Qualitative Tussles in Undertaking a Grounded Theory Study

Judith A. Holton, Ph.D.

1 Much of this paper is extracted from Holton, J. A. (2007). The coding process
and its challenges. In A. Bryant, & K. Charmaz (Eds.), The Sage handbook of
grounded theory. (pp. 265-289). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


Those who’ve been trained to regard grounded theory as a
qualitative research method frequently struggle to ‘unlearn’
qualitative data analysis dicta when undertaking a classic
grounded theory study. A plethora of research methods texts that
support this notion of grounded theory as a qualitative method
are primarily responsible for the ensuing confusion. Further
supporting this popular misconception are many papers
published in leading academic journals and all too often the
pressuring advice of thesis supervisors. This paper addresses
specifically two issues that can create frustrating tussles for
novice grounded theorists, especially in challenging such
‘authoritative’ perspectives: avoiding preconception and
transcending descriptive detail. In addressing these persistent
tussles, the reader is reminded of the fundamental distinction of
grounded theory as a methodology for the emergent discovery of
conceptually abstract theory from empirical data.


To remain truly open to the emergence of theory is among
the most challenging issues confronting those new to grounded
theory. As a generative and emergent methodology, grounded
theory requires the researcher to enter the research field with no
preconceived problem statement, interview protocols, or extensive
review of literature. Instead, the researcher remains open to
exploring a substantive area and allowing the concerns of those
actively engaged therein to guide the emergence of a core issue.
The conceptualization of this main concern and the multivariate
responses to its continual resolution emerge as a latent pattern of
social behaviour that forms the basis for the articulation of a
grounded theory. Remaining open to discovering what is really
going on in the field of inquiry is often blocked, however, by what
Glaser (1998) refers to as the forcing of preconceived notions
resident within the researcher’s worldview, an initial professional
problem or an extant theory and framework; all of which pre-empt
the researcher’s ability to suspend preconception and allow
for what will emerge conceptually by constant comparative

One of the dominant preconceptions regarding grounded
theory is the frequent attribution of its ‘roots’ to symbolic
interactionism (Clarke, 2005; Goulding, 2002; Locke, 2001).
Glaser (2005) has written at length on the impact of this
‘takeover’ (p. 141). While not discounting the influence of
symbolic interactionism in the contribution of Anselm Strauss as
co-originator of the methodology, to attribute grounded theory’s
origins thereto ignores the fundamental influence of Barney
Glaser’s training in quantitative methodology at Columbia
University. As Martin (2006) suggests, ‘It is really the analytic
techniques out of Columbia, through Glaser, that gave qualitative
researchers tools for systematic analysis’ (p. 122). Pre-framing
grounded theory through the theoretical lens of symbolic
interactionism precludes other perspectives, pre-determines what
data are used and how these should be collected, and limits the
analyst’s creativity in the analysis and conceptual abstraction of
the data under study. This is not to suggest that classic grounded
theory is free of any theoretical lens but rather that it should not
be confined to any one lens; that as a general methodology, classic
grounded theory can adopt any epistemological perspective
appropriate to the data and the ontological stance of the
researcher (Holton, 2008).

Concerns that arise through the researcher’s professional
training and experience often stimulate the initial research
interest and can provide the motivation for pursuing a study.
However, when the practitioner turns researcher, she carries into
the field her own espoused values and accumulated experience
and with this often comes the need to know in advance, to
prescribe at the outset how the research should be framed, who
should be engaged, and what outcomes should be anticipated.
This instinctual practitioner perspective is, as well, frequently
augmented by the structuring dictates of predominant research
paradigms which call for the articulation of explicit theoretical
frameworks in advance of fieldwork or analysis (Partington, 2002,

Clarke’s (1997, 2005) privileging of context as an essential
consideration in the framing and analysis of a grounded theory
study is another forceful example of preconception. Presuming
the significance, indeed the centrality, of context as she does is
merely forcing a preferred theoretical framework (what Glaser,
2005, calls a ‘pet theoretical code’) on a study from the outset.
While accepting Madill, Jordan, and Shirley’s (2000) contention
that grounded theory may be applied within a contextualist
epistemology (p. 10), for a classic grounded theorist context is
merely another variable; thus, contextualizing meaning may or
may not be relevant for a theory’s explanation of how a main
concern is continually resolved (Glaser, 2004). If it is relevant, it
will emerge through the coding and constant comparison of
conceptual indicators in the data. The relevance of context, like
any other variable, must be earned in the emergent theory; it is
not determined in advance by the analyst calling upon extant
theoretical frameworks.

Marshall and Rossman (1999) offer ‘analyst-constructed
typologies’, ‘logical reasoning’, and ‘matrix-format cross-
classifications’ as strategies for data analysis (pp. 154-155). They
do at least note Patton’s (2002, pp.469-470) caution to be wary of
the potential for such devices to manipulate the data through its
forcing into artificial structures. A classic grounded theorist
would echo this same caution. Marshall, however, appears not to
have heeded this caution in her use of preconceived ‘conceptual
levers’ (Marshall & Rossman, 1999, pp.148-149) in the data
management for her own dissertation. Here she describes her use
of role strain theory (Goode, 1960), sourced through her literature
review, as a framework for analysing her data. While stating that
she has employed ‘constant comparative data analysis’ (p. 149) to
develop a grounded theory of women’s socialization in male sex-
typed careers, the classic grounded theorist is left wondering
what the real concern of the women under study might have been
and how they handled this concern. It is quite conceivable that
the real concern of the women in Marshall’s study may have had
nothing to do with ‘feminine identity and sexuality crises
prompted by the demands of working in a male-normed
profession’ (p. 149). Their main concern may have been finding
flexible child care services to accommodate unpredictable work
schedules, finding time and opportunities to network, or
structuring continuing professional development opportunities
into an already over-subscribed life. Of course, it is impossible for
us to know what their main concern may have been as Marshall’s
preconceived professional concern constrained the potential for
the participants’ main concern to emerge. Glaser (1978) offered
the example of a sociologist’s preconceiving a study of prostitution
as a study of deviance when, from the perspective of the
prostitutes under study, the main concern could be effective client
servicing, a concern that would align them more appropriately
with other service sectors: barbers, hair salons, auto repair, etc.
Deviance as a dimension of prostitution would therefore have to
earn its way into the emergent theory rather than being
presumed from the outset (pp. 104-105).

The preconceiving practices of traditional training in
qualitative research methodology that condition the researcher to
know in advance, can unwittingly condition the researcher to
seeing new data through received concepts. In Konecki (1997), we
see the impact of another preconceived theoretical framework: the
conditional matrix (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Konecki’s interest in
exploring the conditions for effective work by professional
recruiters (‘head hunters’) has produced a solid piece of
qualitative research; however, despite references to having
produced a grounded theory, the study falls short of that goal.
There is, of course, some possibility that the main concern of the
recruiters may have focused on the effectiveness of their work
and the time to find appropriate candidates, as Konecki’s study
suggests, but it is also quite possible that the core category of an
emergent grounded theory may have been entirely unanticipated
by his preconceived, discipline-bound perspective. It is this
capacity for the emergence of tacit yet previously unarticulated
explanations of social behaviour that delights the classic
grounded theorist and motivates the effort to work at setting
aside derailing preconceptions in undertaking a study.

Partington (2002) offers us another example of a
preconceived theoretical framework imposed on an effort at
grounded theory. His theoretical code of choice is Strauss and
Corbin’s (1990) ‘paradigm model’ which he simplifies to a
mechanistic ‘stimulus → organism → response →’ framework and
suggests its general utility for management research. In another
guide to grounded theory for management, business, and
marketing research, Goulding (2002) suggests Schatzman’s
(1991) dimensional analysis as an alternative approach to
theorizing (pp. 79-83). What she really offers, however, is yet
another preconceived theoretical framework to be forced upon the
data. Later in her guide, Goulding cautions the reader that using
grounded theory can be ’risky!’ but advises that ‘[t]hese risks are
of lesser concern for researchers who define their boundaries to
begin with, explore the literature fully, identify key research
questions, and collect data to answer them’ (p. 156). These
suggestions would most certainly reduce the risk of undertaking
a grounded theory study. They would, in fact, remove all risk as
no grounded theory would be involved. The process would be pure
qualitative data analysis: a legitimate goal to be sure but not
grounded theory.

These are but a very few of the examples of preconceived
theoretical frameworks being forced upon what is intended as
grounded theory. There are many others to be found in the
numerous studies that masquerade under the guise of grounded
theories while employing only selected aspects of the
methodology. Glaser (2003) has written extensively on this
propensity for remodelling.

Extensive review of extant literature before the emergence of
a core category in a grounded theory study is another dimension
of preconception that violates the basic premise of the classic
methodology; that being, the theory emerges from the data not
from extant theory. Extensive engagement prior to data collection
and analysis also runs the risk of thwarting theoretical
sensitivity by clouding the researcher’s ability to remain open to
the emergence of a completely new core category that may not
have figured prominently in the literature to date. Practically
speaking, preconception may well result in the researcher
spending valuable time on an area of literature that proves to be
of little significance to the resultant grounded theory. By
contrast, in classic grounded theory methodology, the literature is
just more data to be coded and integrated into the study through
constant comparative analysis but its analysis and integration
happens only after the core category, its properties and related
categories have emerged, and the basic conceptual development is
well underway, not in advance as is common to qualitative
research methods. Unless pre-empted by preconception,
emergence is natural with the resultant grounded theory often
charting new theoretical territory.

From Description to Conceptualization

To understand the nature of classic grounded theory, one
must understand the distinction between conceptualization and
description. Grounded theory is not about the accuracy of
descriptive units, nor is it an act of interpreting meaning as
ascribed by the participants in a study; rather, it is an act of
conceptual abstraction. While tied to experience, conceptual
abstraction directs attention to and isolates a part or aspect of an
entity or phenomenon for the purposes of contemplation
(Whitehead, 1925, p.147). While the descriptive findings of a
qualitative research study are most certainly valuable, they do
not provide a conceptual abstraction. A grounded theory must
offer a conceptually abstract explanation for a latent pattern of
behaviour (an issue or concern) in the social setting under study.
It must explain, not merely describe, what is happening in a
social setting.

It is this ability to abstract from empirical indicators
(incidents in the data under analysis) the conceptual idea without
the burden of descriptive detail that distinguishes the coding
process in classic grounded theory methodology. This abstraction
to a conceptual level theoretically explains rather than describes
behaviour that occurs conceptually and generally in many diverse
groups with a common concern (Glaser, 2003). While a
researcher’s initial attempts at coding new data may very well be
more descriptive than conceptual, a classic grounded theorist will
endeavour to raise the conceptual level early on in the analysis
process through the constant comparison of conceptual indicators
in the data under study. Those trained in the requirements of
qualitative research may, however, settle more readily into
descriptive coding with its capacity to portray rich detail,
multiple perspectives, and the voices of lived experience. For
instance, where a qualitative researcher might record in vivo
codes such as boosting self confidence, growing as a person,
learning to trust
, a classic grounded theorist, in asking ‘what
concept does this indicate’, might code for empowerment, with the
three descriptive codes serving as indicators.

For a classic grounded theorist, what matter are the
concepts. The conceptual abstraction of classic grounded theory
frees the researcher from the qualitative paradigm’s emphasis on
detailed description and elucidation of multiple perspectives. The
skill of the grounded theorist is to abstract concepts by leaving
the detail of the data behind, lifting the concepts above the data
and integrating them into a theory that explains the latent social
pattern underlying the behaviour in a substantive area (Locke,
2001). The result of a grounded theory study is not the reporting
of facts but the generation of probability statements about the
relationships between concepts; a set of conceptual hypotheses
developed from empirical data (Glaser, 1998, pp. 3, 22).

Morse (2004) recognizes the importance of raising qualitative
research above the descriptive level of analysis. Unfortunately,
her prescriptive procedures for developing qualitative concepts
leave little scope for exercising the creativity and intuitive
autonomy that are the hallmarks of classic grounded theory: the
ability to fracture and interrogate the data for its conceptual
essence, to constantly compare indicators for interchangeability,
and the achievement of theoretical saturation. Her approach
provides little allowance for the preconscious processing that
enables the emergence of conceptual ideation and theoretical
integration. Her structure may work well in qualitative analysis
but would inhibit what Glaser (1998) describes as the
‘subsequent, sequential, simultaneous, serendipitous, and
scheduled’ (p. 15) nature of grounded theory.

Various scholars within the qualitative paradigm have put
forth strategies and guidelines for the coding process (Charmaz,
2006; Goulding, 2002; Partington, 2002; Patton, 2002; Strauss &
Corbin, 1990, 1998). By comparison, the procedures espoused by
classic grounded theorists may initially appear loose and perhaps
even messy or confusing. These procedures as originally
developed by Glaser and Strauss (1967) and extensively
elaborated in Glaser’s subsequent work (1978, 1992, 1998, 2001,
2003, 2005; Glaser & Holton, 2004) do require the researcher to
grapple with both chaos and control. The chaos is in tolerating
the uncertainty and subsequent regression of not knowing in
advance and of remaining open to what emerges through the
diligent, controlled, often tedious application of the method’s
synchronous and iterative processes of line-by-line coding,
constant comparison for interchangeability of indicators, and
theoretical sampling for core emergence and theoretical
saturation. This discipline is simultaneously complemented by
requiring the theorist to remain open to the innate creativity in
preconscious processing of conceptual ideation and theoretical
integration; a creativity characterized by the exhilaration of
eureka sparks of discovery; what Glaser (1978, 1998) calls the
drugless trip.

This excitement in generating concepts from data, however,
derails some researchers. Captured by the imagery, or ‘grab’
(Glaser, 2001, pp.19-21), of the emerging concepts, they switch
their attention from abstraction to description. By neglecting to
stay with the full method of classic grounded theory, they are
unable to tap its full potential in developing a conceptually
integrated theory. ‘To skip a step, particularly the middle ones
associated with memoing and sorting, is to produce a theory with
less conceptual density, less integration, less conceptual
qualification, too much descriptive and conceptual flatness in
places, and missed connections obvious to the astute reader’
(Glaser, 1978: 16).

Baszanger’s (1997) paper, ‘Deciphering Chronic Pain’, is an
example of the kind of conceptual description that is frequently
presented as grounded theory. While tempting us with the
imageric grab of what Glaser would call a ‘juicy concept’
(Grounded Theory Seminar, New York, October 2003), and
acknowledging that she has employed grounded theory
techniques of ‘constant comparative method of analysis and its
coding procedures’ (p. 5), Baszanger has not employed the full
package of classic grounded theory methodology. Consequently,
what we have is an ethnographic account of the way in which
physicians at two different clinics manage the issue of
deciphering chronic pain. She does not follow through in taking
her conceptual description to a fully integrated theory that would
offer us a conceptual explanation for the phenomenon under
study. While we have a rich account of particularistic
experiences, we are deprived of the full power of grounded theory
to offer us an integrated set of conceptual hypotheses that would
explain what is really going on in the process of deciphering
chronic pain. Baszanger’s account, however, offers excellent data
for conceptual abstraction and the possible emergence of a
grounded theory.

Skill Development in Grounded Theory

Morse (1997) suggests that qualitative researchers are
theoretically timid and may be inhibited by what she sees as the
hard work of conceptualization necessary to produce theory.
While acknowledging the possibility of timidity, Glaser (2002a)
refutes her assertion of the hard work of conceptualization,
instead maintaining that many researchers simply lack
knowledge and competence in conceptualization and, as such,
they embrace with enthusiasm but without understanding. To
truly understand classic grounded theory requires extensive
study of the methodology in tandem with experiencing the
method first-hand. While some like Dey (1999) would appear to
dismiss the importance of first-hand experience in favour of
adopting a sceptical stance from the sidelines, the resultant
‘rhetorical wrestle’ (Glaser, 1998) is ironically at odds with the
fundamental premise of ensuring empirically grounding of one’s
theoretical (and methodological) contributions to knowledge. Yet,
staying the course to develop that understanding is easily
circumvented by straying into the mixed methods approaches
prevalent in qualitative research and the diverse perspectives of
the methodology that Glaser (2003) refers to as remodelled

The decision to use classic grounded theory methodology is a
‘full package’ decision. It requires the adoption of a systematic set
of precise procedures for collection, analysis and articulation of
conceptually abstract theory. On the menu of research
methodology, classic grounded theory is ‘table d’hote’, not ‘a la
carte’. Generating grounded theory takes time. It is above all a
delayed action phenomenon (Glaser, 1998, p.220). Little
increments of collecting and coding allow theoretical ideas to
develop into conceptual memos. Significant theoretical
realizations come with growth and maturity in the data, and
much of this is outside the researcher’s conscious awareness until
preconscious processing facilitates its conscious emergence
(Glaser, 1998, p.50). Thus, the researcher must pace herself,
exercising patience and accepting nothing until this inevitable
emergence has transpired. Surviving the apparent confusion is
important, requiring the researcher to take whatever time is
necessary for the discovery process and to take this time in a
manner consistent with her own temporal nature as a researcher:
what Glaser (1998) refers to as personal pacing (p. 49). Rushing
or forcing the process shuts down creativity and conceptual
ability, exhausting energy and leaving the theory thin and

As an experiential learning methodology, it is important that
the grounded theorist stay actively engaged in continuing skill
development by cycling through various projects and always
having at least one project active (Glaser, 1978, pp.25-26).
Reading and re-reading Glaser’s work, while memoing about the
methodology, also keeps cognitive processing alive. Critically
reading substantive grounded theory papers and memoing
conceptual thoughts is another way to gain insights into the
methodology and to be able to distinguish a quality grounded
theory or to see how or where another researcher may have come
close but missed the full power of the methodology. Without
active engagement through continuing field research and analysis
as well as methodological reading, it is easy for many to leave
behind their grounded theory skill development: especially those
who have been trained in the dominant paradigm of qualitative
research. The inevitable consequence is that they will begin, often
unconsciously, to remodel the methodology to suit the dominant
genre in their field or to compensate for inadequate or lost skill

Skill development seems to be particularly difficult for novice
researchers who encounter resistance from thesis supervisors or
peer reviewers who are trained in qualitative or quantitative
methodologies and who express doubt or reservation about the
full package approach of classic grounded theory. Without the
confidence of experience gained through skill development or the
power to challenge discipline or departmental authority, the
novice researcher may feel pressured to abandon or compromise
the proper procedures. The outcome diminishes the researcher’s
autonomy and confidence to engage with the methodology as
intended. Glaser refers to this resistance propensity as the
‘trained incapacity of novice researchers held to binding
interpretations by the higher authorities of other research
methodologies’ (personal communication, July 10, 2004).


Judith A. Holton
Assistant Professor
Mount Allison University
Sackville, NB, Canada


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