Grounded theory is a research method that deals with the generation of theory that is based on data that has been systematically collected and analyzed. It is used to discover things like social relationships and group behaviors, known as social processes. It was developed in California, USA, by Glaser and Strauss during their study “The Consciousness of Dying”. Moreover, it is a general methodology for developing a theory that is based on data that is systematically collected and analyzed.

Grounded theory offers researchers a method that complements various forms of qualitative data collection and will speed up their work. Adopting more grounded theory strategies will allow researchers to broaden the theoretical scope of their studies and make tacit meanings and processes explicit. Constructivists have not only reframed the grounded theory, but have also revised it so that the method is more flexible and widely adoptable than its previous versions.

Background to Grounded Theory

In the past, grounded theory was often considered separate from other methods. Now, the constructivist version makes more evident the usefulness of combining grounded theory with other approaches. Grounded theory can make ethnography more analytical, interview research more in-depth, and content analysis more specific (Dey, 1980).

Several computer-aided qualitative data analysis programs are based on grounded theory, and this method can add innovation to mixed-method research. Grounded theory emphasizes focusing data collection and testing and developing analytical ideas. Therefore, grounded theory offers the tools to build solid evidence within the analysis and to explain the processes.

Characteristics of Grounded Theory

In keeping with the pragmatic influences on the methodology of Grounded Theory, Strauss (1987) characterizes the scientific method as a sequence of induction, deduction, and induction: grounded theories arise inductively from the data, predictions of proofs are then deduced from the theories, and finally theories are confirmed or deconfirmed inductively. in this way, it has the following characteristics:

Data collection and analysis occur simultaneously.

Categories and analytical codes are developed from the data. No pre-existing conceptualizations are used, which is known as theoretical sensitivity.

Theoretical sampling is used to refine categories.

Abstract categories constructed inductively.

Social processes discovered in the data.

Use of analytical memos between coding and writing.

Categories integrated in a theoretical framework.

Data Analysis in Grounded Theory

Open coding

It is a line-by-line encoding in which key concepts and phrases are identified and highlighted, and transferred to subcategories and subsequently to categories. This breaks down the data into conceptual components and the researcher can begin to theorize or reflect on what they are reading and understanding, making sense of the data. Each participant’s data is “constantly compared” for similarities.

Axial encoding

In this phase, the relationships between the categories and the connections are identified.

Selective coding: consists of identifying the main category and methodically relating it to other categories. Relationships must be authenticated and categories refined. Next, the categories are integrated and a Grounded Theory is identified.

The use of analytical notes is encouraged. These are notes to oneself to explain thought patterns in relation to data analysis. The final theory is usually generated from the integration of several analytical notes.

Main category

The central category is the main phenomenon around which categories are built. Theory is generated around a central category. The central category must account for the variation found in the data, that is, the categories will relate to it in some way. The categories demonstrate how the main category is placed in the lives of the study participants.

Conducting the study

Theoretical preconceptions should be avoided, although it is accepted that this is difficult in practice. Analytical procedures and sampling strategies are then used, and the study is terminated when theoretical sampling is reached, which is discussed later. The data collected can be qualitative or quantitative, or a combination of both. Data collection methods typically include in-depth interviews with open-ended questions. Questions can be adjusted as the theory arises. Observation methods and focus groups can also be used.

Grounded theory is designed to be usable with a wide range of research questions and in the context of a variety of metatheoretical approaches. Like the statistical analyses that psychologists are most familiar with, it deals with patterns and relationships. However, these are not relationships between numbers, but between ideas or categories of things, and relationships can take different forms.

In some respects, the procedures of grounded theory are like the operation of a sophisticated archiving system in which entries are crossed and classified in different ways. In fact, this is a qualitative approach that can be effectively aided by the use of computer packages such as NUDIST, which was developed to address notions of grounded theory.

Methodology of Grounded Theory

Grounded Theory comprises a distinctive methodology, a particular insight into the scientific method, and a set of specific procedures for analyzing qualitative data and constructing theories from them. The methodology provides a justification for considering qualitative research as a legitimate–indeed, rigorous–form of inquiry (Charmaz, 1995).

In general, the scientific method adopted by Grounded Theory is considered to be inductive in nature, although this is a controversial issue. Grounded Theory researchers collect non-numerical data from various sources, such as interviews and field observations. Once collected, the data is analyzed using coding and theoretical sampling procedures. Next, a set of interpretive procedures is used to aid in the construction of the theory that arises from and is based on the data.

Theoretical sampling

Glaser and Strauss (1967) first mentioned theoretical sampling and described a process of generating theory from data that includes data collection, coding, and analysis.1 The researcher then makes a conscious decision about what additional details he or she believes should be explored as the new theory develops. It usually takes place after you have identified some initial key concepts or categories; for example, you may decide to interview patients about their experience of heart failure.

They may talk about the systematic errors that occur in the general practice. From this analysis of the data, it can be decided to approach and interview GPs to get their opinion on patient feedback. Theoretical sampling, therefore, is used to obtain more data that support or refute the categories that have been identified in the previous analysis.

Theoretical sensitivity

It refers to the vision of the researcher. It refers to the researcher being able to give meaning to the data, to understand what the data says and to separate what is relevant from what is not. By being theoretically sensitive and using insight, the researcher can develop a grounded, theoretically dense and cohesive theory. Sensitivity comes from several sources, including (1) literature – in-depth reading offers a rich understanding of the phenomena being studied; (2) professional and personal experience – offers an understanding of the events and topics being explored; (3) the analytical process – allows insight and understanding of phenomena.

Data Analysis

In Grounded Theory, data collection and analysis are interactive. From the moment data collection begins, grounded theorists are engaged in data analysis, leading to new data collection, subsequent data analysis, and so on.

This strategy of focusing on small units of data, and their interpretation, fosters the development of a theoretical sensitivity to new ideas regarding data, and helps avoid forcing data into existing categories. Strauss (1987) argues that when a complete set of categories has been identified, an axial encoding must be undertaken, whereby the data is reassembled in new ways making connections between the numerous categories. Next, a selective coding stage is carried out in which the researcher tries to systematically identify the categories that are closely related to the main category. The central category lies at the heart of emerging theory and is fundamental to its integration.


Samples are taken from theoretically relevant events, activities, and populations, and comparisons between them aim to increase conceptual density and integration of emerging theory. Thinking effectively about data in theoretical terms requires an adequate degree of theoretical sensitivity. When further data collection and analysis no longer contributes to the understanding of a concept or category, a theoretical saturation point is reached. At this point, we stop collecting data with respect to one category and move on to consider another category or concept.

Drafting of the Memos

Although memos drafting can occur at any stage of the research process, it usually takes place between the coding of the data and the drafting of the initial draft of the research report. Memos are written to identify, develop, and follow theoretical ideas. When relevant, they are recorded, remembered and reworked to produce new theoretical memos. Memo writing becomes more systematic, focused, and intense as a theory of greater density and coherence is produced.

Memos written in relation to data codes and theoretical ideas allow the researcher to identify gaps that require the collection of more data. To do this, a theoretical sampling is carried out. With theoretical sampling – in contrast to traditional representative sampling – decisions regarding the data to be collected, encoded, analysed and interpreted are driven by the emerging Grounded Theory.

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You might also be interested in: Narrative Research

Bibliographic References

Glaser BG, Strauss AL. The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1967.Google Scholar

Strauss A, Corbin J. Grounded theory methodology: an overview. In: Denzin NK, Lincoln YS, eds. Handbook of qualitative research. London: Sage Publications, 1994:1–18.Google Scholar

Charmaz K. “Grounded theory”. In: Smith J, et al. Eds. Rethinking methods in psychology. London: Sage, 1995:27–49.Google Scholar

Dey I. Grounding Grounded Theory Guidelines for Qualitative Inquiry, San Diego: Academic Press, 1990.Google Scholar

Grounded Theory

Grounded Theory. Photo: Unsplash. Credits: Clay Banks

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