Beki Grinter

If I Can’t Use Grounded Theory What Should I Use Instead?

In academia, discipline, empirical, HCI, research on April 3, 2012 at 3:57 pm

I’ve been posting about the problems I see when people do not apply Grounded Theory properly. A consequence of this is that I’ve been asked for alternate recommendations. This presents me with a dilemma.

On the one hand, I’ve potentially put people in the situation of asking me for this type of advice. But, on the other hand I find it troublesome. I feel that becoming a researcher is about taking on the responsibility for trying to open up a set of alternatives that might be viable candidates. I feel that the methods as much as the responsibility for the research questions, outcomes and write up belong to the researcher.

But, trying to balance that belief I have about the nature of research and those who do it, against alternative world views, I would suggest the following sets of resources to pursue finding those alternative approaches to qualitative data analysis.

Miles and Huberman’s Qualititative Data Analysis, an Expanded Sourcebook, while somewhat dated now contains a variety of qualitative method approaches. Another book in a similar vein is Creswell. But truthfully, there are a lot of these types of books that will survey the breadth of qualitative methods. Just try typing¬†Qualitative Data Analysis into Google Scholar… One thing you’ll notice is that Sage Press produces a lot of texts in this area. You might try looking at a few of those online and see whether they look helpful.

Another place to look is in the related literature to the problem that you’re interested in. What did they do. I would look at empirical studies that did not include technology as well. While HCI is theoretically diverse, other fields have other traditions of scholarship. Look at qualititative studies that sought to understand the context in which you want to operate or technologically support, how did they analyze their data? What are the sources they refer to. Follow those sources.

But, I am not going to recommend a particular alternative approach. It’s very difficult to do this without understanding the research in detail. Let me give you an example. At Georgia Tech thesis proposals are scheduled for 3 hours. Prior to that time a document of considerable length is read, typically I’ve seen them range from about 50-120 pages. And after taking the 2-3 hours to read that, spending time reflecting on it, and then having 3 hours of discussion I am in what I feel to be a reasonably good place to make recommendations.

And I believe it is the responsibility of the researcher to pick their methods. Even if that means that sometimes it results in trial and error. Trial and error is what research is about, it’s the process of developing expertise. And that includes with methods as well as with the domain and the technology.

  1. Perhaps people should try asking themselves the simple question, “what do I want a theory for?’. This might then lead to other, related, questions about ‘what ‘work’, what ‘analytic work’ do I want or expect the theory to accomplish?’, and ‘exactly how might it do that?’. Since so many theories are explanatory in some sense, that is they suggest answers to ‘why?’ type questions, maybe people might consider whether they need a theory at all, rather than say, a complete and thorough description where the emphasis is on ‘understanding’ a phenomenon rather than explaining it (since explanation is only one kind of understanding, and, of course, there are numerous ‘explanations’ for almost any phenomenon). This seems to me to be the kind of simple but serious question – ‘do I really need this?’ – that all designers should consider before rushing to embrace any social science theory or approach; a rush and an embrace that they will have to justify and that they may well come to regret – not least because it distracts them from the business of design.

    • Thanks Mark. You make a good point about the role of theory here. I’d been thinking mostly about the methods, I think my post reads like a methods post, but of course there’s a relationship between methods and theory…

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