The Postmodern Turn: Shall Classic Grounded Theory Take That Detour? A Review Essay

Vivian B. Martin, PhD

Situational Analysis: Grounded Theory after the
Postmodern Turn, Adele E. Clarke, 2005, Sage
Publications. 408 pp., paperback/hardcover

Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide
through Qualitative Analysis, Kathy Charmaz,
2006, Sage Publications. 224 pp.,
paperback/hardcover

Adherents to classic grounded theory have gotten used
to spotting the pretenders working under the grounded
theory banner. Some of these faux-GT researchers have
worked in a fog, misunderstanding fundamentals of the
method; these are the studies that leave us shaking our
heads and wondering about the doctoral committee and
peer reviewers who did not bother to find out more about
the method they were evaluating. More infuriating are the
authors who are claiming to improve on grounded theory,
to reground it, to quote one notable British author who,
lack of handson grounded theory experience aside, manages a
booklength critique of the method. Two recent books in the
“remaking grounded theory” genre are from sociologists with
some years of grounded theory projects behind them. Adele E.
Clarke, author of Situational Analysis, was a student and
colleague of Anselm L. Strauss at the University of California
San Francisco. Kathy Charmaz, author of Constructing Grounded
Theory, is among the few grounded theorists who studied with
Barney G. Glaser and Strauss at UCSF.

Although the pedigree of both authors gives more
traditional readers comfort that these are not just people
wielding the term grounded theory and conflating it with
any old interview study, the vision for grounded theory
offered in these two books are a challenge to more
orthodox notions. Both authors treat a sacrosanct element
of classic grounded theory, the core category or concept,
as unnecessary or, worse, a barrier to understanding the
phenomenon under study. Both accuse classic grounded
theory of a lack of reflexivity about the research process,
insensitivity to difference and variation, and
oversimplification in its quest to create an integrative
theory. The overall indictment is that grounded theory is
out of step with the ways of thinking and talking about
research brought about by postmodernism and other
changes in scholarship through the 80s and 90s. Clarke’s
stated goal is to “push grounded theory more fully around
the postmodern turn” (p. xxi), a shift in the social sciences
and humanities that has focused on the fragmentation,
tentativeness, and complexities of social life and the need
to adopt different methods and ways of gaining entry to
these fragments, not to bring about wholeness—that is not
possible within the postmodern frame—but to at least begin
articulating the possibilities and their connections. If this
sounds vague and possibly contradictory, such is the
nature of postmodernism. The goal of both authors is to
make grounded theory more responsive to it. Toward this
end, Clarke proposes changes that pretty much create a
new method. Charmaz, though better informed about how
the different variants of grounded theory converge and
diverge and how they have coexisted,nonetheless
endorses a sometimes impressionistic, interpretative
approach which, I suspect, grounded theorists who are
seeking to utilize grounded theory to bring about
understanding and change in practical disciplines would
find less desirable and accountable. The daily worlds of
nursing, management, information systems, and other
fields, I would argue, very much privilege an “objective”
reality where phenomena are defined and measured. In
posing the question in the title of this review essay, I am
asking whether classic grounded theory can and should
avoid the postmodern turn, which would be a detour off its
main path, which has yet to be fully explored. I am aware
that, if one were to extend the metaphor, one might have
to conclude that in some instances detours are
unavoidable, though the driver does not have to accept the
new route completely. I come back to this matter in the
conclusion of this essay after discussing the main points of
the books.

A System of Maps

In Situational Analysis, it is immediately clear within
the first few pages that Clarke may need some updating
herself: hers is a very simplistic understanding of classic
grounded theory. She conflates grounded theory with the
“basic social process,” proclaiming the need for grounded
theory to recognize multiple processes. Having written a
dissertation focused on a core with interpenetrating
subcores, or social processes, and knowing Glaser has
written and spoken of such possibilities, Clarke’s suggestion
of the need for grounded theorists to grow beyond the
basic social process was quite confusing. Moreover, she
does not seem to understand that grounded theorists use
many theoretical codes other than the basic social process,
or that the social worlds/ frame she is using for her work
are theoretical codes that can force data. While I concede
that many inexperienced grounded theorists speak and
write as if the basic social process is the sole code, these
and other misunderstandings say more about the
limitations of some researchers than it does the method.
By conflating the two, Clarke proceeds to fix what is not
broken.

Clarke, in fact, pretty much ignores classic grounded
theory or misstates aspects of it. In speaking of “grounded
theory/symbolic interaction as a theory/ methods
package,” Clarke uproots grounded theory from Glaser and
his training in the quantitative analysis and qualitative
math analytical techniques developed y Paul Lazarsfeld. My
guess is Clarke, who credits grounded theory based in
symbolic interaction as being in some ways “always
already” ahead of the postmodern turn, would respond that
leaving out the Columbia University roots of grounded
theory makes sense for her because she is a symbolic
interactionist who has practiced grounded theory in
accordance with Strauss’s vision, and to some degree the
vision promulgated by Strauss in concert with Juliet Corbin.
While it is true that the traces of pragmatism in grounded
theory and the preference for getting into the field where
the action is taking place are very much of the Chicago
School and symbolic interaction perspective, stripping the
analytic techniques and their Columbia University history
from grounded theory would effectively put grounded
theory back to the state qualitative research (including
most work in symbolic interaction) was in during the
sixties, when social scientists criticized much qualitative
research as being a soup of anecdotal evidence. It is really
the analytic techniques out of Columbia, through Glaser,
that gave qualitative researchers tools for systematic
analysis. The Discovery of Grounded Theory argued that
qualitative research could be rigorous, scientific if you will.
Ironically, it is these positivist leanings, which helped inject
greater rigor that postmodernists now denounce.

What Clarke proposes is a method that would focus on
the situation in all its complexities, explicit, implicit, and
speculative. Clarke’s claims “Situational Analysis” is a way
to get at the nonhuman aspects of a given situation,
whether it be actual objects like technology or the
discourse surrounding a particular issues. She uses work
she has done in medical sociology, especially the debate
over the RU480 pill, to demonstrate the method. Clarke’s
conceptualization of the situation as the analytical unit is
inspired and guided by Strauss’s concept of social
worlds/arenas, a potent theoretical code; but, of course,
like any theoretical one, it would shape the eventual
research project before the researcher even enters the
field. In addition to symbolic interactiongrounded theory
and Strauss’s social worlds/arenas, Clarke invokes Foucault
as an important influence in the discursive shift that is
shaping social research. Foucault’s concepts of “discourse”
and “disciplining” as creating and sustaining practices over
time have been critical to understanding the
power/knowledge relationships in areas ranging from the
disciplining of professions to identities. Such processes are
enacted over and over through discourses that social
researchers examine systematically. Clarke seeks to link
Foucault’s theorizing of power with Strauss’s work on
action to embolden symbolic interaction and grounded
theory to better address situatedness, reflexivity,
difference and variation, complexity, and be better to
handle the main forms of discourses , among it narrative,
visual, and historical.

Extending the metaphor of social worlds and arenas,
Clarke proposes mapping strategies for the data. Her first
map is a situation map on which the researcher would lay
out “the elements of the situation and examining relations
among them” (p. 86). Such a map would include issues,
people, places, discourses, and any number of other factors
drawn from the data and the researcher’s understanding.
She provides an example of a map examining nurses’ work
under managed care for which factors include elements as
diverse as home health aides, discourses about patient
satisfaction, and drugs. The second map would be a social
worlds/arenas map of “collective communities, relations,
and sites of actions” (p. 86). This map would include
individual and group actors, the dynamics within these
worlds and in relation to others. The third map, a positional
map lays out “positions articulated and not articulated in
discourses” (p. 86). One initial impression of the maps
might be that they are an example of codifying a strategy
that many people do naturally. I am a diagrammer; I
make maps and doodle alongside my memowriting.
What Clarke proposes is a more elaborate version of this.
Such an approach might be helpful to people who need
permission to get “messy,” which is what Clarke
encourages, but I am not convinced people need a
mapping system. The approach is reminiscent of Strauss
and Corbin’s intricate axial coding system, which so many
novice and experienced researchers have found
unworkable.

An area where I had hoped Clarke, as someone who
has worked grounded theory studies, might provide some
technique is in the treatment of discourse. Discourses,
narrative, visual, and historical, she tells us, are critical for
examination, as they give insight into how certain practices
have come into existence and maintain their power. I am a
proponent of this view and find some levels of discourse
analysis important in my studies of media, politics, and
culture. Yet grounded theory and discourse analysis in its
strictest sense have different goals. The latter is more
concerned with technical attention to detail. Not only are
specific words important; an analyst might want to pay
attention to repeated patterns of syntax, for instance.
Further, there are analytical protocols for photos and other
visual materials. When taking up the issue of these
materials, including historical documents, there are many
questions about how we might reconcile classic grounded
theory’s rejection of “worrisome accuracy” with various
discourse methods’ desire for greater or full coverage of
data. For some studies, I think it is enough to bring my
theoretical sensitivity of ethnomethodology and other
perspectives dealing with how people give accounts and
explanations; in other words, do a discourseinformed
analysis of my data, but not a discourse analysis project.
Yet Ian Dey’s infamous criticism of grounded theory’s
“smash and grab” approach to data needs some
examination to better reconcile a general view among
discourse and other qualitative researchers that certain
datasets, a collection of photos or historical documents, for
instance, need to be treated systematically and more
completely than grounded theory’s guidelines of
“saturation” would concede. What Clarke could have done
for me and other readers curious about how discourse
might be better integrated into our work systematically was
explicate the challenges and her solutions. Although four of
her seven chapters are dedicated to aspects of discourse,
her treatment of the subject is ultimately weak. I finished
the book with a sense of muchadoaboutsomething,
but not grounded theory.

The Constructivist Grounded Theorist

Charmaz’s Constructing Grounded Theory provides the
more compact, howto, and the book is very much about
grounded theory, albeit with a slant toward Charmaz’s
“constructivist” view. Unlike Clarke’s oftencircuitous
discussion and further need to explain herself in an
Epilogue titled “ FAQ and Conversations” elucidating the
rationale for her mapping system, Charmaz’s approach is
straightforward and clear, even as she takes up the
substantial and subtle differences between ‘constructivist’
and ‘objectivist’ grounded theory. Charmaz’s book is both
an introductory text and reference for all the varieties of
grounded theorists. She lays out the history (neither
influence gets shortchanged here), then moves on to
chapters on gathering data, coding, memowriting,
theoretical sorting, and writing, providing some discussion
of differing grounded theory approaches. The writing
chapter may be of special interest to people who have done
their grounded theory dissertation and are now thinking of
presenting the work for publications. Charmaz takes on the
issue of “the disputed literature review” (p. 165), raising
many of the same points contributors to this do in their
discussion about grounded theory’s relationship to extant
literature. Charmaz goes even further with practical advice
about how to integrate new grounded theories with existing
literature as part of a broader discussion about writing a
theoretical framework and doing it with style. She advises
that the theory gets sharper with each iteration, but she
also notes the importance of keeping the core argument in
sight. Yet, as Charmaz instructs, it is not enough simply to
present an argument by cutting and pasting memos
together; the bar for writing in scholarly publications,
particularly qualitative research, has raised in the last
couple of decades.

Most edifying and challenging to classic grounded
theorists probably will be Charmaz’s discussion on the
differences between “constructivist” and “objectivist”
grounded theory. Constructivist grounded theory, according
to Charmaz, is more sensitized by interpretive traditions
and interpretive theorizing, which she writes, “assumes
emergent, multiple realities, indeterminancy; facts and
values as linked; truth as provisional; and social life as
processual” (p. 126). Objectivist grounded theory is more
oriented to positivist traditions and positive theory, which
“seeks causes, favors deterministic explanations, and
emphasize generality and universality” (p. 126).
Contrasting constructivist grounded theory and objectivist
grounded theory, Charmaz writes that constructivists view
“data and analysis as created from shared experiences and
relationships with participants and other sources of data,”
while objectivists attend to “data as real in and of
themselves and” while ignoring the processes through
which the data are produced (p. 130-131). “An objectivist
grounded theorists assumes that data represent objective
facts about a knowable world” (p. 131). Charmaz writes
that while the constructivist examines the how and why
behind participants’ constructions of “meanings and actions
in specific situations” (p. 130) as well as the situations and
relationships in which the participants are embedded, the
objectivist “erases the social context from which data
emerge, the influence of the researcher, and often the
interactions between grounded theorists and their research
participants” (p. 131). To build her arguments, Charmaz
spends some time addressing Glaser’s views, as expressed
in his writing, as classic grounded theory is the most
objectivist of the grounded theory variants, in her view.
(Worth noting is that Charmaz has some arguments to
counter Michael Burawoy and Derek Layder, highprofile
critics of grounded theory.) Charmaz also concedes that
the issue of constructivist versus objectivist is often one of
emphasis; some people may be more of one in some
studies than they are in others.

The section of the book that best captures what
Charmaz is getting at when she attempts to contrast
versions of grounded theory is a discussion of theory
versus theorizing. Grounded theorists, she observes, often
debate what stands as theory. To a classic grounded
theorist, theory is an integrated series of concepts
integrated by a core concept. For other grounded theorists,
one overarching concept will do. Although she is in
agreement with the need for conceptualization, judicious
use of theoretical coding, and grounded theory as a fullservice
methodology, she is more supportive of more
diffuse grounded theory, a product that need not have a
core category. What Charmaz admits she ultimately prefers
is theorizing, an engagement with data that is open to
making connections and looking under data for latent
possibilities, as well as imagined what might not be
evident. “Part of the interpretive task is being alert to
possibilities for moving the analysis beyond the definitive
evidence you currently have” (p. 148).

The Detour versus the Road Less Taken

I know how some readers will react to this statement
from Charmaz, which brings to mind an experience my
officemate had with a student who was assigned a
response paper on some readings. When the colleague
pointed out it was clear the student had not done the
reading, the student retorted, “I was theorizing.” To the
unschooled, theorizing can seem like an anythinggoes
proposition. Theorizing, however, is a learned practice that
can help researchers develop theoretical sensitivity. As
Charmaz writes, “When you theorize, you reach down to
fundamentals, up to abstractions, and probe into
experience” (p. 135). I am all for such a workout. One
good grounded concept can do a lot of work and provide
fodder for several publications. But here’s where classic
grounded theorists are left with the question: shall we take
the postmodern turn?

I am in agreement with some of Clarke’s and
Charmaz’s criticisms about unreflexive and oversimplified
grounded theories. The difference between my view and
theirs is I am not certain a lack of reflexivity and other
limitations are inherent in classic grounded theory; rather,
I think weaknesses in these works, from the tiny topics and
data sets to the restricted analysis, are the limitations of
the grounded theorists. More people from the practical
professions who find their way to grounded theory would
do well to learn more about qualitative methodologies and
get more familiar with social and cultural theory trends. Yet
that remedy does not address the broader and more
immediate question of grounded theory and the
postmodern turn.

While there is no precise data on it, some of us who
have attended the Grounded Theory Institute’s
troubleshooting seminars have started to think there might
be a discernible difference between who uses classic
grounded theory or objectivist grounded theory and those
who opt for more postmodern or other au courant variants.
The seminars are heavily attended by people from the
practical professions, nursing, social work, information
management, for example, often practitioners working on
doctoral degrees so they can teach and inform practice in
their fields. Glaser puts it more bluntly in Doing Grounded
Theory (1998, p.4):

… grounded theory has made little inroads into
those academic fields where the analytic interests of
academics, not the subjects, are the only relevant
interests in the field. Academic interests are
typically quite benign; that is, they are of no
consequence that can be considered crucial to
anybody’s fate.

In contrast, Glaser writes, fields dealing with “high
impact dependent variables, variables that deal with
learning, pain and profit” (p. 4) were more interested in
methodologies that allow response to critical and constantly
changing circumstances. For people working grounded
theory in health studies, business, and other fields, and to
some degree my area of media/journalism research, the
type of theorizing Charmaz advocates is not as effective for
some of the reasons Clarke and Charmaz champion diffuse
theories: the indeterminancy makes intervention and
accountability more difficult to bring about. Although I
enjoy the intellectual stimulation I get when I read the kind
of work Clarke and Charmaz do, I nevertheless appreciate
that classic and objectivist grounded theories are often
important for the practical fields in which they are
published. That potency is due to classic grounded theory’s
insistence on a theory grounded in data, a core category,
and integrated concepts. It allows for more effective
communication on the floor where the work is getting done,
and it is what makes classic grounded theory unique. Right
now classic grounded theory is still a method unrealized, a
road less taken, in the creation, dissemination and
adoption of substantive and formal theory. Shall we take
the postmodern turn? Classic grounded theory can learn
from its critics, but a full embrace of postmodernist
critiques would be an unnecessary detour.

Author

Vivian B. Martin
Associate Professor
Department of English (Journalism Program)
Central Connecticut State University
1615 Stanley Street
New Britain, CT 06050
Tel: 860 832 2776
Email: martinv@ccsu.edu

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