Friday, November 26, 2010

Current Issues

in Qualitative Research

An Occasional Publication for Field Researchers

from a Variety of Disciplines

Volume 1, Number 9 November 2010


The Intellectual Roots

of Grounded Theory

by Jane Gilgun

When Norman Denzin (2010) changes his mind about grounded theory (GT), you know something important has happened. More than 40 years ago, Denzin (1997) tried GT at the urging of Anselm Strauss. “Pretty soon, I had more GT than fieldnotes,” he said. He found that his efforts distanced him from the children in daycare who were the focus of his participant observations.

Denzin (2010) said, “I had failed at grounded theory.” Soon after he “became a critic of grounded theory” (p. 1). His failure did not affect his relationships with Strauss. For instance, he worked with Strauss and Alfred Lindesmith on several editions of Social Psychology (1999).

In 2010, Denzin came out as an enthusiastic promoter of a particular form of GT: collaborative, constructivist, and critical. Forty years earlier, during his first attempts to use GT, Denzin appears to have been caught up in the “trees” of GT; in other words, the technicalities of GT swamped him. He followed instructions that Strauss delivered in person about the constant comparative method, comparisons across field sites, and the search for emerging concepts, indicators of concepts, and links to theory (Denzin, 1997).

By 2010, Denzin saw that GT does not have to be about technicalities, but researchers can use it as an adaptable and open-ended approach to developing understandings of human situations. When researchers view GT this way, the goal is to listen, hear, and understand what others are saying and doing, in their own terms as much as possible. Its open-endedness permits researchers to adapt it to their own particular methodologies and conscious and unconscious biases. In short, there are many ways to do GT. Recently, Denzin adapted GT to serve his commitment to social justice issues in research that includes researcher collaborations with participants, the importance of local knowledge, and, once the research is completed, advocacy for social change.

The Roots of GT

This view of GT is consistent with its roots in the Chicago School of Sociology, where professors such as W.I. Thomas, Florian Znaniecki, & Robert Park urged their students to immerse themselves in the lives and situations of the persons whom they wished to study in order to develop deep understandings (verstehen) that resulted in descriptions of erlebnis, or lived experience. Many Chicago professors studied philosophers such as Kant, Dilthey, and Simmel when they were students at German universities (Bulmer, 1984; Gilgun, 1999, in press). These perspectives were embedded in their views about how to do research.

Robert Park’s famous words summarize this aspect of the Chicago School methodology. Park talked to his students about the necessity of "getting your hands dirty in research." He didn't stop here, however. He also said

But one more thing is needful: first hand observation. Go and sit in the lounges of the luxury hotels and on the doorsteps of the flophouses; sit on the Gold Coast settees and on the slum shakedowns; sit in the Orchestra Hall and in the Star and Garter Burlesk. In short, gentlemen [sic], go get the seat of your pants dirty" (McKinney, 1966, p. 71).

As a clear statement of immersion and the importance of multiple perspectives, this quote has few equals.

Theory development was also part of the Chicago School, although different professors had different perspectives on its centrality in research processes. Thomas and Znaniecki (1918-1920/1927), prominent in the Chicago School, believed that the purpose of science was to reach "generally applicable conclusions." This could be done through studying "each datum" "in its concrete particularity." Such strategies, from their view, is the basis of science. They emphasized induction, or the drawing general statements from careful analysis of particular situations (Gilgun, 1999). They said

The original subject matter of every science is constituted by particular data existing in a certain place, at a certain time, in certain special conditions, and it is the very task of science to reach, by a proper analysis of these data, generally applicable conclusions. And the degree of reliability of these general conclusions is directly dependent on the carefulness with which each datum has been studied in its concrete particularity (p. 1191).

This is no less true for the study of the individual who must be understood "in connection with his [sic] particular social milieu before we try to find in him [sic] features of a general human interest" (Thomas & Znaniecki, 1927, Vol. 2. p. 1911). Although, as the above excerpt suggests, they valued scientific generalization, they stated that they do not consider their work as giving "any definitive and universally valid sociological truths" (pp, 340-341). Rather, their work is suggestive and prepares the ground for further research.

These are early statements about the importance of theory development through building upon concrete particularities, which today we call case studies. These statements also show connections to the ideas of Strauss and colleagues (Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Glaser, 1978, 1992; Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss, 1987; Strauss & Corbin, 1998) who advise researchers to connect concepts to particularities in their efforts to construct grounded theories.

Although there were variations among researchers, Chicago faculty also had a commitment to social reform (Bulmer, 1984; Deegan, 1990; Gilgun, 1999). John Dewey, for example, set up a series of laboratory elementary schools, where he could try out the ideas being developed in the philosophy department as well as develop new ideas based on his interactions with of observations of teachers, students, and other personnel involved in the schools (Bulmer, 1984).

Jane Addams linked poverty and exploitation of workers with oppressive social and economic conditions, and she was a key figure in such reform movements as standards for occupational safety, the establishment of unions and the support of strikes, and various federal legislation on child labor and family social welfare (Bulmer, 1984; Deegan, 1990).

Robert Park and others studied social problems for the purposes of reform, but believed that an educated public would bring about social change. They did not directly advocate for change as did Addams and others associated with the Chicago School (Bulmer, 1984).

Denzin’s commitment to social justice and his stance on advocacy, then, is consistent with the roots of GT. His view of GT as constructivist, emancipatory, and action-oriented research has deep intellectual roots.

What’s New?

What’s new about GT is the name and some of its explanations of procedures of qualitative analysis, such as theoretical sampling, theoretical sensitivity, and elaboration analysis. Unfortunately, Glaser, Strauss, and Corbin did not explore or explain the intellectual roots of GT. The brief discussions they had of the Chicago tradition typically were dismissive, such as disparaging negative case analysis while giving a superficial account of it (cf., Glaser & Strauss, 1967).

What Denzin now calls GT is a good old-fashioned Chicago School of Sociology methodology. Members of the Chicago School did not name this approach to research except to call it fieldwork.

Grounded theory is a suitable name, unless researchers are looking to describe experiences. Then they may call their research interpretive phenomenology, which is a descriptive approach to verstehen and erlebnis. (See Benner, 2002; Polkinghorne, l983). Even critical theory has some of its intellectual roots in these philosophies, consistent with Denzin’s current perspectives on critical GT.

50 Years of Confusion

If Norman Denzin can experience confusion about what GT is, it is not surprising that legions of other researchers have, too. From the beginning, Anslem Strauss and Barney Glaser (1967), the originators of GT, laid the groundwork for almost 50 years of subsequent confusion, as well, of course, of protecting and promoting a rich intellectual heritage of qualitative research (Gilgun, 1999, 2005).

On the one hand, GT as originally formulated was a set of procedures for generating theory through prolonged immersion in the field. They were responding to concerns that many sociologist had about “grand theories;” that is, theories that were abstract and disconnected from more concrete descriptions of human, social phenomena (Glaser & Strauss, 1967).

This was arm-chair theorizing that Robert Merton (1968), among others, wanted to redress through the concept of “middle-range theories.” In fact, Merton’s (1968) description of middle range theories sounds like descriptions of GT. This is what Merton said:

theories of the middle range…lie between the minor but necessary working hypotheses that evolve…in day-to-day research and the all-inclusive efforts to develop a unified theory (p. 39).

On the other hand, GT was a set of generic procedures that researchers could use on many different types of qualitative research. Even the subtitles of their main texts show the confusion. The original book, that Strauss and Glaser co-authored, is called The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. The most recent iteration, Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory (Corbin & Strauss, 2008), continues the tradition of confusion.

Examples of generic procedures abound. For example, group analysis of data, which they highly recommend, was part of earliest research efforts, including Booth’s studies of the London poor (Webb & Webb, 1932). Grounded theory has no claim to this procedure. Even theoretical sensitivity (Glaser, 1978) may not be original because it is similar to Blumer’s (1954/1969) notion of sensitizing concepts, which, like theoretical sensitivity, are concerned with researchers’ capacities to identify social processes and construct theoretical statements about them.

It has become a cliché that researchers are not really doing GT if they don’t come up with a theory (Bryant & Charmaz, 2007). Maybe so, but the originators of GT made claims that their procedures were for doing qualitative research in general. Many of the procedures the originators discussed are useful for generic qualitative research and not necessarily for theory development. Open, axial, and selective coding are generic coding procedures that are not limited to theory-building.

Bryant and Charmaz recognize this confusion. They distinguish between grounded theory as methodology (GTM) and grounded theory (GT) as a product that is theory. They and several authors of chapters in their edited volume attempt to clarify the confusions that have arisen from Strauss’ and colleagues’ mixing of grounded theory as generic procedures and grounded theory as a product. They discussed such terms as “grounded,” “data,” “induction,” ”deduction,” “abduction,” “theoretical sensitivity,” and how to do some of the tasks associated with grounded theory, such as group analysis of data and when and how to include related research and theory.

The Split

As this discussions shows, Strauss, Glaser, and Corbin split off a part of the Chicago School legacy to emphasize theory development. They also made original and enduring contributions to qualitative analysis. Important, too, they kept a significant research tradition alive—this is, the open-ended, flexible approach to understanding of human phenomena.

Other researchers besides Denzin rejected GT and aligned themselves with the interpretive research. One of Strauss’s own students, Patricia Benner (1992), is one of them. Benner developed a form of interpretive phenomenology, which she taught to generations of students at the University of California, San Francisco, the same institution where Strauss, Glaser, & Corbin also taught for many years.

Benner's interpretive phenomenology seeks to convey lived experience and what it means to be human, presented in straightforward categories and theoretical statements that are inductively derived. She sees interpretive phenomenology as a scholarly discipline that provides perspectives that can promote understanding of everyday practices and meanings. As a professor of nursing, Benner, like Denzin, is within the Chicago tradition of research to be used to promote the social good.


The spirit of GT is open-ended and flexible, a form of research that seeks to understand individuals involved in social interactions of various types within contexts that range from the micro to the macro. Which aspects of contexts researchers chose to address depend upon a variety of factors, but primarily their own biases and perspectives.

Thirty years after his initial failure, Denzin has come back to grounded theory with a deeper understanding of its spirit. He now promotes reformist, interpretive grounded theory. Benner has spent about 30 years doing interpretive phenomenological research, partially in reaction to the distancing she too experienced when she tried to do grounded theory in the mode that Strauss and colleagues promoted (Gilgun, 1999).

Strauss and colleagues seized upon a significant idea and promoted it through many iterations. Their efforts, however, were imperfect. Researchers have spent and will continue to spend time and effort figuring out what they meant and forging their own paths. Strauss encouraged researchers to do this. In his writing, he advised other researchers to be creative, to decide what they want from their research, and to stick with it no matter what others may do to undermine them (Strauss, 1991). As prescriptive as the originators of GT appear to be, Strauss remained until the end a researcher and methodologist within the style of the Chicago School: flexible, open-minded, and committed to the social good.

About the Author

Jane F. Gilgun, Ph.D., LICSW is a professor, School of Social Work, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, USA. See Professor Gilgun’s other articles, children’s stories, & books on Amazon Kindle, iBooks, &

About this Article

This is issue 9, vol. 1 of Current Issues in Qualitative Research, a periodical that is available through & Amazon Kindle. Jane F. Gilgun, Ph.D., LICSW, is editor of this periodical. Individuals may submit short articles up to 1500 words long to Professor Gilgun at

Note: This article was first published in Report, a magazine of the National Council on Family Relations, 55.2, Summer 2010. Portions of this article appeared in Gilgun, Jane F. (1999). Methodological pluralism and qualitative family research. In Suzanne K. Steinmetz, Marvin B. Sussman, and Gary W. Peterson (Eds.), Handbook of Marriage and the Family (2nd ed.) (pp. 219-261). New York: Plenum.


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