Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises


Grounded theory

core definition

Grounded theory involves the construction of theory through the analysis of data such that the theory emerges from the data.

explanatory context

Grounded theory as a methodic approach is inductive supposedly allowing theory to emerge from data. It is mainly used in the analysis of large quantities of qualitative data, where data is sorted into themes and these lead onto theoretical propositions. The approach was used by social scientists for decades before Glaser and Strauss (1967) coined the term. Subsequently Glaser and Strauss diverged in their way of thinking about a grounded theory approach.

Grounded theory has two distinct forms that emerged from the positions taken by Glaser on the one hand and Strauss on the other.


'Grounded theory' is one of the most misused labels in social research and has in many respects has become almost a meaningless term. Many accounts of research claim to be using 'grounded theory' when all they are doing is making inferences from qualitative data. This has led to claims that grounded theory is now no longer a term specific to the work of Glaser and Strauss (see below).

analytical review

Heffernan (undated) described grounded theory as follows:

This is inductive, interpretative and can be social constructionalist. Central focus is on inductively generating novel theoretical ideas or hypotheses from the data. These new theories arise out of the data and are supported by the data. So they are said to be grounded.


Health Herts (undated) states:

Grounded Theory is derived from Sociology. It was first put forward by Glaser and Strauss in 1967. There is some debate as to what exactly grounded theory is, but basically grounded theory is either of two different paradigms that are to be found in sociological work. 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 theories. Although, often, grounded theory is seen as a qualitative method, in actual fact grounded theory can be further extended. It combines a specific style of research (or a paradigm) with a pragmatic theory of action and with some methodological guidelines.


Campus Labs (2011) states:

Grounded theory was developed in the late 1960s by Barney Glaser and Anselm Straus. It emerged at a time when qualitative research was deemed too unscientific, especially in the wake of quantitative popularity. Grounded theory is a slightly more scientific method of identifying causal relationships within qualitative data than the more traditional approaches such as storytelling and ethnography. Nonetheless, it was somewhat controversial when it first emerged onto the scientific scene, as it completely reverses the deductive process of the scientific method. Grounded theory begins by analyzing a large corpus of data in the hope of finding and labeling specific contextual variables. Oftentimes, since this approach is rooted in the qualitative method, data takes the form of fieldwork such as observational notes or diary entries. From here, phenomena within the data are codified, and the codes are then analyzed for relationships.

The way in which codes are sorted and related also depends on the aim of the research. The way in which a corpus of data is analyzed is also heavily contingent on the attitude and ability of the researcher, and known as “theoretical sensitivity.” The relationships among codes are used to generate theory. Ideally, the generated theory will fit one set of data perfectly, primarily because it is created—ground up—from that very data. (7)

Strengths of Document Analysis:
Documents are often readily available on campus....
Documents already exists, therefore data collected is unobtrusive.
Data is already “collected” through the creation of the document’s content.
Since the documents are already created, there are low costs associated with completing the project.
Documents are stable, once they are created they usually do not change (one exception may be websites).
Documents are viewed as precise.
Easy to carry out a document analysis on a quick timeline.
No coordination is needed between researcher and participant therefore analysis can be done on researcher’s timeline.....

Challenges of Document Analysis:
Access to documents may be restricted or protected.
Documents may be incomplete or inaccurate.
Documents are context and language specific, the person doing the analysis should be familiar with the culture of the organization.
Documents are not interactive so you can’t ask them for more information.
Documents are often disconnected from their creator so you cannot ask questions about the context or insider knowledge.
Documents are often written from a specific lens or angle, therefore they lack objectivity.


Scott (2009) states:

Grounded theory is a general research method (and thus is not owned by any one school or discipline); which guides you on matters of data collection and details rigorous procedures for data analysis. You can use quantitative data; or qualitative data of any type e.g. video, images, text, observations, spoken word etc. Grounded theory is a research tool which enables you to seek out and conceptualise the latent social patterns and structures of your area of interest through the process of constant comparison. Initially you will use an inductive approach to generate substantive codes from your data, later your developing theory will suggest to you where to go next to collect data and which, more-focussed, questions to ask. This is the deductive phase of the grounded theory process.... Grounded theory is first and foremost a research method. But the term ‘grounded theory’ is used in two ways: 1. If you adhere to the strictures of grounded-theory-the-research-method you will engage in a research process that will produce; 2. A theory-which-is-grounded-in-data ie. a grounded theory. Thus both the research method and the output of the research process have the same name, which can be confusing!


Trochim (2006) states:

Grounded theory is a qualitative research approach that was originally developed by Glaser and Strauss in the 1960s. The self-defined purpose of grounded theory is to develop theory about phenomena of interest. But this is not just abstract theorizing they're talking about. Instead the theory needs to be grounded or rooted in observation -- hence the term.

Grounded theory is a complex iterative process. The research begins with the raising of generative questions which help to guide the research but are not intended to be either static or confining. As the researcher begins to gather data, core theoretical concept(s) are identified. Tentative linkages are developed between the theoretical core concepts and the data. This early phase of the research tends to be very open and can take months. Later on the researcher is more engaged in verification and summary. The effort tends to evolve toward one core category that is central.

There are several key analytic strategies:

Coding is a process for both categorizing qualitative data and for describing the implications and details of these categories. Initially one does open coding, considering the data in minute detail while developing some initial categories. Later, one moves to more selective coding where one systematically codes with respect to a core concept.

Memoing is a process for recording the thoughts and ideas of the researcher as they evolve throughout the study. You might think of memoing as extensive marginal notes and comments. Again, early in the process these memos tend to be very open while later on they tend to increasingly focus in on the core concept.

Integrative diagrams and sessions are used to pull all of the detail together, to help make sense of the data with respect to the emerging theory. The diagrams can be any form of graphic that is useful at that point in theory development. They might be concept maps or directed graphs or even simple cartoons that can act as summarizing devices. This integrative work is best done in group sessions where different members of the research team are able to interact and share ideas to increase insight.

Eventually one approaches conceptually dense theory as new observation leads to new linkages which lead to revisions in the theory and more data collection. The core concept or category is identified and fleshed out in detail.

When does this process end? One answer is: never! Clearly, the process described above could continue indefinitely. Grounded theory doesn't have a clearly demarcated point for ending a study. Essentially, the project ends when the researcher decides to quit.

What do you have when you're finished? Presumably you have an extremely well-considered explanation for some phenomenon of interest -- the grounded theory. This theory can be explained in words and is usually presented with much of the contextually relevant detail collected.

associated issues

The split between Glaser and Strauss over grounded theory is summed up in the Wikipedia entry thus [accessed 22 December 2016, see Wikipedia for references]:

Since their original publication in 1967, Glaser and Strauss have disagreed on how to apply the grounded theory method, resulting in a split 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" but was rather a form of qualitative data analysis. This divergence in methodology is a subject of much academic debate, which Glaser (1998) calls a "rhetorical wrestle". Glaser continues to write about and teach the original grounded theory method.

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 perspective. Many researchers may concur with that approach especially since qualitative research always had a relation to micro-sociological action theory, but others who want to employ a macro-sociological and system theory perspective may feel that the use of the coding paradigm would lead them astray."...

Glaser's approach
Glaser originated the basic process of Grounded theory method described as the constant comparative method where the analyst begins analysis with the first data collected and constantly compares indicators, concepts and categories as the theory emerges....

The first book, The Discovery of Grounded Theory, published in 1967, was "developed in close and equal collaboration" Glaser and Strauss. Glaser wrote "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 method 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 theory discovered with the grounded theory method should be easy to use outside of the substantive area where it was generated.

Strauss and Corbin's 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. 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 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) and Barney Glaser (a student of Paul Lazarsfeld), while working together in studying the sociology of illness at the University of California, San Francisco. 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 method are categories, codes and codings. The research principle behind grounded theory method is neither inductive nor deductive, but combines both in a way of abductive reasoning (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 method according to Glaser emphasizes induction 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.

A later version of GT called constructivist GT, which was rooted in pragmatism and relativist epistemology, assumes that neither data nor theories are discovered, but are constructed by the researcher as a result of his or her interactions with the field and its participants....Data are co-constructed by researcher and participants, and colored by the researcher's perspectives, values, privileges, positions, interactions, and geographical locations. This position takes a middle ground between the realist and postmodernist positions by assuming an "obdurate reality" at the same time as it assumes multiple realities and multiple perspectives on these realities. Within this approach, a literature review is used in a constructive and data-sensitive way without forcing it on data....

related areas

See also

hypothetical deduction


Campus Labs, 2011, 'Administration Methods' Modified: 7 October 2011, available at, accessed 17 March 2013, page not available 22 December 2016.
Glaser B.G. and Strauss A.L., 1967, The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Strategies for qualitative research (Chicago, Aldine Publishing Company).

Health Herts, undated, Grounded Theory, available at, accessed 22 December 2016, 'not found' 3 June 2019.

Scott, H., 2009, What is Grounded Theory? 1 November 2009, available at:, accessed 22 December 2016, still available 3 June 2019.

Trochim, WMK, 'Qualitative Approaches' in Research Methods Knowledge Base, update 20 October 2006, available at, accessed 22 December 2016, still available 3 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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