Grounded Theory Research: Procedures, Canons, and Evaluative Criteria

Posted: June 1, 2010 in Uncategorized
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The next work is by Juliet Corbin and Anselm Strauss. Grounded Theory is a type of research methodology for qualitative research. In this article, they discuss the theory and what it has in common with other types of qualitative research. I’m looking at this because it was suggested that it may have some impact on the way I research.

To start with, Corbin and Strauss say that “Grounded theorists share a conviction with many other qualitative researchers that the usual canons of ‘good science’ should be retained, but require redefinition in order to fit the realities of qualitative research and the complexities of social phenomena,” (4). This places Grounded Theory among some of the other theories, suggesting that the canons of science need to be reevaluated. I’m always in favor of this sort of thing. I have an inherent distrust for canons (even, or especially, the canons of rhetoric).

To find how to do such a thing, Corbin and Strauss turn to the origins of Grounded Theory, saying that it takes two principles from Pragmatism and Symbolic Interactionism: “The first principle pertains to change. Since phenomena are not conceived of as static but as continually changing in response to evolving conditions, an important component of the method is to build change, through process, into the
method. The second principle pertains to a clear stand on the issue of ‘determinism.’ Strict determinism is rejected, as is nondeterminism. Actors are seen as having, though not always utilizing, the means of controlling their destinies by their responses  to conditions. They are able to make choices according to their perceptions, which are often accurate, about the options they encounter” (5).

Let me unpack that a bit. Grounded Theory needs to include change into the method; it needs to understand and accept the idea of process. Secondly, it needs to have a view on determinism that is not ‘strict’; namely, that people make choices based on their perceptions. While they can control what happens by their responses, they do not always do so. That, I think, pretty well restates what they said.

Since Grounded Theory is trying to influence canons, Corbin and Strauss turn to what the canons and procedures of this research method must be. They say that “Data Collection and Analysis are Interrelated Processes” and that “The carrying out of procedures of data collection and analysis systematically and sequentially enables the research process to capture all potentially relevant aspects of the topic as soon as they are perceived. This process is a major source of the effectiveness of the grounded theory approach” (6). So what makes Grounded Theory effective is that it is systematic and sequential. That appeals to me, though I have my doubts as to whether or not any research theory could capture all potentially relevant aspects of a topic as they are perceived.

There are eleven principles all told:

  1. Data Collection and Analysis are Interrelated Processes
  2. Concepts Are the Basic Units o f Analysis
  3. Categories Must Be Developed and Related
  4. Sampling in Grounded Theory Proceeds on Theoretical Grounds
  5. Analysis Makes Use o f Constant Comparisons
  6. Patterns and Variations Must Be Accounted For
  7. Process Must Be Built Into the Theory
  8. Writing Theoretical Memos Is an Integral Part o f Doing Grounded
  9. Hypotheses About Relationships among Categories Should Be Developed and Verified as Much as Possible during the Research Process
  10. A Grounded Theorist Need Not Work Alone
  11. Broader Structural Conditions Must Be Analyzed, However Microscopic the Research


For the most part, these seem pretty self explanatory to me. There are explanations, like this one for the fourth principle: “It is by theoretical sampling that representativeness and consistency are achieved. In grounded theory, representativeness of concepts, not of persons, is crucial” (9). This seems like it’s suggesting that I sample many theories; that’s not what Corbin and Strauss meant, but it’s good advice.

They move from the principles of the canon to coding, which they say “is the fundamental analytic process used by the researcher. In Grounded theory research, there are three basic types o f coding: open, axial,
and selective” (12). So coding is important. And there are three types: “Open coding is the interpretive process by which data are broken down analytically. Its purpose is to give the analyst new insights by breaking through standard ways of thinking about or interpreting phenomena reflected in the data” (12), “In axial coding, categories are related to their sub-categories, and the relationships tested against data” (13) and “Selective coding is the process by which all categories are unified around a “core” category, and categories that need further explication are filled-in with descriptive detail. This type of coding is likely to occur in the later phases of a study”(14). Let’s go through those. Open coding is just a way to break the data down analytically. Makes sense; you can learn a lot just analyzing rare data. Axial coding involves relationships of categories and sub-categories. Also makes sense: once you’ve gotten what you can out of the raw data, it’s good to try to categorize things (like the way Aristotle treated everything) so that you can understand it better. And, of course, Selective coding puts all of that together, unifying the categories and finding where more research is needed. So not only are there these three coding methods, but they should probably be performed in that order. Cool.

Basically, what Corbin and Strauss are here suggesting is a bit of transparency with regards to research methods. That is, “researchers using grounded theory procedures should discuss their procedural operations, even if briefly” (20) so that people know how to judge the research. If the procedural operations are presented up front, readers can understand how the research was performed, and can take it for its own value without either imposing standards that don’t fit or wondering about the efficacy of the methods used. It would make everyone pay more attention to the way research is done (both how they do it themselves and how others do it), and would make it easier  “to identify and convey the limitations of their studies” (20).

So basically, Grounded Research is about being up front and open about HOW the research is done, in order to better identify the limits of that research, so that either those limits can be explored in later works, or so that they research can be taken with the appropriate grain of salt given said limit.

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