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What is Grounded Theory?

By T. Carrier
Updated May 21, 2024
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Grounded theory is a social science research method notable for its modifiability and inductive approach. In other words, grounded theory is an adaptable technique that is based on collected written data. This approach to theory development is also known for its use of concepts and categories and its emphasis on comparison.

One key principle in grounded theory is its approach. The method does not seek to test a researcher’s hypothesis about how or why something occurs. Rather, grounded theory aims for actually creating and revising a theory from the data under examination. This presents an inductive rather than a deductive approach, because it builds up an idea from separate parts, or data.

Many individuals also view grounded theory as qualitative research. It does not rely on traditional deductive research methods, wherein a theory is being tested rather than created. Drawing comparisons between concepts through numerical information and mathematical formulas — the hallmark of another form of theory creation, quantitative research — is mostly absent from this approach as well. Further, the general subject of much grounded theory research is in the social sciences, like human behavior. This discipline inherently relies on subjective rather than objective observations to a large extent.

Properly preparing for a grounded theory approach is crucial. The researcher should ideally enter into the research with a neutral mindset and no preconceived notions about the subject. In order to achieve this goal, some experts recommend that the analyzer conduct no background research before beginning his or her current experimental approach. In addition, discussing the analysis before it is completed is frowned upon.

The base materials of grounded theory research typically consist of three different types of data: written texts, interview notes, or written observations about specific interactions. Written data could include books, magazines, or newspapers. The other types rely on information directly compiled and collected by the analyzer.

Once a researcher has gathered written materials, the next step involves studying the materials and determining what they are about. The researcher notes different concepts that recur in the materials. This process is known as coding, and the written versions of these observations are called memos. For example, an analyzer may examine a magazine article and detail how often certain words or images appear in the text.

The researcher then seeks common themes or patterns within memos, and classifies the written observations into concepts and categories. If dark colors or dark images are often used in a text, for example, the analyzer may create a category of sadness or anger. Frequent mentions of open spaces combined with many references to flying could lead to a categorization of freedom. These categories may be general or specific ideas.

Once categories have been determined, the researcher makes comparisons between the different categories and begins developing a theory. Texts or observations may reveal certain key traits of an individual or even a culture, and these traits are often the subject of grounded theories. This framework is fluid, however, and subject to change as the analyzer gathers more materials. The theory — although it is constantly evolving — stays grounded in the data analysis and nothing more, thus the name grounded theory.

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