Grounded Theory

Leader: Dr. Mark McCaslin

Grounded Theory is a qualitative research approach that attempts to develop theories of understanding based on data from the real world. Grounded Theory (Strauss, Corbin, 1990, 1998; Corbin & Strauss, 2008) has its origins in symbolic interactionism, taking the perspective that reality is negotiated between people, always changing, and constantly evolving. The key word is “theory,” which in science means an explanatory statement or model based on research evidence. Unlike some other forms of qualitative inquiry, grounded theory attempts to go beyond rich description (which it also strives for) to an explanation of the phenomena of interest.

The second key word is grounded. This implies that the explanation is derived from the “ground,” the actual experiences, words, behaviors, and other data obtained from people directly involved or engaged in the topic. For example, if one wished to derive a grounded theory about the effects of childhood abuse on adult functioning, one would gather many kinds of data from persons who had grown up amid child abuse, and would build the theory of how it affects adult development on the information obtained from those people. Another unique feature of grounded theory is its tendency to “return” to the ground by taking preliminary insights back to the participants and asking them to further comment on and refine the researcher’s conclusions.

The primary tools of discovery are interviews and observations. However, grounded theory goes beyond the descriptive and interpretive goals and is aimed at building theories. The ultimate goal of this approach is to derive theories that are grounded in (based on) reality, that is, grounded in the data collected from people actually involved in the issues under investigation. A grounded theory is one that is uncovered, developed, and conditionally confirmed through collecting and making sense of data related to the issue at hand. The hope is that such theories will lead to a better understanding of the phenomenon of interest and to ideas of exerting some control over the phenomenon. Although grounded theory is designed to be a precise rigorous process, creativity plays an important part in that process in that the formulations of the data – “to create new order out of old”. The use of literature also differs in the grounded theory approach. There is a recommendation against knowing the literature too well before using this approach because knowing the categories, classifications, and conclusions of previous researchers may constrain your creativity in finding new formulas.

See Grounded Theory Introduction

Data collection methods in grounded theory research

The dominant methods of data collection in grounded theory research are interviews (usually audio-taped), participant and non-participant observations, conversations recorded in dairies, field notes, descriptions of comparative instances, and personal experience. As mentioned, the participants in a grounded theory study often will be interviewed more than once, and asked to reflect on and refine the preliminary conclusions drawn by the researcher. In an analogy to “hypothesis testing” procedures in quantitative analysis, grounded theorists will often test their theories by re-interviewing participants about them, asking for their feedback, or by interviewing a new round of participants about how well the hypothesized elements of the new theory actually explain their experience.

The methods of doing these forms of data collection do not differ markedly from similar methods across all qualitative approaches. As mentioned, however, grounded theorists sometimes avoid too much study of the extant literature on their topic before going into the field, in hopes that they will not be biased by previous conjectures and data about the topic. It is their aim to allow the data to teach them and guide their analysis into a rich explanation.

Grounded theory data analysis methods and procedures: Coding

Because grounded theory goes beyond the descriptive and interpretive goals of many other qualitative models and is aimed at building theories, data analysis tends to be more complex and aims to achieve an explanatory power that is not necessary in other approaches. The heart of the grounded theory approach occurs in its use of coding, its main form of data analysis. There are three different types of coding used in a more-or-less sequential manner (this discussion is adapted from Strauss and Corbin, 1990, 1998, Patton, 2003; and Creswell, 1998; for dissertations, more detailed discussions in primary sources should be consulted).

The first type of coding is open coding which is much like the description goal of science. Usually open coding is done first. During open coding, the researcher labels and categorizes the phenomena being studied. This involves the process of describing the data through means such as examination, comparison, conceptualization, and categorization. Labels are created to describe in one or a few words the categories one finds in the data. Examples are collected for all these categories. For example, in a grounded theory study of the effects of child sexual abuse, open coding might discover in the reports of the participants some categories such as these: Feeling powerless, hating myself, hating the abuser, or feeling permanently damaged.

The categories are studied more carefully to identify subcategories, which are called properties and dimensionality in the categories. For instance, the researcher in our example might discover that “hating myself” had a wide range of emotional power – in some participants it is very strong, whereas in others it is not strong at all. The categories, properties, and dimensions discovered in the data are fully described in the participants’ words. For further details please review Open Coding Analysis .

Then begins the second type of coding: axial coding  or Reflective coding which involves finding links among the categories, properties, and dimensions that were derived from open coding. (A link is an axis, hence the term axial.) How is axial coding actually done?

Axial coding first identifies the central categories about the phenomenon. These central or core categories tend to be the most important aspect(s) of element of the phenomenon, the one that clearly has the greatest strength and appears in all or most of the participants’ reports or other data. For instance, a central category of the phenomenon of the psychological effects of childhood sexual abuse might be found to be “feelings of powerlessness.”

Next, the researcher explores the data carefully to discover causal conditions, which are categories of conditions influencing the central category or categories. For instance, in the child sexual abuse study, one causal condition might be found to be “repeated humiliations,” a condition that is found across many reports to support or influence the development of feelings of powerlessness (the central category).

The researcher continues axial coding by identifying interactions among the categories (which are called strategies, although that term might be confusing). Strategies in the example study could be, for example, “repeated humiliations strengthen feelings of powerless, but weaken hatred of the abuser while strengthening self-hatred.” You might think of “strategies” in grounded theory as the equivalent of correlations in statistical theory-building.

Axial coding continues with the identification and exploration of other supporting or weakening conditions which exert lesser influences on the central variables. These are categories in the data which label the contexts and intervening conditions. Examples from the grounded theory study of the effects of child sexual abuse might include “protection by another adult,” which when found to be present ameliorates (positively influences) the central category, but which is insufficient in itself to prevent the damage entirely. Finally, consequences are carefully identified and described. These would include all the outcomes of the presence of the central category in all its interactions (strategies) with contexts, intervening conditions, properties, dimensions, etc. Consequences describe what happens when the central category is found under specific conditions. For example, when “feelings of powerless” are found to be very strong, accompanied (interacting with) “isolation” and “repeated humiliation,” depression may be found to be a consequence. See Reflective coding Matrix

Notice that these consequences are NOT presupposed, but are carefully teased out of the real reports and descriptions of their experiences by the many participants in the study. Preconceptions about the theory must be left at the door. See “Phenomenology,” below, and its discussion of epoche and the phenomenological reduction. Without using the terminology of phenomenology, the requirement is the same.

The third type of coding, selective coding, continues the axial coding activity of relating the subsidiary categories to the central category(s). Selective coding is the process of selecting your main phenomenon (core category) around which all other phenomena (subsidiary categories) are grouped, arranging the groupings, studying the results and rearranging where necessary. It is necessary to remain faithful to the data, so in selective coding, one frequently goes “back to the things themselves” to ensure that one is capturing what one’s informants told one.

From this last type of coding, the grounded theory researcher moves toward developing a model of process and a transactional system, which essentially tells the story of the outcome of the research. Creating a literal “story line” is one manner of doing selective coding. The story line tells the results of the axial coding in a coherent narrative. Many grounded theory researchers do not create a conditional matrix, a diagram or picture of the various categories, interactions, and relationships among the central category(s) and the subsidiary categories. But the conditional matrix is a very helpful tool in creating the narrative story line which embodies the grounded theory.

The selective coding process typically focuses on two dimensions of the phenomenon: its process and its transactional system. Again, the conditional matrix is quite useful in elucidating these two elements of the theory.

Process is the manner in which actions and interactions occur in a sequence or series. It incorporates the time element. (“As time went on and I got older, the repeated humiliations my father inflicted on me began to tear me apart. I started to hate myself, though not at first.”) It also incorporates the various categories which mutually influenced each other. (“My brother tried to help, and I was grateful, but I was more worried he’d get hurt, so I asked him to stay out of it. He hasn’t been much a part of my life since.”) The transactional system is a grounded theory’s analytic method that allows an examination of the interactions of different events. (“Self-hatred led to increased willingness to be hurt. It strengthened the belief among most participants that the victim is bad and deserves punishment, and also strengthened the yearning for even the abusive “love” offered by the perpetrator. This in turn alienated most participants from other sources of more benign love, because the victims did not feel worthy of it.”)

The use of the conditional matrix and the process and transactional-system analysis leads finally to the general description of the grounded theory. It might be a brief sentence distilling all the above work, or a more complex statement. But it will also be accompanied by a set of propositions or hypotheses which explain the phenomenon under study.

At this stage, it is usual for grounded theory researchers to return not only to the original data to ensure that the theory fits those data, but may meet with the participants again to compare the theory with their perceptions and to ask them whether the theory fits their experiences. Their responses will be taken as new data to be incorporated into the theory, which is thought to be in a continual adaptation and evolution. Grounded theory is never complete. (Adapted from Strauss, & Corbin, 1990, 1998; Creswell, 1998; Patton, 2002)


The type of questions typically used to guide a study using Grounded Theory

Process questions about changing experience over time or its stages and phases (e.g., What is the process of becoming…?) or understanding questions (e.g., What are the dimensions of this experience…?). In grounded theory the researcher may ask understanding questions, trying to elicit the understanding of the participants about their experiences.

See Data Saturartion.

See Human Ecology Approach to Grounded Theory

See Grounded Theory Examples


References related to Grounded Theory

A number of useful texts discuss methods of Grounded Theory data collection, data analysis, and writing the results. The following list contains excellent general introductions to ethnography, as well as more detailed treatments by practitioners:

Grounded theory Bibliography

General introductions to Grounded Theory:

Camic, P.M., Rhodes, J.E. & Yardley, L. (Eds.) (2003). Qualitative research

in psychology: Expanding perspectives in methodology and design. Washington, DC: American

Psychological Association.

Creswell, J.W. (1998). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. See the sections on ethnography in Chapters 1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, and the Appendix D by Susan L. Morrow and Mary Lee Smith.

Creswell, J.W. (2007). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Morse, J., & Richards, L. (2002). Read first for a users guide to qualitative methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Patton, M.Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods, 3rd edition. Housand Oaks, CA: Sage., See the sections in Chapter 3 on ethnography and ethnomethodology (a related approach); and Chapters 6 and 7 on field work and qualitative interviewing.

Detailed treatments of Grounded Theory methodology and issues:

Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through

qualitative analysis. London: Sage.

Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (1990). Grounded theory research: Procedures, canons, and evaluative criteria. Qualitative Sociology, 13, 3-21.

Corbin, J., Strauss, A. (2008). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (3rd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory. Chicago: Aldine.

Strauss, A., Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Strauss, A., Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and theory for developing grounded theory (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.


Additional Resources related to Grounded Theory

By using inductive strategies of analysis, Grounded Theory is a systematic approach to research which seeks to develop theory grounded in the data. The aim of Grounded Theory Methods is not only to describe well the topic of study but to develop adequate theoretical conceptualizations of findings. In an almost detective-like approach, researchers collect and analyze data, allowing new questions and findings to arise and impact subsequent data collection and analysis.



Please post your questions and comments regarding Grounded Theory design to this discussion thread


Bryant, A. & Charmaz, K. (Eds.). (2007). The Sage Handbook of grounded theory. London: Sage.

¨Charmaz, K. (1983). The grounded theory method: An explication and interpretation. In R. Emerson (Ed.), Contemporary field research (pp. 109-126). Boston: Little, Brown.

Charmaz, K. (1990). Discovering chronic illness: Using grounded theory. Social Science and Medicine, 10, 1161-1172.

Charmaz, K. (1991). Good Days, Bad Days: The Self in Chronic Illness and Time. New Brunswick, NJ:  Rutgers University Press.

¨Charmaz, K. (1995). Grounded theory. In R. Harré, L. Van Langenhove, & J. Smith (Eds.), Rethinking methods in psychology (pp. 27-49). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Charmaz, K. (2001). Grounded theory: Methodology and theory construction. In N. Smelser & P. Baltes (Eds.), International encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences. Oxford: Elsevier Science LTD.

Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis. London: Sage.

Clarke, A. E. (2005). Situational analysis: Grounded theory after the postmodern turn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (1990). Grounded theory research: Procedures, canons, and evaluative criteria. Qualitative Sociology, 13, 4-21.

Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (2007). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (3rd ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Glaser, B. (1992). Emerging vs forcing: The basics of grounded theory analysis. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press.

¨Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine Publishing.

Locke, K. D. (2001). Grounded theory in management research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Rennie, D. L. (2006).  The grounded theory method: On a variant of its procedure of constant comparative analysis applied to psychotherapy research.  In C. T. Fischer (Ed.), Qualitative research: Instructional empirical studies (pp. 59-78).  New York:  Elsevier.

Rennie, D. L. (2007).  Methodical hermeneutics and humanistic psychology.  The Humanistic Psychologist, 35, 1-14.

Rennie, D. L., & Fergus, K. D. (2006).  Embodied categorizing in the grounded theory method: Methodical hermeneutics in action.  Theory & Psychology, 16, 483-503.

Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (Eds.). (1997). Grounded theory in practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.