Learning Classic Grounded Theory: An Account of the Journey and Advice for New Researchers

Carol Roderick, Ph.D.

Abstract

Graduate students who employ CGT for their theses or
dissertations predominantly learn the methodology on their own.
As a distinct methodology, CGT is challenging to employ. This
challenge increases further when graduate students encounter
poor advice from dissertation supervisors who are unfamiliar
with the methodology, or attempt to incorporate elements from
the many alternative and modified versions of grounded theory
presented in the literature. This article provides an account of
one student’s experience learning CGT to complete her doctoral
dissertation. It is hoped that this article will assist other new
researchers to anticipate some of the confusion, challenges, and
insights, and growth that they may encounter in their first CGT
study. The article concludes with advice for new researchers
including: seek expertise, engage in community, just do it, know
self, and balance challenge and support.

Introduction

Classic grounded theory [CGT] is a fundamentally distinct
methodology. It does not fit within the established qualitative or
quantitative paradigms. Instead, it stands on its own and can use
all as data (Holton, 2007). While there is a growing body of
literature focusing on the experiences of learning to do qualitative
research (Drago-Severson, Asghar, Gaylor, 2003; Gale, 1990;
Hein, 2004, Hughes, & Berry, 2000), little has been written about
the experience of learning classic grounded theory from the
novice’s perspective.

Graduate students who aspire to employ CGT for their
theses or dissertations predominantly learn the methodology on
their own as ‘minus mentorees’ (Glaser, 1998). Few individuals
have access to relevant graduate level courses or a dissertation
supervisor experienced in CGT. In fact, because of the many ways
CGT has been altered and modified since Discovery of
Grounded Theory
(Glaser & Strauss, 1967) was first published,
many individuals who supervise CGT dissertations may have
misunderstandings of the methodology.

This article provides an account of my experience learning
CGT to complete my doctoral dissertation. I hope that my account
will assist other researchers, new to classic grounded theory, to
anticipate some of the confusion, challenges, insights and
growth that they may encounter in their first CGT study. I hope
that elements of my journey resonate with other researchers, and
provide them with company in what can be a long and lonely
dissertation journey. In the process of completing my
dissertation, I learned many valuable lessons. These lessons
serve as advice that should interest doctoral students engaged in
CGT and may help them to avoid pitfalls along the dissertation
path. This article also provides insight into the process of
learning CGT that can inform the design and teaching of CGT in
various contexts, and the mentoring of students employing the
methodology.

Account of the Journey

My journey began with an initial resistance to all things
grounded theory, followed by gradually understanding the
methodology and some of the ways it has been modified, to
actually conducting and completing my dissertation. This journey
explicates some of the challenges and highlights that I
encountered as I tried it out, made mistakes, got stuck, read, felt
frustrated, had ‘Aha!’ moments, revised previous work, and took
incremental steps forward before getting stuck again.

Getting Acquainted with Grounded Theory

I was first introduced to grounded theory as one of a
smorgasbord of methodologies in a graduate level introductory
qualitative research course. At the time grounded theory was a
mystery to me. I was initially turned away from grounded theory
by what seemed to be inflexible and rigid procedures and
confusing terminology. Two years into my doctoral studies,
however, I began exploring using grounded theory methodology
for my dissertation. I read the seminal text Discovery of
Grounded Theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) and quickly saw the
potential offered by CGT to produce a dissertation that would be
practical and significant. CGT is a rigorous methodology,
containing directions for each aspect of the research process while
also allowing for creativity and intuition (Glaser, 1998).

As part of my doctoral studies, I had to successfully complete
three comprehensive examinations. These examinations took the
form of essays and presentations, and included one examination
focused on methodology. While completing my examination on
grounded theory, I wrestled with the various forms of the method,
examined its evolution, and its congruence with philosophical
paradigms. I came to understand that my initial resistance
reflects extensive diversity within what researchers call grounded
theory. The many ways researchers have altered and changed the
methodology since Discovery of Grounded Theory (Glaser &
Strauss, 1967) was published has led to various reformulations,
contradictions, and modifications and caused considerable
confusion. This exploration solidified my interest in pursuing
classic grounded theory, the methodology as it was originally
conceived.

Given that I began my dissertation trained in qualitative
methods, my first attempts at CGT somewhat distorted the
methodology. I started well intentioned but inexperienced. As I
progressed, I engaged in “a set of double-back steps” (Glaser
1978, p. 16) to revise my previous work in concert with my
developing understanding. I trust that I am not the only
individual who has experienced this: “beginning researchers, as
much as they want to do GT, come to research with many
positivistic rules and method procedures that inhibit their
openness to not knowing and that keep them preconceiving”
(Glaser, 2001, p. 82). I cycled through the various procedures
“learning from each attempt and developing clarity and
confidence in their application” (Holton, 2007, p. 266).

The substantive area for my dissertation was the senior
year of undergraduate study. I framed my research question as
‘What is the key concern of senior undergraduate students and
how do they attempt to resolve this concern?’ I began by
interviewing students as they approached graduation at a single
university and then extended my sampling to other universities.
The thirty formal interviews that I conducted included students
enrolled in a variety of academic programs, both women and men
aged 20-25 from a range of socio-economic backgrounds and levels
of parental education. I developed and employed a demographic
questionnaire, and tape-recorded and transcribed each of these
interviews despite Glaser’s (1998) advice against it. After each
interview, I created field notes, listened to the recording, and
performed an initial coding and analysis. Mirroring my growing
confidence and ability, I would now choose to rely on extensive
field notes rather than tapes.

After three interviews, I thought that students’ main
concern was figuring out what to do after graduation. I
restructured my interview guide accordingly but soon realized
that this was not students’ main concern. I was confused and
frustrated: “Why wasn’t the methodology working?” I was
overwhelmed with data, and had no idea how to do constant
comparison. My highly descriptive codes did not reveal much
about what was going in the substantive area. I decided that I
should try to more closely adhere to the guidelines of classic
grounded theory. Patiently, with several repeated attempts to
code, compare, and memo, I began to see reoccurring incidents of
resisting planning life after graduation, seeking assistance to plan
life after graduation, and avoiding assistance to plan life after
graduation
.

One day I arrived at an interview and realized that I did not
have my interview guide and demographic questionnaire. After a
moment of panic, I asked the student simply to tell me about
being a graduating student. The interview flowed well and I
learned more in this interview than I had in others because I was
listening differently. At this point, I ceased using my interview
guide: “Many still try to use standard data collection techniques
until they shed them, especially set units, interview guides and
taping. They shed them as they see that they interfere with
generating theory as GT purposes” (Glaser, 2001, p. 46). The
result was freeing, and communicated clearly to participants that
I was not looking for ‘right’ answers to my questions. I also knew
better what questions to ask having become increasingly
sensitive through analysis, coding, memo-making, and
interviewing. I ceased my directed questioning and shifted
towards emergence.

Until then, my theoretical sampling consisted of obtaining
more male participants, to balance my sample, that included
more females than males, and seeking students from a diversity
of programs and universities as revealed through my
demographic questionnaire. Upon reflection, I can see how much
of this sampling was not theoretical but based on my presumption
of the relevance of gender, program of study, and other
demographic information. I did not understand the full meaning
of ‘do not assume the relevance of any face sheet variable
including age, sex, social class, race, skin color, academic
discipline, etc. unless it emerges as relevant’ (Glaser, 1978, 2002).
In the end, much of the information that I collected using this
questionnaire was of little relevance.

Through my best first attempts, the graduating student
experience seemed to be about exploring identity, values, career
goals, and planning life after graduation. I had two key concerns:
responding to the pressure of figuring out life after graduation
and facing adulthood.

Trusting CGT

While ordering books from the Sociology Press website, I
stumbled upon advertisements for the Grounded Theory Institute
seminars. I applied and was accepted to a seminar, in Mill Valley,
California that would be facilitated by Dr. Barney Glaser, cooriginator
of the methodology: I was thrilled and terrified. At the
time, I did not know how valuable these seminars would be for
my learning and how well they would complement the mentoring
of my supervisory committee. The seminar required that I share
my research. Although I was told that this sharing would be
informal, I had no idea what was actually expected. I was I
worried that I was off track. I knew that I was not supposed to
tape record, transcribe, or employ a demographic questionnaire.
Motivated largely by fear of critique, I decided that if I was going
to attend the seminar, I had better employ the full methodology. I
turned all of my transcribed interviews into field notes and put
the demographic questionnaire permanently aside. Cycling back
to the beginning once again, I coded the field notes rather than
interview transcripts. This eased data management and helped to
realign my work with the methodology.

Sharing of my research was scheduled for the second day of
the seminar. I was prepared with typed and photocopied
handouts. When I arrived for the opening social I found myself
excitedly talking grounded theory with new found colleagues and
friends. It was welcoming and friendly. I did not need to be
afraid. Many seminar attendees were also in the midst using
grounded theory for their doctoral dissertations, and others, more
experienced in the methodology, were there to observe and to
assist. During an intense two and a half days we talked,
breathed, and lived grounded theory. It was a complete
immersion. I learned so much that by the time it was my turn to
present, I had completely reworked my handouts to reflect my
seminar learning.

When I presented, I began by explaining the methodology I
had used to date, including how I had begun preconceived and off
track. I then shared the rationale for the study and bits of field
notes and concepts that had emerged. I was asked to share more
about certain aspects of my research. I discussed the potential
core category: securing a good future, “if you want to secure a
good spot, you try to increase your grade point average or get
involved in particular extra curricular activities, you do whatever
you can to get yourself to where you want to be”. This concept has
since evolved into opportunizing (Christiansen, 2006). I explained
that some students whom I interviewed talked not about work as
what they are going to do, but as who they are, as if it was their
identity.

Many seminar participants seemed to be able to relate to the
incidents that I shared and contributed their own. One
experienced participant suggested that my study was likely a
typology. While this was indeed the case, I did not have the
main concern isolated. I learned that I had likely collected enough
data for several studies and had been going for full coverage with
my analysis. I had to delimit my research to a single concern even
though it seemed students had many. I was also cautioned that
what I thought was the main concern might really be a
professional concern and not that of participants. I was told to go
back to the data and let the data tell me where to go.

Although some of the feedback I received was difficult to
accept, I was very grateful for the insights. The seminar was
energizing and furthered my learning immensely. The notion of
conceptualizing gradually gained more meaning for me, although
my skills needed further development. I was not alone: “many
novice, and sometimes experienced, grounded theorists encounter
difficulty raising the level of theoretical abstraction form
description to theory” (Schreiber, 2001, p. 77).

Gaining Confidence

After the seminar, I reviewed, recoded, and recompared
incidents in my field notes, memoing about the relationships
between these incidents. I tried sorting my memos, doubting
whether I would ever be able to bring the theory together. I tried,
but struggled, to relate conceptual categories and properties to
each other to stay on a conceptual level rather than a descriptive
level. I uncovered a new central concern: the pressure to
commodify self
, defined as the pressure to transform oneself into
a marketable product for the workforce. I also uncovered what I
thought was a set of strategies that students use to resolve this
pressure.

I attended a second Grounded Theory Institute seminar in
Halifax, Nova Scotia facilitated by Dr. Holton. This seminar
increased my confidence, added depth to my understanding, and
immersed me once again in a community of like-minded
researchers. During the seminar I realized how learning CGT
requires being open, and being able to respond to feedback and
suggestions constructively. What individuals leave the seminars
with is not necessarily what they expected, but rather what they
actually need help with. The seminar increased my ability to
conceptualize and I began identifying when I was conceptualizing
and when I was slipping into description; this is an ability that I
am still continuing to develop.

I shared a draft of my theory with my supervisory committee
who provided useful feedback and affirmed my work. They were
so impressed that any concerns they initially had with the
methodology were forgotten. I attended a third grounded theory
seminar in which I presented students’ responses to the pressure
to commodify self
. Using theoretical coding, I identified what I
thought were three strategies: complying with commodfication
(employed to achieve economic prosperity and social status),
resisting commodification (employed to seek happiness and self
fulfillment no matter the economic cost and often without
considering the economic consequences), and humanizing
commodification
(employed to maintain a sense of authentic self
while attaining a certain level of financial prosperity), and seven
factors that influence the use of these strategies. I was provided
with suggestions for illustration dosage, literature to review,
writing, as well as when to let go of incidents that do not fit.

In addition to the 30 taped and transcribed interviews, my
data collection also involved less formal interviews with
additional students, parents of senior students, faculty, and
student affairs and services providers. For example, I presented
the theory at an international conference in my field. The theory
was well received, and those who came to my presentation
contributed further examples of students’ experiences that I later
incorporated into the theory using constant comparison. The
various presentations I attended also provided further data, and
allowed me to see that the pressure to commodify self likely
extends beyond the substantive area into other years of
undergraduate study. Other interviews typically resulted from
being asked about my research; as soon as I shared what I was
studying, people wanted to talk. Incidents from these interviews
were written up in field notes.

Later, in conversation with a colleague, friend, and fellow
grounded theorist, I realized that the appropriate theoretical
coding family for my research was the typology family, and not
the strategy family. The strategy family is applied when there is
a conscious effort to maneuver others (Glaser, 1978). In this case,
students were not deliberately maneuvering anyone but rather
attempting to find a place for themselves in the workforce. I
continued to edit, refine, and rework the theory.

When the theory was sufficiently integrated, I reviewed
relevant literature for integration. So much seemed relevant,
making it difficult for me limit the breadth of my reading. I
struggled with how to present the theory. I looked for models and
found examples of classic grounded theory studies that wove the
relevant literature directly into the theory and concluded with a
final chapter explaining the limitations, implications, and calls
for future research. This worked well for me and is in line with
the guidelines for writing within classic grounded theory (Glaser
1978, 1998). To curb potential resistance from my supervisory
committee, I expressed gratitude to them for allowing me to
proceed with the full methodological package although it deviated
from a traditional qualitative layout.

I continued editing my dissertation, strengthening weak
points and restructuring where needed. I continued reading CGT
studies for form and style and my struggle to integrate the
literature gradually dissipated. With a complete draft of my
dissertation submitted, I knew that it would take time for my
supervisory committee to assess it, however, the waiting period
seemed to take forever. I continued to edit and refine. Each
revised draft challenged and extended my thinking and my
writing. Even now that I have successfully defended my
dissertation, I continue to identify areas to edit and revise. This
was my first experience with CGT and no doubt my learning
journey will continue as I engage in future studies.

Advice to Novices

From my experience learning and applying CGT in my
dissertation, I have distilled five pieces of advice that may be of
use to researchers embarking on their first CGT study, including:
1.) seek expertise, 2.) engage in community, 3.) ‘just do it’, 4.)
know self, and 5.) balance challenge and support

Seek expertise

As a novice GT researcher, I employed not only the expertise
of my supervisory committee, but made efforts to connect with
students in my program who were further along in the research
process. I also sought top expertise in CGT that was unavailable
at my university. These experts, particularly fellow grounded
theorists, served as mentors, offered me support and advice, and
challenged me to learn. There are many ways to access grounded
theorists and CGT expertise. I recommend reading the Sociology
Press books and the Grounded Theory Review, and contacting
authors whose work you admire. Locate and review completed
CGT dissertations, analyze these documents in terms of their
structure, degree of conceptualization, and their strengths and
weaknesses (Glaser, 1998). You can also connect with CGT
experts through the Grounded Theory Institute Forum and
seminars (http://www.groundedtheory.com/). Most importantly,
find a mentor for your work. Seek constructive feedback and take
this feedback seriously.

I would concur with Bowen’s (2005) advice on getting
familiar with the work of expert methodologists within your
research tradition and accessing the expertise of your dissertation
committee, “they were my consultants and advisors, and I was
quite fortunate that they also played the role of mentors,
providing counsel and guidance along the way” (p.212).

Engage in community

Research about the learning of qualitative research details
the value of engaging in community and in collaborative and peer
learning (Boardman, Detweiler, Emmerling, Lucas & Schmidt,
2002). Some instructors deliberately encourage their students to
form communities within and outside of a course context (for
example, Davie, 1996; Drago-Severson, Asghar, Gaylor, 2003;
Strauss, 1988). Learning about the research experiences of
others, as Shaffir & Stebbins (1991) note “enables them
[students] to anticipate more accurately the trials and rewards of
their own research efforts (p. xi).

While completing my dissertation I organized a group of
graduate students who met weekly for coffee. We would discuss
our progress, support each other through challenges, and
celebrate our accomplishments. Through the grounded theory
seminars I met many individuals who I could contact when I ran
into trouble. Engaging in community reinforced my learning, and
provided opportunities for intensive and regular feedback. I
recommend finding others who are doing CGT for the first time,
read grounded theory texts together, and discuss what you are
learning and your progress. This can be done either in person, on
the phone, or online.

Just do it

Although my graduate qualitative research courses involved
considerable experiential learning, more of my learning came
from facing real challenges in my dissertation: facing data
overwhelm, struggling with constant comparison, stressing about
how to move from description to conceptualization, and
attempting to integrate the literature. These are likely common
challenges that researchers new to CGT encounter.
My advice aligns with Boardman et al. (2002) who indicate
with respect to qualitative studies, to learn how to research one
has to do it. Relevant literature describes how in course
experiential activities help students learn and to see the research
process (Hein, 2004). Actually participating in research, however,
goes beyond coursework learning, it engages learners, scaffolds
their learning, helps them to build connections with other
scholars, and provides them with experience to mitigate research
anxiety (Lee & Roth, 2003).

Know self

As a graduate student, I felt real pressure to situate my
research within a defined worldview, including an epistemology
and ontology, as is typical within qualitative research. Research
concerning the learning of qualitative research stresses the
importance of exposing students to the philosophy of science in
research methodology courses (Efinger, Maldonado, & McArdle,
2004) and that students determine their methodological
preferences after thorough grounding in the philosophical
assumptions behind the various methodologies (Paul and Marfo,
2001). All that is needed to do classic grounded theory, however,
is an awareness of how you see the world and the willingness to
challenge it as you compare your beliefs with incoming data.
During the proposal phase of my research, I defined my
worldview as largely post-positivist but with elements of
contructivism (Crotty, 2003). Although my worldview did not
shift dramatically while conducting my dissertation, I am now
more sensitive to critical perspectives and am more aware of the
power of societal structures to influence individual experiences.
Worldviews are personal and inform how we see the world. Know
yourself: if you are not open to challenging your worldview, CGT
may not be for you. Instead you may wish to consider a
qualitative or quantitative design nested within an appropriate
paradigm.

Balance challenge and support

When I began my dissertation, I anticipated that I would
encounter some challenges including: tolerating isolation and
periods of confusion and ambiguity, and not forcing the data,
remaining open to the emergent, and trusting to preconscious
processing (Glaser & Holton, 2004). There really were times that
I felt “stupid, young, out of control and like one doesn’t know
anything” (Glaser, 1998, p. 50). Knowing this in advance helped
me accept and surmount these challenges. Throughout my
dissertation process, I continuously challenged myself and sought
support in meeting those challenges. I stretched my comfort zone
first by even attempting CGT, then by attending a grounded
theory seminar, and later by trusting the full CGT methodology. I
sought support when I ran into difficulty analyzing and
presenting my research. I obtained support and was challenged
by my supervisory committee, peers, and the GT community.

To foster learning, student development literature
recommends providing the right mix of challenge and support
(Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991, 2005). Studies focused on learning
qualitative research indicate that students may experience
considerable anxiety in this process, especially when introduced
to qualitative research and philosophical underpinnings (Clark &
Lang, 2002; Huehls, 2005; Poulin, 2007), during analysis (Davie,
1996; Hein, 2004; Tantano Beck, 2003), and when trying to
present their results (Davie, 1996). Hein (2004) recommends that
students seek out and be provided with step-by-step guidance, inclass
practice, and reassurance to relieve their anxiety.

Author

Carol Roderick, Ph.D.
Educational Development Associate
St. Mary’s University
Halifax, NS
Canada
Email: croderic@unb.ca

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