Selection of Grounded Theory as an Appropriate Research Methodology for a Dissertation: One Student’s Perspective

James W. Jones, Ed.D.

Abstract

Doctoral students wanting to use grounded theory as a
methodological approach for their dissertation often face multiple
challenges gaining acceptance of their approach by their
committee. This paper presents the case that the author used to
overcome these challenges through the process of eliminating
other methodologies, leaving grounded theory as the preferred
method for the desired research issue. Through examining the
approach used successfully by the author, other doctoral students
will be able to frame similar arguments justifying the use of
grounded theory in their dissertations and seeing the use of the
method continue to spread into new fields and applications.
This paper examines the case built for selecting grounded theory
as a defensible dissertation approach. The basic research issue
that I wanted to investigate was how practitioners in an applied
field sought information in their work
; in other words, how they
researched. I further narrowed the investigation down to a more
specific field, but the paper presented here is left in broader form
so that other students can see the approach in more general
terms.

Introduction

“How often have I said to you that when you have
eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however
improbable
, must be the truth?” … Sherlock Holmes to
Watson in The Sign of the Four (Doyle, 1950, p. 163)

Like many other doctoral students aspiring to use grounded
theory for their dissertations, I had a graduate committee
comprised of members who had never supervised a dissertation
that used grounded theory and whose members had never done
grounded theory themselves. As there were no other faculty
members on campus who were experts in the approach, and
because a dissertation exclusively using grounded theory had
never been done on that campus, I had to fill the role of both
educator and sales representative for the approach.

For me, the key to being successful in this approach was to
show how grounded theory was not just one possible approach for
the desired purpose of the study, but in fact the only appropriate
methodology. I moved from broad research issues down to more
focused examples, eliminating all the “impossible” (as Holmes put
it), eventually leaving grounded theory as the only acceptable
choice for the study.

I deliberately selected texts and references that had been
used in previous courses with the committee members as it was
felt that they would make relevant exemplars. The intent was to
use resources that the committee members were familiar with
and already trusted in order to make the case, so that the
argument could be kept focused on the methodology rather than
the references. Other references that were similar in research
intent were also used to illustrate the acceptability in the
academic community of the approach, albeit in other disciplines.
This resulted in a more limited but focused literature review than
might be used in other instances, but one that was intended to be
more persuasive.

Research Approach and Intent

Research has been defined as “the formal, systematic
application of the scientific and disciplined inquiry approach to
the study of problems” (Gay & Airasian, 2003, p.3). Just as
there are many different types of problems, there are
consequently many different types of research methodologies
used to investigate them. Glatthorn and Joyner (2005) see the
research problem and how to investigate it as intimately
intertwined, “The identification of the problem and the choice of
methodology may be seen as an interactive process, with each
influencing the other” (p. 46). Selecting the appropriate
methodology for a research problem is therefore much like
selecting the right tool out of your toolbox; you might be able to
get the job done with screwdriver, but it will not be as effective or
efficient if you really needed a hammer all along.

There are several important factors to consider when
selecting a methodology. Madsen (1992) states, “Once you have
set forth the research problem…you must set forth precise steps
you propose to take to answer your question and solve your
problem” (p. 68). Sogunro (2002) describes this process:

When faced with the question of which method to choose
in conducting research…the following factors are
important for consideration: matching research purposes
and questions with methods; depth of study of
phenomena; availability of resources (money, time, etc
[sic]); availability of supporting literature; ‘knowledge pay
off’ (i.e., which approach will produce more useful
knowledge); and ‘style’ or preference for a method….and
so forth. (p. 8)

Note that the first factor Sogunro (2002) advises us to
consider is the research purpose. The purpose of the research will
drive the rest of the process of selecting an appropriate
methodology. Merriam and Simpson (2000) posit, “Ultimately the
value or purpose of research in an applied field is to improve the
quality of practice of that discipline” (p. 7). While this lofty goal of
improving practice may indeed be the ultimate goal of the
researcher, contributing aspects must be examined as well.

First, whose practice is the researcher interested in
improving? For the given case of examining how practitioners
seek information, the answer to this question may have dramatic
effects in the selection of an appropriate methodology. For
example, if the researcher was the manager of practitioners and
ultimately only wanted to improve the practice of the
practitioners directly under his or her charge, this would be a
very important consideration. In this case, an action research
approach might be most appropriate, since “its purpose is to
obtain knowledge that can be applied directly to a particular
situation” and does not require hypothesis formulation, extensive
procedural planning, or experimental condition control (Merriam &
Simpson, 2000).

On the other hand, if the researcher is an information
manager at a particular firm who is considering subscribing to an
improved online search service, action research may not be the
most appropriate choice. Instead, the information manager might
really only want to know how much practitioners currently use
the current package to evaluate whether or not an upgrade would
be worthwhile. In this case, evaluation or evaluation research
might be appropriate where a decision will be made based on the
systematic collection and analysis of data (Boulmetis & Dutwin,
2005; Gay & Airasian, 2003).

In addition to whose practice the researcher is interested in
improving, the researcher must consider the intended audience
for the research. In the examples discussed above, the action
researcher or the evaluation researcher may or may not be
interested in preparing and/or presenting the results to anyone
else. It may simply be a separate project undertaken in the course
of other duties, or it may be formalized in a report to upper
management for approval. On the other hand, a pragmatic
academic may want to publish the findings in peer reviewed
journals that require more rigorous and/or replicable
methodological treatments. This too would influence the
researcher’s definition of the ultimate purpose for the
investigation. Dissertations related to an applied field may want
to appeal to audiences in both industry and academia.

The preferences and skills of the researcher must also be
honestly evaluated (Brause, 2000; Glatthorn & Joyner, 2005). If
the researcher dislikes interacting with people, methodologies
that use interviews may not be desirable. If the researcher
dislikes statistical analysis, a quantitative approach may be
unsuitable. Besides simple likes and dislikes, acknowledgement
of skills and preferences towards certain methods may be given
and evaluated. For example, if the researcher has extensive
experience in correlational research but another approach is
warranted, new and/or additional skills may have to be obtained.

There are also other practical considerationsl. As mentioned
previously by Sogunro (2002), the resources available,
particularly money and time, must be considered. There are at
least two related aspects of time that might affect the researcher
in the selection of a methodology: the time that the results are
required or desired and the time that it will take to produce
them. As Glatthorn and Joyner (2005) state, “In general,
qualitative studies take more time than quantitative ones.
Ethnographic studies are especially time-sensitive” (p. 46). If the
researcher needs the results in a month, this will clearly limit the
choice of methodologies or preclude the proper conduct of the
study altogether.

Methodology Selection

With the above considerations in mind, the researcher begins
to be guided towards certain methodologies and away from
others. For the purposes of this paper, it will be assumed that
there are no overriding constraints on methodology, such as
publishing in a journal devoted to a particular approach or
having to have the results in a month. Further, it will be assumed
that the research will not be used or consumed solely by the
researcher, but will be presented to at least a limited audience of
academics and professionals with the goal of explaining and
potentially even predicting this information-seeking behavior.
The final product is a defensible dissertation of the quality
expected of a doctoral candidate and the utility to be used by
practitioners.

Although one of the stated intents of the research is for it to
ultimately be applied by practitioners in the field, there is no
desire to judge the information-seeking behavior of the
participants, only to learn what it is. Although considered a form
of applied research, evaluation research approaches would
therefore be categorically rejected in this case, as they are
intended to be used in rating and making decisions on the
subject, as discussed previously.

The process therefore turns back to the research question
itself. The key word in the research problem is the interest in how
practitioners seek information. In general, a study to of how or
why things are a certain way would indicate a qualitative
approach would be most suitable (Gay & Airasian, 2003, p. 13).
This allows for the development of hypotheses about how the
behavior occurs, in contrast to a quantitative approach, which
would test hypotheses (Gay & Airasian, 2003, p. 8-9). As
recommended by Merriam and Simpson, if it is revealed “that no
theory fits the phenomenon under investigation, the one study
goal may be to formulate a theory and/or hypothesis to explain
observed events or behavior” (2000, p. 27).

However, eliminating approaches that are exclusively
quantitative only narrows the field of potential methodologies
slightly; there are a host of qualitative approaches left to
consider. Action research, discussed previously, is considered a
qualitative approach, but it is also considered to be nongeneralizable
and limited to the specific conditions under which it
was conducted (Merriam & Simpson, 2000). Since the
researcher has a specific audience of both academics and
practitioners in mind, with the intent of the research being
applied, action research would therefore be eliminated from
consideration. Since the researcher is interested in current
practices, historical research methods are also inappropriate.
This leaves several other options remaining.

A case study approach would allow detailed investigation
into how a practitioner or practitioners seek information. Perry
(1998) believes that case studies are particularly suitable for
offering realistic portrayals of behavior:

Given this appropriateness of realism for case study
research, the research problems addressed in theses are
more descriptive than prescriptive, for example, no
positivist experiments or cause-and-effect paths are
required to solve the research problem. That is, the
research problem is usually a “how do?” problem rather
than a “how should?” problem. This “how do” rather than
“how should” problem captures the positive versus
normative dichotomy, for case study research is concerned
with describing real world phenomena rather than
developing normative decision models. (p. 787)

This fits the stated research problem of how do practitioners
research. Case studies are likely to provide some important
information, as Stake (2005) discusses:

We recognize a large population of hypothetical cases and
a small subpopulation of accessible cases….On
representational grounds, the epistemological opportunity
seems small, but we are optimistic that we can learn
some important things from almost any case. We choose
one case or a small number of exemplars. (p. 451)

While learning something is a good start, the case study approach
has several drawbacks for the proposed study, which focuses on
how practitioners in an applied field seek information. First, it
may be difficult to actually define a case to study for this
research. Stake (2005) explains:

Custom has it that not everything is a case. A child
[patient] may be a case, easy to specify. A doctor may be a
case. But his or her doctoring probably lacks the
specificity, the boundedness, to be called a case. (p. 444)

Similarly, a practitioner seeking information may likewise not be
a suitable case for study. More importantly, while a case study
would provide a lot of detail about that particular practitioner
being examined, this may be inadequate for the given purpose,
since the researcher wants to know how practitioners (plural)
seek information. Hodkinson and Hodkinson (2001) point this
limitation of case studies out:

They are not generalisable [sic] in the conventional sense.
By definition, case studies can make no claims to be
typical….because the sample is small and idiosyncratic,
and because data is predominantly non-numerical, there
is no way to establish the probability that data is
representative of some larger population. For many
researchers and others, this renders any case study
findings as of little value. (p. 10)

This leaves us to consider other methodologies as more
appropriate.

Ethnography is another qualitative approach that could be
considered for this project. Gay and Airasian (2003) define
ethnography as “a qualitative approach that studies the
participants in their natural setting” (p. 16). This definition
seems appropriate for the given study, as the researcher wants to
know how practitioners seek information in their natural work
setting. However, as Groat and Wang (2002) elaborate:

Although it emphasizes in-depth engagement with its
subject…the researcher’s aim is not to create an
explanatory theory that can be applied to many settings.
Rather, ethnographic research culminates in a rich and
full delineation of a particular setting that persuades a
wide audience of its human validity. (p. 182)

This level of detail and focus on the context, while potentially
interesting, are not what the researcher is seeking in this
instance, eliminating ethnography as a suitable methodology for
this study.

Although not exclusively a qualitative method, a grounded
theory approach may also be considered for this research. The
researcher is looking for a way of explaining how practitioners in
an applied field seek information; in other words, a theory of how
this is done in actual practice. Building a theory based on, or
grounded in, actual data is specifically what a grounded theory
methodology is designed to do. Glaser (1998) defines grounded
theory as “the systematic generation of theory from data acquired
by a rigorous research method” (p. 3).

Grounded theory is used to investigate problems of why and
how in a systematic way, one that is “grounded” in the data itself
rather than being deduced logically or hypothetically. It is
particularly well suited for fields of practice, as it can be used to
“give the practitioner a conceptual tool with which to guide
practice” (Merriam & Simpson, 2000, p. 113). This satisfies the
aforementioned overall goal of applied research of improving
practice.

Another advantage of the grounded theory approach is its
flexibility with regard to data collection and analysis (Glaser &
Strauss, 1967). This is particularly important in this case because
the researcher wants to know how the practitioners actually seek
information, which presents difficulties with regard to data
collection, as the behavior may not be possible to directly observe.
As noted in Ellis’ (1993) grounded theory study of the
information-seeking patterns of academics, the use of direct
observation is “almost totally impracticable” (p. 475) due to the
nature of the study. Even if access and timing worked to the
researcher’s favor and he was present at the exact moment that a
practitioner was seeking information, the actions would not be
transparent and would not allow any depth of understanding,
specifically regarding the “how” issues, to be obtained.
Furthermore, the situation would certainly not ameliorate itself
were the researcher to continuously ask the practitioner what
they were doing, why they were doing it that way, and what
influences were acting upon their decision making process. The
observation of research would, by definition, end at that point,
with the possible outcome being that the researcher would no
longer be welcome in the setting.

Data collection methods other than observation, are
therefore required. While journaling or diaries would be possible
approaches, they have several drawbacks. First, it is doubtful
that they would be properly maintained, if completed at all, by
busy practitioners. This is particularly true of personnel in an
applied industry, who might not be familiar with journaling and
may view the process as strange and/or uncomfortable. As Ellis
(1993) stated in regard to his study of academic research
activities,

The use of diaries…would have relied on the willingness
and ability of the researchers to complete the diaries, and,
even if the researchers had been able to complete them, it
is questionable whether they would have been able to
have done so comprehensively and accurately (p.475).

Furthermore, the data collection would still be post hoc; no
one would stop in the middle of their information-seeking to
record their actions, thoughts, and motivations. Finally, the
collection process would be slowed considerably as the diaries
were completed, collected, and read before learning if they
contained information of value to the researcher.

Grounded theory often employs interviewing as its data
collection technique, and this appears most appropriate in this
case. Interviews are particularly suited for this approach; as
Fontana and Frey (2005) stated, “the focus of interviews is
moving to encompass the hows of people’s lives…as well as the
traditional whats” (p. 698). These hows and whats are exactly
what the researcher is seeking.

As with any methodology, there are several potential
criticisms of grounded theory as an appropriate research tool for
this study. A common criticism of grounded theory studies is that
they are not “real” research. These criticisms are nothing new; in
1967 Glaser and Strauss noted that “qualitative research is
generally labeled ‘unsystematic,’ ‘impressionistic,’ or
‘exploratory'” (1967, p. 223). However, these criticisms fall short
in the case of grounded theory as a methodology. It is not
exclusively qualitative; it has a systemic process including
sampling, coding, and memoing; it is based on data rather than
impressions; and, while it can explore new subject matter, is a
complete methodology rather than simply a starting point for
further (presumably quantitative) research.

The acceptance of the grounded theory framework has been
evinced by its inclusion in a host of research texts, in subjects
ranging from architecture (Groat & Wang, 2002) to education
(Gay & Airasian, 2003; Merriam & Simpson, 2000) to qualitative
research in general (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005) (while it uses
qualitative data, it is not a qualitative method). As Glaser has
noted, grounded theory has “product proof” which nullifies
criticisms: “Let the product legitimize it self [sic], as it is doing in
health, education, and business professions, where it is crucial to
have relevant research that works” (1998, p. 16).

Grounded theory is therefore the most appropriate
methodology for this research study. It allows the researcher to
determine how practitioners actually seek information in their
field and develop a theory to explain and predict this behavior.
Although there are minor concerns with the methodology, these
are outweighed by its applicability for this situation.

Conclusion

The persuasions described previously convinced my
committee that grounded theory was not just the best
methodology for this study, but was in fact the only appropriate
choice. This allowed me to gain the committee’s acceptance with
grounded theory as the methodological approach and for the
study to progress. While there were certainly still other
challenges to the use of grounded theory for a dissertation
proposal, the acceptance of the method in general was a key
factor in the overall success of my completing the process and
successfully defending my dissertation in the summer of 2008.

Author

James W. Jones, Ed.D.
Construction Management Program Coordinator and
Assistant Professor of Technology
Applied Technology Building 207D
Ball State University
Muncie, Indiana
Email: jwjones@bsu.edu

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