Dissertation: Grounded Theory Examining a Specific Emergent Research

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Grounded Theory

Examining a Specific Emergent Research Methodology: The History and Current Applications of Grounded Theory

Ever since the dawn of history -- that is, as far back as the thoughts of man can be explicitly known from written records -- mankind has been concerned with discovering and understanding the mechanisms of nature and the "why's" of the world it occupies. Certain aspects of pre-historical or a-historical societies that have been unearthed by anthropologists or, like Stonehenge as one well-known example, have remained standing in plain view for many generations also demonstrate a desire to understand and possibly to commune with nature through careful observation. Inquiry, then, seems to be a natural part of being human.

This does not mean that human inquiry has always been especially effective at explaining the answers as to why certain things occur, or how they occur. Human curiosity often outstrips the ability to understand, and in fact before the development of certain research mechanisms many conclusions were reached that had no real basis in fact, but rather in simple conjecture. It is only relatively recently in the development of human thought that the concepts of empiricism and objectivity have been thoroughly incorporated into our understanding of the many phenomena of nature, and it is only through the use of objectivity and empirical deductions that "true" (or at least truly rational) knowledge about the world can be obtained. That is, only when conjecture is removed from the equation can conclusions become more reliable.

At first glance, it might seem that the improved tools of investigation that the modern era has presented are responsible for the increased knowledge regarding our world and its processes. In actuality, human observational capacities have remained virtually unchanged but for the assistance provided by technological developments, and accurate observations have been made for millennia in many areas of scientific inquiry. It is not so much in the observations of the world, then, that human inquiry has improved its objectivity and thus its rationality, but in the method of making these observations and of using these observations to lead to conclusions. Specifically, it is the advent of the scientific method during the eighteenth century, in a period known as the Enlightenment, that truly allowed for the progress of science and the growth of reliable knowledge regarding the world, the creatures and objects within it, and the mechanisms by which certain things occur.

In the scientific method, observations lead to a certain hypothesis -- essentially a guessed-at solution to a problem or explanation for how the observed phenomenon occurs -- which is then tested by making repeated observations, when possible in controlled settings that limit variability and isolate the specific details of the explanation. Through such testing, the hypothesis is either confirmed (when the experimental observations back up the guessed-at solution) or rejected (when it is clear that the guess was not correct). For centuries, this was considered to be the only reliable means of gaining true knowledge in any subject area, and it is still highly utilized and highly useful today, often to the exclusion of other methods.

The scientific method is not, however, the only means of conducting rational and objective research into the many phenomena and mechanisms that exist in the world, and in fact it is arguably highly unsuitable for developing real knowledge in many different subject areas. In qualitative research conducted in the human sciences, for instance -- areas like sociology, history, and economics, just to name a few examples -- the scientific method is virtually useless as there is no way to conduct controlled experiments or even to identify and label yet alone individually observe the many different variables that exist in even the simplest of interactions and/or observations. One method that has been developed to tackle qualitative issues in social research and in other of the human sciences is known as grounded theory, and this paper will examine the basics of this theory as well as its historical progression and the many ways in which the theory can be applied to today's research areas.

Grounded Theory: An Overview

The brief description of the scientific method provided in the above introduction was not given merely as an important instance in the development of human thought. As this method is fairly familiar to most people today, whether or not it has ever been explicitly explained to them, it serves as a useful point of comparison to grounded theory, which operates in a very different manner yet nonetheless has several distinct similarities with certain aspects of this earlier and better-known method of conducting research. Thus an understanding of the scientific method is enormously helpful in developing an understanding of grounded theory.

Observation is the cornerstone both of the scientific method and of grounded theory (Dick 2005; Borgatti 2010). Regardless of which research method a researcher is using, they must begin by observing certain details about a mechanism, interaction, or phenomenon before the next step can be achieved. It is in this next step that the major difference between these two methods begins -- in the scientific method, observation leads immediately to the formation of a hypothesis, which is then tested and either accepted or rejected. In grounded theory, however, explanations are derived much more slowly, through observations that lead to ever more refined knowledge of the research material (Charmaz 2006). As observations are made, they are compared with each other and eventually a theory that explains the relationships between these observations emerges organically (Dick 2005).

In this method, the emerging theory -- which is the result of analysis, however non-purposeful and unconstrained -- and continued data observations continually inform one another, meaning that the theory will always match the data being observed (Rhine 2009). This demonstrates the case-oriented approach of grounded theory, as opposed to the variable perspective utilized by the scientific method as explained in the introduction (Borgatti 2010). As more data is observed, the developing theory becomes ever more refined, and eventually it is well-formed enough that comparisons between observations and the theory can be made, rather than just comparisons of observations to observations (Dick 2005). The theory is still adjusted based on the observations and comparisons, however.

In the meantime (most of the steps in grounded theory occur with a great deal of overlap and in a simultaneous fashion, which is another major difference form the linear progression of the scientific method), certain categories in both the observations and the theories begin to emerge (Dick 2005). These vary highly depending on the particular observations being made, but it is essential to remember that in grounded theory there is no original "research problem" or set of given categories imposed from the outset, nor any reference to existing literature as a means for designing the research -- it is all meant to flow out of pure and direct observation at this stage (Rhine 2009). Coding these categories occurs while observation-observation and observation-theory comparisons are made, with the various codes helping to make more concrete the processes and conclusions of these comparisons (Dick 2005).

It is with coding that the theory truly begins t take a solid shape, and as this occurs the research makes notes regarding its development, though it is still up to adjustment as the coding and observational processes continue due to the simultaneous nature of the method (Dick 2005). Once a working theory has been articulated, purposeful sampling that increases the diversity and the breadth of data occurs, with observations, coding, and theoretical comparisons/adjustments occurring just as in the earlier stages of the research method (Dick 2005). Memos regarding theory are sequenced, the theory is eventually articulated, and relevant literature is consulted and incorporated as it fits the observations and resulting theories that have emerged (Dick 2005; Rhine 2009). In this way, grounded theory when properly utilized leads to an explanation that will perfectly fit at least one data set -- that of the researcher's observations (Borgatti 2010).

A Brief History of Grounded Theory

To some minds, grounded theory seems inordinately complex; to others, it is incredibly simple in its organic methodology. Regardless, it must be acknowledged as a rather ingenious research method that allows for precise theory based on direct observation, working from the ground up rather than from grand theory down as is often the case with the scientific method. There has actually been a great deal of controversy surrounding the development and progression of grounded theory, however, and even a fair amount of disagreement within the sphere of grounded theorists themselves. This has even affected -- and perhaps has been primarily exacerbated by -- disagreements between the originators and prime progenitors of grounded theory regarding its usage and its implications.

Grounded theory was developed (or discovered, as some authors put it) and eventually explicitly codified when Barney Glaser, who had studied quantitative methodology and qualitative mathematics, began working with Anselm Strauss, who was a scholar in the symbolic interactionist school of though in the sociology field (Hart & Gregor 2005). The two… [END OF PREVIEW]

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