Book Review: Glaser, B.G. (2007). Doing Formal Grounded Theory: A Proposal

Alvita K. Nathaniel, PhD, APRN, BC

Forty years after developing the classic grounded theory
method with Anselm Strauss, Barney Glaser has published the
long-anticipated follow-up monograph that details the method
for generating formal grounded theory. Through the years,
Glaser continued writing about substantive grounded theory,
but formal grounded theory remained in the background,
lacking a clear definition and distinctive method. Although his
previous monographs offer hints about formal grounded theory,
this is the first definitive guide for researcher-theorists. It is
Glaser’s aim that this monograph will provide the inspiration
and direction needed by researcher-theorists who will then
generate formal grounded theory. The intended audience for
this book is grounded theorists who have previous experience
developing substantive grounded theories.

In 1971, Glaser and Strauss wrote Status Passage. This
was the first formal theory. Through the years, both Glaser and
Strauss wrote tidbits about formal grounded theory, but they
never clearly explicated the method. As a result, few formal
grounded theories exist. Describing and delineating formal
grounded theory in a variety of ways, scholars in many
disciplines attempted to fill in the gaps left by Glaser and
Strauss. In this book, Glaser systematically, thoroughly, and
meticulously answers those scholars, refuting some and
validating others. Yet, he recognizes that since there are few
published formal grounded theories, the method cannot be
totally explicated. Nevertheless, enough formal grounded
theories do exist for this first attempt at method clarification
and procedure formulation.

Glaser points to common impediments that derail many
researcher-theorists. These impediments include lack of
support from PhD committees, regression into conceptually
barren qualitative research, logical-deductive speculation
(rather than grounding), and “super think” divorced from
reality. He clearly identifies these derailments as he lays out
procedures for generating formal theory. Glaser explains that
the generation of formal grounded theory pursues the general
implications of a core variable. Using constant comparison, the
researcher expands the general implications by generating
grounded conceptual categories about it from many different
areas and by expanding abstract conceptual generalizations.
The researcher uses constant comparison to generate further
concepts related to the core category. Grounded formal theory
is not an explication of descriptive differences and similarities
in a substantive area. Rather it is conceptualizations about the
core category, abstracted from the particulars of time, place,
and persons. Because it is empirically rooted, conceptualized,
generalized, and free of particulars, it potentially applies to
many substantive areas.

Except for theoretical sampling, the procedures for formal
grounded theory are the same as those for generating
substantive grounded theory. Glaser suggests that the
researcher samples widely in other substantive areas and
populations. Data comes from “wherever” and may include
newly generated empirical data from other substantive areas,
extant literature focusing on the core category or its general
implications, or data generated from previous qualitative
descriptions. Glaser writes, “theoretical sampling swings wide.”
Much like with substantive grounded theory, the researchertheorist
constantly codes the data for categories and their
properties, analyzes each day by constant conceptual
comparisons and successive delimiting based on the general
implications of the core category. Glaser is careful to point out
that newly identified categories do not change meanings of the
theory. They merely extend and modify the core category and
give it broader generalization. The researcher writes
conceptual memos and seeks saturation of new indicators that
vary the original categories and their properties. Glaser
suggests that as saturation occurs and contexts change, the
researcher can more clearly see the abstract application to
many new areas.

Glaser identifies many uses of formal grounded theory.
Academic uses include lectures, readings, consultations,
correcting extant theory by modification, giving deeper but
transcending understandings, extending the general
implications of theory, and the cumulative building up of
theory. Formal grounded theory may be used to guide other
research since it gives clear theoretical direction to the research
by its grounding. And because it is abstract of people, place and
time, it is easy to apply to many substantive areas.

Along with many experienced grounded theorists around
the globe, I have thought much about developing a formal
grounded theory. But, I did not know exactly how to begin.
Thus, I’ve eagerly awaited this monograph. It was not a
disappointment. This book gives clear direction to experienced
grounded theorists who wish to develop formal theory.
However, like formal theory itself, the writing is very dense. It
is not an easy-to-read book for beginners. In order to appreciate
fully its nuances, the researcher-theorist must be experienced
in classic grounded theory and must have previously read
widely from Glaser’s previous books and monographs. If a
reader has read Glaser’s previous work, though, he or she
might be distracted by the many references to the classic
grounded theory versus qualitative data analysis controversy.
Although this controversy is an important one, worthy of
discussion, it is almost immaterial to those of us who are
dedicated to the classic method. Even so, this book is a treat
because the substance is there—waiting to be discovered.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book to experienced
grounded theorists who are interested in developing a formal
grounded theory. Since Glaser was co-originator of classic
grounded theory, this is the definitive resource. The book
answers critics, corrects misunderstandings, and clears up
confusion. It clearly defines formal grounded theory and offers
a step-by-step approach. Along with Glaser, I hope that that
this monograph will provide the inspiration, direction, and
method needed for future formal grounded theory research.


Alvita Nathaniel, PhD, APRN, BC
School of Nursing
West Virginia University
3110 MacCorkle Ave. SE
Charleston WV 25304