Grounded Theory Research: Characteristics

It is perhaps best to begin with how the inventors of grounded theory defined their method, in their seminal book that launched grounded theory. Glaser and Strauss (1967, p.1) defined it as “the discovery of theory from data; systematically obtained and analyzed in social research”. These authors argue that the key point here is that the theory produced is grounded in data. According to Cresewell (2011), the aim of grounded theory is to generate or discover data. In order to achieve this, the researcher must free his or her mind from earlier perceptions about the phenomena under study and let the substantive theory emerge (Cresewell, 2011). Of all the features of grounded theory, this is the one that causes most difficulty for new users. The idea here is that the literature about whatever you are researching is referenced after, not before you build the theory (Cresewell, 2011).

Glaser and Strauss (1967) recommended this because they wanted the data to speak to the researcher, rather than for the researchers to force theories on the data. This is the reason why grounded theory was revolutionary in its time and still is tremendously relevant, today. The idea that we should seek to see what data indicates, rather than shoehorn into a theory that already exists, means there is more chance of discovering something new. It also seems to have more integrity as a research process, because it does not seek to impose preconceived ideas on the world.

Of course, no one enters this research process as a blank slate; we will have read something about the phenomena under investigation. The founders of this theory suggest that we put that aside, so we do not influence the coding of our data. In practice it is quite possible, to do a literature review before we enter the field on the understanding, though, that it does not influence the coding of data. Once the theory has been developed, then we engage the theory with existing theories and use them to help with densification of our emergent theory. It is also true to say that “many grounded theory studies do focus on how individuals might interact with the phenomena under study” (Glaser and Strauss, 1967, p. 26).

The use of grounded theory research methods is quite flexible and varied. All this data sources are qualitative, and the use of qualitative data fits well with the inductive process of grounded theory research. It is also significant to note that the use of grounded theory research method implies overlapping data collection and analysis. This means that “researchers analyze the data in the field and use the emerging concepts from that analysis to decide where to sample from next” (Glaser, 2004, p.19). This process is known as theoretical sampling, because the emerging concepts direct future data collection. This process may not always be practical, depending of course, on the amount of access granted to the researcher. So, one good idea for a grounded theory study is to allow for more than one phase of data collection, as Glaser (2004) suggests. (Glaser, 2004) also argues that theoretical sampling enables the investigator to build up justification for concepts in the theory by finding more instances of a particular concept. It allows researchers to follow an emerging storyline suggested by data.

The Ground theory research method has several notable characteristics. First, a grounded theory research method’s main aim is theory building. Second, as a general rule, researchers should make sure that they have no preconceived theoretical ideas before starting their research. Third, “analysis and conceptualization are engendered through the core process of constant comparison, where every slice of data is compared with all existing concepts and constructs, to see if it enriches an already existing category (by adding to or enhancing its properties), forms a new one or points to a new relation and fourth, slices of data of all kinds are selected by a process of theoretical sampling, where researchers decide, on analytical rounds, where to sample from next” (Glaser, 2004, p. 20).

The first and main characteristic of grounded theory suggests that researchers should focus on building new theories. Indeed, that was the main reason why the grounded theory method was developed in the first place. Glaser and Strauss (1967) argue that researchers must make a distinction between substantive theories and formal theories. The second characteristic challenges researchers not to rely on previous studies. Glaser and Strauss (1967, p.25) argue that “the dictum in grounded theory is that there is no need to review the literature in the substantive area under study and this idea is brought about by the concern that literature might contaminate, stifle or otherwise impede the researcher’s effort to generate categories”. If investigators privilege other theories rather than looking at the data and they lose what according to them, is the key delight; emergence (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). The idea of emergence, according to Glaser and Strauss (1967) is that researchers should stay true to their data and look at what their data is telling them. However, the idea of whether or not some inherent truth resides in the data depends on the researcher’s point of view (Urquhart, 2012).

The third characteristic, constant comparison, is also a key component of grounded theory. Comparative analysis as a standard method in social research long before 1967, but in grounded theory of research it is a key part of the method (Glaser, 2004). The process of constant comparison allows the meaning and construction of concepts to remain under review. Consciously comparing the instances of each concept allows for a fuller and more nuanced understanding of what that category might consist of. Lastly, the fourth section involves the selection of slices of data. This phase was coined by Glaser and Strauss (1967, p. 23) “to reflect the fact that different kinds of data give researchers different views from which to understand a category or develop its properties”. This is a liberating and interesting idea that is not always understood, but simply means we should be constantly sampling slices of data from the phenomena in order to build the theory out and upwards. The more diverse those slices are, the better. So, one slice of data could be field interviews, another could be surveys. When the theory is more fully informed, a conceivable slice of data might even be another theory, as long as there is an awareness of the dangers of forcing a category down a particular road, lest that very precious quality of grounded theory, emergence, be compromised (Urquhart, 2012). Urquhart (2012) argues that these are useful characteristics to bear in mind when using grounded theory method because they sum up what is unique about it and give some significant guidelines as to how researchers might use it in the field.


Cresewell, J. (2011). Educational Research: Planning, Conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research. New York: Pearson.

Glaser, B., and Strauss, A. (1967). Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.

Glaser, B. (2004). Remodeling grounded theory. An International Journal, 4(1), 1-22.

Urquhart, C. (2012). Grounded Theory for Qualitative Research: A Practical Guide. New York: Sage.

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