Johnben Teik-Cheok Loy, MBA, MTS, Ph.D.
This article captures the key learning lessons gleaned from the author’s experience learning and developing a grounded theory for his doctoral dissertation using the classic methodology as conceived by Barney Glaser. The theory was developed through data gathered on founders and successors of Malaysian Chinese family-own businesses. The main concern for Malaysian Chinese family businesses emerged as dynasting . the building, maintaining, and growing the power and resources of the business within the family lineage. The core category emerged as dynasting across cultures, where founders and successors struggle to transition from traditional Chinese to hybrid cultural and modernized forms of family business from one generation to the next. The key learning lessons were categorized under five headings: (a) sorting through different versions of grounded theory, (b) educating and managing research stakeholders, (c) embracing experiential learning, (d) discovering the core category: grounded intuition, and (e) recognizing limitations and possibilities.
Keywords: grounded theory, learning, dynasting, family business, Chinese
My journey towards grounded theory began in my doctoral studies after I had engaged in and published several quantitative survey research projects and found the approach to explaining human behavior to be too limiting. First, the questions and response-choices were pre-established; second, I had no access to the respondents to ascertain how they interpreted the questions or to clarify the reason behind why they chose the responses they did; and third, the theories that guided the development of the questionnaires also seemed somewhat disembodied from the people I was studying. As a result, I decided to change my dissertation methodology to one that would better satisfy my longing to really understand what was going on for the people. I turned to qualitative methodologies at first, not expecting to end up doing a grounded theory study. Neither did I anticipate the many challenges I would have to go through along the process of learning grounded theory when I finally decided to do it.
Early in my dissertation, I started an anonymous blog to keep myself motivated and connected to other graduate students. I made entries of my grounded theory learning process as I experienced it. For relief, I added touches of humor and sarcasm to my entries. Given its personal nature, I struggled as to the appropriateness of identifying my blog in this article. Surprisingly, in researching for this article, I discovered that an editor of a recent textbook on qualitative research mentioned my blog in the preface of her textbook (Lichtman, 2011, p. viii). I reasoned that if my blog had enough value to be mentioned in a textbook, I might as well fully embrace the spirit of collaborative and open learning and reveal my authorship publicly. My blog, The Lonely Dissertator, can be accessed at http://lonelydissertator.blogspot.com (I stopped updating my blog shortly after I completed my dissertation defense in May 2010).
My dissertation was entitled Dynasting Across Cultures: A Grounded Theory of Malaysian Chinese Family Firms (Loy, 2010). Data were gathered from interviews, participant observations, opportunistic conversations, and also relevant literature. There were a total of 22 formal interviews with 25 different participants: 10 male successors (aged 20s-70s), 3 female successors (aged 30s-50s), 4 male founders (aged 60s-70s), 1 female founder (aged 60s), 3 family members no longer in the business (1 founder-wife in her 70s, 1 daughter aged 50s, 1 niece aged 40s), and 4 non-family members of the business (1 male staff aged 60s, 1 female staff aged 50s, and 1 friend of founder aged 70s). The formal interviews were conducted from March through May 2009 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Further theoretical sampling took place up until February 2010.
My key lessons in learning grounded theory can be categorized under five headings: (a) sorting through different versions of grounded theory, (b) educating and managing research stakeholders, (c) embracing experiential learning, (d) discovering the core category: grounded intuition, and (e) recognizing limitations and possibilities. In writing this article, I drew from my blog entries as well as chapters 3 and 4 (methodology sections) of my dissertation. Before discussing my key lessons, I will first provide a summary of the theory that emerged in my study.
The main concern that emerged for Malaysian Chinese family firms was dynasting. I hypothesized that Malaysian Chinese business founders (and their successors) tend to be motivated towards building, maintaining, and growing the power and resources of the business within the family lineage. The notion of dynasting differs from succession. Dynasting implies growth over generations; succession can take place without the impetus of growth.for example, a business (such as a small farm) can be passed on without the desire to grow it into a dynastic concern. Two elements are essential for a family to dynasty: the presence of a successful-enough business (which the founder built) and the presence of at least one successor in the next generation to take over the business. By definition, a dynasty begins only as the second generation assumes the business.
For many Malaysian Chinese family firms, the founders tend to hold to traditional practical Chinese values while the successors tend to be Western educated and have westernized and modernized ideals (especially when the business has been successful enough for parents to send their children for Western education overseas). The emerged core category that explained the data on how founders and successors were resolving their main concern was dynasting across cultures. In their substantive context, traditional Malaysian Chinese founders and westernized successors are hypothesized to be engaged in basic social structural and psychological processes of dynasting across cultures, where they struggle to transition from traditional Chinese to hybrid cultural and modernized forms of family business from one generation to the next. Dynasting across cultures applies to Chinese family firms where the patriarch holds to traditional Chinese values and successors are Western-trained. Less so does it apply to situations where the founder is Western-educated, although aspects of the process can still apply.
The process of dynasting across cultures happens through an overlapping four-phase developmental trajectory: (a) the founder builds the business, then (b) tests and molds successors upon their entry, (c) stays on to protect the emerging dynasty, and (d) upon his final years is venerated as the founding patriarch. Running somewhat in parallel to the founder trajectory, the successors are (a) indoctrinated in their youth, then (b) upon entry into the business struggle to adapt to founder ways and to prove themselves, (c) over time, gradually influence change, and (d) finally hybridize the established dynasty. The result of this autopoietic process is a family business that successfully dynasties across cultures.
Interested readers can access the full dissertation for free online through the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy at http://purl.umn.edu/94299.
When I first approached my dissertation topic, I was advised by a faculty member to conduct a pilot study interviewing family business members in Malaysia for their top 10 concerns. I interviewed three people and one repeated concern was that of successors not being able to have open communications with their founders. Given the dearth of research on family business in Malaysia, I decided that a qualitative methodology such as grounded theory would be suitable.
My advisor suggested that I read through Strauss and Corbin (1990). But being the diligent researcher, I decided that I would begin with Discovery, the first book on grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). After a brief attempt, I found that it was too difficult to understand and decided to read the ”latest book” on grounded theory (i.e. Corbin & Strauss, 2008) for further explanation not realizing that there had been departures from the original grounded theory. At the time, I felt that Corbin and Strauss (2008) explained the process well. However, the diligent researcher in me also compelled me to read Charmaz (2007) given that her work had been talked about in class, and then finally, to re-read Discovery (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). In addition to these works, I had also signed out from the library all the books on grounded theory, including Bryant and Charmaz’s Handbook on Grounded Theory (2007) as well as Glaser’s Basics (Glaser, 1992) in which he explained the difference between the original version and Strauss and Corbin’s version (1990).
Sorting through the different versions of grounded theory was a challenging feat. No faculty member in the department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota.and possibly the entire university.during my time was able to provide the needed guidance, leading me to hunt down the information on my own. The books became my guides and my advisor became my cheerleader by offering remarks such as ”I am learning from you about grounded theory from this process, keep up the good work”
After studying the different works, I felt that I wanted to produce a theory and not full conceptual description as Glaser explained was the result of the Strauss and Corbin method. However, my social constructivist leanings made me uncomfortable with the positivist language in Glaser’s writings. I finally proposed to use a methodology blending the Glasserian and Charmaz versions. I wrote in my dissertation proposal the following explanation:
I propose to use a constructivist grounded theory methodology vis-a-vis Charmaz (2000, 2006) that regards the development of
theory as a co-construction of interactions between researcher and participants. In addition, I intend to draw on the methods of coding, analysis, and sampling advocated by the classic approach to grounded theory vis-a-vis Glaser and Strauss (1967) and Glaser (1978, 1992), taking advantage of the rigors of the methods without necessarily being confined to the strictures of a positivist paradigm (Charmaz, 2006).
Unlike the majority of doctoral students, I was fortunate to be in a position where I had the budget, the resolve, and most importantly, an open-minded adviser who encouraged my desire to pursue further learning of classic grounded theory by attending a grounded theory seminar in Mill Valley, California in 2009 led by Barney Glaser. It was not until I attended my first classic grounded theory troubleshooting seminar that I was made aware of the corpus of works by Glaser (published by Sociology Press), and convinced of the importance of reading it.
By the time I attended the classic grounded theory seminar, I had already defended my dissertation proposal to use a combination of Glasserian as well as Charmaz versions of the methodology. Furthermore, I had already conducted a thorough literature review, and gathered, taped, and transcribed half of my interviews prior to being informed at the seminar that I was not supposed to do any of those things. To learn that most of my efforts had been spent in vain felt discouraging, and humbling. Fortunately, as advised by Barney Glaser, I was able to use the recorded interviews by going back to them as secondary data, as it were, and take field notes.
Throughout my dissertation process, I had to trust in the advice and writings of Glaser and other fellows of the Grounded Theory Institute. Not having personally produced a grounded theory and not having an advisor with a strong understanding of classic grounded theory left me feeling quite alone in the process.
The ethical guidelines of the Institutional Review Board of North American universities maintains that the purpose and approach of a proposed research be clearly stipulated, including the source for data gathering and the types of questions to be asked. However, the emergent approach of classic grounded theory with its dictum ”all is data,” requires researchers to be open to where theoretical sampling takes them. I was not only faced with the difficult and lonely task of doing grounded theory whilst learning it, I also had to be sure I could defend my departure from a focused, field-delineated research question to an open, exploratory one where prior literature review was discouraged.that is, after I first had to convince myself that it was not unethical for me to conduct a classic grounded theory study.
I reconciled my ethical dilemma through the help of Judith Holton’s dissertation in which she maintained that in grounded theory methodology the data is conceptualized in such a way that it becomes ”abstract of people, time and place and, as such, the strict adherence to standard ethical considerations of informed consent and voluntary participation are not only frequently impractical but, more to the point, unnecessary” (Holton, 2006, p. 60). Drawing from Holton’s work, I further cited van den Hoonaard (2002), arguing that ”the logico-deductive bio-medical basis out of which research ethics review policies and guidelines have been derived are being challenged by qualitative researchers as not being congruent with the aims and purposes of inductive qualitative social research” (Loy, 2010, p. 42).
To convince my committee members of the validity of using classic grounded theory methodology, I kept my process of learning as transparent and up-to-date as possible with my adviser through frequent communication. Attending a grounded theory seminar led by Barney Glaser provided me with the legitimacy and authority to educate my adviser as to the methodological changes, not only through the physical attendance of the seminar but also by introducing the plethora of works published by Glaser through Sociology Press. To my pleasant discovery, not only were the changes accepted, several members of my committee including my adviser later commented that they had learned a lot from my dissertation about grounded theory. Such laudatory comments continued to be received post-dissertation in conference presentations as well as by editors of journals in the field of family business. My study also received the 2010 International Family Enterprise Research Academy and Family Business Network Pacific Asia dissertation award.a validation of the rigor and power of classic grounded theory methodology.
Educating research stakeholders on classic grounded theory methodology is not only an interpersonal process but also an institutional one. As mentioned earlier in parentheses, I had to educate my university library by providing it with a list of the most helpful works I found for learning to do classic grounded theory in addition to Glaser and Strauss (1967), particularly Theoretical Sensitivity (Glaser, 1978), Doing Grounded Theory (Glaser, 1998), and Perspectives III: Theoretical Coding (Glaser, 2005). Out of curiosity, I checked the library holdings recently (January 14, 2011) and was glad to see that the library now stocks all these works and more, published through Sociology Press, and that every single one of them were out on loan. Providing easy access to Glaser’s works for faculty and students is likely to facilitate further understanding and acceptance of the methodology amongst the academic community. For me, convincing my university to purchase these books was easy because our librarians respected doctoral students in their dissertation phases as having the most advanced knowledge in their chosen research areas.
Learning to do classic grounded theory for the first time can be a challenging endeavor. As a marriage and family therapist, I understand and articulate the process of learning marriage and family therapy as an experiential phenomenon. Understanding and accepting the learning of classic grounded theory as an experiential process greatly helped me to grapple with the challenges. Part way through my dissertation, I came to a visceral or emotional realization.a eureka.that my experience of doing grounded theory was like that of learning to ride a bicycle: it was not something that I could learn through merely an intellectual understanding, it was a process that required learning by doing, and with live guidance.
Even though I had attended a grounded theory seminar, I found myself stuck again and again through my dissertation process. How am I supposed code? Is what I am doing correct? What exactly are interchangeable indices? What is the difference between a code and a category? What should a memo look like? The chaos and what Barney Glaser referred to as ”regression” in the process of doing grounded theory gave rise to much anxiety. How much data do I need? Is there anything new to what I am discovering? Will I ever finish my dissertation? I found myself reading through the literature repeatedly, but still had trouble moving forward.
Nine months after I began my process of research and after repeated frustration from getting stuck again and again, I sought out fellows of the Grounded Theory Institute for direct guidance, particularly Andy Lowe and Judith Holton. I recall my experience sitting with Andy Lowe in Bangkok as he helped me to overcome my ”stuckness” in memoing by having me write down whatever I had in my mind pertaining to the data, and then reading through my writings and dialoging with me about them. The process freed me emotionally to accept that there was not necessarily a right way to memo (and thus, not get stuck on worrying about being wrong), but what was more important was to engage in the process of memoing.
I decided to attend a second grounded theory troubleshooting seminar in Oxford in 2010, led by Judith Holton, Helen Scott, and Antoinette McCallin. Through dialogue with the fellows of the Grounded Theory Institute where I received feedback on my analyses and memos, my abstract or ”disembodied” understanding of grounded theory began to take shape along with the emergence of the theory itself. The answers to the questions posed two paragraphs above came together in a very clear way in the final writing of my methodology section. The following block quotes from my dissertation address these questions.
Grounded theory methodology employs theoretical sampling, which is the simultaneous and iterative process of data collection, coding, and constant comparative analysis, where the theoretical emergence of concepts and categories directs the researcher in terms of subsequent data collection (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Along with theoretical sampling, grounded theory advocates the use of conceptual memo writing as an important part of analysis throughout the entire procedure. Table 3.1 provides an overview of the iterative progression of grounded theory analysis.
There are two types of coding in grounded theory: substantive coding and theoretical coding, with the former preceding the latter. Holton summarizes the substantive coding process in this way: ”In substantive coding, the researcher works with the data directly, fracturing and analyzing it, initially through open coding for the emergence of a core category and related concepts and then subsequently through theoretical sampling and selective coding of data to theoretically saturate the core and related concepts” (2007, p. 265).
Table 3.1: Iterative Progression of Grounded Theory Analysis
[please see PDF version for all figures]
The constant comparative process involves three types of comparisons: (1) incident to incident for the emergence of concepts, (2) concepts to more incidents for further theoretical elaboration, saturation, and densification of concepts, and (3) concepts to concepts for their emergent theoretical integration through theoretical coding (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Holton, 2007). Theoretical coding occurs as the final stage ”to conceptualize how the substantive codes may relate to each other as hypotheses to be integrated into the theory” (Holton, 2007, p. 283).
In substantive coding, the researcher begins with line-by-line open coding of data, engaging in incident-to-incident comparative analysis guided by a set of questions: ”what category does this incident indicate?”, ”what property of what category does this incident indicate?”, ”what is the main concern faced by the participant?”, and ”what accounts for the continual resolving of this concern?” (Glaser, 1998, p. 140). These questions help the researcher to rise above descriptive details and to stay at a conceptual level focusing on the patterns among incidents that yield codes (Holton, 2007, p. 275). As more concepts are derived from data, the comparative analysis process moves from comparing incident-to-incident to concept-to-incident for the saturation of categories. By writing memos on concepts that arise through the constant comparative process, a potential core category begins to emerge. The core category can be any kind of theoretical code such as a process, a typology, a continuum, a range, and so forth, with the purpose of integrating the sub-core categories to explain how the main concern of participants is continually processed or resolved (Glaser, 1998; Holton, 2007).
In the block quotes above, I provided a table to summarize what I termed the Iterative Progression of Grounded Theory Analysis. I made the table as a way to visually simplify the process and their timelines in terms of development. However, I was also aware that in some ways, the table limited the actual process of what I had experienced as the process was much more iterative than the visual table may suggest. Nevertheless, I felt it was a valuable exercise in learning, and to ensure that I had not departed from the method in my attempt to visualize it, I sent it to Judith Holton for her feedback.
As the category of dynasting began to emerge in my analysis, I felt very uncertain about the plausibility of using it to explain the other codes. My doctoral training had thus far taught me to read, think, and write like scholars for whom verification of concepts was the mainstay of academic parlance. To come up with an idea that was new to the field meant to challenge existing literature and prominent scholars who had years of experience and high levels of scholarly accolades. The field had conceptualized the idea of family business transition from one generation to the next as succession. However, the potential core category emerging in the data and through my analysis pointed to a phenomenon that was more than succession.that what was going on for the people I was studying looked a lot more like that of creating and building dynasties. Furthermore, the word dynasting itself did not exist in the literature or in any dictionary. I worried that I would not be able to convince my committee members or future journal editors of a novel idea.and a word.that others had not yet conceived.
As I grappled with the uncertainty of the category, I continued to engage in theoretical sampling. Despite my uncertainty, the data continued to reinforce the idea that dynasting was not only a good category where fit to the concepts was concerned; it was also relevant to the research participants. I noted one such example in my dissertation:
On January 24, I asked my brother: ”what would you say if I told you that what is going on with Chinese Malaysian family business founders and successors is that they are dynasting?” He replied, ”Yes. I would say that that is a very good way to put it. That is exactly what they are doing. They are building a dynasty”. And he went on to elaborate about successors being heirs to the family business and that over time, ”they are essentially trying to set up an empire” (Loy, 2010, p. 57)
In the end, despite my hesitation to challenge established ideas in the field, I felt that it was not only necessary but also defensible to use dynasting as a concept as it was evident in the data. In other words, the data grounded my intuitive hunch that theoretical saturation was taking place. Shortly after I made the decision to retain the category of dynasting, the main category of dynasting across cultures emerged to provide what I felt was the best fit for the data to explain how founders and successors worked to resolve their main concern. The rest of the concepts came together relatively quickly after that to form a theory.
Prior to attending my second grounded theory troubleshooting seminar in Oxford 2010, I decided to write a ”big memo” entitled ”Dynastying Across Cultures” that integrated the concepts through the core category of dynasting across cultures in four overlapping phases. By this point in time, memoing was no longer an emotionally-stuck endeavor for me, and I felt free to ”experiment” with tying concepts together without fear of being wrong.that was what the memo felt like to me then, an intuitive experiment or a trial in putting together concepts. The memo I wrote essentially became a 5-page abstract submission to a family business conference. The deadline of the conference submission gave me the impetus to work hard towards completion as I had a tendency to keep ruminating on the data rather than work towards pulling them together. I also showed this big memo to the participants at the Oxford 2010 troubleshooting seminar. I received positive comments from both the conference as well as the second troubleshooting seminar. In this way, writing a big memo.or pulling the theory together in what felt like an intuitive experiment.and then having it ”grounded” with feedback in two conferences gave me the confidence that my theory was good enough to be written up. Followed further advice from the Oxford seminar to tie the concepts through theoretical codes, the other aspects of dynasting theory came together for the final writing up of my theory.
My understanding of theory was greatly enhanced when I recognized the limitations and boundaries of dynasting theory. Not all Malaysian Chinese family business founders are interested in dynasting. The data showed that clearly too. As I had gathered copious amounts of data prior to understanding classic grounded theory methodology, I was able to see that much of the data was not directly relevant to developing dynasting theory. These pertained to family businesses that were not interested in growing the business.people for whom building a business was merely about economic livelihood and not about creating a legacy. Recognizing to whom dynasting theory applied.and to whom it did not.helped me to understand that it was one amongst other possible theories to explain what was going on for Malaysian Chinese family firms. Nevertheless, it was an important theory as it was a relevant yet hitherto undocumented explanation for what was going on for the people I studied. Paradoxically, recognizing the limitations also increased my appreciation of the importance of theories to provide useful insights into a social phenomenon.
Recognizing the limitations also taught me that there was a great deal more to be discovered.that the possibilities to further refine and expand upon the theory was limited only to my willingness and resources to do further research. Dynasting theory can be further modified to include families outside of the business arena.in organized religion, politics, sports, and even crime.to yield a theory that can potentially explain, over a spectrum of arenas, the behaviors of families that seek to dominate organized social phenomena across multiple generations.
Another humbling-yet-exciting realization of a limitation was my own mastery of grounded theory. I am by no means an expert. In fact, I am very much just beginning to embark on learning grounded theory. This is a humbling realization in light of the fact that I had expended a year and a half of rigorous study on the methodology. Yet it is incredibly exciting that despite my novice-status to the methodology, I was able to produce a theory that has received positive recognition from respectable sources. For instance, several leading family business scholars in the field gave me very positive feedback for my work and have asked me to consider writing an article on how classic grounded theory can be used to expand theorizing in family business. I believe the positive recognition I have received is testimony of the power of grounded theory methodology as it was originally conceived.
It is also exciting that I can continue to refine my knowledge and skills and to enrich social understanding at the same time by exploring new phenomena of interest, especially in areas that have received little scholarly attention. My next project through which I hope to further hone my methodological skills in grounded theory will be to study expatriate families.people with whom I have daily contact both through personal connections as well as in my professional capacity as a marriage and family therapist; people for whom there seems yet to be developed a rigorous grounded theory to identify and to explain their important concerns.
In summary, embarking on a classic grounded theory study for my dissertation has taught me much more than what I could have learned had I chosen to do a verification study to prove whether existing theories or concepts apply to a chosen social arena. Doing a verification study is like being given a fish and learning to decipher whether or not it is a fish. Doing grounded theory is like understanding the currents of the rivers, the fish breeding patterns, and the responses of different types of fish to different types of bait. Grounded theorizing offers a bird’s eye view.broad yet detailed.to social phenomena. Learning to do classic grounded theory has given me a key to unpacking and decoding the patterns of our social worlds. But the learning was not easy. The process of my learning-whilst-doing was arduous and fraught with uncertainty (not the mention the need to expend extra time and financial resources). For those interested in embarking upon a classic grounded theory study for their dissertations, I would recommend that they consider doing a small pilot grounded theory study under the guidance of a grounded theory fellow to get a feel for what it may be like to do a full dissertation through the methodology. Having had a sense of completion with a small project.having learned how to grapple with the sense of chaos and uncertainty that comes with learning grounded theory for the first time.will likely give greater confidence (which will lessen the sense of anxiety) that a full dissertation can be successfully completed when embarked upon. For me, my dissertation itself has felt like a pilot project, albeit an oversized one, which has prepared me as well as given me the confidence to engage in future grounded theory research projects that I hope will result in much positive contribution to our understanding of the world.
Johnben Teik-Cheok Loy, MBA, MTS, PhD
Visiting Fellow, Taylor’s Business School
Taylor’s University, Malaysia
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