Grounded theory
Grounded theory is a systematic methodology in the social sciences
Social sciences
Social science is the field of study concerned with society. "Social science" is commonly used as an umbrella term to refer to a plurality of fields outside of the natural sciences usually exclusive of the administrative or managerial sciences...

 involving the generation of theory from data. It is mainly used in qualitative research
Qualitative research
Qualitative research is a method of inquiry employed in many different academic disciplines, traditionally in the social sciences, but also in market research and further contexts. Qualitative researchers aim to gather an in-depth understanding of human behavior and the reasons that govern such...

, but is also applicable to quantitative data.

Grounded theory is a research method, which operates almost in a reverse fashion from traditional research and at first may appear to be in contradiction to the scientific method
Scientific method
Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of...

. Rather than beginning with a hypothesis, the first step is data collection, through a variety of methods. From the data collected, the key points are marked with a series of codes, which are extracted from the text. The codes are grouped into similar concepts in order to make them more workable. From these concepts, categories are formed, which are the basis for the creation of a theory, or a reverse engineered hypothesis
A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a phenomenon. The term derives from the Greek, ὑποτιθέναι – hypotithenai meaning "to put under" or "to suppose". For a hypothesis to be put forward as a scientific hypothesis, the scientific method requires that one can test it...

. This contradicts the traditional model of research, where the researcher chooses a theoretical framework, and only then applies this model to the phenomenon to be studied.

Four stages of analysis

Stage Purpose
Codes Identifying anchors that allow the key points of the data to be gathered
Concepts Collections of codes of similar content that allows the data to be grouped
Categories Broad groups of similar concepts that are used to generate a theory
Theory A collection of explanations that explain the subject of the research


Grounded theory was developed by two sociologists, Barney Glaser
Barney Glaser
Barney G. Glaser is an American sociologist and one of the founders of the grounded theory methodology.Glaser was born in San Francisco, California, and lives in Mill Valley. He received his BA degree at Stanford in 1952. He pursued academic studies at the University of Paris where he studied...

 and Anselm Strauss
Anselm Strauss
Anselm Leonard Strauss was an American sociologist internationally known as a medical sociologist and as the developer of grounded theory, an innovative method of qualitative analysis widely used in sociology, nursing, education, social work, and...

. Their collaboration in research on dying hospital patients led them to write the book Awareness of Dying
Awareness of Dying
Awareness of Dying is a 1965 book by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss.The book was also the first application of grounded theory...

. In this research they developed the constant comparative method, later known as Grounded Theory.

Split in methodology

Since their original publication in 1967, Glaser and Strauss have disagreed on how to conduct grounded theory, resulting in a split in the theory between Straussian and Glaserian paradigms. This split occurred most obviously after Strauss published Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists (1987). Thereafter Strauss, together with Juliet Corbin, published Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques in 1990. This was followed by a rebuke by Glaser (1992) who set out, chapter by chapter, to highlight the differences in what he argued was original grounded theory and why, according to Glaser, what Strauss and Corbin had written was not grounded theory in its "intended form". This divergence in methodology is a subject of much academic debate, which Glaser (1998) calls a "rhetorical wrestle".

According to Kelle (2005), "the controversy between Glaser and Strauss boils down to the question of whether the researcher uses a well defined 'coding paradigm' and always looks systematically for 'causal conditions,' 'phenomena/context, intervening conditions, action strategies' and 'consequences' in the data, or whether theoretical codes are employed as they emerge in the same way as substantive codes emerge, but drawing on a huge fund of 'coding families.' Both strategies have their pros and cons. Novices who wish to get clear advice on how to structure data material may be satisfied with the use of the coding paradigm. Since the paradigm consists of theoretical terms which carry only limited empirical content the risk is not very high that data are forced by its application. However, it must not be forgotten that it is linked to a certain micro-sociological
Microsociology is one of the main branches of sociology, concerning the nature of everyday human social interactions and agency on a small scale. Microsociology is based on interpretative analysis rather than statistical or empirical observation, and shares close association with the philosophy of...

 perspective. Many researchers may concur with that approach especially since qualitative research always had a relation to micro-sociological action theory
Action theory (sociology)
In sociology, action theory refers to the theory of social action presented by the American theorist Talcott Parsons.Parsons established action theory in order to integrate the study of social order with the structural and voluntaristic aspects of macro and micro factors...

, but others who want to employ a macro-sociological
Macrosociology is an approach to the discipline which emphasizes the analysis of social systems and populations on a large scale, at the level of social structure, and often at a necessarily high level of theoretical abstraction. Microsociology, by contrast, focuses on the individual social agency...

 and system theory perspective may feel that the use of the coding paradigm would lead them astray."

Glaser's approach

The first book, The Discovery of Grounded Theory, published in 1967, was "developed in close and equal collaboration" by Glaser and Strauss. Glaser wrote a methodology "Theoretical Sensitivity" in 1978 and has since written five more books on the method and edited five readers with a collection of grounded theory articles and dissertations.

The Glaserian strategy is not a qualitative research method, but claims the dictum "all is data". This means that not only interview or observational data but also surveys or statistical analyses or "whatever comes the researcher's way while studying a substantive area" (Glaser quote) can be used in the comparative process as well as literature data from science or media or even fiction. Thus the method according to Glaser is not limited to the realm of qualitative research, which he calls "QDA" (Qualitative Data Analysis). QDA is devoted to descriptive accuracy while the Glaserian method emphasizes conceptualization abstract of time, place and people. A grounded theory concept should be easy to use outside of the substantive area where it was generated.

Goals of grounded theory

Grounded theory is a systematic generation of theory from data that contains both inductive and deductive thinking. One goal is to formulate hypotheses based on conceptual ideas. Others may try to verify the hypotheses that are generated by constantly comparing conceptualized data on different levels of abstraction, and these comparisons contain deductive steps. Another goal of a grounded theory study is to discover the participants’ main concern and how they continually try to resolve it. The questions the researcher repeatedly asks in grounded theory are "What’s going on?" and "What is the main problem of the participants and how are they trying to solve it?" These questions will be answered by the core variable and its subcores and properties in due course.

Grounded theory does not aim for the "truth" but to conceptualize what's going on by using empirical data. In a way grounded theory resembles what many researchers do when retrospectively formulating new hypotheses to fit data. However, in grounded theory the researcher does not formulate the hypotheses in advance since preformed hypotheses are prohibited.

If the researcher's goal is accurate description, then another method should be chosen since grounded theory is not a descriptive method. Instead it has the goal of generating concepts that explain people’s actions regardless of time and place. The descriptive parts of grounded theory are there mainly to illustrate the concepts.

In most behavioral research endeavors persons or patients are units of analysis, whereas in GT the unit of analysis is the incident. There are typically at least several hundred incidents analyzed in a grounded theory study since usually every participant reports many incidents.

When comparing many incidents in a certain area, the emerging concepts and their relationships are in reality probability statements. Consequently, GT is not a qualitative method but a general method that can use any kind of data even if qualitative at the moment are most popular (Glaser, 2001, 2003). However, although working with probabilities, most GT studies are considered as qualitative since statistical methods are not used, and figures not presented.
The results of GT are not a reporting of statistically significant probabilities but a set of probability statements about the relationship between concepts, or an integrated set of conceptual hypotheses developed from empirical data (Glaser 1998). Validity in its traditional sense is consequently not an issue in GT, which instead should be judged by fit, relevance, workability, and modifiability (Glaser & Strauss 1967, Glaser 1978, Glaser 1998).

Fit has to do with how closely concepts fit with the incidents they are representing, and this is related to how thoroughly the constant comparison of incidents to concepts was done.

Relevance. A relevant study deals with the real concern of participants, evokes "grab" (captures the attention) and is not only of academic interest.

Workability. The theory works when it explains how the problem is being solved with much variation.

Modifiability. A modifiable theory can be altered when new relevant data is compared to existing data.
A GT is never right or wrong, it just has more or less fit, relevance, workability and modifiability.

GT nomenclature

A concept is the overall element and includes the categories which are conceptual elements standing by themselves, and properties of categories, which are conceptual aspects of categories (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The core variable explains most of the participants’ main concern with as much variation as possible. It has the most powerful properties to picture what’s going on, but with as few properties as possible needed to do so. A popular type of core variable can be theoretically modeled as a basic social process that accounts for most of the variation in change over time, context, and behavior in the studied area.
"GT is multivariate. It happens sequentially, subsequently, simultaneously, serendipitously, and scheduled" (Glaser, 1998).

All is data is a fundamental property of GT which means that everything that gets in the researcher’s way when studying a certain area is data. Not only interviews or observations but anything is data that helps the researcher generating concepts for the emerging theory. Field notes can come from informal interviews, lectures, seminars, expert group meetings, newspaper articles, Internet mail lists, even television shows, conversations with friends etc.
It is even possible, and sometimes a good idea, for a researcher with much knowledge in the studied area to interview herself, treating that interview like any other data, coding and comparing it to other data and generating concepts from it. This may sound silly since you don’t have to interview yourself to know what you know, but you don’t know it on the conceptual level! And GT deals with conceptual level data.

Open coding or substantive coding is conceptualizing on the first level of abstraction. Written data from field notes or transcripts are conceptualized line by line. In the beginning of a study everything is coded in order to find out about the problem and how it is being resolved. The coding is often done in the margin of the field notes.
This phase is often tedious since you are conceptualizing all incidents in the data, which yields many concepts. These are compared as you code more data, and merged into new concepts, and eventually renamed and modified.
The GT researcher goes back and forth while comparing data, constantly modifying, and sharpening the growing theory at the same time as she follows the build-up schedule of GT’s different steps.

Strauss and Corbin (1990, 1998) also proposed the axial coding
Axial coding
Axial coding is the disaggregation of core themes during qualitative data analysis. Axial coding in Grounded Theory is the process of relating codes to each other, via a combination of inductive and deductive thinking...

and defined it in 1990 as "a set of procedures whereby data are put back together in new ways after open coding, by making connections between categories." They proposed a "coding paradigm" (also discussed, among others, by Kelle, 2005) that involved "conditions, context, action/ interactional strategies and consequences.” (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, p. 96)

Selective coding is done after having found the core variable or what is thought to be the core, the tentative core. The core explains the behavior of the participants in resolving their main concern. The tentative core is never wrong. It just more or less fits with the data.
After you have chosen your core variable you selectively code data with the core guiding your coding, not bothering about concepts with little importance to the core and its subcores. Also, you now selectively sample new data with the core in mind, which is called theoretical sampling – a deductive part of GT.
Selective coding delimits the study, which makes it move fast. This is indeed encouraged while doing GT (Glaser, 1998) since GT is not concerned with data accuracy as in descriptive research but is about generating concepts that are abstract of time, place and people.
Selective coding could be done by going over old field notes or memos which are already coded once at an earlier stage or by coding newly gathered data.

Theoretical codes integrate the theory by weaving the fractured concepts into hypotheses that work together in a theory explaining the main concern of the participants. Theoretical coding means that the researcher applies a theoretical model to the data. It is important that this model is not forced beforehand but has emerged during the comparative process of GT. So the theoretical codes just as substantives codes should emerge from the process of constantly comparing the data in field notes and memos.


Theoretical memoing is "the core stage of grounded theory methodology" (Glaser 1998).
"Memos are the theorizing write-up of ideas about substantive codes and their theoretically coded relationships as they emerge during coding, collecting and analyzing data, and during memoing" (Glaser 1998).

Memoing is also important in the early phase of a GT study such as open coding. The researcher is then conceptualizing incidents, and memoing helps this process. Theoretical memos can be anything written or drawn in the constant comparison that makes up a GT.
Memos are important tools to both refine and keep track of ideas that develop when you compare incidents to incidents and then concepts to concepts in the evolving theory. In memos you develop ideas about naming concepts and relating them to each other. In memos you try the relationships between concepts in two-by-two tables, in diagrams or figures or whatever makes the ideas flow, and generates comparative power.
Without memoing the theory is superficial and the concepts generated not very original. Memoing works as an accumulation of written ideas into a bank of ideas about concepts and how they relate to each other. This bank contains rich parts of what will later be the written theory.
Memoing is total creative freedom without rules of writing, grammar or style (Glaser 1998). The writing must be an instrument for outflow of ideas, and nothing else. When you write memos the ideas become more realistic, being converted from thoughts in your mind to words, and thus ideas communicable to the afterworld.
In GT the preconscious processing that occurs when coding and comparing is recognized. The researcher is encouraged to register ideas about the ongoing study that eventually pop up in everyday situations, and awareness of the serendipity
Serendipity means a "happy accident" or "pleasant surprise"; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful without looking for it. The word has been voted as one of the ten English words hardest to translate in June 2004 by a British translation company. However, due to its...

 of the method is also necessary to achieve good results.


In the next step memos are sorted, which is the key to formulate the theory for presentation to others. Sorting puts fractured data back together. During sorting lots of new ideas emerge, which in turn are recorded in new memos giving the memo-on-memos phenomenon.
Sorting memos generates theory that explains the main action in the studied area. A theory written from unsorted memos may be rich in ideas but the connection between concepts is weak.


Writing up the sorted memo piles follows after sorting, and at this stage the theory is close to the written GT product. The different categories are now related to each other and the core variable. The theoretical density should be dosed so concepts are mixed with description in words, tables, or figures to optimize readability.
In the later rewriting the relevant literature is woven in to put the theory in a scholarly context. Finally, the GT is edited for style and language and eventually submitted for publication.

No pre-research literature review, no taping and no talk

GT according to Glaser gives the researcher freedom to generate new concepts explaining human behavior. This freedom is optimal when the researcher refrains from taping interviews, doing a pre research literature review, and talking about the research before it is written up.
These rules makes GT different from most other methods using qualitative data.

No pre-research literature review. Studying the literature of the area under study gives preconceptions about what to find and the researcher gets desensitized by borrowed concepts. Instead, grounded theories in other areas, and GT method books increase theoretical sensitivity. The literature should instead be read in the sorting stage being treated as more data to code and compare with what has already been coded and generated.

No taping. Taping and transcribing interviews is common in qualitative research, but is counterproductive and a waste of time in GT which moves fast when the researcher delimits his data by field-noting interviews and soon after generates concepts that fit with data, are relevant and work in explaining what participants are doing to resolve their main concern.

No talk. Talking about the theory before it is written up drains the researcher of motivational energy. Talking can either render praise or criticism, and both diminish the motivational drive to write memos that develop and refine the concepts and the theory (Glaser 1998). Positive feedback makes you content with what you've got and negative feedback hampers your self-confidence. Talking about the GT should be restricted to persons capable of helping the researcher without influencing his final judgments.

The Grounded Theory Institute

Glaser founded the Grounded Theory Institute in 1999 as a non-profit web-based organization (, which describes itself on its webpage as "dedicated to the evolving methodology of Dr.Barney G. Glaser, Ph.D.". The Institute provides an online forum for the discussion of grounded theory, and publishes the journal, "The Grounded Theory Review." The Institute also includes the Sociology Press, which Dr. Glaser founded in 1970.

Strauss' approach

Generally speaking, grounded theory is an approach for looking systematically at (mostly) qualitative data (like transcripts of interviews or protocols of observations) aiming at the generation of theory
The English word theory was derived from a technical term in Ancient Greek philosophy. The word theoria, , meant "a looking at, viewing, beholding", and referring to contemplation or speculation, as opposed to action...

. Sometimes, grounded theory is seen as a qualitative method, but grounded theory reaches farther: it combines a specific style of research (or a paradigm) with pragmatic
Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition centered on the linking of practice and theory. It describes a process where theory is extracted from practice, and applied back to practice to form what is called intelligent practice...

 theory of action and with some methodological guidelines.

This approach was written down and systematized in the 1960s by Anselm Strauss (himself a student of Herbert Blumer
Herbert Blumer
Herbert George Blumer was an American sociologist. Continuing the work of George Herbert Mead, he named and developed the topic of symbolic interactionism. According to Blumer himself, his main post-graduate scholarly interests were symbolic interactionism and methodological problems...

) and Barney Glaser (a student of Paul Lazarsfeld
Paul Lazarsfeld
Paul Felix Lazarsfeld was one of the major figures in 20th-century American sociology. The founder of Columbia University's Bureau of Applied Social Research, he exerted a tremendous influence over the techniques and the organization of social research...

), while working together in studying the sociology of illness at the University of California, San Francisco
University of California, San Francisco
The University of California, San Francisco is one of the world's leading centers of health sciences research, patient care, and education. UCSF's medical, pharmacy, dentistry, nursing, and graduate schools are among the top health science professional schools in the world...

. For and with their studies, they developed a methodology, which was then made explicit and became the foundation stone for an important branch of qualitative sociology.

Important concepts of grounded theory are categories, codes and codings. The research principle behind grounded theory is neither inductive
Inductive reasoning
Inductive reasoning, also known as induction or inductive logic, is a kind of reasoning that constructs or evaluates propositions that are abstractions of observations. It is commonly construed as a form of reasoning that makes generalizations based on individual instances...

 nor deductive
Deductive reasoning
Deductive reasoning, also called deductive logic, is reasoning which constructs or evaluates deductive arguments. Deductive arguments are attempts to show that a conclusion necessarily follows from a set of premises or hypothesis...

, but combines both in a way of abductive reasoning
Abductive reasoning
Abduction is a kind of logical inference described by Charles Sanders Peirce as "guessing". The term refers to the process of arriving at an explanatory hypothesis. Peirce said that to abduce a hypothetical explanation a from an observed surprising circumstance b is to surmise that a may be true...

 (coming from the works of Charles Sanders Peirce). This leads to a research practice where data sampling, data analysis and theory development are not seen as distinct and disjunct, but as different steps to be repeated until one can describe and explain the phenomenon that is to be researched. This stopping point is reached when new data does not change the emerging theory anymore.

In an interview that was conducted shortly before Strauss' death (1994), he named three basic elements every grounded theory approach should include (Legewie/Schervier-Legewie (2004)). These three elements are:
  • Theoretical sensitive coding, that is, generating theoretical strong concepts from the data to explain the phenomenon researched;
  • theoretical sampling, that is, deciding whom to interview or what to observe next according to the state of theory generation, and that implies starting data analysis with the first interview, and writing down memos and hypotheses early;
  • the need to compare between phenomena and contexts to make the theory strong.


Grounded theory according to Glaser emphasizes induction
Inductive reasoning
Inductive reasoning, also known as induction or inductive logic, is a kind of reasoning that constructs or evaluates propositions that are abstractions of observations. It is commonly construed as a form of reasoning that makes generalizations based on individual instances...

 or emergence, and the individual researcher's creativity within a clear frame of stages, while Strauss is more interested in validation criteria and a systematic approach.


Critiques of grounded theory have focused on its status as theory (is what is produced really 'theory'?), on the notion of 'ground' (why is an idea of 'grounding' one's findings important in qualitative inquiry—what are they 'grounded' in?) and on the claim to use and develop inductive knowledge. These criticisms are summed up by Thomas and James. These authors also suggest that it is impossible to free oneself of preconceptions in the collection and analysis of data in the way that Glaser and Strauss say is necessary. They also point to the formulaic nature of grounded theory and the lack of congruence of this with open and creative interpretation - which ought to be the hallmark of qualitative inquiry. They suggest that the one element of grounded theory worth keeping is constant comparative method.

Grounded theory was developed in a period when other qualitative methods were often considered unscientific. Of all qualitative methods it achieved the widest acceptance of its academic rigor. Thus, especially in American academia, qualitative research is often equated to grounded theory. This equation is sometimes criticized by qualitative researchers using other methodologies (for example, traditional ethnography
Ethnography is a qualitative method aimed to learn and understand cultural phenomena which reflect the knowledge and system of meanings guiding the life of a cultural group...

, narratology
Narratology denotes both the theory and the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect our perception. While in principle the word may refer to any systematic study of narrative, in practice its usage is rather more restricted. It is an anglicisation of French...

, and storytelling
Storytelling is the conveying of events in words, images and sounds, often by improvisation or embellishment. Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation and in order to instill moral values...


See also

  • Antipositivism
    Antipositivism is the view in social science that the social realm may not be subject to the same methods of investigation as the natural world; that academics must reject empiricism and the scientific method in the conduct of research...

  • Grounded Practical Theory
  • Phronetic social science
    Phronetic social science
    Phronetic social science is an approach to the study of social – including political and economic – phenomena based on a contemporary interpretation of the Aristotelian concept phronesis, variously translated as practical judgment, common sense, or prudence. Phronesis is the intellectual virtue...

  • Positivism
    Positivism is a a view of scientific methods and a philosophical approach, theory, or system based on the view that, in the social as well as natural sciences, sensory experiences and their logical and mathematical treatment are together the exclusive source of all worthwhile information....

  • Social research
    Social research
    Social research refers to research conducted by social scientists. Social research methods may be divided into two broad categories:* Quantitative designs approach social phenomena through quantifiable evidence, and often rely on statistical analysis of many cases to create valid and reliable...

  • Social science
  • Sociology
    Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...

External links

Further reading

  • Strauss, A. (1987). Qualitative analysis for social scientists. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  • Glaser, B. (1992). Basics of grounded theory analysis. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press.
  • Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide Through Qualitative Analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Clarke, A. (2005). Situational Analysis: Grounded Theory After the Postmodern Turn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Kelle, Udo (2005). "Emergence" vs. "Forcing" of Empirical Data? A Crucial Problem of "Grounded Theory" Reconsidered. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research [On-line Journal], 6(2), Art. 27, paragraphs 49 & 50.
  • Mey, G. & Mruck, K. (Eds.) (2007). Grounded Theory Reader (HSR-Supplement 19). Cologne: ZHSF. 337 pages
  • Thomas, G. & James, D. (2006). Re-inventing grounded theory: some questions about theory, ground and discovery. British Educational Research Journal, 32 (6), 767–795.
  • Goulding, C. (2002). Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide for Management, Business and Market Researchers. London: Sage.
  • Stebbins, Robert A. (2001) Exploratory Research in the Social Sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.



  • Anselm L. Strauss; Leonard Schatzman; Rue Bucher; Danuta Ehrlich & Melvin Sabshin: Psychiatric ideologies and institutions (1964)
  • Barney G. Glaser; Anselm L. Strauss: The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Strategies for Qualitative Research (1967)
  • Anselm L. Strauss: Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists (1987)
  • Anselm L. Strauss; Juliet Corbin: Basics of Qualitative Research (1990)
  • Anselm L. Strauss; Juliet Corbin: "Grounded Theory Research: Procedures, Canons and Evaluative Criteria", in: Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 19. Jg, S. 418 ff. (1990)
  • Anselm L. Strauss: Continual Permutations of Action (1993)
  • Anselm L. Strauss; Juliet Corbin: "Grounded Theory in Practice" (1997)
  • Legewie, Heiner & Schervier-Legewie, Barbara (September 2004). "Forschung ist harte Arbeit, es ist immer ein Stück Leiden damit verbunden. Deshalb muss es auf der anderen Seite Spaß machen". Anselm Strauss interviewed by Heiner Legewie and Barbara Schervier-Legewie. Forum: Qualitative Social Research On-line Journal, 5(3), Art. 22. Interview as MP3 audio (english) / edited German translation of interview. Accessed on May 20, 2005.
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