Saturday, October 25, 2003

Cheating Grounded Theory

I have an inherent distrust of qualitative research methods: where are the stats? where’s the calculus? To pursue my research, however, it seems that I have to make amends with the qualitative paradigm and struggle through.

In discussing qualitative research involving participants, one topic always seems to emerge: Grounded Theory (GT). I’m not really sure what GT is but I’m a bit suspicious. The notion of assigning categories to observations in order to develop theory is subject to several criticisms like Traweek’s discussion of scientific method and Occam’s Razor (Traweek, 1996) and Bowker and Star’s comments of the ubiquity and necessity of the “other” category (Bowker & Star, 1999). Is some ways, GT sounds a bit like bibliographic classification—a topic with its own cadre of critics and sceptics (see discussion in Svenonius, 2000). In her discussion of GT and faceted classifications, Susan Leigh Star describes my own unease:

“Both struggle with a core problem—i.e., the representation of vernacular words and processes, empirically discovered, which will, although enthographically faithful, be powerful beyond the single instance or case study.” (Star, 1998 pg. 218)

One thing is certain, however; I must attempt to know and understand my enemy (It seems ironic that both Jesus and Sun Tzu offered similar advice). Towards this end, I am embracing the vocational model of discourse that I’m familiar with from my days in engineering. Instead of concocting arguments about the validity of Grounded Theory, I’m just going to create a cheat sheet summarizing how to do Grounded Theory (see details in Lofland & Lofland, 1995; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). While ugly to look at, this sheet is the hammer I need to conduct my research.

Analyzing Data (from Lofland & Lofland, 1995)

1. Strategy 1: Social Science Framing
a. Formulate generic propositions to summarize and describe data
i. Formal Propositions: Type, Frequencies, Magnitudes, Structures, Processes, Causes, Consequences, Agency
ii. Put aside typical notions of research or paper
iii. Can develop many possible propositions; one proposition per book chapter
2. Strategy 2: Socializing Anxiety
a. Emergent Induction
i. Not mechanical or easy
ii. Work persistently
3. Strategy 3: Coding
a. “The word (or short set of words) you apply to the item of data in answering such questions is a code.”
b. Physical Models: filing, PC Databasing
c. Types of Coding: housekeeping, analytic (emergent and analytical, items can have multiple codes)
d. Stages of Coding: initial coding, focused coding (with codes are used more and how?)
4. Strategy 4: Memoing
a. Emerges as main activity of research
b. Three kinds of memos: elemental, sorting (connections between memos), integrating (modes of integration of memos).
5. Strategy 5: Diagramming
a. Typologizing- what are the topic’s types?
b. Matrix Making
c. Concept Charting
d. Flow Charts
6. Strategy 6: Thinking Flexibly
a. Rephrasing
b. Changing Diagrams
c. Constantly Comparing
d. Thinking in extremes and opposites
e. Talking with fellows
f. Listening to fellows
g. Drawing back
h. Withholding judgement

Grounded Theory (from Strauss & Corbin, 1990)

1. Coding
a. Open
i. Propositions
ii. Create Lablels
iii. Making comparisons
iv. Categorizing and Categories
1. Define Properties
2. Dimensionalize properties
3. Establish subproperties
v. Line by line; sentence or paragraph; entire document
vi. Sensitivity
1. Who, what, when, where, how much, why, temporal
2. Comparisons: Flip Flop, systematic with other phenomena, far outs, red flags,
b. Axial
i. Make connections with categories and subs
ii. Conditions, Context (specific properties), Interactional Strategies, Consequences of Strategies
iii. Categories related to subcategories in “paradigm model”: Causal Conditions à phenomenon à context à intervening conditions à interactional strategies à consequences
iv. Linking categories: a) hypothetically relate by statements of relationship, b) verification against data, c) continued search for category properties and dimensions, d) explore variation
v. Final theory limited to those statements rooted in the data
c. Selective
i. Similar to axial but at a higher level
ii. Procedure
1. Explicate story line i.e., elevator pitch
2. Relate subsidiary categories to core categories via paradigm
3. Relate categories at a dimensional level
4. Validate relationships against the data
5. Fill in categories for refinement
2. Some cases don’t fit. Are they transitional? Are there intervening conditions?


Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lofland, J., & Lofland, L. H. (1995). Analyzing social settings : a guide to qualitative observation and analysis (3rd ed.). Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth.
Star, S. L. (1998). Grounded Classifications: Grounded Theory and Faceted Classifications. Library Trends, 47, 218-252.
Strauss, A. L., & Corbin, J. M. (1990). Basics of qualitative research : grounded theory procedures and techniques. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications.
Svenonius, E. (2000). Bibliographic Objectives. In The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Traweek, S. (1996). Unity, Dyads, Triads, Quads, and Complexity: Cultural Choreographies of Science. In A. Ross (Ed.), Science wars (pp. 139-150). Durham: Duke University Press.


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