Methodological Issues: Have we forgotten the place of thinking here?

Antoinette M. McCallin, Ph.D., RN

The article “grappling with the literature in a grounded
theory study” (McCallin, 2003) has stimulated a lively
discussion in the international grounded theory research
community. In this paper, I reply generally to my
colleagues’ responses and raise some further issues that I
do not believe have been addressed to date. In particular, I
question if current discussions about the place of literature
review are incomplete if methodological matters are
debated in isolation from issues of thinking. The purpose of
this paper is to argue that although literature review is
preferably minimised initially, simply focusing a study, in
reality timing does not matter, as long as the analyst is
critically analytical of literature at all times, and does not
allow existing knowledge to pre-empt identification of the
research problem or formation of the emergent theory. In a
less than perfect world, some researchers who do not have
the luxury of grounded theory supervision will review
literature in advance, and others will include a review as
per the methodological ideals. What is important however,
is how literature is managed and how the researcher thinks
about the material he or she is exposed to. In other words,
is literature integrated theoretically into a study or simply
regarded as the received view of science and material to be
accepted without question? The intent of the paper is not to
remodel classical grounded theory but more to bring into
the open some hitherto unexplained aspects of grounded
theory thinking, which also affect what happens
methodologically and ultimately, the rigor of the finished
product. These issues are explored briefly.


Originally, “grappling with the literature in a grounded
theory study” (McCallin, 2003) was written as a teaching
tool for masters’ students beginning grounded theory
research projects. In one of my roles as a teacher I had
noticed in grounded theory research supervisions that
many students always asked the same questions. “Where
should I begin? What should I read? What do I do about
literature?” While the answers to those questions were
available in the literature, ease of access to material was
variable. In New Zealand most masters’ students work fulltime
and study as well; time is precious. Some students
were looking for shortcuts that could have saved them time
as they organised study with hectic professional lives.
Others, studying in distance learning situations, usually had
immediate access to electronic databases, although library
books had to be inter-loaned from various universities
throughout the country, sometimes overseas.

Coupled with this was a situation whereby the luxury of
being a full-time scholar with unlimited time to review
literature on methodology, seemed to be something of the
past. In addition, there were, and still are few classical
grounded theory researchers in New Zealand, so students
studied with supervisors who did not understand the
methodology and certainly few had the luxury of working
through apprenticeship-style supervision in their research
work. Therefore, the intent of the original paper was to
provide a quick overview of significant issues and to
highlight the practical problems that influenced research
design. The paper has been well received by students and
stimulated a lively discussion with more experienced
grounded theorists, many of whom will be involved in
supervisions as well.


Most of my colleagues are in agreement that a
grounded theory researcher will look at some literature
prior to a study. Vivian Martin’s notion of “phasing” is
especially useful, reflecting the tensions between
emergence and “the subversive potential of grounded
theory to push pass disciplinary boundaries by broadening
the relevant literature” (Martin, 2006, p. 1). Perhaps more
important is her point that arguments about timing of
literature review can serve as red herrings and confuse
researchers that are essentially asked to distance
themselves from pre-conceived problems (Glaser, 1998).
In contrast, Tom Andrews suggests that continual rewriting
of the method is problematic. If the researcher fails
to appreciate the relevancy of literature and its integration
into the emergent theory misunderstandings are
perpetuated. Hans Thulesius questions if the strategies
outlined in the original paper are an important modification
of how to use literature in classical grounded theory.
Although my initial intent was not to modify grounded
theory I certainly bring a critically analytical mind to the
debate, hence the questions. Helene Ekstrom draws
attention to theoretical and pragmatic issues as does Alvita
Nathaniel. Alvita goes on to argue that inquiry begins when
a knowledge gap is evident. Of particular interest to this
paper, is the point that gaps are not always visible unless
the researcher has a broad understanding of a wider body
of knowledge. In other words knowledge gaps may be
unknowable and unpredictable; problem identification is
emergent, as is the direction the research will take. For
me, those methodological issues trigger links into
complexity thinking that emphasises “knowing the
unknowable, managing with the unmanageable, and
organising within the unorganisable’ (Flood, 1999, p. 129).
These ideas seem to be very similar to the way grounded
theorists work and think. Therefore, while methodological
issues are foundational to rigorous research, so to is the
issue of thinking and how the researcher integrates
methodology with the overall process.

On thinking and critical reflection … …

Since writing that paper, and with further supervision
experience, I have observed that a “true” grounded theory
researcher does not ask the questions mentioned earlier.
These people “just get on and do it!” The potential
grounded theorist will ask for references to get a handle on
the method while “other students”, the ones who ask the
aforementioned questions, tend to seek a blow by blow
account of what might happen in the research, often trying
to control the area of research, not to mention the problem
identification. Such responses suggest interplay between
an individual’s learning styles, thinking capability, and
methodological issues.

As a teacher, when a student asks “what” questions
and insists on staying at that level of analysis I am on the
alert, wondering about their thinking capability. Being
thoroughly socialised in assessment procedures and the
various levels of analysis in academia I tend to equate
“what” questions with descriptive analysis, “how” questions
with interpretive analysis, and “why” questions with critical
analysis. Yes, I can hear some of your arguments already.
They are beaming down to the South Pacific from various
parts of the world. And no, the argument is not simplistic.
Perhaps in the midst of complexity we might forget to
return to the basics and check out the fundamental
thinking competence. For example, one of the hallmarks of
classical grounded theory is conceptualisation. As we are
too well aware, there are rather too many grounded theory
studies that fall into the realms of qualitative data analysis,
suggesting that some would be grounded theorists are
better at description and interpretation rather than
conceptualisation. I know it is no longer fashionable to
quote Piaget because critical analysts have found his
sample to be biased, but perhaps some of my questions
are accounted for by the fact that the majority of the
population will be concrete thinkers (descriptive analysis
focusing on the what questions) and only a small
percentage are able to hypothesise and conceptualise.

These analytical issues trouble me and have taken me
beyond the practicalities of literature review and its timing
to consideration of an even more critical issue, namely
grounded theory thinking. Have you ever wondered about
the sort of person who becomes a grounded theory
researcher? Who are these people? Is there something
specific that stands out in them that means they have an
inherent ability to manage the method effectively?
Reflection suggests that an effective grounded theory
researcher thinks in a particular way. The person is
comfortable with emergence, capable of conceptualisation.
Similarly, the competent grounded theorist is an able
inductive-deductive thinker, at one and the same time.
To engage in constant comparative analysis and follow
through the principles of theoretical sensitivity certainly
demands that the researcher think specifically as well as
generally about the emergent theory. The ability to engage
in creative thinking is also fundamental for analysis, if the
researcher is to be open to emergence and not constrained
with the rational, rule-bound thinking that characterises the
received view of the world (Zohar, 1997).

This creative dimension to thinking may be inherent in
the individual. Part of creative thinking is a willingness to
take risks and the ability to deal with chaos (Zohar, 1997).
Managing uncertainty, being a grounded theorist demands
risk-taking thinking if any sense is to be made from
apparently unconnected data. Being open to emergence
and finding a coherent pattern of behaviour suggests a
certain cerebral ability to think flexibly about the world and
organise it into some shape or form, despite apparent
chaos. Likewise, have you ever noticed how many
grounded theorists love to do puzzles, or have a history of
doing so as a child? It is possible that organising the chaos
of hundreds of pieces of seemingly unconnected bits of
cardboard, when there is only a general picture to indicate
where the patterns exist, demonstrates a particular way of
thinking. When some of these skills synergise you might
notice the grounded theory thinker acting rather like a
detective. While researchers seldom focused solely on
exposing negative behaviours, grounded theorists have a
keen interest in discovering how groups of people behave
in various situations. Asking questions, especially the why
questions is common, as they seek to understand how and
why others behave as they do.

These observations suggest that an effective classical
grounded theorist must be a critical thinker, if not a
complexity thinker. The critical thinker examines
assumptions and taken-for-granted understandings of the
world. This type of thinker looks at the breadth and depth
of the argument, weighing up the evidence and sources of
knowledge before a conclusion is reached. The grounded
theorist seems to work similarly in that he or she
constantly compares data across a study, theoretically
samples to expand explanations, and present a conceptual
explanation that is theoretically sensitive.


While methodological debates serve many purposes
highlighting misunderstandings may constrain thinking in
that novice researchers are paralysed from thinking at all,
let alone researching. Novice researchers have to learn how
to research. Some grounded theorists have the privilege of
working with a trained theorist; many do not. Those in the
latter category will no doubt learn through trial and error
learning. Those of us who have thankfully passed the
novice stage might want to reconsider our arguments for
methodological rigour. I believe that the wellprepared
researcher should know what to do and why. Handling the
“how” is less specific. That aspect tends to happen during
the research process. However, a critically analytical
researcher is better situated to learn through experience
and still remain methodologically rigorous, as the theory is
generated. Does this mean that the timing of literature
review is much less important than previously thought?
Surely critical analysis of existing literature, regardless of
timing, opens up the mind to the strengths and limitations
in received writing, and for consideration in relation to the
developing theory?


Antoinette M. McCallin, Ph.D., RN
Head of Research
Division of Health Care Practice
Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences
AUT University
Auckland, New Zealand


Flood, R.L. (1999). Rethinking the fifth discipline: Learning
within the unknowable. Routledge; London.

Glaser, B. G. (1998). Doing grounded theory: Issues and
discussions. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press.

McCallin, A. M. (2003). Grappling with the literature in a
grounded theory study. Contemporary Nurse, 15(12),

Zohar, D. (1997). Rewiring the corporate brain: Using new
science to rethink how we structure and lead
organisations. San Francisco: BerretKoehler.