results were valid or accurate? I have a hypothesis that analysis stops after Open Coding because usually the first time one starts on Axial Coding and Selective Coding the process raises more questions than it answers. These questions are designed to trigger more time in the field gathering data. The next round of Grounded Theory analysis would consist of further Open Coding, but also begin to address the gaps in the analysis at the Axial and Selective Coding phases. The process of Grounded Theory analysis is iterative with fieldwork, and cycles throughout these three steps during analysis (the balance of amount of time in each step varies over time).

Iterative analysis, repeated visits to the field, and using all three steps of Grounded Theory are what it means to use the method. You can’t just pick the bits of the method that are convenient and ignore the rest. Methods aren’t decomposable in this way. What results has no value because its not complete. There are methods that do stop with themes rather than a Grounded Theory, they’ve been tried and tested and they were designed to do that job. But they are not Grounded Theory. And if I seem a bit frustrated its because this strikes me as really undermining the enterprise of qualitative research, and research. If you are going to do something its worth doing properly surely.

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  1. Grr wrote out a whole comment on my iPad and of course some error happened …. so I will try to reconstruct.

    Hear Hear! My question, then, is what should be substituted for Grounded Theory. I know that analysis method and data gathering method are typically intimately connected and that the choice of method should reflect the goal. At the same time, the typical case where open coding is labeled as grounded theory revolves around interviews of some sort, and there are some standard cross and within case methods for organizing and exploring interview data. For that sort of situation (interview data when the goal is not to construct theory), do you have recommendations?

    • Lofland and Lofland have a nice approach in their book, and I think it’s very accessible. Miles and Huberman’s book of different qualitative approaches covers the breadth of options available (but the book is very expensive). Lofland and Lofland by contrast is cheap and they talk about collection and analysis, unlike GT where there is almost nothing said about collection, it’s all about the analysis of the data.

  2. Very interesting post. I have just finished the open coding of my research and struggling with axial coding . Any tips? I will go back to my research question to see what kind of answer i could give…

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