Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Beginning of Grounded Theory

I found it unusual, yet helpful to read the results of using the method (Awareness of Dying) before truly understanding the method. Being a certified nursing assistant and working in nursing homes for several years, I could certainly identify with the conceptual categories Glaser/Strauss identified. Through personal experience, I saw the awareness contexts – and saw them shift. Yet, before reading Discovery, I didn't have a full appreciation of how the data was generated or analyzed.

In the early part of the twentieth century, sociologists believed that the “great men” of sociology has generated enough theory and now the task was to verify these theories, which meant collecting data to support the proposed theories. At the same time was a growing support for quantitative data rather than qualitative as the feeling was that quantitative data was more accurate and easier to verify. As a result, qualitative researchers began writing like quantitative researchers. But, Glaser/Strauss contend that “there is no fundamental clash between the purposes and capacities of qualitative and quantitative methods or data. What clash there is concerns the primacy of emphasis on verification or generation of theory . . .We believe that each form of data is useful for both verification and generation of theory . . . In many instances, both forms of data are necessary.” (pgs. 17-18).

Although this summary of the qualitative verses quantitative conflict did not surprise me, I found it interesting that people, at one time, could have thought there were no new theories to generate. That's like Thomas Watson's (the chairman of IBM in 1943) comment, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." How could sociologists of the time be so arrogant as to think that everything had been thought of? The early 1900s was a time of great change – both technologically and socially. Women were becoming more liberated and a whole new era of conflict between countries began. I can't imagine how old theories would fit the new times, which, I guess is part of Glaser/Strauss's argument. To parallel their contention that quantitative methods gained prominence was the advent of the IQ test. It was a nice, neat number that seemed to explain everything, yet in reality just forced evidence into a preconceived notion of intelligence, which was later disputed by Howard Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences, which don't fit into a numbers based test.

In grounded theory, the researcher will generating “conceptual categories” - or general statements concerning the situation - like labeling a file. From this category, predications can be made. If something fails the predication, it leads to more questions about the category, not a failure of the category. The categories stay the same, but the evidence filed under each may change. This evidence gives each category its properties. However, sometimes, in comparing data, new categories and/or properties may emerge. In this way, comparative analysis is both verifying and generating theory. Therefore, grounded theory is “theory as process” (pg. 32). This recognizes the need for a theory to change and develop more fully, encouraging more research and questioning.

The section on describing grounded theory methods was a difficult one for me to read. I think a lot of it has to do with the continued prominence of the scientific method. It was a major paradigm shift for me. Throughout my schooling, it was ingrained that I had to have a research question before researching, and the goal was to prove or disprove it. The notion that I could ask, “What's going on here?” was ridiculous – how would I know if my answer was right? Since it is human nature (or nurture) to predict or hypothesize, I would imagine that a grounded theory researcher has to constantly remind herself not to anticipate the data. At this point, I think this would be one of the most difficult aspects for me, having been in the habit of hypothesizing.
The idea of emerging theory blurs the line between collecting and analyzing data. As a researcher collects data he/she may begin to form some hypotheses, which, unlike the scientific method's hypothesis, is more of a suggestion than a testable question. Several hypotheses come together to form the core of emerging theory, which, again, leaves room for flexibility as it encourages continued refinement. “Theoretical sampling is the process of data collection for generating theory whereby the analyst jointly collects, codes, and analyzes his data and decides what data to collect nest and where to find them, in order to develop his theory as it emerges” (pg. 45). When deciding which group to study, the group to be studied is chosen for its “theoretical relevance” (pg. 49). This limits the researcher's ability to pre-plan the numbers and types, but allows for flexibility as the concepts emerge. To begin with, a researcher will compare different groups of the same substantive types. Then, to expand the theory, the researcher will need to compare different types of groups within larger groups or external groups. When a researcher moves to discovering formal theory, she will then select dissimilar groups within the larger class. “Since the basis of comparison between substantively non-comparable groups is not readily apparent, it must be explained on a higher conceptual level” (pg.53). “Theoretical saturation” is the point where a category's properties are defined and no additional data will modify the properties. At that point, new groups should be sought to saturate other categories. As for the method of data collection, multiple methods are encouraged, as it gives a fuller picture of the situation studied. One difficulty in this type of research is the time-line. Since the selection of groups happens as the research indicates, along with how much data and of what kind, a pre-planned, static time-line is impossible.
Flexibility seems to be the key to grounded theory. First, the data collecting is not as straightforward as a scientific experiment. The types of data can't be only qualitative, because numbers don't tell the whole story when people interact with people. Narrative, interviews and observations are messy, yet important. The participant group must also be flexible, as one narrative may lead the researcher to another person or group.

After working through the IRB form in class, I can imagine that this is one of the most frustrating parts of being a grounded theorist. Finally, being flexible with your emerging theory would be a challenge. I think most people like seeing a clear-cut answer – which the scientific method offers, but grounded theory does not.

A substantive theory is one that emerges from the research of a particular group. In developing a good formal grounded theory, researchers refer to the substantive theory as a starting point. Many formal grounded theories are rewritten substantive theories – with the group wording taken out. However, this type of formal theory generation needs more comparative analysis to be taken seriously as a good formal grounded theory. In contrast, by comparative analysis of diverse groups, “exceedingly complex and well-grounded theory can be developed” (pg. 85).

The thing that really struck me as Glaser/Strauss was describing the process of grounded theory was the amount of time it would take. Even researching a substantive theory would take years – and it took six for Awareness of Dying. Trying to get to a solid formal grounded theory I would think would take a life-time. Especially since, as Glaser/Strauss indicates, there aren't a lot of substitutive grounded theories to build off of.
“Because grounded formal theory fits and works, we see its use in research and teaching as more trustworthy than logico-deductive theory, for the simple reasons that the latter often requires forcing of data into categories of dubious relevance to the data's meaning.” (pg. 98)

It seems that a lot of The Discovery of Grounded Theory is really a call to action and a support group. Glaser/Strauss stated many of the objections grounded theory researchers would face and calls for veteran researchers to instill confidence in new researchers. I would agree with their statement that logico-deductive theory research will led the researcher to see evidence of his/her theory to the exclusion of other evidence. No one likes being proven wrong. Yet, the ambiguity of grounded theory may make researchers hesitate in its use. However, so far, I see many appealing aspects to this method such as the ability to really “see” the situation from all angles, following where the data leads, and not trying to prove or disprove something.

*Glaser B, Strauss A. (1965). Awareness of dying. Chicago: Aldine.
*Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago, IL: Aldine Publishing Company.

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