The Literature Review in Grounded Theory: A response to McCallin (2003)

Tom Andrew, RN, B.Sc.(Hons), M.Sc., Ph.D.


The paper by McCallin (2003) is a useful contribution
to the debate surrounding the role of the literature in
Grounded Theory (GT). For the purpose of this paper and
with reference to McCallin (2003) the issue will be
discussed in relation to the purpose of a review within GT.
It will be argued that the misunderstanding about the
function of the literature within a GT study arises partly as
a result of the confusion caused by the continual rewriting
of the method. Further it will be argued that a preliminary
reading of the literature is entirely consistent with the
principals of GT. Finally some practical suggestions will be
made as to how the issue could be dealt with in a way that
is unproblematic for GT.

How to deal with the literature in GT has clearly been
an issue from its inception because its role is different
within this methodology. This is likely to be as a result of
misunderstanding the role of the literature in GT, confusing
it with its traditional role in research. However this leads
to tensions between the requirements of those supervising
the research project and those of GT (McCallin 2003).
Conventionally the purpose of a literature review in
research is to identify a research problem, refine a research
question or hypothesis, determine gaps or inconsistencies
in the body of research as well as identifying suitable
designs and data collection methods for a study (Polit and
Beck 2006). Within GT the literature is viewed simply as
more data to be synthesised and integrated into the
emerging theory (Glaser 1998). The researcher using GT is
mandated to stay open to the concepts being generated
from the data and not from the literature so as not to
preconceive or be derailed (Glaser 1978; Glaser 1998).
Central to GT is the idea is that the literature is not used as
a source of concepts. Therefore it is very important for
those new to GT to realise this through a meticulous
reading of the original GT literature, coupled with high
quality teaching in research methods classes. However,
thinking of GT as just another qualitative methodology is
problematic for those trying to understand the role of the
literature. Its continual rewriting confuses those new to it
(Glaser 2003). Not only are those trying to understand and
use GT confronted by what appears to be two versions of
the method, but the different perspectives also, such as
constructivist (Mills et al. 2006), feminist and critical
theory (Charmaz 2000). While these different perspectives
discuss the literature as data, they do not emphasise its full
conceptual integration into the emerging theory, leading to
a misunderstanding as to the role of the literature in GT.
No wonder that those new to GT end up so confused.

It is a common misconception to think that GT
advocates no reading of the literature. While Glaser (1978)
advises the researcher to enter the field with as few
predetermined ideas as possible; that “sensitivity is
increased by being steeped in the literature that deals with
both kinds of variables and their associated general ideas
that will be used” (p2); this does not mean no reading of
the literature.

McCallin (2003) is right when maintaining that usually
funding committees, research supervisors and dissertation
committees demand that the student includes a literature
review in any research proposal and this is acknowledged
by Glaser (1998). At a minimum those conducting
research need to demonstrate that a problem worthy of
research exists and that they have the necessary skill to
conduct such a study. The question then becomes one of
what literature to read rather than whether to or not.
Grounded Theory answers that question unequivocallyread
the literature but in an area which is different from
the research (Glaser 1978) essentially to avoid the relevant
literature until at lease the core category begins to emerge
(Glaser 1998). Also there is acknowledgement that some
researchers enter the field with clear questions in mind, a
general perspective or some concepts already in mind as a
result of some previous training (Glaser 1978). This is
seldom a problem since the procedures of GT and trusting
in emergence will challenge any preconceptions. Whatever
the source of bias, the constant comparative method done
carefully as outlined, will counter them (Glaser 1998). The
inference here is that provided the researcher is open and
follows the procedures of GT, preconceived ideas will be
corrected whatever their source. Presumably this also
includes the literature. Those who are intent on doing a
good GT study are unlikely to have a clear idea of what the
study will be about, since this only emerges as data are
collected. While Glaser (1998) argues that reviewing the
literature before knowing what the study is about is a
waste of time, McCallin (2003) maintains that a study must
begin somewhere. As an example, when reviewing the
literature for a PhD thesis on how nurses pick up on
patients worsening conditions, the initial literature review
examined such issues as the signs and symptoms of
physiological deterioration, clinical decision making,
knowledge in nursing and nurse-doctor professional
relations. While some of this literature was useful for
integration into the emergent theory, other more relevant
literature was included such as the subjective nature of
evidence and argumentation theory. There was no way of
knowing beforehand that the inclusion of such literature
could have been anticipated. McCallin (2003) dealt with
this in a similar way.

In conclusion, the key to doing a good GT study and
overcoming the potential problem of reviewing the
literature prior to data collection is to maintain theoretical
sensitivity through constant comparison and memo writing
particularly, as well as following the other steps of GT
judiciously. This will ensure that researchers stay open.
Provided that those embarking on a study using GT accept
that they may well end up doing two literature reviews and
fully understand the purpose of each, then a preliminary
literature review arguably is not the problem that it is
sometimes considered to be. One of the reviews could be
in an area that puts the study into some context and the
other one used as data to fully integrate the theory. This is
entirely consistent with the views of Glaser (1998) when he
advocates doing some preliminary reading. Finally, GT
methodology is pragmatic and Glaser (2001) advises to do
whatever is required to get funding or satisfy a supervisor
or dissertation committee. A preliminary reading of the
literature followed by a review in the substantive area,
together with a thorough understanding of GT is suggested
as a way of dealing with the issue of the literature review
and should satisfy everyone while staying faithful to the
principals of GT. Stay open and trust in emergence in the
confidence that any preconceptions will be corrected.


Dr. Tom Andrews, RN; BSc (Hons), MSc; PhD
Lecturer, School of Nursing and Midwifery,
Brookfield Health Science Complex,
University College Cork,
College Road,
Cork, Ireland.


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