The Relationship between an Emerging Grounded Theory and the Existing Literature: Four phases for consideration

Vivian B. Martin, Ph.D.

The relationship between grounded theory researchers
and the existing literature has become a red herring that
even confuses some grounded theorists who have
completed a study. Antoinette McCallin’s essay does a
commendable job outlining the realities of the research
terrain that make proceeding without some exposure to the
literature unlikely and ill-advised in most situations. When
embarking on my dissertation, I needed to know enough
about the literature, both substantive and methodological,
to argue for the use of classic grounded theory as opposed
to many other choices within my field; yet my study
benefited from the necessary tensions between the
emerging grounded theory and the existing literature. In
this brief essay I propose that the relationship between the
existing literature and a developing grounded theory
project goes through four discernible phases:
noncommittal, comparative, integrative, and, if the analyst
can push, a transcendent phase in which the theory is not
simply one of a number of theories of a kind within the
discipline’s literature. I explain the phases to make more
explicit the under-recognized subversive potential of
grounded theory to push pass disciplinary boundaries by
broadening the ‘relevant’ literature. Barney Glaser has
often admonished grounded theory researchers to put off
the literature to avoid wasting time and energy with
literature that may prove irrelevant. I have not found such
literature to be irrelevant as much as limited, and in some
cases restricted by what a particular discipline defines as
the appropriate literature. Therefore, the question of what
literature offers possibilities for literature review and
comparisons that would allow for richer knowledge
generation. I return to this matter toward the end of the

Four Phases of Relating

Although many experienced grounded theorists explain
the read-or-not-to-read quandary in grounded theory
methodology as one of pacing, thinking of the initial phase
as “noncommittal” helps focus on the principle Glaser
wants to convey: a distancing from the predefined
problems and concerns. Since some knowledge of the
literature is presumed – one could not write or defend a
dissertation proposal or grant application otherwise – a
researcher needs to take explicit steps to refrain from
committing to questions and concepts privileged in the
literature. Writing memos of one’s preconceptions to make
them more explicit, something Glaser recommends in his
troubleshooting seminars, is one way. And I would humbly
argue that viewing the necessary initial relationship as
noncommittal would help novice researchers come up with
other strategies that allow for them to graze the literature
or know enough to fulfill certain requirements while making
a conscious shift of mind to maintain openness to the field.
Although I was familiar with the literature on news
consumption in my field, I was aware of enough of the
limitations to remain noncommittal. But when certain
patterns from the literature started to show up in the field,
albeit sometimes with a twist, I knew it was time to move
back into the literature to start making the kind of
comparisons that allowed me to get more selective with
concepts. As part of selective coding, I applied some of my
concepts to the existing literature, including some large
surveys and industry reports.

The integrative phase was a little trickier, perhaps
reflecting the tensions between discovery of theory and the
need to fulfill requirements within the discipline. The short
explanation of what happened to me in this phase, at least
initially, is that my pacing went awry when I let the
literature get away from me. I was reading some literature
but not all pertinent material in my area, and I had to do
some scurrying toward the end of dissertation writing when
I realized that I had been so exultant in the process of
discovery that I had left some literature untouched. I did
burrow a place in the literature for my work alongside
others I encountered during the comparative phase, and
my dissertation, Getting the news from the news: a
grounded theory of purposive attending
, got accolades; but
I missed some things in my effort to distance myself from
the literature. These limitations became more apparent as
I started preparing material for publication in my field.
Reviewers are generally positive, but, to give an example, I
just went through literature from the 1940s to satisfy a
reviewer’s complaint that the project should be in
communication with these works. Some of these critiques
undermine aspects of my work and are about power elites
holding on to their position, I realize however, I am finding
that my work has been strengthened by some of this
extended integration phase, which leads me to the fourth
phase, which I confess is less grounded than the other
three because I have yet to fully realize it. Nevertheless,
the integration phase, which seems to have gone through a
few cycles, has brought me to the point of arguing for a
sociology of news consumption that utilizes my theory of
purposive attending as a way to bring together disparate
traditions that have addressed news consumption. So
perhaps, there is a transcendent phase, which I hope would
be indicated by adoption and citation of my work by
colleagues in my field.

Transcendence brings up the matter I suggested at the
beginning of this essay, the subversive power of grounded
theory to leap disciplinary boundaries. The question of
whether one should read the literature before starting a
project suggests the existence of a pre-packaged body of
literature. And in many ways there is: disciplines define the
appropriate problems and literature for study.
Nevertheless, as Glaser argues, the field suggests other
literature. Most times, however, researchers are not really
free to go to the other fields where their questions may
also be under study, and even if they are so inclined, the
learning curve that awaits a health researcher or
information systems person in need of a crash course in
psychology or sociology can be discouraging. Certainly,
interdisciplinary research is becoming more accepted, and
some areas of study are inherently interdisciplinary.
Nevertheless, there is a tendency for scholars in general to
not boldly go where nobody in their discipline has gone
before. Such a disinclination is particularly pertinent to
discussions about the use of grounded theory to create
formal theory. The formal theory implications of, say,
untenable accountability, to use a concept that Trisha Fritz,
an Arizona State University doctoral candidate and
Grounded Theory Troubleshooting seminar attendee, began
utilizing for her study of school principals forced to
implement the No Child Left Behind Act in povertystricken
school districts, are apparent; but the inclination, and data
collection and analysis across different areas of interest
that would be needed to develop a formal theory to
transcend the substantive area will likely keep such a
theory from development. Yet grounded theory holds out
the possibility of helping researchers cross disciplinary
walls; and a better understanding of the necessary tensions
between developing and existing literature can help
researchers develop more potent theories.


Vivian B. Martin, Ph.D.Associate Professor
Department of English (Journalism Program)
Central Connecticut State University
New Britain, CT