Definition and Overview of Grounded Theory

What It Is and How To Use It

A researcher constructs a grounded theory through scientific research.
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Grounded theory is a research methodology that results in the production of a theory that explains patterns in data, and that predicts what social scientists might expect to find in similar data sets. When practicing this popular social science method, a researcher begins with a set of data, either quantitative or qualitative, then identifies patterns, trends, and relationships among the data. Based on these, the researcher constructs a theory that is "grounded" in the data itself.

This research method differs from the traditional approach to science, which begins with a theory and the seeks to test it through scientific method. As such, grounded theory can be described as an inductive method, or a form of inductive reasoning.

Sociologists Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss popularized this method in the 1960s, which they and many others considered an antidote to the popularity of deductive theory, which is often speculative in nature, seemingly disconnected from the realities of social life, and may in fact go untested. In contrast, the grounded theory method produces a theory that is based in scientific research. (To learn more, see Glaser and Strauss's 1967 book, The Discovery of Grounded Theory.)

Grounded theory allows researchers to be scientific and creative at the same time, as long as the researchers follows these guidelines:

  • Periodically step back and ask questions. The researcher needs to step back once in a while and ask the following questions: What is going on here? Does what I think I see fit the reality of the data? Data does not lie, so the researcher needs to make sure their own ideas about what is happening matches what the data is telling them, or the researcher may need to alter their idea of what is going on.
  • Maintain an attitude of skepticism. All theoretical explanations, hypotheses, and questions about the data should be regarded as preliminary, whether they come from the literature, experience, or making comparisons. They should always be checked out against the data and never accepted as fact.
  • Follow the research procedures. Research procedures (data collection, analysis, etc.) are designed to give precision and accuracy to a study. They also help the researcher break through biases and lead him or her to examine some of his or her assumptions that might otherwise be unrealistic. Therefore, it is important that the correct research procedures are followed so that an accurate conclusion is reached.

    With these principles in mind, a researcher can construct a grounded theory in eight basic steps.

    1. Pick a research area, topic, or population of interest, and form one or more research questions about it.
    2. Collect data using a scientific method.
    3. Look for patterns, themes, trends, and relationships among the data in a process called "open coding."
    4. Begin to construct your theory by writing theoretical memos about the codes that emerge from your data, and the relationships among codes.
    5. Based on what you have discovered so far, focus on the most relevant codes and review your data with them in mind in a process of "selective coding." Conduct more research to gather more data for the selected codes as needed.
    6. Review and organize your memos to allow the data and your observations of them to shape an emergent theory.
    7. Review related theories and research and figure out how your new theory fits within it.
    8. Write your theory and publish it.

    Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.