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Grounded Theory Methodology

Summary and Keywords

Grounded theory methodology is one of the most widely used approaches to collect and analyze data within qualitative research. It can be characterized as a framework for study design, data collection, and analysis, which aims at the development of middle-range theories. The final result of such a study is called a “grounded theory,” and it consists of categories that are related to each other.

Health and risk message design researchers working with grounded theory methodology are explicitly invited to use any kind of data they consider suitable for a particular project. Grounded theory methodology studies were originally based on intense fieldwork data, but in the meantime, interviews have become the most widely used type of data. In addition, there is a growing interest in using visual data such as pictures or film. Grounded theory methodology originated from sociology, but has since been applied in many different disciplines. This widened application went along with modifications, new developments, and innovations, and led to several current variants of grounded theory methodology.

Basic features of grounded theory methodology include theoretical sampling, specific coding procedures with a comparative approach to analysis, and memo writing. The strategy of theoretical sampling requires that theoretical insights gained from the analysis of initially collected data guide subsequent data collection. Hence, during the research process data collection and analysis alternate and interact. For data analysis, different ways of coding enable the researcher to develop increasingly abstract conceptual ideas and reflections, first embodied in codes, later in categories. This analytical process allows for a step-by-step development of categories that are grounded in data. Category development entails comparisons at all stages, for example, of different cases during sampling, of different data pieces, and of different codes and categories during analysis. As a result, grounded theory methodology is also known as the constant comparative method. Throughout the research process the researcher writes memos and keeps track of the development of conceptual ideas, methodological reflections, and practical to-dos. Today, many researchers use software specifically developed to assist the process of qualitative data analysis.

Keywords: grounded theory methodology, qualitative research, qualitative data analysis, coding, category development, theoretical sampling, theory development, health and risk message design and processing

The Development of Grounded Theory Methodology

Grounded theory methodology (GTM) is one of the most prominent approaches for collecting and analyzing data within qualitative research committed to the development of theory grounded in data (Titscher, Meyer, Wodak, & Vetter, 2000). In the past 50 years the methodology’s scope of application has been continuously broadened. Today, GTM is frequently used in different social science disciplines and fields of study, such as sociological, psychological, educational, anthropological, and health research. Communication research is no exception here (Lindlof & Taylor, 2011, p. 250).

GTM offers suggestions of how to design a study, in particular how to frame and systematize the entire process of collecting and analyzing data in order to develop a data-based theory. It contains a set of steps that facilitate the generation of insightful and theoretically complex perspectives. At the same time, these steps are designed to maintain specificity and a close connection to the underlying data as well as the actions, interactions, and social processes to which they relate. This is achieved by intense work with empirical data, by avoiding description, and striving for conceptualization. Methodologically speaking, grounded theorists develop middle-range theories for very concrete fields of research and practice. Such theories need to be grounded in data and are therefore referred to as “grounded theories” (GT). Different terms can be found in the literature referring to the approach, the concrete single steps it uses, or the results it produces. Usually the terms “grounded theory,” “grounded theory method,” or “grounded theory methodology” are being used, sometimes in an inconsistent manner. This contribution differentiates between “grounded theory methodology” as the theoretical framework encompassing all steps of designing the study and coding the data, and “grounded theory” as a particular or ideal-typical result of a GTM study. In contrast to many publications using the term “grounded theory method,” this contribution employs the term “grounded theory methodology” to refer to the research approach as a whole.

Like other qualitative research methods and methodologies, GTM is not the result of armchair scholarship but of intense research practice. In the early 1960s, the founding fathers Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss conducted sociological fieldwork in U.S. hospitals on ways of dealing with death and dying. The immediate output of their work was a theory on the “Awareness of Dying” (1965). Their theory analyzes the interaction processes between dying patients, their relatives, and the hospital staff and how they communicate about death-related issues. Glaser and Strauss compared interaction in six different hospitals and diverse contexts where the dying process, for example, was fast or slow, death anticipated or not anticipated (e.g., premature infant and oncology station, emergency room). They found out that it is of great importance whether and, if so, to what extent the persons involved are aware of a patient’s impending death. Glaser and Strauss’s theory on “Awareness of Dying” differentiates between four awareness contexts (closed awareness, suspicion awareness, mutual pretense awareness, and open awareness), which structure the interaction between dying patients, their relatives, and the hospital staff. During and after this project, they systematically reflected on their research practice, explicated their approach, and linked it to more general debates on research methodologies. In their methodological book The Discovery of Grounded Theory (1967), Glaser and Strauss put forward ideas to conduct research beyond the dominant hypothetico-deductive model. They open the first chapter of this seminal work with the following paradigmatic remarks:

Most writing on sociological method has been concerned with how accurate facts can be obtained and how theory can thereby be more rigorously tested. In this book we address ourselves to the equally important enterprise of how the discovery of theory from the data—systematically obtained and analyzed in social research—can be furthered. We believe that the discovery of theory from the data—which we call grounded theory—is a major task confronting sociology today, for, as we shall try to show, such a theory fits empirical situations, and is understandable to sociologists and layman alike.

(1967, p. 1)

Glaser and Strauss suggested developing middle-range theories based on empirical data instead of letting existing grand theories predetermine how to view data. They favored empirically substantiated theorizing. Thus, they aimed at narrowing the gap between theory and practice to overcome the disconnection or alienation between academic (sociological) thought and social reality. Glaser and Strauss searched for ways to explicate the steps taken during data collection and analysis to make qualitative research more transparent. Last but not least, they advocated the stand-alone value of qualitative approaches. They argued against reducing it to the status of pre-studies and opposed the use of qualitative data as mere illustrations of descriptive findings. As a consequence, Glaser and Strauss provided a basis for new researchers to feel confident in developing their own theoretical conceptualizations.

Current Variants and Usages of Grounded Theory Methodology

After the big-bang book The Discovery of Grounded Theory and introducing GTM to the research community, Glaser and Strauss went their separate ways. This initially led to the emergence of two different variants of GTM. Later on, additional versions were suggested by other researchers (cf. Bryant & Charmaz, 2010, for a comprehensive overview of theory and practice of GTM, including different attempts of revising and refining the original formulations made by Glaser and Strauss).

The Founding Fathers of Grounded Theory Methodology and Diverging Views

In 1978, Glaser put forward his influential book Theoretical Sensitivity, highlighting a term that was introduced in The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Dozens of other publications on GTM followed. He also founded the Grounded Theory Institute1 to further the dissemination of what he claims is the “classic” version of GTM. In his opinion, other variants of GTM depart from certain indispensable characteristics, thus “remodeling” GTM to be just another approach of qualitative data analysis (Glaser, 2004).

Strauss further developed his take on the approach with more general aspirations in mind. His goals become apparent from the book title Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists (1987). He aimed at establishing qualitative research as a legitimate, sound, and credible approach during a time when it was not yet valued in the social science community. Together with Juliet Corbin he published one of the most influential textbooks on GTM: Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques (Strauss & Corbin, 1990; revised edition published in 1998). After Strauss’s death, Corbin continues his methodological legacy and offers some elaborations and modifications (Corbin & Strauss, 2015).

To cut a long story short, a dispute arose in the early 1990s when Glaser voiced strong criticism of Basics of Qualitative Research: “I request that you pull the book. It distorts and misconceives grounded theory, while engaging in a gross neglect of 90% of its important ideas” (Glaser, 1992, p. 2). Strauss never responded to Glaser’s criticism. In the follow-up of the one-sided dispute, a discussion started to reconstruct the opposing views (cf. Kelle, 2005). The critical differences between the approaches of Glaser and Strauss can be broken down to their epistemological views on the nature of knowledge generation from data, the interaction between researcher and data, and the status of theory (prior knowledge) in data analysis. These differences are partly the result of differing theoretical and methodological roots. Having studied under Herbert Blumer and having worked with Everett C. Hughes, Strauss had a Chicago School background. This was closely linked to pragmatism and symbolic interactionism combined with a focus on sociological fieldwork (cf. Bryant, 2009; Hammersley, 2010). Glaser has a Columbia School background influenced by critical rationalism in conjunction with quantitative opinion research. There he studied under Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton. Different perspectives manifest, for example, in varying ways of conceiving and handling the status and timing of the literature review. Glaser argues for avoiding any literature review before or during the early phases of the research process. In his view, a premature literature review could lead to forcing or data analysis based on preferred pre-concepts that he calls “pet themes” or “pet theoretical codes” (Glaser, 2004, paras. 50, 77). Instead, Glaser suggests consulting literature only at a later stage when the analysis is well advanced. Strauss viewed literature as a valuable source for “sensitizing concepts” (Blumer, 1954) and seemed to be more willing to adhere to institutional requirements where a “delayed” literature review is often not feasible. In consequence, Glaser places strong emphasis on induction, expresses a deep commitment to conceptualization while avoiding description (Glaser, 2001), and puts a lot of trust into the so-called emergence of categories (Glaser, 1992). Strauss’s (and Corbin’s) procedures for coding and category development, on the other hand, suggest using heuristics like the coding paradigm at a relatively early stage of analysis. Due to this, their approach has been criticized for being too rigid and excessively influenced by preconceptions (Glaser, 1992), but others have emphasized that the coding paradigm can be very helpful—under the condition of “an adequate epistemological understanding of the relation between data and theory” (Kelle, 2005, para. 51)—to analyze the data in a systematic manner, especially for novices (cf. Charmaz, 2014a; Strauss, 1987, p. 29).

The Second Generation and the Difference Between Objectivist, Constructivist, and Postmodern Grounded Theory Methodology

Today, the so-called Second Generation of GTM is transforming the field (cf. Morse et al., 2008). These are mostly female researchers who were trained by or worked with Glaser and Strauss. A significant contribution for the further differentiation of GTM was put forth by Kathy Charmaz. Contrasting her approach with Glaser’s “positivist” perspective and an “objectivist” stance of GTM, and working on a well thought-out epistemological background, she offers a “constructivist” GTM (Charmaz, 2014a). Her variant expands the horizons of grounded theorists by asking them to consider and reflect upon their own impact on the research endeavor. So next to trying to shake off a “positivist” view in GTM, it is also Charmaz’s merit to have found a definitive place for reflexivity within GTM.

In the original grounded theory texts, Glaser and Strauss talk about discovering theory as emerging from data separate from the scientific observer. Unlike their position, I assume that neither data nor theories are discovered either as given in the data or the analysis. Rather, we are part of the world we study, the data we collect, and the analyses we produce. We construct our grounded theories through our past and present involvements and interactions with people, perspectives, and research practices.

(Charmaz, 2014a, p. 17, emphasis in original)

In this spirit, researchers working with GTM are invited to be open for new insights and conceive research as a creative process that involves subjectivity and interpretation as well as the adherence to methodological orientations and the application of systematic, technical procedures. Grounded theorists themselves as researchers and human beings play a pivotal role in developing their particular grounded theory. This calls for a reflexive stance (Mruck & Mey, 2010). Nevertheless, GTM seeks to avoid impressionistic, idiosyncratic results and stresses the empirical grounding of all conceptualizations developed during research, including their intersubjective comprehensibility.

In recent years, Adele Clarke moved beyond pragmatist and interactionist traditions and offered a postmodern version of GTM called “situational analysis” (2005). Her approach sparked interest especially because it links GTM with discourse analysis and actor-network theory. Adele Clarke (cf. also Clarke & Keller, 2014) asks that researchers not only reflect upon and explicate the more or less systematic inclusion of expert knowledge, but their own research interests and the context of origin of the respective research project. This includes the discussion of their potential impact on the analytical process and theory development. According to Clarke, the result of a research endeavor consists not only of complex answers to complex questions, but of highlighting multiple social processes and multiple “truths” related to multiple types of knowledge claims.

The Further Differentiation and Pluralization of Grounded Theory Methodology

Different methodological and epistemological positions held by researchers working with GTM played an important part in pushing the innovation of the approach. The different (sub)disciplines and fields of study that made use of the approaches brought up new substantive and theoretical questions and subsequently led to further modifications of GTM. Meanwhile, quite a number of publications exist, which discuss GTM in relation to (sub)disciplines and fields of study, for example, GTM in management research (Locke, 2005), or GTM in psychological research (Henwood & Pidgeon, 2003). One important strand of research that started with the “Awareness of Dying” study (Glaser & Strauss, 1965) deserves special emphasis here. It applies and develops GTM in the wide field of health research, for example, in nursing (Artinian, Giske, & Cone, 2009; Schreiber & Stern, 2001) or studies about managing chronic illness, a field many of the founders and members of the “Second Generation” of GTM are engaged in (e.g., Charmaz, 1990; Ruzek, Olesen, & Clarke, 1997; Strauss & Corbin, 1988).

From a global perspective, GTM has been taken up in many countries around the world. English publications on GTM, mostly from North America and the United Kingdom, or translations thereof are being supplemented by non-English language scholarship, and scholarship by non-native English speakers respectively. In Germany, for example, a reflexive GTM was proposed by Breuer (2010; see also Mruck & Mey, 2010); two Grounded Theory Readers were compiled by Mey and Mruck (2007, 2011); in Poland a visual grounded theory was outlined by Konecki (2011); in Italy Tarozzi, who translated The Discovery of Grounded Theory into Italian, has also compiled a handy book on GTM for the Italian-speaking research community (2008). However, developments also occur on a less obvious level. Differing cultural, historical, political, and social contexts can result in different readings and adaptations of GTM (Charmaz, 2014b; Cisneros-Puebla, 2004, ch. 6).

Today, GTM is highly differentiated and pluralistic. Assuming that a “Third Generation” might soon be (re)shaping GTM as new questions arise and new theoretical perspectives are being adopted, further differentiation and pluralization can be expected. Future GTM variants might be more specifically designed to account for types of data relatively new to social inquiry like big data (Bryant & Raja, 2014), geodata, objects, videos, or studies that experiment with new forms of collaborative research arrangements. Recently, researchers have worked to develop GTM for new kinds of objectives such as approaches to “grounded action” with a focus on intervention strategies (Olson, 2007; Simmons & Gregory, 2003), using different languages when conducting a GTM study (Tarozzi, 2013), or making cross-cultural comparisons with GTM (Brahms & Schreier, in preparation). There are also elaborations with regard to the analysis of specific kinds of data such as data in a narrative form (Ruppel & Mey, 2015) or visual data like pictures, drawings, collages, and films (Konecki, 2011; Mey & Dietrich, 2016).

In spite of GTMs great variability, multitude of versions, and applications, GTM is not an arbitrary label. There are some commonly shared features that will be described in the next section.

Doing Grounded Theory Methodology

The community of grounded theorists neither agrees upon a fixed set of hallmarks that constitute a GTM study nor on criteria that might disqualify a study as such. Strauss (as stated in an interview conducted by Legewie & Schervier-Legewie, 2004, para. 59), for example, considers the essentials of GTM to be coding with an orientation toward theory development, theoretical sampling, and working with comparisons; Mey and Mruck (2009) mention concept/theory development, theoretical sampling, and memo writing as main aspects of GTM; Hood (2010) emphasizes the importance of theoretical sampling, constantly comparing data to categories, and theory development by saturating categories, calling them the “Troublesome Trinity” of GTM. In the following five sections, some features that are considered important by many grounded theorists will be elaborated: Theoretical sampling, a comparative approach to analysis, the openness to consider diverse types of data, specific coding procedures, and memo writing.

Theoretical Sampling

Theoretical sampling is one of GTM’s most well-known essentials—one of its great ideas. Due to relatively small sample sizes (usually well below 100, sometimes even below 10), using statistical methods for sample selection is not a feasible option. Small samples are often indicative of an interest in individuals and groups beyond the “average” (e.g., people with a specific illness; marginalized individuals and groups; or persons with rare experiences, ways of acting, interacting, and communicating). So instead of random selection, purposive sampling is a common way of selecting cases for a study. Theoretical sampling is a special purposive sampling strategy developed within GTM (Glaser & Strauss, 1967, ch. 3). It is an iterative strategy where data collection and analysis alternate. Theoretical conceptualizations are developed on the basis of analyzing previously collected data. These theoretical ideas and the directions they point at function as the selection criteria for searching and adding further data: “The basic question in theoretical sampling […] is: what groups or subgroups does one turn to next in data collection? And for what theoretical purpose?” (Glaser & Strauss, 1967, p. 47). To take up the study on “Awareness of Dying” once more, Glaser and Strauss started their fieldwork at a premature infant station where the expectation of death was generally high and the patients were unaware of the danger of impending death. Next, they continued their fieldwork at an oncology station. Here, the mortality rate was high, the process of dying was comparatively slow, and the awareness of dying differed. In search for variations, Glaser and Strauss continued to look at additional cases, including a geriatrics department, an emergency room, and pediatrics. Each time, the conditions, the awareness, communication, and interactions differed.

Accordingly, theoretical sampling implies that initial data collection starts without fixed a priori theoretical assumptions, foci, and relevancies. Only few data are collected first (e.g., conducting one or two interviews, carrying out observations for a relatively short period of time), then analyzed. The sampling process is bottom-up and data-driven because data analysis provides all further selection criteria and points to missing empirical data for theoretical ideas. The search for minimally and maximally contrasting cases, limiting cases, or cases that might confirm and support but also question, contradict, or reject preliminary theoretical ideas is a common strategy.

Ideally speaking, a GTM study continues data collection and analysis until additional cases cease to meaningfully contribute to variations in the grounded theory under development. At this point, the much-cited theoretical saturation is achieved, and the researcher refrains from selecting and analyzing anymore cases. In practical terms, trying to reach theoretical saturation implies “collecting data until no new information is obtained” (Morse, 1995, p. 147). No definite number can be given of how many cases or rather how much data needs to be collected and analyzed in order to achieve this goal. “The point of saturation is […] a rather difficult point to identify and of course a rather elastic notion. New data (especially if theoretically sampled) will always add something new, but there are diminishing returns” (Mason, 2010, para. 60). In the ideal case, data collection and analysis continue, if theoretical relationships, properties, or dimensions of categories remain unclear. The same applies, if new data display new aspects, raise further questions, or highlight ‘blind spots’ in the emerging grounded theory. Reaching at theoretical saturation is a complex undertaking, not all research projects accomplish, although many studies proclaim to have done so (Morse, 2015).

Comparison at All Points

Developing a grounded theory entails making comparisons at all points, for example, by looking for minimally and maximally contrasting cases as discussed in the previous subsection. Therefore, GTM is often also referred to as the “constant comparative method” (cf. Glaser, 1965).

Many suggestions on how to do comparisons within GTM exist. These suggestions usually relate to ways of comparing data against data, codes against data, codes against codes, and categories against categories. They become relevant when looking for ensuing data during theoretical sampling and during coding. When conducting research, comparisons that are directly or indirectly grounded in data are just one part of the story. Another important part of comparison relates to much more than the data used within a particular research project. It relates to other empirical studies, theoretical insights, personal knowledge and experience, and even the imaginative. In brief: Comparing relates to meaning making during data collection and analysis. It constitutes a fundamental level of interpretation. The reflections on comparative interpretation put forward by Straub (2006, p. 187 et seq.) as part of his elaborations on relational hermeneutics and comparative analysis offer a valuable systematization of the role of comparisons in research and interpretation. He distinguishes between different forms of comparative interpretation through their reference to different horizons of comparison. The horizons of comparison illustrate the diverse opportunities to compare. In doing so, they point out the sources the respective comparisons tap into. The horizons of comparison are typologized as follows (Straub, 2006, p. 190):

  1. 1. Interpreter’s empirical horizons of comparison

  2. 2. Further scientific knowledge as horizons of comparison

  3. 3. Interpreter’s everyday knowledge as horizons of comparison

  4. 4. Imaginative, fictional, utopian horizons of comparison

As such, the systematization provides an extensive framework to locate and reflect upon relations that otherwise would not be taken into account when working with a limited notion of comparisons where only the researcher’s “own” empirical data qualify as legitimate objects of comparison. It is likely that different horizons of comparison become relevant at different points during research and to differing degrees. Some might even be absent in some projects. Nevertheless, their potential needs to be considered and their constitutive part in data collection and analysis needs to be explicated.

Furthermore, the use of horizons of comparison is not limited to the researcher: To think—a part of the conditio humana—is to compare. Hence, the utterances, communication, actions, and, interactions of the persons or groups under study are implicitly or explicitly based on comparisons and may be worth a closer look.

All Is Data?

GTM offers the possibility of including different types of data and to constantly compare them. In tune with Glaser’s dictum that “all is data” (Glaser, 2007), grounded theorists are invited to draw on any kind of data that they consider helpful in answering their research questions. Bearing the horizons of comparison in mind, even data usually not regarded as empirical, like incidents described in a fiction novel or imaginative comparisons based on thought experiments, might become part of the analysis. These remain, however, the exception and many grounded theorists rely on more common types of data like interviews and other verbal data (cf. Charmaz, 2014a, who added two sections on interview/ing because of the widespread use of this type of data). Coding textual data derived from observations (protocols, field notes—as in the classic work done by Glaser and Strauss, 1967; see also example given by Strauss, 1987) and interviews (transcripts) or data that already exists in the form of text (e.g., notes, reports, documents; cf. Prior, 2003, for general considerations on using documents) is well established. In addition to these more prevalent types of data, there is a current trend in qualitative research to include pictures (Konecki, 2011; Mey & Dietrich, 2016) and films or even primarily rely on visual data (Habib & Hinojosa, 2016). To consider these types of data, grounded theorists might have to adapt their analytical procedures in order to account for their specific characteristics. These may include their differing contexts of origin; particular structures and content, such as specific types of hybridity, sequentiality, or simultaneity.

Theory Development—The Coding Procedures

The objective of GTM is to develop a grounded theory that “provides us with relevant predictions, explanations, interpretations and applications” (Glaser & Strauss, 1967, p. 1). Codes form the smallest unit of such a theory. Codes are later integrated into higher-level categories. These categories can have properties and dimensions and might be further differentiated into subcategories. The categories themselves are related to each other to form a theory grounded in data.

An abundance of different coding procedures and strategies have been suggested over the years by different methodologists. When working with GTM, one may encounter labels such as open, initial, axial, selective, or focused coding. To elaborate on each and every one in detail would exceed the scope of this contribution (for an overview of different coding procedures applied in GTM and qualitative research in general, cf. Saldaña, 2009). Consequently, some relevant commonalities regarding the aims and practical application of coding are summarized.

Coding means working on and with the data in order to generate conceptually fruitful ideas with the long-term objective of developing theory. Coding is interpretation work: Conceptual labels, usually referred to as codes, are assigned to data segments that are seen as indicators of concepts. Coding aims at theory development, not description. The general thrust is working on empirically grounded theoretical ideas and terms—making them as abstract as possible but as connected to the underlying data as necessary.

The core idea of starting the coding process—mostly referred to as open coding or initial coding—is a detailed microanalysis of pieces of data. This microanalytic coding can be a word-by-word or line-by-line investigation. The grounded theorist neither tries to paraphrase, nor to give a condensed summary or description of the data. He or she asks which codes can be found in or rather can be assigned to the data. During the coding process, the goal is to produce codes that show potential to theoretically capture aspects of the phenomenon under investigation. This open or initial coding usually is done only on a small part of the data, for example, several paragraphs or pages of an interview transcript. In the course of time, the analysis can be accelerated, moving form a word-by-word or line-by-line-investigation to a paragraph-by-paragraph investigation.

In order to develop conceptually productive ideas during open or initial coding, it can be useful to analyze the data by asking questions like “What is this data a study of?” or “What is actually happening in the data?” (Glaser, 1978, p. 57).

Charmaz, emphasizing the importance of actions and processes, suggests asking the following questions:

  • “What process(es) is at issue here? How can I define it?”

  • “How does this process develop?”

  • “How does the research participant(s) act while involved in this process?”

  • “What does the research participant(s) profess to think and feel while involved in this process? What might his or her observed behavior indicate?”

  • “When, why, and how does the process change?”

  • “What are the consequences of the process?” (Charmaz, 2014a, p. 127).

Open or initial coding helps to break down the data, develop conceptually promising codes, gain new insights into the phenomenon under investigation, and sensitizes for aspects the researcher might not have considered beforehand. It results in a list of different codes. The next task is to combine the codes to develop (preliminary) categories. While doing so, it is advisable to elaborate categories that are relevant for the research project, and search for properties and dimensions of these categories.

However, most analytical work is reserved for higher-level coding procedures, like focused, axial, selective, or theoretical coding. During these higher-level coding procedures, the task is to elaborate preliminary categories by comparing and contrasting them with more data. In this context, it is important to note that open coding and the higher levels of coding are not separate steps. During the work with higher levels of coding, the researcher can always return to open coding when it becomes necessary to break down new data and analyze them in a microanalytic fashion. The main aim of higher-level coding procedures is to systematize the data. Bearing in mind that GTM is a comparative method, it means to constantly compare the results of the coding process. Grounded theorists can draw on different suggestions here: Probably the most prominent is the coding paradigm as proposed by Strauss (1987) and elaborated by Strauss and Corbin (1990). It is based on pragmatist and symbolic interactionist thought and “the general theory of action underlying the coding paradigm carries a broad and general understanding of action which is compatible with a wide variety of sociological theories” (Kelle, 2005, para. 21). Many communication researchers appreciate that this approach shares a pragmatist and symbolic interactionist perspective on human action and interaction relevant for many studies researching communication phenomena (Scott, 2009, p. 450). The coding paradigm with its underlying general model of action helps to carve out the phenomenon and relate subcategories to categories by sorting the data according to causal conditions, context, intervening conditions, action/interaction, and consequences. Another key feature of the coding paradigm is that the results can be sorted by using visualizations, for example, networks or maps. The visualizations can help to clarify connections and hierarchies in the data, for example, ordering in relation to conditions→strategies→consequences. Rounding up the analysis usually requires a final integration of the developed categories (e.g., during selective coding) and textual as well as visual ideas of how to present the grounded theory. Here, some might see the product (grounded theory) and its presentation (e.g., a report, an article, or a book) as independent while others oppose the idea to separate a grounded theory from its presentation, conceiving them as inherently interdependent (Strübing, 2014).

As described above, the major focus of data analysis in GTM lies on coding procedures and category development. The different approaches to GTM suggest different ways of coding. Sometimes, the terms used are identical but the meaning may vary. Glaser’s “classical” GTM uses substantive coding (open and selective coding being a part of it) and theoretical coding (Holton, 2010). Strauss and Corbin’s approach (1990) uses open, axial, and selective coding. Corbin and Strauss (2015) also use the term “focused coding” and no longer emphasize the application of the coding paradigm during axial coding. Charmaz’s constructionist approach (2014a) favors initial coding, which is similar to Glaser’s open coding, as well as focused coding, which is similar to Glaser’s theoretical coding. Charmaz offers a suggestion of general importance. Coding in gerunds, which are verb forms functioning as nouns, helps accounting for action and process: “Think of the difference in imagery between the following gerunds and their noun forms: describing versus description, stating versus statement, and leading versus leader. We gain a strong sense of action and sequence with gerunds” (Charmaz, 2014a, p. 120). Clarke’s postmodern version (2005) also uses coding procedures but places special emphasis on developing and working with situational maps, social worlds/arenas maps, and positional maps.

Finally, a critical word on coding: In GTM, there is no strict sequential approach to data analysis and textual data prevail. During coding, data is being fragmented and translated into codes, which are for their part being compiled and transformed to categories. This can lead to decontextualization, even when recontextualization is being carried out by going back to the data time and again. Hence, conceptualizations in GTM studies run the risk of ignoring visual, narrative, interactional, positional, and temporal aspects of the data. Depending on the researcher’s interests and data used, coding praxis and category development can be modified to some extent to open up the possibility to consider these aspects. But there are limits. After all, GTM does not entail strictly sequential analysis, but remains a “category centered” approach (Riessman, 2009, p. 391).

Memo Writing

Ideally, the research process is accompanied by writing memos. Corbin (Corbin & Strauss, 2015) and Charmaz (2014a) have recently begun to put stronger emphasis on the importance of memo writing. Memo writing is an ongoing task embedded in the analysis and not limited to a particular analytic stage. Grounded theorists are encouraged to start writing memos from the outset of their study. Memoing can continue until the final stage of a GTM study is reached. Memo writing means to elaborate ideas based on codes, preliminary categories, and coded data. As will be outlined below, different types of memos serve different functions. They might enhance the development of conceptual ideas, record methodological considerations and practical to-dos, or document reflections of personal involvement.

Writing theoretical memos is a main strategy for working on conceptual ideas and developing theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967, ch. 5). It helps to avoid detailed descriptions of the data and premature sorting of codes and categories, which run counter to GTM’s focus on theory development. Writing theoretical memos also facilitates working on the properties and dimensions of preliminary categories and conceptualizations of initial ideas about relationships between categories in the form of hypotheses.

In general, memo writing allows for “The Discovery of Slowness” as a basic stance: “the analyst must pace himself, exercise patience and accept nothing until something happens, as it surely does” (Glaser, 2004, para. 60). Memo writing is a core element of GTM and an ongoing process: “Later on memos generate new memos, reading literature generates memos, sorting and writing also generate memos—memoing is never done!” (Glaser, 2004, para. 64).

Memo writing helps to point out gaps in the analysis and hint at further directions for theoretical sampling. Thus it improves conceptualizing the data.

Memo writing is also beneficial for designing and refining the study. Planning memos aim at assessing potential next steps in the study, for example, where to go next for data collection, or which kind of data to collect.

In addition, there are reflective memos that help to keep record of professional or personal experiences of the grounded theorist while conducting his or her study. These reflections may regard his or her intended or unintended current role in the field; emotional involvements with the phenomenon, persons, groups or institutions under investigation; and professional or personal problems in conducting the research.

A final comment is concerned with the role of technology and teamwork in GTM. For many years, grounded theorists organized their work processes solely by using paper and pencil. Today, many researchers resort to special Computer Assisted/Aided Qualitative Data Analysis Software (CAQDAS) like ATLAS.ti2, MAXQDA,3 or NVivo4 (cf. Evers, Silver, Mruck, & Peeters, 2011). It is important to note that these software packages are neither methodologies nor methods. They are useful tools to assist analysis (Konopásek, 2008). Teamwork, which can be done with the help of software or without, is another important aspect of doing GTM—and of conducting qualitative research in general. Especially in the phase of data interpretation, collaboration is advisable to discuss first theoretical ideas during the coding processes, and later the emerging grounded theory as outlined in memos or networks of categories. Some helpful examples of coding in groups are given by Strauss (1987).


GTM initially arose from intense research practice. It provides researchers with strategies and techniques to develop grounded theories, thus broadening academic knowledge about a particular phenomenon or field. At the same time, such research can inform practice of professionals and layman, as it opens hitherto hidden opportunities for thought and action: “despite the range of options available, individuals tend to overrely on particular strategies and underutilize others. Perhaps, by explicitly identifying the patterns, researchers and careful observers can expand their communication repertoires to be more flexible and adaptive” (du Pré & Crandall, 2011, p. 534).

As discussed above, there are different established variants of GTM that share some common features and deviate with regard to several specifications. However, not all researchers who employ the label “grounded theory methodology” stick to one variant or consider all features. Researchers occasionally borrow and apply single steps or techniques developed within GTM or adhere to selected aspects of the GTM framework (e.g., doing theoretical sampling, conducting single coding procedures). There is nothing wrong with using those methods when they fit a particular project. Problems arise when researchers employ the label “grounded theory methodology” or “grounded theory” when the study in question merely selectively and eclectically applies single steps or techniques (Hood, 2010). There are also studies misusing the label “grounded theory methodology” or “grounded theory” in order to profit from the legitimizing power of the GTM jargon when, in fact, no specific qualitative approach was chosen: “I note, with some concern, that ‘grounded theory’ is often used as rhetorical sleight of hand by authors who are unfamiliar with qualitative research and who wish to avoid close description or illumination of their methods” (Suddaby, 2006, p. 633).

Some researchers still see the term “grounded theory methodology” as being used in a vague and imprecise manner. This view was expressed, for example, already a decade ago by Hood in an in a post on the mailing list Qualitative Research for the Human Sciences (QUALRS-L): “The term ‘grounded theory’ has been used so loosely even in methods textbooks that it is quite understandable when people misinterpret the basic requirements of the method.”5 Therefore, researchers planning to work with GTM are encouraged to look even more closely into the prevailing and differing positions, perspectives, and interpretations and commonly shared features, assumptions, and convictions.

A profound knowledge of GTM’s theoretical background, its procedures, and techniques allows researchers to make a reasoned choice of an approach and its possible adaptation with regard to the research question and aim. This is not to say that the immersion into GTM as a style and attitude of doing research could not bring new insights and ideas for modification. Working with GTM offers researchers a great degree of flexibility and room for maneuver. It provides the possibility and implies the necessity, respectively, to try to match researcher and methodology, his or her way of conducting a study, and the techniques used.

To conclude, GTM offers the chance of developing one’s style of doing research. That does not, however, mean that anything goes. It is an invitation to get (self-)reflexively involved with GTM. I this sense, the spirit of the founding years, when Glaser and Strauss proposed GTM as a strategy for learning to trust in one’s own scientific intelligence and recovering freedom of research, lives on.

Further Reading

Bryant, A. (2014). The grounded theory method. In P. Leavy (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of qualitative research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

    Bryant, A., & Charmaz, K. (Eds.). (2010). The Sage handbook of grounded theory. London: SAGE.Find this resource:

      Charmaz, K. (2014a). Constructing grounded theory (2d ed.). London: SAGE.Find this resource:

        Clarke, A. E. (2005). Situational analysis—Grounded theory after the postmodern turn. London: SAGE.Find this resource:

          Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. L. (2015). Basics of qualitative research. Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks: SAGE.Find this resource:

            Glaser, B. G. (1978). Theoretical sensitivity: Advances in the methodology of grounded theory. Mill Valley: Sociology Press.Find this resource:

              Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1965). Awareness of dying. Chicago: Aldine.Find this resource:

                Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine.Find this resource:

                  Strauss, A. L. (1987). Qualitative analysis for social scientists. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:


                    Artinian, B. M., Giske, T., & Cone, P. H. (Eds.). (2009). Glaserian grounded theory in nursing research: Trusting emergence. New York: Springer Publishing Company.Find this resource:

                      Blumer, H. (1954). What is wrong with social theory? American Sociological Review, 19(1), 3–10.Find this resource:

                        Brahms, K. S., & Schreier, M. (in preparation). Grounded theory methodology across cultures: Potentials, challenges, and design.Find this resource:

                          Breuer, F. (with the assistance of B. Dieris & A. Lettau). (2010). Reflexive Grounded Theory. Eine Einführung für die Forschungspraxis. Wiesbaden, Germany: VS.Find this resource:

                            Bryant, A. (2009). Grounded theory and pragmatism: The curious case of Anselm Strauss [113 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 10(3), Art. 2. Retrieved October 14, 2016, from this resource:

                              Bryant, A., & Charmaz, K. (Eds.). (2010). The Sage handbook of grounded theory. London: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                Bryant, A., & Raja, U. (2014). In the realm of Big Data …. First Monday, 19(2).Find this resource:

                                  Charmaz, K. (1990). “Discovering” chronic illness: Using grounded theory. Social Science & Medicine, 30(11), 1161–1172.Find this resource:

                                    Charmaz, K. (2014a). Constructing grounded theory (2d ed.). London: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                      Charmaz, K. (2014b). Grounded theory in global perspective: Reviews by international researchers. Qualitative Inquiry, 20(9), 1074–1084.Find this resource:

                                        Cisneros-Puebla, C. A. (2004). “To learn to think conceptually.” Juliet Corbin in conversation with Cesar A. Cisneros-Puebla [53 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 5(3), Art. 32. Retrieved October 14, 2016, from this resource:

                                          Clarke, A. E. (2005). Situational analysis—Grounded theory after the postmodern turn. London: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                            Clarke, A. E., & Keller, R. (2014). Engaging complexities: Working against simplification as an agenda for qualitative research today. Adele Clarke in conversation with Reiner Keller [137 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 15(2), Art. 1. Retrieved October 14, 2016, from this resource:

                                              Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. L. (2015). Basics of qualitative research. Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                                Evers, J. C., Silver, C., Mruck, K., & Peeters, B. (2011). Introduction to the KWALON experiment: Discussions on qualitative data analysis software by developers and users [28 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12(1), Art. 40. Retrieved October 14, 2016, from this resource:

                                                  Glaser, B. G. (1965). The constant comparative method of qualitative analysis. Social Problems, 12, 436–445.Find this resource:

                                                    Glaser, B. G. (1978). Theoretical sensitivity: Advances in the methodology of grounded theory. Mill Valley: Sociology Press.Find this resource:

                                                      Glaser, B. G. (1992). Basics of grounded theory analysis: Emergence vs. forcing. Mill Valley: Sociology Press.Find this resource:

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                                                          Glaser, B. G. (2007). All is data. Grounded Theory Review, 2(6). Retrieved October 14, 2016, from this resource:

                                                            Glaser, B. G. with the assistance of J. Holton (2004). Remodeling grounded theory [80 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 5(2), Art. 4. Retrieved October 14, 2016, from .Find this resource:

                                                              Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1965). Awareness of dying. Chicago: Aldine.Find this resource:

                                                                Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine.Find this resource:

                                                                  Habib, S., & Hinojosa, R. (2016). Video-based research and grounded theory: Practical tips and insights. In C. Equit & C. Hohage (Eds.), Handbuch Grounded Theory. Von der Methodologie zur Forschungspraxis (pp. 441–461). Weinheim, Germany: Beltz Juventa.Find this resource:

                                                                    Hammersley, M. (2010). A historical and comparative note on the relationship between analytic induction and grounded theorising [22 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 11(2), Art. 4. Retrieved October 14, 2016, from this resource:

                                                                      Henwood, K., & Pidgeon, N. (2003). Grounded theory in psychological research. In P. M. Camic, J. E. Rhodes, & L. Yardley (Eds.), Qualitative research in psychology: Expanding perspectives in methodology and design (pp. 131–155). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Find this resource:

                                                                        Holton, J. A. (2010). The coding process and its challenges. Grounded Theory Review, 9(1). Retrieved October 14, 2016, from this resource:

                                                                          Hood, J. C. (2010). Orthodoxy vs. power: The defining traits of grounded theory. In A. Bryant & K. Charmaz (Eds.), The Sage handbook of grounded theory (pp. 151–164). London: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                                                            Kelle, U. (2005). “Emergence” vs. “forcing” of empirical data? A crucial problem of “grounded theory” reconsidered [52 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 6(2), Art. 27. Retrieved October 14, 2016, from this resource:

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                                                                                  Legewie, H., & Schervier-Legewie, B. (2004). “Research is hard work, it’s always a bit suffering. Therefore, on the other side research should be fun.” Anselm Strauss in conversation with Heiner Legewie & Barbara Schervier-Legewie. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 5(3), Art. 22. Retrieved October 14, 2016, from this resource:

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                                                                                            Mey, G., & Mruck, K. (Eds.). (2007). Grounded Theory Reader. Historische Sozialforschung/Historical Social Research, Supplement No. 19. Köln, Germany: ZHSF. Retrieved October 14, 2016, from this resource:

                                                                                              Mey, G., & Mruck, K. (2009). Methodologie und Methodik der Grounded Theory. In W. Kempf & M. Kiefer (Eds.), Forschungsmethoden der Psychologie. Zwischen naturwissenschaftlichem Experiment und sozialwissenschaftlicher Hermeneutik (Vol. 3, pp. 100–152). Berlin: Regener.Find this resource:

                                                                                                Mey, G., & Mruck K. (Eds.). (2011). Grounded Theory Reader (2d ed.). Wiesbaden, Germany: VS.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                      Morse, J. M., Stern, P. N., Corbin, J., Bowers, B., Charmaz, K., & Clarke, A. E. (2008). Developing grounded theory. The second generation. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.Find this resource:

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