Grounded action: Achieving optimal and sustainable change

By Odis E. Simmons, Ph.D. & Toni A. Gregory, Ed. D.


Grounded action is the application and extension of grounded theory for the
purpose of designing and implementing practical actions such as interventions,
program designs, action models, social and organizational policies, and change
initiatives. Grounded action is grounded theory with an added action component
in which actions are systematically derived from a systematically derived
explanatory grounded theory. Actions are grounded in the grounded theory in
the same way that grounded theories are grounded in data. Grounded action
was designed by the authors to address complex, multi-dimensional
organizational and social problems and issues.

The Roots of Grounded Action: The Real World Context of
Grounded Theory

Grounded theory is a primarily inductive research method that was developed in
the mid-1960’s, by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss (1967). As they pointed
out, before their discovery of grounded theory, methods of social research
focused mainly on how to deductively verify logically elaborated theories. They
suggested it was equally important to have a method by which theories could be
systematically generated, or “discovered,” directly from data. After their original
collaboration, Glaser’s and Strauss’ views of what constituted grounded theory
diverged. Because Glaser’s developments in grounded theory are more suitable
for practical applications, grounded action is rooted in grounded theory as
articulated by Glaser.

A rigorous, inductive approach to theory development that provides a
“controllable theoretical foothold” (Glaser & Strauss, 1965, p. 268) and gets at
what is really going on in action scenes and contexts is a crucial tool for
developing effective, sustainable solutions to social and organizational problems.
Grounded theory fits this bill. As Glaser (1998) notes:

…fields with high impact dependent variables, variables that deal with
learning, pain or profit, began looking for a methodology that gave them
answers that fit, worked were relevant and easily modifiable to
constantly changing situations…A methodology was needed that could
get through and beyond conjecture and preconception to exactly the
underlying process of what is going on so that professionals and laymen
alike could intervene with confidence to help resolve the participants’
main concerns. (pp. 4-5).

In grounded theory, getting at what is really going on in an action scene/context
is ensured by continually asking:

What is actually happening in the data? What is the basic social psychological
problem(s) faced by the participants in the action scene? What is the basic
social psychological process or social structural process that processes the
problem to make life viable in the action scene? (Glaser 1978, p.57)

In contrast, actions deduced from logically elaborated theories that are not
grounded in what is really going on in context are unlikely to fit the needs of the
context for which they were designed. Many years of experience show that
actions based on ungrounded ideas more often than not fail to provide
meaningful long-term outcomes.

The power of grounded theories in real world contexts has been apparent since
the method evolved out of a study of death and dying in hospitals, conducted by
Glaser and Strauss in the mid 1960’s. Their grounded theories of “awareness
contexts” (Glaser and Strauss, 1964) and the “death trajectory” process (Glaser
and Strauss, 1968, 1970) that emerged from this study had important
implications for improving the way in which health care professionals manage
the personal care and organizational aspects of dying patients and their

One of the earliest grounded studies is Pape’s (1964) study of high job turnover
amongst young nurses. Pape discovered that, although it was a serious problem
for them, health services administrators had failed to understand the source of
low retention rates among young nurses. They incorrectly attributed it to factors
within the work situation—what would ordinarily be viewed as “job
dissatisfaction”—which as Pape discovered were irrelevant to the nurses’
decisions to quit their jobs. As a result the administrators’ retention efforts were
ineffective. Using grounded theory, Pape discovered what was relevant to the
nurses. She conceptualized her discovery as “touring,” which was related to
personal rather than professional factors. As Pape portrayed it:

What makes them different from workers migrating in search of greener
job pastures is that, for them, a job is merely the way to support
themselves decently while they see the sights, sample the social life,
have a bit of fun and then move on. These nurses do not follow any
orientation to work as a central focus of living; their attention is directed
to values outside the job environment and they use their work as a
means to other, unrelated ends. (p. 37)

The nurses were able to indulge themselves in this manner because the high
demand for their services provided them with the opportunity. Pape’s discovery
framed the issue in such a way that high turnover of nurses could be seen as an
opportunity rather than as a problem, increasing the potential for addressing the
issue in creative ways.

Another example of a grounded theory study that provides highly useful,
practical understandings is Lee’s (1993) study of “doing time” in prison. Lee
studied how new prisoners adjust to the personally problematic aspects of
prison life and how they manage the difficulties presented by having an
excessive amount of time on their hands, with little control over how they
manage it. Lee’s theory shows how “doing time” relates to almost every aspect
of prisoners’ lives (adjusting to incarceration, managing excess time, managing
the subjective slowness of time, lack of meaningful activity, lack of privacy, lack
of proprietorship, emotions, relationships within the prison, relationships outside
prison, and so forth). Lee’s theory is highly useful for anyone working with
inmates (correctional professionals, organizations dedicated to helping prisoners
and their families, social workers, counselors). Furthermore, Lee’s theory could
(and has been) easily be modified to fit other situations in which “doing time”
has problematic consequences, such as classrooms.

A further example of a grounded theory theory study that has high value in an
applied context can be found in Charmaz’s (1994) study of men who are
suddenly confronted with the onset of a serious chronic illness. Charmaz’s
grounded theory depicts the process by which men in this situation adjust to the
new reality presented by their health predicament. Her study has important
implications for health care workers, including M.D.’s, nurses, social workers,
and therapists (psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, counselors). Understanding
the various stages that such men progress through, and how they move from
one stage to another, will enable professionals who work with them to more
carefully and accurately shape patient care. Careful, accurate care is literally of
critical importance in the care of chronically ill patients.

Simmons’ (1994) grounded action, participant observation study of the
counseling/psychotherapy field holds significant potential for improving the
practice of working professionals in that field. The primary product of this study
is a novel approach to counseling/psychotherapy that Simmons refers to as
“grounded therapy.” Grounded therapy is a methodological rather than
preconceived theoretical approach to counseling/therapy that, as a form of
grounded action, incorporates many of the methodological features of the
grounded theory research method. Rather than applying extraneous,
preconceived therapeutic interpretations, diagnoses, labels, and such to clients,
the grounded therapy approach treats each counseling/therapy case on its own
terms. Grounded therapy systematically generates explanations and
interventions out of information (data) collected in an open-ended fashion. It is
designed to discover what is really going on in each case. In this manner,
interventions are derived that closely meet the requirements of individual
circumstances, rather than being based in general clinical categories that are
applied, often force fitted (Glaser, 1978), to individual clients.

Research by Gregory (1996, 1999; Kleiner, Roth, Thomas, Gregory & Hamell,
2000) and Gregory and Lewis (1996), in the technology and oil industries, are
excellent examples of studies in which grounded theory provides greater insight
into the dynamics of organizations as they specifically relate to managing
diversity. As a result of her work in organizations, Gregory has discovered that
the common denominator in all diversity issues is that they involve a process of
learning that occurs at different levels for different individuals. She has also
discovered that the degree to which this process is understood and can be used
to produce positive outcomes of “diversity tension” (Thomas & Gregory, 1994,
1995), the conflict that arises between people of diverse backgrounds, appears
to be related to aspects of human development and the capacity of the
individual for transformative learning (learning that moves an individual to a
higher level of understanding and action). Gregory (1996, 1999) was the first to
discuss the relationship between organizational learning and diversity and the
possibility of resolving diversity conflict through applying the principals of
transformative learning.

Grounded Action: Addressing Complex Issues in Context

Grounded action was designed specifically for the purposes of investigating and
addressing complex organizational and social problems and issues.We maintain
that the key to understanding and addressing such issues is to systematically
discover the basic social processes (Glaser, 1978) underlying and driving them.
Grounded action

…is a tool that allows a researcher to get at the essence of the core
issues or problems [from the perspective of the people involved in the
problem]. In this way the core issues generated…are [as close as
possible] to the main issues of the participants because they generated
them. This makes the ‘action’ generated by the research more likely to
penetrate the nucleus of the problem and bring forth more lucrative
solutions for all concerned. (Morris, 2000, p. 18)

Grounded action is effective at addressing complex, multidimensional social and
organizational problems and issues because it addresses the complexity of the
contexts within which they exist. Many attempts to solve organizational and
social problems fall short because they are not systematically derived from data
nor theoretically sophisticated enough to address the multidimensional
complexities inherent in the problems. Practitioners acting as change agents
often fail to understand the importance of systematically generating an
explanatory theory grounded in context, prior to action planning. However, the
development of a theory that explains and clarifies the underlying, usually
complex, sources of a problem is critical. Actions that are not directly and
systematically related to what is really going on in the relevant action
scene/context are destined to fail at producing and sustaining the desired

Uniqueness of Grounded Action

Grounded action is unique and distinguishable from other problem solving
approaches in that:

1. Grounded action contains an important distinction between the social or
organizational problem or issue for which a solution/intervention is being sought
and the research problem. When designing their research practitionerresearchers
often confuse the two, focusing more on what they think “ought to
be” than discovering and explaining “what is.” This derails the discovery process
right from the beginning and leads to a disconnect between actions and what is
really going on. In grounded action we characterize the initial identified practical
problem or issue as the “action problem.” As discussed below, the first step in
the grounded theory/action process is to suspend the action problem. This
prevents preconceptions inherent in the action problem from tainting the
explanatory portion of the research. Consistent with grounded theory, the
research problem is the discovered core variable.

2. Another important distinction made in grounded action is between the
explanatory theory and the “operational theory.” The explanatory theory is the
core variable grounded theory, as it would be in any grounded theory project.
The operational theory is systematically generated from and grounded in the
explanatory grounded theory. The operational theory provides a grounded
theoretical foothold for action planning and implementation (see below).

3. Grounded action involves a systematic, rigorous, empirically grounded
procedure that addresses and systematically links explanation with action. Thus,
actions can be directly tied to all significant properties and dimensions (and their
interrelationships) of complex problems in need of complex solutions. It provides
a sequenced action package that is grounded all the way through.

4. Like grounded theory, grounded action is designed to maximize the number of
discovered variables and their interrelationships in a given set of data. Proposed
solutions to complex problems must directly address the full complexity of the
social systems and organizations within which they exist, including the likely
consequences of actions. And importantly, they must include an understanding
of the factors that promote, inhibit, and prohibit change.

The failure to consider and understand the complex systems nature of a
problem can result in problems of greater magnitude than the original problem
of concern, often because of unforeseen and unintended consequences. For
example, the policy makers who used the Coleman Report (Coleman, 1966) as
a basis for public school busing did not foresee “white flight” and all of it’s many
consequences for American cities and surrounding countryside as they were
transformed into suburbs. Nor were the difficulties experienced by (particularly
low-income) families of bussed children in maintaining involvement in their
children’s schools anticipated. In hindsight, it is easier to see that Coleman’s
research was far too narrow in scope to serve as a basis for an action of such
great magnitude.

Grounded action is by its very nature a systems approach because it attempts
to discover all (limited primarily by skills, time, and resources) relevant variables,
including those that might undermine the intervention (they are part of what is
really going on in the setting). In the course of doing a grounded action project
the researcher/practitioner invariably discovers multiple problems and issues,
each with multiple properties and dimensions, being processed by participants
in an action scene, all related to one or two core variables (categories). The
core variable approach to theory development, which grounded action borrows
from grounded theory, provides for a multi level, well integrated, easy to
understand theory that fits and is relevant to the full range of issues and
problems being processed in the system being studied.

It is notable that seldom are these issues and problems the ones commonly
identified. Participants usually understand the practical problems and issues
they deal with on a day to day basis. But, because they experience them
individually, they seldom are aware of or understand the latent patterns that
underlie them, unless or until they are conceptually identified. For example, it is
highly unlikely that the nurses in Pape’s (1964) study were aware that they were
“touring,” because each was making individual decisions that contributed to the
latent pattern. However, had they been introduced to the concept, they would
likely have gained new insights into their own choices and behavior, as well as
the choices and behavior of their peers.

5. Grounded action gets at what is really going on because, consistent with
grounded theory, it uses a process of discovery that begins with as few
preconceptions as possible. There are no a priori formulations of problems,
issues, hypotheses, or theories. There are no a priori categories, concepts,
ideas, etc. to make sense of a subject matter before data are collected or
analyzed. There is no presumption of the relevance of a particular type of
information, category, variable, etc. Nor is there either intentional or, if properly
conducted, unintentional personal “investment” in a particular outcome or
finding. Research questions are not identified in advance. Instead, in grounded
theory/action the research process leads to the discovery of relevant questions
in the data. To avoid theoretical preconceptions, consistent with grounded
theory, grounded action integrates existing literature and research only after the
generation of a theory is essentially complete.

6. Like grounded theory, grounded action can use qualitative and/or quantitative
data. The nature and type of data to be used at various phases of a grounded
action project is itself open to discovery. A project may begin with open-ended
interviews, progress to observations, quantitative archival data, surveys,
evaluation research, or whatever is indicated through the evolving analysis.

7. Although grounded action is generated in a particular context for use in that
context, because it is about understanding and discovering generic variables, it
remains open to modification, application, and transformation in new settings.
Grounded action is modifiable and cumulative, through meta-analysis. A
grounded action meta-analysis involves the integration of multiple substantive
theories useful for generating a wider understanding of the multi-dimensional,
systems nature of social and organizational problems. Although you may never
be able to cover and understand all aspects of a particular problem, you will
come much closer with a grounded action meta-analysis. It will provide sufficient
understanding to formulate creative, workable, doable, effective actions without
having to “start from scratch.” Applications in new contexts would require only
verification of the extent to which the existing grounded action theory is relevant
and useful in the new context, as well as the discovery of variations unique to
that context so that actions can be modified, if necessary. Ideally, the grounded
action process will become an integral part of an organization or change effort.
As actions are implemented changes occur in an ever-evolving process. It would
be wise to keep pace with these changes.

8. As with grounded theory, a theoretical advantage made possible by grounded
action is the potential integration of micro (social psychological) and macro
(social structural) dimensions of a problem. For example, Bigus’ (Simmons)
(1972) study of milkmen cultivating relationships with customers shows how
changing social structural (macro) factors (economic, technological and cultural)
in American society transformed the retail milk industry from one involving mere
delivery of a product to one centered around the need to “cultivate” relationships
with customers (micro).

9. In both traditional applied research and action research, the question of who
conducts and participates in the research is usually predetermined. Applied
research is ordinarily conducted by professional, usually university based,
researchers. Action research is customarily conducted by participants in the
action scene, in the case of participatory action research many participants.
From the perspective of grounded action, before a project begins decisions
about participation simply involve too many yet to be discovered variables
(organizational politics and power, skill levels, training needs, managing
research resources and time, etc.) to make predetermined judgments and
decisions. In grounded action, who or who doesn’t participate is secondary to
ensuring that the research and the actions are grounded and theoretically rich.
Decisions about who participates and at what levels and in what ways are open
to discovery.

For example, Morris (2000) began her grounded action dissertation research on
the general topic of

education professions because of a personal curiosity about why so many
members of her extended family had historically become professional educators.
She began by interviewing family members. From this data she discovered a
core category which she termed “fitting in.” As a middle-school teacher, she
decided to share the concept with her students. They became very excited
because they recognized that fitting in was a central problem in their lives. At
this point, Morris’ realized the potential of including student participation in her
emerging project. She enlisted students to help her fine tune the topic and to
interview each other. They formulated the action problem as “how to fit in and
still be yourself.” Through their participation in the research, the students gained
understanding about a problem central to their social lives. They wrote a booklet
about what they discovered, for distribution to other classes and schools in their
district. In all, they gained a unique, valuable educational experience. Morris
gained a unique grounded action dissertation. Through her initial data collection
and analysis, Morris’s discovered an important research role for the students—
one that the students could do, with minimal training.

Doing Grounded Action

Generating the explanatory theory

The explanatory theory provides a theoretical explanation, grounded in the
reality of the people in the action scene/context. The explanatory theory
captures and explains the behavior relevant to the problems or issues at hand.
As we suggested above, this is critical for grounded action because programs,
policies, and such, will work as intended only if they are grounded in the
realities that are relevant to and experienced by participants in the action

Generating the explanatory grounded theory involves the following steps:

1. Minimizing Preconceptions

Starting with as few preconceptions as possible is important to any grounded
theory/action project. Although preconception is too large a topic to cover fully
here, we will mention several important measures that should be taken from the

Suspend the action problem.

The action problem is the social or organizational problem or issue for which a
solution/intervention is being sought, such as why women and minorities do not
pursue information technology careers, or why students perform poorly. It is the
“purpose” for conducting the research. Action problems usually come from
participants in the action scene/context, often from persons in positions of power
or high status. Because it is natural and ordinary for participants in a research
context or action scene to have strong preconceived (to the research)
understandings, explanations, interpretations, perspectives, beliefs, ideologies,
and so forth, as well as imagined solutions to problems they are processing, it is
important to begin the grounded action process by suspending the action
problem. It is important to treat all of this purely as data for constant
comparison—not as a problem but as an opportunity. This is critical because of
the need to start the research process with as few preconceptions as possible.
As Glaser (1978, p. 22) states, “…the grounded theory researcher whether in
qualitative or quantitative data, moves into an area of interest with no problem

At this point, the action problem functions only as a broad topic area, a general
entry point into the research. For example, if one were interested in
understanding and addressing the problem of poor student performance in
middle schools, it would make sense to begin collecting data from that action
scene. Certainly, it is important to remain open to the possibility of collecting
data from other locations and sources, as informed by theoretical sampling and
the ongoing grounded action process. However, you do not begin the study by
“working” the action problem.You begin with open-ended observations and
interviews of participants in the action scene/context, as is customary in
grounded theory studies (other types of data such as archival documents,
official statistics may be useful supplementary data).

Glaser (1978, p. 8) states, “Good ideas must earn their way into the theory
through emergence or emergent fit
.” Eventually, before it is inserted back into
the process, possibly in modified form, the action problem will be required to
“earn its way” like any other element of a grounded theory. Notably, it may be
discovered that the action problem as originally conceived is the wrong problem!
To focus on the action problem will likely be misleading because it may be found
to be of minimal relevance or merely a property of the discovered core variable,
not the core variable itself. For example one of the authors (Simmons) was
asked to develop an “anger management” program for a social services agency.
Using grounded action, he discovered that the relevant core variables were
respect and power, not anger. Anger was a consequence, not the core category.
With this discovery, the program was designed around helping clients to
understand and develop skills related to respect and power. In contrast,
conventional anger management programs focus on anger by taking a
pathologing, psychologizing, blaming approach that stems from the assumption
that “anger problems” are usually, if not always, a psychological property of the
individual, rather than a response to relationships or other types of life

Discovering the research problem

Rather than beginning with a clearly articulated research problem or question,
grounded theory/action studies begin with only a general topic area. This
general topic provides hunches about where and how to begin data collection,
but does not lead the research. It is only a jumping off point.

The research problem in grounded theory/action is necessarily emergent, not
preconceived. As Glaser (1992) notes:

…the research question in a grounded theory study is not a statement
that identifies the phenomenon to be studied. The problem emerges and
questions regarding the problem emerge by which to guide theoretical
sampling. Out of open coding, collection by theoretical sampling, and
analyzing by constant comparison emerge a focus for the research. (p.

Above all, the research problem in grounded theory/action must be about the
main concerns of participants in the action scene/context. As Glaser (1998)

It is about time that researchers study the problem that exists for the
participants in the area, not what is supposed to exist or what a
professional says is important. “Whose relevance” drives the focus of a
research project. Grounded theory requires that it is the relevance of the
people in the substantive area under study. It is their main concern and
their continual process of it that is the focus of grounded theory… (p.

The research problem in grounded theory/action is the discovered core variable.
The core variable is the variable that accounts for the most variation around the
main issues and problems being processed in the action scene/context. As
Glaser (1998) says:

Always keep in mind, that grounded theory is an inductive approach that
calls for emphasis on the experience of the participants. The goal of
grounded theory is to generate a theory that accounts for the patterns
of their behavior which are relevant and problematic for the participants.
The core category is that pattern of behavior which is most related to all
the other categories and their properties in the theory which explain
how the participants resolve their main concern.” (p. 117)

For example, in Pape’s (1964) study of high job turnover amongst nurses, the
discovered core category is “touring.” In Lee’s (1993) study of prison life, the
discovered core category is “doing time.”

No preliminary literature review.

In grounded theory/action, you do not conduct a preliminary literature review, as
is commonly done in other types of research. As Glaser (1998) states:

The traditional approach is to study the literature in a substantive area
before one starts the research. Grounded theory’s very strong dicta are
a) do not do a literature review in the substantive area and related areas
where the research is to be done, and (emphasis in original) b) when
the grounded theory is nearly completed during sorting and writing up,
then the literature search in the substantive area can be accomplished
and woven into the theory as more data for constant comparison. To
state the point bluntly, these dicta have the purpose of keeping the
grounded theory researcher as free and as open as possible to
discovery and to emergence of concepts, problems and interpretations
from the data. (p. 67)

2. Data Collection

When conducting a typical grounded action project, you enter the field
somewhere in the action scene/context and begin data collection (usually but
not necessarily open-ended intensive interviews and/or unstructured
observations), in the same manner you would begin any grounded theory study.
The problems and issues being processed by the participants will lead to one or
two core variables. By the nature of core variables, these core variables will be
related to the action problem. Often they will not be of the nature that those who
are concerned with the action problem preconceived them to be. They may
modify the action problem as originally conceived, or even identify a new one.
Because they are about what is relevant and how it is being processed by
participants not only on a conscious but on a latent level they will better address
the action problem. They will theoretically capture the full spectrum of what is
really going on.

Because grounded action projects are usually conducted in specific action
scenes, they will involve some level of participant observation. It is important to
take field notes of observations so that they can be analyzed as data. However,
open-ended intensive interviews usually yield the richest, densest data. But, of
course, any type of data can be subjected to constant comparative analysis.
To ensure that you begin as openly as possible, it is beneficial to begin your
initial interviews with a general “grand tour” type question. A grand tour question
is a non-leading, open-ended question (not necessarily stated in question form)
formulated so as not to indicate a preferred response, such as “Tell me about a
day in your life” or “Tell me something about what it’s like to work here.” From
there, it is important that you follow the lead of the respondent. Later in the
research, data collection, including what questions to ask, will be informed by
the analysis. Glaser and Strauss (1967) refer to this process as “theoretical

Theoretical sampling is the process of data collection for generating
theory whereby the analyst jointly collects, codes, and analyzes his data
and decides what data to collect next and where to find them, in order
to develop his theory as it emerges. (p. 45)

It is important to note that there is no point during the grounded action process
when data collection ceases by prior design. After actions have been planned
and invoked they must be assessed and possibly modified. Theoretical sampling
continues to guide decisions about data collection until the very end.

All participants in an action scene who may be relevant to the core variable are
potential sources of data. For example, if the action scene were an elementary
school, in addition to teachers, administrators, and students, who are usually
included in education research, potential respondents would include janitors,
secretaries and other clerical personnel, interns, volunteers, parents, or anyone
else who has potential relevance.

3. Analysis

The analytical technique used in grounded theory/action is what (Glaser, 1965)
refers to as constant comparative analysis. Constant comparative analysis
begins immediately, as the first data is collected. This not only serves as a
beginning for the emergence of a theory, but also provides informed hunches for
theoretical sampling.

Constant comparative analysis involves relating data to ideas, then ideas to
other ideas. This is done through “coding” the data. As Glaser (1978) puts it,

The essential relationship between data and theory is a conceptual
code. The code conceptualizes the underlying pattern of a set of
empirical indicators within the data. Thus, in generating a theory by
developing the hypothetical relationships between conceptual codes
(categories and their properties) which have been generated from the
data as indicators, we ‘discover’ a grounded theory. (p. 55)

Coding is conducted at two levels, substantive and theoretical. “Substantive
codes summarize the empirical substance of the area of research. Theoretical
codes conceptualize how the substantive codes may relate to each other as
hypotheses to be integrated into the theory” (Glaser, 1978, p. 55).

Substantive coding

The first phase in substantive coding is “open coding.” In open coding, you code
freely for as many categories as possible.You code for anything and everything
that might fit. In open coding you ask three questions of the data (Glaser, 1978,
p. 57). The first question is “What is this data a study of?” This question is about
discovering the core variable, which becomes what the study is about. The
second question is “What category does this incident indicate?” The long form
of this question is “What category or property of a category, of what part of the
emerging theory, does this incident indicate
?” This question spurs you to think
conceptually and theoretically. The third question is “What is actually happening
in the data?” This question is designed to get at the social psychological or
social structural issues and problems being addressed by participants in the
action scene—what participants are “working on.”

Once visible patterns emerge and induce the discovery of a core variable you
begin “selective coding.” At this point, you code selectively for matters materially
related to the core variable.

Theoretical coding.

Theoretical codes are more abstract than substantive codes. They provide a
theoretical frame that helps you organize and integrate substantive codes into
theoretically meaningful relationships. Glaser (1978 & 1998) presents numerous
“coding families,” from which single theoretical codes can be drawn and tested
for usefulness and fit. One example of a theoretical coding family is what Glaser
refers to as “The six C’s,” which are “causes,” “contexts,” “contingencies,”
“consequences,” “covariances,” and “conditions.” Glaser characterizes the six
C’s as the “bread and butter” theoretical codes of sociology.

4. Memoing

“Memos are the theorizing write-up of ideas about codes and their relationships
as they strike the analyst while coding
” (Glaser, 1978, p.83). When writing
memos, you should think and write theoretically, in a “stream of consciousness”
fashion, with little consideration for grammar, spelling, sentence structure, and
organization.You should write down ideas, even if they are hunches or don’t
make immediate sense.You may make something of them later by using them
for theoretical sampling or returning to the data for more selective coding. Some
ideas may fall by the wayside; others may prove to be valuable to the emerging
theory. Memos can always be cleaned up, modified, clarified, elaborated,
reorganized and integrated with other ideas, at a later time.

Memoing takes precedence, because it provides the bridge between data and
the emergent theory. Data are always available for analysis at any time. Ideas
are fragile, so they should be written down at the earliest possible moment.
Although memoing should take precedence, data collection, analysis and
memoing are ongoing and overlap in a back-and-forth process, until “theoretical
saturation” (Glaser 1978) is reached. However, memoing prevails throughout the
entire grounded theory/action process. Ideas should always be written down,
whenever they occur to you.

5. Integrating the Literature

Once you achieve confidence in the richness, depth, elaboration, and integration
of your theory, it is time to begin reading literature. Any literature that you
incorporate into your theory must be relevant and earn its way like any other
aspect of a grounded theory/action study. Theoretical material from the literature
is subjected to constant comparison as if it were data. Theoretical literature is
used to reinforce, illustrate, example, or add something to your theory.You may
find variations in the literature that weren’t in your particular data set. Literature
may also generate ideas for theoretical sampling or additional selective coding
of existing data.

6. Sorting and Theoretical Outline

Sorting refers not to data sorting, but to conceptual sorting of memos. The
sorting process entails integrating and organizing memos into conceptual
relationships, from which an outline of the theory emerges. A theoretical outline
depicts all the major properties, dimensions, concepts, theoretical codes (which
sometimes remain latent) and their relationships. In grounded theory/action the
theoretical outline is emergent rather than pre-constructed. As Glaser (1978)

The analyst does not need a “ready made” outline to sort into. Rather
the reverse is required in grounded theory…He should simply start
sorting the categories and properties in his memos by similarities,
connections, and conceptual orderings. This forces patterns which
become the outline. (p. 117)

The actual sorting process consists of cutting and pasting memos and sections
of memos into the emerging theoretical outline. Sorting will likely stimulate more
memos, more analysis, and even more data collection.

Generating the Operational Theory

The operational theory is where explanatory grounded theory leaves off and
grounded action begins. The operational theory serves as a rationale and model
for action. In grounded action, the operational theory is systematically grounded
in a well integrated, multi-dimensional explanatory theory that is grounded in
data. In turn, this keeps the operational theory grounded in what is really going
on in the action scene. And, it enables the operational theory to cover all
relevant, important aspects of the action problem, as it is currently understood.

The operational theory can take the form of program designs, policies,
calculated procedures, and such—whatever is indicated. It is a theoretical
prediction about outcomes—what will happen if you take certain actions. In
order for an operational theory to produce optimal and sustainable change, to
the extent that it is practicable, it must incorporate all important properties and
dimensions of the explanatory theory.
If this is achieved, it will address the
multivariate, systemic nature of the action problem.

The first step in generating an operational theory is to revisit the action problem
in light of what has been discovered while generating the explanatory theory.
The explanatory theory will be about what is really going on in the action
scene/context—the issues and problems being processed by participants. This
will likely cast new light on the action problem, which may consequently need to
be dimensionalized, elaborated, clarified, and/or revised. The operational theory
is generated using a process similar to that used for generating an explanatory
theory. This ensures that the operational theory will be systematically grounded.

7. Analysis

Analysis for generating an operational theory consists of constantly comparing
all major components of the explanatory theory to all relevant properties and
dimensions of the action problem, looking for indicators in the explanatory
theory as to possibilities for optimal and sustainable actions toward mitigating
the action problem. Of course, each aspect of the operational theory must earn
its way. Because the action problem and explanatory theory have now been fully
grounded and developed, analysis is selective around such questions as:

• What does the explanatory theory indicate the real action problem is?

• What are the desired outcomes of the action? This is a values-based question
that cannot be fully answered by the explanatory theory. The answer may also
vary from the perspectives of different participants in the action scene, which
may present the grounded action researcher with ethical dilemmas (see below).

• What does the explanatory theory inform us about assigning priorities to these
outcomes? For example, priorities may be determined by which outcome(s)
need to be accomplished before others can be addressed, they may be
determined by currently available resources, they may be determined by political
considerations within an organization, and so forth.

• What does the explanatory theory indicate about aspects of the action problem
that need to be successfully addressed to bring about the desired change?

• What does this particular component of the explanatory theory indicate needs
to be done in order to mitigate this particular aspect of the action problem?

• What capacity does each person or role in the action scene/context play and
how would they need to change to bring about the desired results? How could
this change actually be achieved? What are the “pushes and pulls” (Regalado-
Rodriguez 2001) in the action scene/context towards or against these changes?

• What is possible, given the current circumstances (available time and
resources, skills of participants, internal politics, etc.)?

• What are likely outcomes of implementing the operational theory? What are
potential worst case outcomes? How can they be prevented? If possible,
fallback and recovery plans should be devised.

From the frame of the action problem, each of these questions must be asked in
relation to each relevant property and dimension of the explanatory theory. This
will produce a grounded blueprint for action.You may also discover a need to
double back in the process to clarify or fill in portions of the explanatory theory,
by doing more analysis, memoing and/or data collection.

8. Memoing

As with an explanatory theory, the primary purpose of constant comparison in
generating an operational theory is to induce ideas for theoretical memos. In this
case, the ideas are about connections between the explanatory theory and
actions that address the action problem. Not only is it important to generate
ideas for action that are indicated by relevant components of the explanatory
theory, but it is important to generate ideas for integrating them into an overall
action plan that includes priorities, sequences, and given resources, politics, and
such in the action scene, practical possibilities. The memo fund should also
include memos on the action problem, as currently understood, considering the
roles and stakes of all participants.

9. Sorting and Theoretical Outline

Once you have a sufficient fund of operational memos, you can begin sorting
them into an outline for an operational theory—an action plan—which as we
suggested above should include relevant components of the explanatory theory,
priorities, sequences, and practical possibilities, as they relate to all relevant
dimensions of the current action problem. As with an explanatory theory, the
theoretical outline of the operational theory should be emergent rather than preconstructed.

10. The Write-up

Grounded action projects may involve multiple write-ups, for different audiences,
at different stages in the process. Once you have completed your explanatory
theory, you may choose to write it up as a scholarly piece, for publication. Or,
you may delay the scholarly write-up until later in the project, so you can include
discussions of the operational theory, actions, and results. Even if you don’t do a
write-up for a scholarly audience, you will likely be required to do one or more
write-ups for stakeholders and/or funding sources. Each type of write-up will
have different purposes with different audiences. It is important to keep this in
mind when composing the write-ups.Whatever your audience or purpose, the
relevance, fit, grab, conceptual clarity, theoretical integration, workability, and
such of grounded/grounded action theories provides you with the opportunity for
compelling write-ups.

Regardless of the write-up’s purpose, the first draft is achieved through the
memo sort. The structure of the theory (explanatory or operational) will provide
the organizing structure for the theory portion of any type of write-up.

11. Implementing the Action

The action is the application of the operational theory towards solving the action
problem. Like all other aspects of a grounded theory/action project, all actions
taken must earn their way; they must be ultimately traceable back to and
supported by data. The calculated actions constitute an empirical test of the
explanatory and/or operational theory. If actions are fully grounded in dense, rich
explanatory and operational theories they should significantly mitigate the action
problem. Although it would be tempting to end the process at this point, it is not
advisable, because without relevant measures how are you to know if specific
actions have worked?

12. Transformative Learning

Grounded action is transformative. It involves a process of continually
discovering, learning, rediscovering, and relearning. During the action stage
there is ongoing reflection on the efficacy of the action plans. Did they work?
What is the status of the problem, issue, context or environment after
implementation of the actions? What modifications and improvements can and
need to be made for solutions to be optimized and sustained? Have the actions
resulted in unforeseen and/or unintended consequences? How can what was
learned be transformed into a process of continuous organizational learning?

Because organizations and systems continually change and evolve, even in the
absence of change initiatives, it is sometimes difficult to know exactly when to
close a grounded action project. As we suggested above, ideally, the grounded
action process will become an integral part of the organization or system.
However, practicalities external to the grounded action research (e.g. resources,
managerial decisions, etc.) may preclude this. In the absence of external
requirements, the data and analysis will indicate when it is time to close a

The evaluation phase of the grounded action process is a measure and
reflection on the efficacy of the explanatory and operational theories and the
subsequent action(s) taken to mitigate the action problem. Because it is often
expected or required by managers, funding sources, and such, traditional
quantitative or qualitative evaluation measures may need to be included. If these
types of evaluation measures are taken, they should be treated as fresh data
and incorporated into the double-back process and subjected to constant
comparison. Expectations, requests or demands for conventional evaluation
measures is itself data, also worth of constant comparison.

Whether or not conventional evaluation measures are taken, it is important to
continue doing interviews, observations, and constant comparative analysis, to
measure the process of change, not just outcomes. There is seldom a point at
which outcomes crystallize. The full grounded action process does not end
when initial actions are implemented and outcomes are evaluated. The unfolding
consequences of actions must be studied in process, both in terms of the
effectiveness of the actions and the responses of participants.

The easy modifiability of grounded theory/action makes them ideal for this task.
As the consequences of actions unfold they must be assessed in relation to the
action problem, so you must continue data collection and analysis, memo
writing, and modification of the explanatory and operational theories, as
indicated, to theoretically keep up with changes brought about by the original

Modification also involves reformulating and adjusting actions as indicated.
Solutions cannot be static. They must evolve as the problem, solutions, and
context evolve. Undiscovered conditions and unforeseen effects may surface.
The action problem itself may have morphed into a different set of issues or

Participants in action scenes/contexts are usually also stakeholders in the action
problem and how it is addressed. Thus, when actions are introduced,
stakeholders will assess their relationship to the action and act accordingly.
Because the purpose of grounded action is action, which always involves some
sort of change, no matter how righteous the action problem may be and no
matter how well grounded and rich the explanatory and operational theories
may be, they will likely be cast in a competitive frame by some participants.
There is no way around the fact that when you introduce change into an
organization or social system, fear, resistance, and opposition will likely occur
from some parties and support from others. Regalado-Rodriguez (2001) refers
to this as the “push-pull dynamic.” It is important to view this as data to be
analyzed—as an opportunity not a problem. However, if you have done a
thorough job of devising actions that are based upon a grounded understanding
and consideration of the roles of all participants, these types of issues will be

If, as will likely be the case, the data and analysis indicate that involving
stakeholders in developing ideas about how to implement and test actions would
be useful and advisable, they should be incorporated into the process. This may
even be done from the beginning, as part of the data collection process. For
example when Simmons developed his “anger management” program
(mentioned above), he began by pushing preconceptions aside and asking the
first group of participants, “If you were me, how would you do this?” The core
categories and design of the program emerged from this initial grand tour

13. Ethics

In addition to the ethical considerations of any form of research, because of the
action orientation of grounded action, skilled grounded action researchers will
be presented with unique ethical considerations. The two most likely ones are:

• Grounded action researchers need to consider the ethics of the original action
problem, particularly when the research is commissioned by individuals in
powerful positions who appear to have minimal consideration for the
consequences of their actions on those over whom they have power. Grounded
theory and grounded action are powerful. Skilled grounded action researchers
should continually be aware of this in making decisions about how, where, and
when to hire out their skills, and in some cases even to re-contract or terminate
a project if discomforting ethical situations emerge.

• Desired outcomes may vary between different participants in the action scene;
they may even be contradictory or mutually exclusive. This presents ethical
dilemmas to the grounded action researcher who may, if only by default, be
placed in the position of having to effectively “take sides” when planning actions.
One option is to do what Glaser (in personal conversation) urges, “make your
problem your topic” and treat this as data to be processed for a solution.

Why Do Grounded Action?

If any two words exemplify modern society, they might be “problem” and
“solution.” Everyone has ideas about what problems are or aren’t and how we
should or shouldn’t go about attempting to solve them.We devote endless time,
attention, and resources in our efforts to identify, define, prevent, and fix them.
In one way or another, virtually all professions are engaged in this endeavor.

In our combined professional experience, as educators, consultants,
researchers, and practitioners, we have closely observed and participated in a
wide range of professional problem identifying and solving efforts, including,
therapy/counseling, social work, organizational management and administration,
diversity, public health, program development, anger management, parent
education, alcohol education, K-12, undergraduate, and graduate education.We
have seen many interventions, programs, action models, change initiatives and
such come and go, mostly with disappointing results. New actions are often met
with excitement about their potential. Staff are trained. The intervention is put
into play. Results are disappointing. Another intervention comes along. Results
are the same. As this process repeats itself, eventually participants become
jaded, cynical, pessimistic, and return to “normal,” going about their work as
they see fit. In our conversations and interviews with practitioners and those
they serve, discussions about this process, and the frustrations that it entails,
frequently emerge. Reluctant participants go through the motions, or even
subvert the intervention, while maintaining a façade of support, compliance, and
productivity. Evaluations are done, measurements are taken. They are often
carefully crafted to ensure that funding continues, rather than to be true
measures of efficacy. Things are made to “look good,” but in reality the problem

Oftentimes when new actions are introduced, fear and loathing rush through an
organization. Changes in job responsibilities and organizational structure, the
requirement that individuals acquire new knowledge and skills, cynicism about
past actions, the elimination of jobs, and such, lead people to focus on their
immediate needs and fears. An intervention can represent positive opportunities
for some, negative for others (Gregory, 1996).

The above sorts of circumstances may serve to undermine an intervention, even
if it’s a promising one. If these circumstances become chronic in an
organization, rather than activities achieving their purpose, they can become the
functional equivalent of digging holes and refilling them, reducing the
effectiveness and productivity of the organization. The organizations may
survive, but their goals and purposes remain elusive targets.

Despite the enormous resources public and private organizations and agencies
put into solving social and organizational problems, the results have usually
been disappointing. Perhaps as a society we are too optimistic in our belief that
social and organizational problems can actually be substantially mitigated or
solved. Be this as it may, we maintain that applying grounded action to social
and organizational problems will produce optimal, sustainable, positive results in
relation to previous approaches.

For example, most research and actions on the issue of diversity in
organizations has suffered from a one-dimensional perspective, that of
responding to and correcting perceived discrimination and inequity in company
hiring patterns and workplace practices. Racial and gender discrimination has
been preconceived as the primary motivating variable in studies and programs
related to diversity (Cox, 1990; Gregory, 1996, 1999; Thomas, 1991, 1992,
1996, 2000).

Thomas (1991 & 1996) attempted to expand the understanding and study of
diversity to include dimensions other than race and gender and variables other
than discrimination. His work called attention to an extensive number and
combination of diversity dimensions and an equally extensive number and
combination of variables. He recognized diversity as a complex and
multidimensional phenomenon, which could best be understood by developing a
cohesive and comprehensive theory about the nature of diversity and its related
dynamics. However, because of the continued focus on racial and gender
discrimination and inequity, in spite of Thomas’ work, the study of diversity has
not advanced far from its roots in the civil rights movement forty years ago.

Gregory (1996, 1999) asserts that a more complete understanding of the
dynamics of diversity is still open to discovery.We maintain that the most
effective means of doing this is to take a fresh grounded theory/action approach
by starting at the beginning. Like all grounded action research, this would
involve suspending the issue of diversity as it is currently understood as an
action problem, collecting and analyzing data, generating a grounded
explanatory theory, more clearly articulating the action problem, then generating
an operational theory from which optimal, sustainable actions can be derived.
This may be a big undertaking, but we think a grounded action approach would
be a productive way to address the issue.

Common approaches to problem solving are in-house actions designed by
employees, actions designed by “expert” consultants, those designed by
university-based applied researchers, and those designed as action research.
None of these approaches have been as effective as we think they could and
should be. The first two are often unsystematic in nature, subject to the
predilections, preferences, interpretations, self-interest, knowledge, skills,
experience, and so forth, of those who design and implement them. These
factors can vary widely. Given the variable nature of these approaches to
problem solving, it is impossible to address their strengths and weaknesses in
the abstract.

University based, applied research is systematic, usually using commonly
accepted research methods and scholarly theories, applied by highly educated,
knowledgeable, trained, skilled, experienced research professionals. This allows
for a critical assessment of strengths and weaknesses. However, applied
researchers seldom have the quality and quantity of day-to-day experience in
particular action scenes that participants have. Nor do they have the
investments in actions and outcomes that participant-stakeholders have.

Action research is also systematic usually using commonly accepted research
methods. But, the levels of education, knowledge, theoretical sensitivity,
research training, skills and experience of its practitioners vary considerably.
Because they are often practitioners not professional researchers, their
qualifications as researchers seldom match those of university-based applied
researchers. Furthermore, in participatory action research they turn over major
aspects of the research to participants with little or no research skills,
experience, or theoretical sensitivity. Unless this is done carefully and mindfully
weighing all potential negatives and positives and matching participants to tasks
for which they are properly suited and trained the epistemological veracity of the
research may suffer considerably. Enlisting participants in the research design
and process may satisfy an otherwise commendable central philosophical
preference of action research, but it raises serious potential for problems with
the research itself.

The question of who’s preconceptions (prior understandings and interpretations
brought to the research) are more potentially damaging to the
conceptual/theoretical results of action-oriented research, participantstakeholders
or professional university-based researchers, is an empirical one
individual to each separate project, not a philosophical one. Likewise, the
question of whether the high level of day-to-day experience in the action scene
and the personal stake in the outcome of participant-stakeholders present fewer
threats to the veracity of the research than the lower level of day-to-day
experience and minimal personal stake of university based researchers is
difficult to ascertain. Who is most or least apt to be objective?

Regardless, you cannot design effective actions unless they are grounded in
what is really going on, not what you think, hope, or wish is going on. Thus the
critical question is “Is it grounded?” not who carries out the research. Anything
that prevents, breaks or derails the grounding of explanations in data will
diminish the opportunity to devise truly optimal and sustainable change.

Grounded action is an innovative approach to understanding and solving
complex social and organizational problems, which systematically grounds and
integrates data, analysis, theory, and action. As such, in the hands of welltrained
researcher change agents, it is a powerful tool for producing effective,
sustainable solutions.


1We are assuming that the reader has a general familiarity with grounded theory. Those
who want to do grounded action will certainly need to read Glaser’s grounded theory
related books. Training in grounded theory is of course preferable, but hard to come by.
The authors teach a sequence in grounded theory and grounded action at the Fielding
Graduate Institute [,].

2Rather than presenting the complexities of our reasoning here, please refer to Strauss
and Corbin (1990) for Strauss’ post The Discovery of Grounded Theory conception of
grounded theory. Glaser (1992) took strong issue with Strauss’ depiction of the method,
asserting that Strauss’ and Corbin’s book “distorts and misconceives grounded theory,
while engaging in a gross neglect of 90% of its important ideas” Glaser asks of Strauss,
“You wrote a whole different method, so why call it ‘grounded theory’?” (p.2). Glaser’s
reasoning is consistent with the fundamental role grounded theory plays in grounded
action. Since Discovery, Glaser has clarified and refined grounded theory in a number of
books. See Glaser (1978, 1992, 1998, 2001).

3These are but a few examples of grounded theory studies that have obvious practical
implications. For other examples, see Glaser (1993, 1994, 1995, 1996).

4We use the term “action scene/context” because data are not always collected from
specific action scenes. For example, in her study of curriculum changes in accounting
higher education, Thiru (2002) collected data from the broader context of accounting
higher education, not just from one or several action scenes. Her interviews were
conducted mostly by telephone.

5Glaser uses the terms “core variable” and “core category” interchangeably.

6For more detailed discussions of the issue of preconception in grounded theory
research see Glaser (2001), particularly Chapter 6, and Simmons (1995).

7Many discussions of how to enter a research setting are available in the literature, so
we won’t cover the topic here.

8Many discussions of how to conduct open-ended intensive interviews are available in
the literature, so we won’t cover the topic here.

9Because of its complexity, we will provide only a cursory description of constant
comparative analysis. For thorough depictions of the process, see Glaser (1965, 1978,
1992, 1998 & 2001).

10For detailed discussions of sorting, rules for sorting and generating theoretical
outlines, see Glaser (1978, 1992 & 2001).

11For grounded action professionals who are hired from outside the organization or
system, this means training participants in the minimal skills required to carry on.

12There is no doubt, however, that these types of situations present ethical dilemmas, as
we discussed earlier.


Odis E. Simmons, Ph.D.
P.O. Box 126
Fox Island, WA 98333

Toni A. Gregory, Ed.D.
8708 Birchbark Drive
Cincinatti, Ohio 45249
Institutional Affiliations:
Grounded Action Institute (primary)
Fielding Graduate Institute (secondary)

Phone: 888 265 0656 Toll Free
E-mail: (primary) (primary)


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