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GROUNDED THEORY

Human experience is endlessly interesting because it is endlessly unique. On the other hand, we also know that human experience is patterned. Discovering pattern in human experience requires close, inductive examination of unique cases plus the application of deductive reasoning. Grounded-theory is a set of systematic techniques for doing this. The method was developed by two sociologists, Barney Glaser and Anslem Strauss, in a seminal book titled The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research (1967). As the title implies, the aim is to discover theories—causal explanations— grounded in empirical data, about how things work.

The original method of grounded theory was in the positivist tradition of social science. Glaser (2002) remained committed to the original, mostly inductive approach, while Strauss—first in 1987 on his own and then with Julie Corbin (Corbin and Strauss 2008; Strauss and Corbin 1998)—allowed for more use of deduction. And, in an influential series of books and articles, Kathy Charmaz (1995, 2000, 2002) has developed an alternative method, called constructivist grounded theory. This brand of the method—in which informants and researchers create data together, interactively, during an interview—is in the interpretivist tradition of the social science.

Whichever tradition you favor, there are three steps in grounded theory: Coding the texts for themes; linking themes into theoretical models; and displaying and validating the models (box 19.2).

BOX 19.2

THEORETICAL SAMPLING

For a true grounded-theory study, begin coding with the first interview and use theoretical sampling to select informants. That is, select cases for study as concepts emerge (Glaser and Strauss 1967:45-77; Strauss and Corbin 1998:20512). This method of sampling is well known to ethnographers. In grounded theory, coding, sampling, and theory building are all done together and you stay focused on one topic. A lot of research today that flies under the banner of grounded theory is actually the application of the method after a set of texts has been collected and does not involve theoretical sampling.

 
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