Reading with Methodological Perspective Bias: A journey into Classic Grounded Theory

Rick Deady

Introduction

The following is a naïve narrative of my journey into
classic grounded theory (CGT) and the consideration of the
possible existence of methodological perspective bias when
reviewing literature. Whilst research bias has been viewed
from a number of differing perspectives, such as sample bias,
interviewer bias, publication bias etc (Sica, 2006), there
appears a dearth of discussion within the literature on
methodological perspective bias, as well as, a reluctance to
publicly acknowledge the existence of such bias. For the
purpose of this paper the concept of bias is defined as “a
source of systematic error … deriving from a conscious or
unconscious tendency on the part of a researcher to produce
data, and/or to interpret them, in a way that leans towards
erroneous conclusions which are in line with his or her
commitments” (Hammersley and Gomm, 1997, p.1).

Some time ago I was given a PhD thesis to read, my
colleague thought I might be able to offer some useful insights
since it was relevant to a study I was engaged in. The
methodology used by the PhD candidate was Classic
Grounded Theory (CGT), with which I had passing familiarity
following the usual methodological investigations and
decisions required of an MSc student. Like many MSc
students I needed to qualify my research method in terms of
its fit with the proposed study under investigation. I was,
however, more familiar with positivistic methodologies.
Although convention states that the research method should
fit the study question, in order to develop my research skills I
was keen to experience the use of a qualitative methodology,
consequently I targeted the study towards an investigation of
psychiatric nurses’ lived experiences (Deady, 2005), a subject
area that lent itself to a qualitative methodology. I began to
study seminal texts on qualitative research that were
available to me at the time (e.g. Banister et al, 1994,
Cresswell, 1994, 1998, Denzin and Lincoln, 1998, Moustaka,
1994 Silverman, 2000, Slevin, and Sines, 1999/2000,
Strauss, and Corbin, 1990) and became more familiar with
different methodologies such as phenomenology, ethnography
and grounded theory (2). I concluded that phenomenology was
the methodology suited to the study. The methodology had
easily identifiable qualitative data analysis (QDA) stages,
whereas the general method of Grounded Theory, purporting
to handle both qualitative and quantitative data, was to me at
the time, more difficult to comprehend. Some of this difficulty
related to the unique terminology used, such as emergent fit,
substantive coding, theoretical coding and memoing, which
appeared different to other methodologies, apparently not an
uncommon experience for researchers considering CGT
(Roderick, 2009). As a result, given the time constraint of my
MSc it was more constructive for me to use what I viewed as a
more conventional qualitative research methodology and
chose phenomenology. I became familiar with
phenomenological methodology; in particular, the discussions
on bias, the concept of ‘bracketing’, and epistemological
arguments as to whether it was ever fully achievable. There is
an abundance of advice about avoiding bias throughout the
QDA research process (Silverman, 2000, Moustakas, 1994)
and as a novice researcher I accepted them.

Current Perspectives on Bias in Qualitative Research

The arguments on bias in contemporary qualitative
literature have, however, largely centred on bias during the
research process, that is, during subject selection, data
collection, analysis and publication (Mehra, 2002, Petegrew et
al, 2008, Silverman, 2001). In addition, some authors (e.g.
Denzin, 1989) comment on the issue of bias that the
researcher brings to a study when choosing a research topic.
For Mehra (2002) this bias can influence a study from start to
finish, hence, the dictum that qualitative researchers need to
be self-aware of their personal bias throughout the research
process through reflexivity. There is, however, little or no
discussion about possible methodological perspective bias
when conducting a literature search or review. Whether it is
achievable or desirable to attain a state of complete non-bias
is at best questionable and remains an ongoing debate in the
qualitative literature (Silverman, 2000, Mehra, 2002). There
has, however, been considerable debate within CGT circles on
the notion of “staying open” when using and reviewing
literature (Glaser, 2005, McCallum, 2006, Andrews, 2006,
Nathaniel, 2006, Thulesius, 2006, Ekstöm, 2006). For Glaser
(2005) the goal in conducting CGT is to help the researcher
stay open to the non-forced, non-preconceived discovery. With
these discussions in mind this paper will explore whether the
dominant methodological perspective of the researcher and/or
the reader of literature reviews influences the construction of
the literature review.

The Awareness of Staying Open

My re-reading of the aforementioned doctoral thesis
following an increased familiarity with CGT prompted this
question. On the initial reading I felt that it was a poor piece
of work for what was supposed to be a doctorate. It seemed
“woolly,” and I found myself wondering where the concepts
being discussed had originated and how they were validated.
In essence I think I was unconsciously looking for the QDA
markers, such as ‘report rich narratives’ (Speziale and
Carpenter, 2007, p.20), familiar in phenomenological research
as exemplified by the work of Colaizzi (1978 in Smith, 1996)
and Giorgi (1985). However, following workshops on CGT I
became intrigued with this methodology. In particular, the
realisation that CGT was not a methodology guided by one
theoretical perspective (Glaser, 2005). The notion “all as data”
(Glaser, 1998) was particularly intriguing, as I had felt that
other methodologies tended to have gate-keeping rules to
prevent use of casual or serendipitous observations. In this
regard, Glaser appears to suggest that CGT is not a method
that can be conducted to a prescribed order as by its nature it
embraces what Gibson (2005, p.43) termed epistemological
anarchy. The notion of finding something in the data,
wondering where more data could be found, following its
threads through theoretical sampling and attempting to
capture the underlining pattern in the data requires the
researcher to remain open to the non-forced, non-
preconceived discovery of emergent theoretical codes (Glaser,
2005). In this way data had to earn its relevance in the study.

With this in mind I re-read the thesis, and on this second
reading I found it insightful, it made sense and it had grab. I
realised that I had previously read it with the methodological
bias of a phenomenological perspective and this meant I had
misinterpreted some commentary as subjective and wondered
at the absence of other data. In short, I had misunderstood
the methodology being used and so had missed the point of
the argument being presented. This observation suggested to
me that familiarity with CGT was a necessary prerequisite in
order to understand the theoretical significance of findings
being presented. Consequently, I began to speculate whether
the methodological perspective of the reader could either blind
one to the theoretical framework being presented or lead one
to misinterpret the literature due to methodological bias. For
example, I realised that CGT did not require “face sheet
variables” such as gender, age, ethnicity etc; if these issues
were relevant they would emerge from the data analysis as
part of the constant comparison process (Glaser, 1998).
Whilst these variables have to earn their relevance within the
data of CGT, within QDA methodologies the exclusion of these
variables within sample selection is viewed as anomalous. As
a consequence, I suggest that this ‘earned’ relevance of data
in CGT may be lost in the reading of CGT literature by the
novice or methodologically biased reviewer. The question this
observation raised in me at the time was whether it is the
responsibility of the reviewer to be ‘competent’ in reviewing
CGT literature or whether it is incumbent on the CGT
researcher to explain the method as a prerequisite for
understanding the findings/theory.

One might argue that my inexperience in research and
research methodology was responsible for this misperception
of the doctoral study. However, I think the issue was more
significant than this and that the bias arose from reading a
CGT study from a purely phenomenological perspective.
Obviously, phenomenology and CGT arise from different
traditions; the former a philosophical tradition and the later
from sociological tradition. Glaser (2005) has argued that the
training of some disciplines e.g. nursing, favour descriptive
rather than conceptual approaches, which may account for
the popularity of phenomenological approaches in this
discipline. Nevertheless, nursing researchers have been
accused of “method slurring” (Baker et al, 1992). I suggest
that this slurring occurs because both methods are generally
poorly understood and that novice researchers may choose to
ignore differences between them when reviewing literature in
order to avoid an internal debate of theoretical frameworks in
favour a global understanding of what is essentially being
reported in order to find a research gap. For example,
although both methods encourage no literature reviews before
investigations, they treat the phenomenon of bias in different
ways. Whilst some phenomenological perspectives (Heiddeger,
1962) encourage the researcher to suspend preconceptions,
CGT encourages the researcher to use these experiences to
become more theoretically sensitive. In a simplistic way
phenomenology appears to view the researcher’s bias as a
potential unwanted by product to be ‘bracketed’ and as such
remain unquestioned. CGT, on the other hand, sees
researcher bias as a potential source of data that needs to be
managed productively. For example, whilst phenomenological
methodology encourages a theoretically descriptive account of
what may be happening that is largely epistomenological in
nature, and so not grounded in the data, CGT requires an
emergent fit that explains its relevance, or not, in the process
presented. As a result, in dealing with the issue of bias Glaser
(1998, p.143) comments “that bias is just one more variable
and it is automatically controlled for amongst honest
researchers.” The researcher realises that no matter how he
may initially be distorting the data, as incidents are compared
and the category patterns out then the distortions will be
revealed.”

Consequently, a greater understanding of CGT allowed
me to recognise that my original phenomenological
perspective had biased the initial reading of the doctoral
thesis as a subjective discussion. The researcher in question
often articulated her thoughts and feelings on what she was
discovering and how this had informed her actions and
theoretical development within the study. The memos she had
generated, and presented in her dissertation, which I initially
viewed as subjective/interpretive commentary, were in fact
the articulated management of the emergent theory where
concepts were being related to concepts. I had not understood
the significance of the memoing process in articulating
conceptual emergence and those were the core of the write
up.

Memoing and Staying Open

Reading novice accounts of doing CGT are abound with
comments of ‘how do you memo’, and the advice often given is
that there is no one way (Glaser, 1998), accordingly there is
an absence of exemplars in CGT. I now understand that his
lack of an imposed framework allows the investigator to
remain open to his/her own method of conceptual emergence.
As a result, a lack of experience and understanding of the
process and function of memoing used in CGT had biased my
understanding of what the CGT researcher was presenting.
For example, whilst QDA methodology encourages the
recording of the decision making processes, the memoing
process of CGT is distinctly different to that of reflexivity,
keeping of a diary or as a an aid memoir. Memos, Glaser and
Holton (2004) argue help the analyst take data to a
conceptual level, whereas, QDA methods lead to “flat,
descriptive and often superficial presentations” Glaser (2005,
p.3). As Glaser (1998) states “memos are the theorizing write-
up of ideas about substantive codes and their theoretically
coded relationships as they emerge during coding, collecting
and analysing data and during memoing.” As a result, the
constant comparison process together with memos continues
throughout and informs the whole research process and is an
effective way of dealing with preconception and staying open.
Although Martin (2006) has suggested a four phased process
in relation between an emerging grounded theory and the
existing literature in staying open, it is this process in
particular, I believe, that is little understood by those outside
CGT. Martin’s phased approach articulates well the emergent
thinking of the grounded theorist when engaged with the
literature in an open and critical manner. Whereas in QDA
methodology all apparently relevant themes are accepted
without the necessary rigour of their relevance to the
phenomenon under investigation and so do not have to
“pattern out” (Glaser, 2005, p.13).

Furthermore, the literature review in QDA methodology is
also accepted as evidence for support of the findings rather
than being applied with rigour to their relevance to the
findings, that is, only elements that support or do not support
the findings are identified. Consequently, although there is a
debate as to the validity of reviewing literature prior to CGT
studies (e.g. McCallum, 2006a, Martin, 2006a), the location of
the literature review in CGT after the identification of the core
category has, I believe, a number of advantages, first it
becomes a source of data to be further analysed for
theoretical completeness. In this way the literature review
does not transport potentially bias views or frameworks from
previous studies into the current study before discovery has
occurred. In this regard, Glaser (1998, p.71) argues that
using literature as more data to be tested insulates against
the negative aspects of bias that are inherent in what he
terms “theoretical capitalism,” where authoritative
works/authors may have the effect of preconceiving the
novice GT researcher through literature reviews before a
study has begun or findings are influenced in light of what is
already known instead of generating categories and their
properties to be compared to what is emerging. Secondly,
using literature as data, I believe, requires a fundamentally
different process to traditional literature reviews, in that it is
more focussed in its application rather than being a global
review. As a result, it has the potential to identify subtle
differences between the existent literature and the research
findings and so generate original findings.

It is clear from the literature that there are challenges to
understanding many aspects of CGT methodology, even for
the ‘expert. For example, Glaser’s (2005) commentary on Ian
Dey’s critique of CGT, where he challenges Dey’s naïve
observation of Theoretical Code selection as an arbitrary act,
Glaser suggests results from Dey’s lack of experience in doing
CGT. I believe that Glaser is suggesting that for a clear
understanding of CGT it is necessary to understand the
process involved and this understanding can only be achieved
experientially, by actually doing CGT research. Whilst, Moore
(2009, p.8) argues that “the epistemological assumptions
related to grounded theory are not clearly explained, which
appears to have led to misinterpretation and misuse of the
method,” my experience is that both Glaser and Moore are
correct. Whilst some theoretical aspects of CGT are currently
difficult to comprehend from the CGT literature, and whilst
one can read extensively about GT, it is in the doing that a
greater depth of understanding of the method and its findings
are achieved. Nevertheless, whilst efforts have been made
more recently to make CGT methodology more transparent
and accessible (Grounded Theory Review, 2005, 2006) to the
novice, Johnston’s (2009, p. 20) study highlights the current
difficulty in academia in getting CGT published due to
journals and reviewers often being inhospitable or ignorant of
the intricacies of papers written using CGT method,
suggesting methodological perspective bias.

Reviewing with or without Methodological
Perspective Bias

McCallin (2006, p.53) has argued that “while
methodological issues are foundational to rigorous research,
so to is the issue of thinking and how the researcher
integrates methodology with the overall process,” Accordingly,
it is argued here that if a literature review is to be undertaken
before any qualitative research the potential for introducing
bias has to be acknowledged and managed and that it is
incumbent on the reviewer to highlight what this bias may be,
methodological or otherwise. In this regard, McCallin (2006,
p.56) further argues, that the timing of a literature review
may be much less important than previously thought and
that “Surely critical analysis of existing literature, regardless
of timing, opens up the mind to the strengths and limitations
in received writing, and for consideration in relation to the
developing theory.” As a consequence, reviewing literature
from a particular frame of reference or perspective begins to
influence a study from the outset and may influence or
prejudice the process thereafter in the choices researchers
make. This, however, may not necessarily be a problem, so
long as the perspective is acknowledged from the outset and
critically discussed.

As a novice Grounded Theorist I feel that the initial
exposure to CGT has challenged many of my traditional views
of QDA research that on the one hand imposes procedural
frameworks on the analytical process (Colaizzi, 1978, Giorgi,
1985), whilst on the other hand infers the neutrality of the
literature review within the study. It seems self-evident that if
researchers are going to argue for the rigour and validity of
their work then bias needs to be acknowledged and dealt with
explicitly throughout the whole research process, and the
neutrality of the reviewed literature cannot be assumed.
Acknowledging and managing bias liberates the research
process from speculation as to the transparency of the study.
It has been exemplars of CGT methodology that have
demonstrated to me the need for rigour throughout the
research process, including the literature review (Glaser,
2005). As a consequence it is argued that all literature should
be viewed as data in need of critical analysis and not just
used to support findings or as an introduction to a study. As
it stands, readers are required to take on trust that the review
is not methodologically biased in anyway and to make a
judgement, based on the discussion, whether what is
presented is comprehensive and inclusive of all
methodological perspectives. This position is clearly
unachievable given the limitation on space in many journals
and beyond the resources and experience of many
researchers. I suggest that, at best, many researchers review
as much literature that is available within their sphere of
practice, through a particular theoretical or methodological
perspective. This is not to suggest that reviewing from a
dominant perspective is necessarily wrong or that some
perspectives are superior to others, in fact, it is the diversity
of perspectives in research that enables problems to be viewed
from different theoretical frameworks and add to knowledge.
However, if an author of a review believes that there was no
perspective that influenced the review this should be stated,
conversely, if they believe that a particular perspective did
influenced the review then this should be stated as a
limitation.

Certainly White (HRMAS Newsletters, 1998) has argued
for researchers to declare their frame of reference (e.g.
feminist, social interactionist) as in all other aspects of their
research. The advantage to the reader, I believe, would be to
highlight an awareness of potential limitations in the scope of
the review or question the influence their own perspective has
on interpretation. For example, when feminist researchers
acknowledge that they intend to challenge a particular
dominant paternalist world view, one might not expect to see
a strong paternalistic argument, however, it sensitises the
reader to the need to understand a feminist perspective in
order to understand the review/study. Currently in the
majority of research articles the perspective of the researcher
is unknown until the methodological section of the paper.
What is being suggested here has the potential to strengthen
the established function of the literature review by
acknowledging the frame of reference (biases and
perspectives) from the outset, which tends to be the norm in
much feminist research?

In contrast, a brief examination of contemporary
literature reviews in qualitative papers (Hall, 2009, Smith,
2009, Shapero Crane et al, 2009, and Baltimore and Crase,
2009) highlights eclectic perspectives that are often not made
explicit. Although the focus is on the subject matter, there is
little evidence to suggest any guiding principles or framework
for the literature reviews. If the sole purpose is to identify a
gap in the literature, then they are successful, however, it
could be argued that a list of the papers reviewed and a
statement of the gap found would suffice. This is not to say
that authors of the papers were not being analytically critical
when they reviewed the literature, they may often follow
established guidelines for critiquing qualitative research
articles (Greenhalgh and Taylor, 1997, Mays and Pope, 1996,
2000), however, in the absence of a transparent framework or
perspective there is always the possibility of unacknowledged
bias. Accordingly, I suggest, as with much feminist research,
researchers should apply the same rigor to the literature
review as they do to the methodological aspects of their
studies. In this way the perspectives of researchers are made
explicit from the start, potential limitations identified and
perspective bias established and acknowledged.

Methodological Acknowledgement in Literature
Review

In many respects I believe that CGT addresses this issue
by identifying the nature, purpose and function of the
literature review (McCallum, 2006, Andrews, 2006, Nathaniel,
2006, Thulesius, 2006, Ekstöm, 2006). In CGT the role of the
literature is clear; it is a source of data that it is part of the
constant comparative analysis process once the core category,
its properties and related categories have emerged (Glaser,
2004) a role that is different to QDA reviews. As a result,
although the researcher’s personal bias may be present at
times during literature review it is patterned out by the by the
emerging theory. As a consequence, I believe that CGT
research has increased credibility as it articulates all aspects
of the literature within the research process and uniquely the
role of the literature within a study, a characteristic it shares
with systematic reviews (Magarey, 2001). Therefore, it is
argued that the accusation of methodological perspective bias
can be directed at much qualitative research that does not
articulate its frame of reference or the purpose of the review
beyond identifying a research gap. Whereas, the challenge for
researchers using CGT is to articulate the methodology in a
language and manner that makes it more accessible and
understandable to novice researchers and readers from all
theoretical perspectives. In this regard, presenting exemplars
of the memoing process used to identify the emergent
theoretical codes would allow a more transparent view of the
researcher’s conceptual progression, as well as, allowing
commentators to analyse the validity of the actions taken.

Conclusion

At this stage in my research apprentices I believe that
there is evidence to suggest that methodological perspective
bias can occur both in the analysis and presentation of
literature reviews and that this bias is met with CGT
methodology. Consequently, qualitative researchers not using
CGT need to ask themselves the question “what perspective
do I represent?” “how may this perspective influence my
reading?” and how should I factor it out? Whilst CGT, in this
regard, offers a potential solution to address methodological
perspective bias during literature review, there is a need for
CGT’s to articulate this process in a language that is
accessible to all levels of researcher ability and practice.

Notes

2. At this time I initially made the error of seeing Grounded Theory as a purely
qualitative methodology as it appeared in qualitative literature as such.

Acknowledgment

I wish to acknowledge the support and assistance of Dr Tom
Andrews in the compilation of this paper.

Author:

Richard Deady
College Lecturer
Catherine McAuley School of Nursing and Midwifery
University College Cork
r.deady@ucc.ie

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