Striking a Balance between Program Requirements and GT Principles: Writing a compromised GT proposal

Sherry L. Xie, Ph.D. Candidate


Glaser’s term “compromised GT proposal” (2001, p.114) refers to
the type of Grounded Theory (GT) proposal that is written in
order to conform to the requirements of a standardized
qualitative research proposal. A GT proposal needs only to supply
information on the area of interest, the data source and a
statement of method to the effect that the researcher begin to
collect, code and analyse the data and let the theory emerge.
Thus, the proposal may only occupy “a page or two” (Glaser, 2001,
p. 111). Whilst being consistent with the methodology, a GT
proposal sometimes has to give way to the format specified by a
PhD program or committee even though the format was not
defined for a GT proposal and in some areas, conflicts with GT
principles; for example, the format may require a literature
review. This short paper reports on my experience of writing a
compromised GT proposal as a first-time GT researcher. It
describes how both Glaser’s advice on writing compromised GT
research proposals and the characteristics of the substantive area
of the proposed research were used to satisfy program
requirements while still maintaining GT fundamentals.

The Program Requirements for Research Proposal

As a PhD student at the School of Library, Archives, and
Information Studies (SLAIS), my area of research is archival and
information studies, which traditionally does not have disciplinespecific
or preferred research methodologies. Students may select
any of the social science research methodologies as long as they
justify the selection for their dissertation projects. My selection of
GT is based on three grounds: first, it is evident that there are no
theories existing in the substantive area which I am interested
in; second, I have been conducting deductive (i.e., theory-testing)
research for all my research projects and I consider my
dissertation project a good opportunity to practice inductive
research; third, based on my past research experiences, I trust
that I am theoretically sensitive and capable of generating
concepts and hypotheses.

The requirements of writing a research proposal in my school
are contained in the PhD Handbook of Policies and Procedures,
which explains the purpose of defending the research proposal
(Table 1), lists the required contents of the proposal (Table 2),
and explains that: “A well-designed proposal should provide the
basis for the first two or three chapters of the final dissertation.
In most cases, the proposal should be at least 30 pages long”
(SLAIS, 2005).

Table 1: Purposes of the Defence

– to ensure that the student has a clear understanding of the
research he/she proposes to conduct,
– to ensure that all Committee members have a clear conception of
the research proposed,
– to reach agreement on the methodology to be followed for the
dissertation research, and
– to ensure that all Committee members formally approve of the
student’s topic and research plan.

Table 2: The Contents of a Proposal

– Title page, with student’s name, working title, and names of
Committee members
– Table of contents
– Introduction, including an explanation of the Research Question
– Literature review
– Methodology
– Information on issues relating to ethical review and their
resolution, if applicable
– Planning information – Timeline, itemized budget, if applicable,
any other appropriate planning information
– Reference list

While not as constraining as some proposal formats, students are
required to demonstrate to the committee the breadth and depth
of their knowledge about the research subject (i.e., literature
review, research questions), the suitability of the selected
methodology and the do-ability of the project. The purpose and
format of the GT proposal are apparently not considered, or
accommodated, here.

The Substantive Area of Research

The term “substantive area” does not have a formal
definition in Glaser’s books. In Theoretical Sensitivity, Glaser
states that a substantive area in GT is “a specific area e.g., heart
disease or route milkmen” (1978, p. 52); however, the criteria for
determining “specific” are not provided. Based on my
understanding of Glaser’s discussions on “substantive theory,”
“general substantive theory” and “formal theory” (1978, p. 52;
1992, p. 99), the substantive area that interests me is defined as
the Electronic Documents and Records Management System
(EDRMS) implemented in the process of developing electronic
government in the Government of Canada. This substantive area
is comprised of a general substantive area, i.e., the EDRMS, and
the qualifiers that make it specific: electronic government
development in the Government of Canada. The EDRMS is a
complicated piece of software designed to manage (or control) the
creation, use, and maintenance of documents and records in
electronic format, which now predominates in organizations. The
design, implementation, and operation of the EDRMS are
primarily relevant to the academic field of Archival Science,
which I study.

To write a GT proposal for this substantive area following
the GT requirements, I need only to specify two items: area of
interest and data source (Glaser, 2001, p. 111). Thus, my GT
proposal would only identify the substantive area that interests
me and how I would collect data to discover problems, and
generate theories for the discovered problems within a Canadian
federal government department. This, however, will not satisfy
the program requirements for proposal defence. I did not request
changes to the current PhD Handbook to consider GT when
writing my proposal because I am the first PhD SLAIS student
who has selected GT and consider that a request for change
would be more likely to be accepted after I had successfully
defended my GT proposal. I decided to write a compromised GT
proposal – a proposal satisfying the current program
requirements to the degree that my Committee is willing to
accept and support it but still maintaining the essence of GT. In
other words, the proposal needed to present an acceptable
balance between the program requirements and GT principles.

The Compromised GT Proposal

The major difference between a standardized social research
proposal and a GT proposal rests with the literature review. A
literature review is an indispensable requirement for writing a
standardized proposal because it is used to formulate the
theoretical framework (i.e., identified research gaps and proposed
hypotheses) under which a research project is designed and
conducted. As such, a literature review serves as the foundation
for traditional social research on which the researcher
demonstrates his or her theoretical grasp of the substantive area
(i.e., research questions and researcher qualifications), justifies
the suitability of selected methodology, and defends the do-ability
of the research design. GT, however, requires that the literature
review be avoided at the research proposal stage. According to
Glaser, “There is a need not to review any of the literature in the
substantive area under study” (1992, p. 31), which is one of two
“very strong dicta” (Glaser, 1998, p. 67). The “need not to review”
is derived directly from the underlying logic of GT to ground
theories in empirical data, that is, the perceptions of the actors in
the real world. In GT’s view, both research problems and the
theories developed to account for the problems emerge from field
data. The preconceived theoretical framework based on the
literature review typically causes data to be forced into the
framework and the preconceived research problems most likely
are irrelevant to the substantive area being studied (Glaser,
1992, p. 21; 1998, pp. 115-132). At the proposal stage, reviewing
literature may be a waste of time and may be counterproductive
to theory generation (Glaser, 1998, p. 69).

However, to avoid a literature review in a research proposal
“only works with a PhD committee that is totally sold on GT”
(Glaser, 2001, p. 111). To help students overcome the difficulty of
satisfying the standardized requirements, Glaser recommends
the following:

1.) Studying areas with no literature. When possible, open up
areas where there is virtually no literature, thus the researcher
does not have to contend with what has been “said” (1998, p. 73);

2.) Relying on all-is-data and constant comparative analysis:

a.) Turn the literature review into data collection to be
constantly compared after the review is done. The attitude is data
collection, not reverence for the authenticity and authority of the
printed word and the published author (1998, p. 72);

b.) If a researcher has studied for years the substantive area,
he/she should take his/her knowledge of the literature as data
and write copious notes on it. Later as the study begins, these
notes become more data to be constantly compared (1998, p. 73);

c.) Delimit coverage to giving the committee what they
emphasize. Then do the study and let GT correct the
preconceptions (2001, p. 114).

3.) Writing the proposal with stated flexibility: The proposal
should provide some strategies for building a clear conceptual
framework while retaining the flexibility to allow the
unanticipated to emerge (2001, p. 114).

4.) Demonstrating research qualification:

a.) Examples of conceptual ability can be shown to the
committee (2001, p. 121);

b.) The candidate facing a non GT oriented committee should
engage in some sort of competence display on as many levels as
possible (2001, p. 121).

5.) Finding a mentor: To be supervised and supported by a
GT mentor resolves a major committee concern on guiding skill
and its development (2001, p. 121).

Recommendations 1), 2) b, 4), and 5) were relevant to the
writing and defending of my GT proposal, which also took
advantages of the characteristics of the substantive area to be
studied. The compromised GT proposal occupies 44 pages
(references not included), satisfying the program requirement of
being “at least 30 pages long” (SLAIS, 2005). Furthermore, the
strategies used to strike the balance between the program
requirements and GT principles were reflected in the sections of
my proposal, i.e., The Setting, Area of Problem, Area of Research,
Research Methodology
and Project Planning.

The Setting

The term “setting” is used as it is in a traditional research
proposal, which serves the purpose of delimitating the boundaries
of the research focus and keeping the project to a manageable
level. In the context of GT, this section is about the substantive
area, specifically, its three aspects: the Government of Canada,
the development of electronic government, and the development
of electronic government in the Government of Canada. These
areas were the subjects of my minor area which I studied in the
first two years in the PhD program for the purposes of
understanding and of identifying relevance to my major study
(i.e., electronic records management and its sub-field, the
EDRMS). The literature in these areas includes the type of
discipline-specific (i.e., electronic government, the development of
electronic government in the Government of Canada) and the
type of government publications (i.e., the Government of Canada,
the development of electronic government in the Government of
Canada). The literature in these areas were not studied to
identify research gaps or to formulate research
questions/hypotheses. In the proposal, the literature was used, in
the form of quoted or summarized factual information, to
introduce the three areas and their defining features. I thus do
not consider it a violation of the GT principle of “not to review
literature” at the beginning of the research. At the same time, the
literature was noted as data for constant comparison at the later
stage of the research process.

While information in these areas was quoted or summarized,
it was carefully selected based on its relevance to the proposed
project, which is an analytical process similar to the search for
relevant literature in a standardized research proposal. Because
of the vast amount of information in these areas, figures for each
area were crafted to depict key features and relationships within
and amongst the areas. This, to a large degree, satisfies the
program’s requirement regarding researcher qualifications
because it demonstrates to the committee the width and depth of
my knowledge of the areas relevant to the proposed study as well
as my abilities of assessing and sorting massive information. The
analysis was done using factual information from the literature,
not research findings or theoretical articles. I consider this
section necessary even for an uncompromised, GT-compliant
proposal because the substantive area in this case is not readily
understandable like “dying patients” or “alcoholism,” which do
not require explanations.

Area of Problem

In contrast, the section Area of Problem, is not necessary for
a GT compliant proposal. The section was included to satisfy the
program requirement of identifying research problems or gaps.
The problem “identified” here is a publicly reported and serious
issue: there is an information management crisis in the
Government of Canada
. Because information management
emerged in the Setting section as one of the two key defining
features (the other being information technology), the information
management crisis looks like a research problem identified in
relation to the setting. Satisfying this program requirement does
not violate the GT principle of not identifying research problems
before the research starts because the “identification” was not
based on a literature review, thus the problem was not preconceived.
The GT research problem that should wait for
emergence was not identified and is still waiting for discovery in
the substantive area.

Area of Research

The Area of Research introduces the specific EDRMS t6hat
the proposed research intends to study, which, together with the
setting, forms the substantive area of study. The literature used
for this section is the type of government publications, which
again is not reviewed but presented. This section also identifies
the EDRMS’ relationships with the areas in the setting through
analyzing the factual information previously presented in the
proposal. The identification of relationships between the EDRMS
and the setting establishes the significance of the research
because of the publicly reported information management
problem. The analysis demonstrates my research competence,
which, at the same time, follows the GT requirement of avoiding
literature review in the substantive area. Literature on the core
area of my substantive area, i.e., electronic records management
and its sub-field, the EDRMS, is not reviewed in its entirety.

Although a considerable amount of information is presented
in the proposal and in-depth analyses were conducted to identify
complex relationships, the research question (the other critical
program requirement) was not formulated because the literature
was not reviewed. The research question is where I applied GT
principles authentically without any compromises. The
justifications for not formulating the research question in my
proposal include:

GT requires, fundamentally, avoiding pre-conceptions, i.e.,
research questions and/or hypotheses derived from literature
review, as much as possible in order for concepts to emerge from
data collected from the substantive area. Researchers are
required to be open to data and not to be restrained by research

The absence of research questions creates no problems but
instead offers benefits for conducting the research. It creates no
problems because GT’s theoretical interviewing and theoretical
sampling techniques are capable of guiding the direction of
research, thus replacing the guiding role of research questions
required by other types of methodologies. It is beneficial because
lack of research questions eliminates the danger of forcing data
into existent concepts or pre-conceived categories, thus
guarantees the generated theories are relevant to the area of
study and powerful for explaining the main concern.

Research Methodology

A detailed Research Methodology section is unnecessary for a
GT proposal because as a general method of inquiry, GT can be
used for any substantive area and can work with all types of data
and is already well documented (Glaser, 1978, 1992, 1998, 2001,
2003, 2005; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The Research Methodology
section is absolutely necessary for a compromised GT proposal
because GT needs to be first introduced and then justified for
being selected. My proposal introduces GT and its three
“versions” and justifies my selection of Classic GT. The
justifications focused on the need for theories to be generated for
the substantive area where currently theories do not exist and my
personal cognitive style which finds Classic GT convincing. I find
it is hard to appreciate constructivist “GT” and it would be
unreasonable to require a researcher to apply a methodology with
which he or she has issues.

Classic GT was introduced to satisfy the program
requirement of “[reaching] agreement on the methodology to be
followed for the dissertation research” (SLAIS, 2005). Following
Glaser’s advice on not rewriting GT, key concepts and processes
are introduced using information directly from the Classic GT
books in simple sentences, with references being made to Classic
GT books when necessary (Glaser, 2001, p. 127). These concepts
include constant comparative analysis, theoretical sensitivity,
and all-is-data; procedures include theoretical interviewing,
sampling, coding, memoing, sorting, etc. Emphasis was placed on
the fact that GT is a complete methodological package which
contains guidance on each step in the research process and that
GT can be understood effectively when it is being practiced.
Basics of Grounded Theory Analysis (Glaser 1992) helped answer
many questions during the proposal defence.

Data collection techniques identified in the proposal include:
free-style conversational interviewing and document reading.
Free-style interviewing with emergent questions is a GT-specific
data collecting technique which is driven by the logic of GT
(Glaser, 2001, p. 174). The employment of this technique is
critical to the generation of theories and to the quality of the
generated theories. To follow this GT requirement, there should
not be identified informants or pre-conceived interviewing
questions. This, however, causes difficulties for obtaining ethical
review approval because the letter for informants’ consent and
sample questions – two typical requirements for any research
involving human subjects – cannot be submitted in the ethical
review application. Compromises were made in my proposal to
address the difficulties following Glaser’s advice to offer “general
questions to cover [the] area of interest, with explanations on the
emergence of interview style and specific questions” (Glaser,
2001, p. 141). Sample questions were conceived but focusing on
the technological aspect of the EDRMS. These questions are
necessary for the researcher to understand the operation of the
system and at the same time, demonstrate to the Ethical Review
Board that the questions are unlikely to cause privacy concerns.
An initial group of informants (i.e., records managers of
departments) was identified to allow a sample consent letter to be
drafted. The proposal explains the possibility of site- and
informant-spreading using the rational of theoretical sampling
and states that updates will be submitted to the Board when
major changes in informants and/or interview questions occur.

The aspects of the substantive area serve as qualifiers for
site selection. Both the initial or concentration site and the
subsequent sites are designed to be selected based on their status
of participating in the electronic government development in the
Government of Canada. The site needs to be a department or
agency in the Government of Canada which participates in the
development of electronic government and which is a user of the

Role of Literature

While literature was a significant component in the writing
of my proposal, there is not a section named Literature Review
because literature was not reviewed in the manner required by
the standardized research proposal. For the purpose of
explanation, the section Role of Literature is placed within the
Research Methodology, summarizing the usage of literature in the
proposal and the proposed project:

Literature in this proposal

Literature in this proposal was not reviewed for identifying
research gaps or formulating research questions, hypotheses;
instead, it was used to:

• describe the setting in which the proposed research is
• reveal a publicly reported problem that is relevant to the
• describe and justify the area of research in relation to the
• introduce and justify the selected methodology, and
• plan the research.

Literature in this research

Literature in this research will be read and reviewed as data
at a later stage following the GT’s all-is-data principle: “The
literature is not forgotten or ignored, it is put in proper
sequencing of GT research phases” (Glaser, 2001, p. 139). A note
was created in this section addressing literature review on the
core aspect of my substantive area, i.e., electronic records
management and its sub-field, the EDRMS. Although literature
in this area was not reviewed in this proposal, it was reviewed
when I studied my major area and for other research projects. As
such, pre-conceptions exist in my mind though they are not
explicit in the proposal. The note documents this fact and serves
as a reminder of re-reviewing the literature later in the research
process and in light of the discovered concepts and hypotheses.

Project Planning

The Project Planning is a section needed by both the GTThe
compliant and the standardized research proposal; it contains
information regarding the do-ability of the project, which is
usually a major concern of the committee. A standardized
proposal provides detailed information on timeline, resources,
anticipated difficulties, etc., for the purpose of ensuring the
successful execution of the designed project. To provide details on
these aspects in a GT proposal is quite difficult because the
research process follows the track of theory generating and it
cannot predict how concepts and their properties will emerge,
when they will emerge, or when theoretical saturation can be
reached. My proposal uses direct quotes to help answer the
program requirement of project planning:

“Time is very predictable in GT research. It should not take
more than a year to do a GT dissertation or study…. GT data
management is not expensive and does not require staff. ….Tape
recording and typing, which costs greatly in time and money, is
not necessary in GT…. A GT can be stopped at anytime if
resources are near exhaustion since a little theory goes a long
way. Most people use one or two GT hypotheses based on a few
categories no matter how complex theory” (Glaser 2001, p. 115).
This information, however, did not ease the committee’s concern
about the execution of the project. To address the concern, it
recommended inviting a GT expert on campus to join my
committee for the purpose of guiding the conduct of the project
and to ensure my questions to be answered.


Applying Glaser’s advice and taking advantages of the
characteristics of the substantive area, my compromised GT
proposal achieved the balance of satisfying the program
requirements without violating GT principles. Through the
“alternative use” of literature, the proposal demonstrated my
qualifications and competence of conducting research, highlighted
the significance of the proposed research, and justified the
suitability of the selected methodology. However, it did not
completely ease the committee’s concern about the execution of
the methodology. This is perhaps due to the fact that none of the
committee members have supervised GT projects. The proposal
was successfully defended on May 4, 2009, with all committee
members agreeing on the significance of the research and the
suitability of GT to the research area; no revisions were
requested. An on-campus GT expert was solicited by my
supervisor after the defence, who agreed to join my committee.
My project is ready to begin. As the first student in my School
who has defended GT as her research methodology, I hope GT
will be recognized by more students as a defendable methodology
and the work I have done will pave the way towards a smoother,
easier process of proposing GT research projects in the School.


Sherry L. Xie
Ph.D. Candidate
School of Library, Archival and Information Studies
University of British Columbia Canada


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