Origins and Growth of Grounded Theory

Barney G. Glaser PhD, Hon PhD

Editor’s Note: As we continue celebrate Barney Glaser’s life, we re-publish[1] this gently edited paper about the origin and growth of grounded theory. Through the years as he noticed trends surrounding the method, Glaser codified the different elements and procedures of grounded theory and compared/contrasted them with remodeled versions.  This paper was first published as chapter 1 in Grounded Theory Perspectives: Its Origin and Growth (2016). All books mentioned in this paper can be purchased via Sociology Press at  

[This paper] is about the origins and growth of grounded theory (GT) as developed and written by Barney G. Glaser. It is not written to compete or compare with other QDA [qualitative data analysis] methods. The competition with other perspectives is up to the reader to write up if he so desires. My goal in this paper is to write up the GT perspective clearly and historically to date so it can be used by others in research and the rhetorical wrestle between different perspectives. As GT spreads throughout the world, a clear view of the GT perspective is constantly needed and requested from me by researchers for doing GT and for trying to explain the method to others, particularly supervisors and peer reviewers.

There is an immense amount of writing on aspects of the GT perspective, often mixed with other perspectives, thus confusing its use. I trust this paper will help clarify GT with no remodeling. I am not saying that GT is better than other methodologies. I am just saying that the GT method stands on its own and produces excellent conceptual theory. Let other QDA methodologies stand on their own as they wish. This paper will just show differences in methodologies, as the reader may see. It is not written to correct other methodologies. I have written many books on the GT perspective. I trust this book will bring most of the GT perspectives under one cover.

GT emerged as a fledgling methodology when analyzing the data on dying in hospitals in the book Awareness of Dying (1965). Awareness context theory took the world of research by storm. We were constantly asked how we did it. In 1967 we published our beginning formulations of GT in The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research by Glaser and Strauss. It was our first attempt to write a method that closed the gap between theory and method. We focused on procedures for grounding theory not on verification of theory. We called the methodology Grounded Theory. We put to rest the 100% focus on the verifying of grand theory that was all conjectured. We discovered that GT provided us with relevant predictions, explanations, interpretations, and applications that fit.

It was our explanations that were the beginning of codifying GT as a methodology. The key elements of the theory were that the concepts in the theory should have fit and relevance. So many concepts in the world of social research were conjectural, that is reified and not relevant to the area and the participants. To gain fit and be relevant the concepts had to be based on data from in the field of inquiry and be relevant to the participants. In short, they had to be grounded. They also had to be conceptual so they could be integrated by a theoretical code into a conceptual theory. What theoretical code that seemed to fit the dying data was context theory. The total product was an emergent, grounded theory of ‘Awareness Contexts.’

How to generate grounded concepts for a grounded theory needed to be articulated. So, I wrote a paper explaining how to generate grounded patterns to be named as concepts. It was The Constant Comparative Method of Qualitative Analysis published in 1965 in Social Problems. It dealt with the comparing of data from different respondents to find interchangeable indicators that showed a grounded pattern. This became a GT procedure to generate enough concepts for a theory. In generating the concepts, a main concern of the participants emerged with a core concept that continually handled the concern. The emergent concepts often run as exceptions to the conjectured trend. Thus, our perspective was to start off knowing nothing in contrast to the typical research plan of knowing the problem beforehand. GT became a no preconception method. We let the participants tell us what to research with fit and relevance. When their problem emerges, the participants will spill with data talking about it. The emergent problem is the focus of a GT research, no matter how distant it is from the original conjectured problem. This always happens as part of the GT perspectives: that is no preconceptions. GT only researches what patterns emerge.

In our book on awareness of dying, theoretical coding as a procedure for organizing the concepts emerged. It was context analysis. Soon the theoretical code basic social process [BSP] became popular. These organizing codes came after conceptualization, however easy it was to force them ahead of emergent conceptualization. With Awareness of Dying the grounded theory perspective had begun.

The power of theoretical codes was hard to resist for forcing data. Anselm liked the theoretical code of status passage. He wanted a book about dying as a status passage, so we wrote Time for Dying (1968). It was part emergent, and part forced. It never sold well. It did not have the grab like Awareness of Dying. For me it proved the value of staying 100% open to the emergent.

Theoretical codes have general implications that are hard to resist. Thus, Anselm and I wrote a formal theory called Status Passage in 1971. The first systematic study of society as a negotiated order of interlocked careers and changes in status, it was based on various readings that could be conceptualized as status passage infused with conjectural wisdoms of advance academics. It did not sell beyond a few copies. Again, it proved to me the value of staying 100% open to the emergent. Again, Mirrors and Masks: the Search for identity (1969) was a formal theory by Strauss based on conjecture. It did not sell but a few copies. Again, convincing me of the grab and power of staying 100% emergent to keep a theory relevant with conceptual fit.

The power and grab of a 100% emergent grounded theory thrilled me personally and with prospects. Thus, I wrote three pure GT monographs about how real life goes on. They were easy to write since there was no conjecture just conceptualization of data. They almost wrote themselves as the data/conceptualized came through me. The three books were Organizational Scientist: Their Professional Careers (1964) that dealt with scientists receiving an average amount of recognition for their research. Second, Second Deeds of Trust: How to Make Money Safely (1969) that was about mortgage back investments, the investments in my finance firm. Safety of investment was the main concern. And third, Experts versus Laymen: A Study of the Patsy and the Subcontractor (1972), the main concern was how to build a house without a contractor when not knowing construction. In writing these books and the dying books, I discovered that writing up data was much faster than thinking up conjectures to suit a perspective that could be very irrelevant. Also, I discovered that GT writing was a write-up not writing from groundless conjecture. Further, the main concern of these areas in these books had much interest to readers. Their relevance and fit gave them grab and sales.

Further, to make the GT perspective known, I published three very thick GT readers full of GT papers. They were Examples of Grounded Theory (1993), More Grounded Theory Methodology (1994) and in two large volumes Grounded Theory 1984 to 1994 (1995). I had discovered that exampling was a very good way to spread the GT perspective safely. GT sells itself with its grab and its general universal implications. In short, I realized that discovering a theory from one data source gives it a general conceptual application to many data sources. For example, super-normalizing theory discovered in a study of heart attack victims can be used in many areas that produce physical stress. I extended my theory of exampling as a way of training researchers to do GT in my introduction to another reader put out by Judith Holton and myself in The Grounded Theory Seminar Reader (2007) in which we included 24 well-done GT papers. I also used exampling theory to produce a reader in 1996, Gerund Grounded Theory, which exampled eleven basic social process theories. At the time basic social process was a popular theoretical code. The BSP theories came from dissertations that led to awarding the author a PhD.

I also realized that a reader of several articles on a problem area or topic could be data for a formal grounded theory, so in 1968 I edited a reader Organizational Career: A Source Book for Theory. It had 63 articles on organizational careers, which were suitable for generating several formal theories. My general perspective on GT methodology use and production was growing. To show this procedure I used formal theory methodology to compare all the articles in the reader Sage Handbook of Grounded Theory (2007) Bryant and Charmaz editors. My formal theory ended up a book called Jargonizing: The Use of the Grounded Theory Vocabulary. I had discovered that GT was not only a methodology but also a vocabulary for expressing all QDA methods that had no or limited vocabulary. Jargonizing is powerfully used in remodeling QDA to sound like GT. The main concern is how to make QDA sound like it is GT in both lofty talk and research procedures.

In the early years 2000s jargonizing helped the increasing spread of GT, but it did not help the clear spread of GT research procedures. As jargonizing helped reversioning GT, it generally distorted several of the GT procedures that supported its general perspective of emergence. To clarify GT’s emergent procedures, I planned three books and wrote them on specific procedural perspectives to clarify their GT use. The first was The Grounded Theory Perspective: Conceptualization Contrasted with Description (2001). This book was my effort to clarify the distinction of conceptual theory generation compared to QDA descriptive methods and their positivistic claim on data. I wanted to show that GT humbly stands on its own as a generalizing conceptual generated method and was not descriptive.

This book helped, but still descriptive methods were remodeling GT, so in 2003 I wrote another GT perspective book called The Grounded Theory Perspective II: Description’s Remodeling of Grounded Theory. It dealt extensively with the procedural contrast and conflict between descriptive and conceptual procedures. The effort was to ensure the GT procedural perspectives as conceptual and scientific compared to normal descriptions of everyday life. In these two books, I emphasize the difference in generalizing between GT and QDA methods. GT produces conceptual generality that is abstract of time, place and people. In comparison description generality depends on data accuracy to prove a generality. It is stale dated as description changes quickly over time. Conceptual generality is simply modified conceptually to suit the data applied to [it]. But conceptual generality does not need to be applied to data, as it stands on it own. For example, routing theory can be applied or can just be discussed generally. Worrisome accuracy is a big issue in description for asserting accuracy. In contrast, the GT constant comparative method makes sure that the emergent concepts are grounded patterns that obtain no matter what kind of forcing. The conceptual perspective on generality of GT is vital to maintain.

These two books went a long way toward maintaining the GT perspective, but more was needed. A book was needed on staying open to the emergence of theoretical codes as opposed to using the everyday theoretical codes, such as dimensions, conditions, causes, types, process etc. which are so easy to force on the data as they are based on everyday parlance. They prematurely provide by forcing formation to the confused states of GT that are necessary for emergence. For this perspective I wrote the book The Grounded Theory Perspective III: Theoretical Coding (2005). Theoretical codes are needed to integrate the write up of a GT and have powerful grab if left to the emergent from sorting memos. They can be simple like a process, types, or a dimension or complex like amplifying causal looping. They put the ceiling on emergence of the GT theory.

This book on theoretical codes started a confusion with the formal theory perspective. They sounded alike especially as very general when a theoretical code led to a theory when the data was left out. For example, a paper on desisting residual selves, without the data, sounds like a formal theory, but it is not. A formal theory is a GT based on several different groups of participants or data. For example, a theory of proximity ethics can be based on several populations and thusly becomes a formal theory. And many substantive GTs based on one population have formal theory implications and are used as such. To make them formal theory, just add to the research on different populations. In sum, to clarify the confusion between theoretical codes and formal theory, I wrote the book Doing Formal Grounded Theory: A Proposal (2007). My GT perspective was growing and in print with these four books.

As I was writing these books to clarify the GT perspective, researchers were asking me how did my book Basics of Grounded Theory Analysis (1992) fit in. It was written pre-perspective when GT was barely named and known only from reading Awareness of Dying. In 1988 Anselm Strauss and Juliet Corbin wrote a methods book called Basics of Qualitative Analysis that emphasized GT as a forcing procedure of analysis that were considered GT. I was upset and asked Anselm to correct the forcing perspective to emergence. He said “no”, and if I do not like it write a book about it…. I did and published Basics of Grounded Theory Analysis: Emergence vs Forcing (1992) in an effort to set the GT perspective straight. Basics still sells well 24 years later; the general GT perspective was rescued.

I published two more books with Strauss to broaden the GT perspective in the late 1900s. They were Anguish: A Case History of a Dying Trajectory (1970) and Chronic Illness and the Quality of Life (1975). The theoretical code of status passage became popular and was brought out theoretically in these two books. We wrote the book Status Passage, a Formal Theory (1971) grounded in our growing knowledge of various status passages. Dying and chronic illness as patient status passages were grounded in GT research in various hospitals.

All these books dealt with qualitative data, and I was continually asked what about quantitative GT. Does it exist? It did in my book Organizational Scientists: Their Professional Careers (1964). To bring this book into the GT perspective I wrote a methodology book, Doing Quantitative Grounded Theory (2008) to show how to do research for generating a quantitative GT. The first chapter was a history of GT based on quantitative data using Lazarsfeld ‘s methodology called elaboration analysis. I also backed up my books with a reader called Organizational Careers: A Source Book for Theory (1968). It had 63 articles in it to use for generating more career theory. Organizations offer careers, I wrote, let’s have some theory about organizational careers that are so vital.

By the early 2000s I was satisfied that the GT perspective was in good use in papers and dissertations in spite of the increase in remodeling and multiple versioning in books and articles. Many people were getting their PhDs and having their GTs accepted in journals. Theoretical Sensitivity: Advances in the Methodology of Grounded Theory (1978) and Doing Grounded Theory: Issues and Discussion (1998) I published to answer many perspective questions and procedural research issues to reinforce the GT perspective. They sold overwhelmingly and still sell well today. Researchers tell me that they want to do GT “right”.

But given the worldwide spread of GT, I was receiving a large number of emails that were cries for help, especially with GT procedures. Thus, I started and did write five more books on GT procedures which adhered to the GT perspective. [These books] were Getting Out of the Data: Grounded Theory Conceptualization (2005), Stop, Write: Writing Grounded Theory (2012), No Preconceptions: The Grounded Theory Dictum (2014) , Memoing: A Vital Grounded Theory Procedure (2014) and Applying Grounded Theory: a Neglected Option (2014). These books on procedures answered a multitude of questions originating from the start of doing a GT research project to finalizing it in a paper or dissertation. They preserve the GT perspective as fully grounded.

To further support the answers to the 100s of quests for procedure clarifications, Judith Holton and I published a reader in 2012 of 19 articles taken from our journal the GT Review. It was the GT Review Methodology Reader. Again, it preserved the GT perspective which is always under the rhetorical wrestle of which methodology perspective is best.

One frequent cry for help is, “How do I convince my supervisor that GT is ok to use for a dissertation?”. This is a very fateful question of certification. A PhD candidate will put much time and money into getting the PhD. During his research his life will be on hold. Convincing the supervisor wedded to another QDA perspective is difficult for a beginner researcher. To answer the question, I wrote  (part book and part reader) Choosing Classic Grounded Theory: A Grounded Theory Reader of Expert Advice (2014) for candidates to learn the pro GT arguments and to simply show the book to a supervisor to read for himself. Again, I codified the GT perspective.

As the reader can see over the last 40 years and over 35 books, I have put out much energy and many books to establish and grow the GT methodology and keep its perspective pure and safe from remodeling. As a result, it is spreading throughout the world as a no preconception concept generator of conceptual theory methodology. It suits a methodology for the PhD dissertation, since it automatically provides the desired original contribution required for the PhD.

[1] Reprinted and lightly edited from Glaser (2016) Grounded theory perspective: Its origin and growth. Sociology Press.