My Dilemma with Grounded Theory: Incorporate External Theories or Keep Grounded Ideas Naive and Pure?

by James Addicott  2014 ©

I have chosen my topic, hypothesis, written a literature review and plan for the next two years of PhD research and in my early days of generating a “grounded theory” I have struck a theoretical crisis that I can’t seem to get past. To put it simply, the issue here is: do I keep my grounded theory “pure” or should I incorporate other social and cultural theories that I discover along the path my research takes, and perhaps risk “polluting” the grounded theory generated?
XXXXX To give you the background story: I’m interested in “high-tech” agriculture and they way it affects farmers in England. Going back to the classical sociological theories of Karl Marx, Max Weber, George Simmel, Michele Foucault, or contemporaries such as Manuel Castells, Michael Mann (and many, many more) then there are lots of ideas about technological advancement and agriculture that could – theoretically – speak for themselves. I want to put these “abstract” ideas to the test and see how they work out in the “real world.” I have therefore turned to grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Charmaz, 2006) which comes with the promise of being able to generate theory that ‘fits empirical situations, and is understandable to sociologists and layman alike’ (1967: 1) – sounds great!
XXXXX There is a kind of rebellious and defiant edge to grounded theory. It kind of turns its back on theories generated by “armchair-sociologists” and takes the researched people in control of generating a coherent social and/or cultural theory as to why or how they are doing whatever it is they are doing. I like rule breaking and defiance, so again this sounds great. Furthermore, “field work,” “field notes” or “grounding” sound so appropriate for conducting research into farms, farmers, and farming.
XXXXX But, there is a “but.” While conducting my research I am not only hoping to generate grounded theory. I am also looking at statistical data whilst also reading other scholarly articles, which includes research conducted into similar areas, as well as continuing to read the grand macro-theories about societies and culture. By doing so, other ideas, theories, or concepts appear that are relevant to my central research question – and, as much as we might like to turn our noses up to these “grandiose” theorists, they haven’t been paid to do nothing: many of their “grand ideas” still hold some theoretical weight.

XXXXX I will explain how this dillema is coming about in a bit more methodological detail: In their book Grounded Theory: a Practical Guide, Birks and Mills (2011) seem to sum up the establishment of grounded theory very coherently whist also offering a very practical, step-by-step guide on how to go about generating and abstracting a grounded theory from a local site. Like the other books that I have read on the subject, this begins by grasping codes or local concepts – initial coding is defined as: ‘the process of fracturing the data in order to compare incident with incident… and being the process of comparison between the codes applied’ (174). The steps following this initial capture of local concepts looks something like this:

  • Initial coding and categorization of data
  • Concurrent data generation or collection and analysis
  • Writing memos
  • Theoretical sampling
  • Constant comparative analysis using inductive and abductive logic
  • Theoretical sensitivity
  • Intermediate coding
  • Selecting a core category
  • Theoretical saturation
  • Theoretical integration

XXXXX After conducting an initial focus group and getting a list of codes and categories, and after conducting lots of participant observations and compiling a memo, I am currently drafting up a list of questions to ask my interviewees. Following the method of grounded theory (which to be fair isn’t rigid or fixed in any way), these questions should aim to constantly comparative analysis or ‘the constant comparison of incident to incident, incident to codes, codes to codes, codes to categories, and categories to categories’ (11). In other words, the questions I should write now should go back and re-interrogate the initial set of concepts I got from my field further.  Theoretical saturation, as I understand it, is when this iterative process has been carried out so many times that the theory has virtually solidified.
XXXXX Planned for the future are a lot more focus groups and face-to-face interviews. However, like I’ve already mentioned, reading literature from Marxist or neo-Marxist theory, other agricultural research projects that draw from symbolic interactionism or Bourdieusian cultural theory, then ideas pop up about why things might be taking place that are external to this little sphere of grounded theory that has been on the boil. And, I am very precious and protective about my participants, and the cultural field they represent, since I’ve been offered good access to them and don’t want to spoil the ideas that might emerge. In a way then I really want to keep them enclosed, sectioned off and away from the light, nevertheless, some of these ideas contradict the ideas of my participants; in fact, some of them directly challenge the ideas that my participants have about their own motivations or actions. Should their ideas (and my ideas) be challenged?
XXXXX What should I do in such a situation? Should I let this unchallenged and pure or naïeve theory develop of its own accord? Wait to see if my participants raise such contradictions as my research continues on? Bring these external socio-cultural concepts (or, external theoretical codes and categories) into my questions and let my participants thrash them out like intelligent beings? Should I keep things pure and simple, or make them murky and muddy? “Answers on a postcard,” please?

Birks M and Mills J. (2011) Grounded Theory: a Practical Guide, London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Charmaz K. (2006) Constructing grounded Theory: A practical Guide Through Qualitative Analysis, London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Glaser B and Strauss A. (1967) The discovery of grounded theory: stratergies for qualitative research, New York: Aldine de Gruyter.


My beginners guide studying for a humanities PhD without feeling cut off from humanity

By James Addicott 2014 ©

An article on the Guardian’s website by Michael Perfect entitled “Studying for a humanities PhD can make you feel cut off from humanity” has inspired this blog – also see: ‘There’s an awful cost to getting a PhD that no one talks about’. I am currently in my first year of ‘reading’ for a PhD in sociology, so this is literally a beginner’s guide. So far along my academic career I have encountered such problems of isolation and solitude. In former discussions with academic peers, or through my own observations, speaking from experience, I absolutely agree with Perfect that there are such problems and that ‘we need to talk about how to prevent solitude from slipping into isolation’. What follows is in no way a “winners-guide” to successful PhD research but my contributions to such a discussion on isolation. Your feedback, or your side of the story, would be most welcomed.

During my undergraduate and masters degree I feel that I have suffered with academic-isolation and have subsequently managed to develop my own coping strategies, as a form of self-help if you like. However, I also found some help in the topic of my studies, that is, social and cultural theory.

– It is not my intensions to write a hardcore sociological analysis of this subject, but bare with my while I draw for a bit of theory. –

There are two ideas that I have found that really helped me. Firstly, the mainly Marxist theory of the division between mental labour and manual labour – of which we academics are traditionally mental laborers. The second grounded theory, which I found its practical, “people orientated” methods helped in getting me out of my academic enclosure and that horrible feeling of isolation.

the view from our library
the view from our library

Firstly, as academics we have just got to accept that our main task is, primarily, thinking or mental labour. I think we have just got to accept this is the case, and in many ways academics are privileged to be in such a position if we compare our working day with construction workers, for example. However, I am personally not happy with just doing headwork all day, it literally “does my head in.” Sports and physical manual labour, I find, helps me through. Most universities encourage students to join sport societies, occasional part-time or temp work, or even voluntary work – hey, were interested in helping humanity right? – might begin to get past this “mental/manual” division.

This really leads me to my second point, and that is grounded theory, or the actual methods (the doing parts) of grounded theory. Currently my research topic is agriculture and I have purposely chosen to conduct “participant observations” as part of my research. This ties in really well with grounded theory since I can learn while working with the people I am studying. It is also a theory that supports this Marxian notion of the mental/manual division. Gaining hands on experience and face-to-face qualitative research data gets me out of the library and engaged with the people and industry I am researching. Not only can I draw comparisons between the abstract theories found on the library shelves and what is out there in my research field, in the ‘real world,’ but I can get out of the stuffy confines of the office or bookshelf environment – note that Marx also argued that intellectual work was confined to towns and cities while manual, physical work the stuff of the countryside.

Reading in a cafe helps (But avoid Cafe Nero or Starbucks if your reading the Frankfurt School)
Reading in a cafe helps
(But avoid Cafe Nero or Starbucks if your reading the Frankfurt School)

As for the coping strategies that I have developed myself, these would include: 1) work hard and party hard ethos, 2) understand stress and how it affects people, 3) attending events and 4) watching my diet, and – dare I say it – alcohol consumption, and lastly, 6) understanding yourself and your solitariness.

Getting past isolation involves being in a social environment. Luckily, although they spend lots of time with their heads in books, most sociologists are normally passionate socialites. Organizing events – take it onboard yourself to organize a social night out – helps to break their boundaries that you can find yourself confined with. Actively draw a distinction between when you are working hard and playing hard and remember that parties are not the best places for discussing deconstructionism Hegel’s theory of whatever. If you can, dance your worries away.

There are lots of tips and guides to recognizing stress and I found the most helpful literature is just the simple pamphlets, online or magazine articles. I don’t take these guides as the absolute truth but there are tips to pick up such as noticing tale-tale signs of the symptoms of stress, how to regulate your diet or plan your lifestyle.

Attend events to gain knowledge. In this time so many label as the “information age” it is easy to believe were are actually living in an information age, and the truth is that we are not. Online information, articles and journals are there to help you as much as the books in the library, and of course it is part of our research challenge to download and digest this “information”. But, think outside the box a little. Attending conferences, trade shows, talks, drinks parties, lectures and networking events; get you out of the library and learning in different ways. Being in the library or slumped in font your laptop all the time, I believe, doesn’t necessarily make you any better a student. There are different ways to learn, and we should utilize them.

For God sake steer clear of thinking that fiddling around with social networking media while trying to study might constitute some kind of social life…

Books affect our minds, food and drink our bodies. My advice on physical health is the same as seeking advice on stress; there is lots of sources of advice out there for you to try out – while separating the wheat from the chaff. Most importantly, if you do drink then avoid letting the bottle get the best of you. There are romantic notions of alcoholism in academia; reading through some Jean-Paul Sartre in soft lighting, over a glass of read wine. Alcohol helps to put the mind at ease, of course, but use it recreationally and socially. Working yourself up into a state of anxiety and isolation and using drink as a tool for breaking out of that cycle will, I find, only lead to big social problems and big health problems in the long run – problems which only exacerbate the feeling of isolation. With the work hard and play hard ethos, you should have a fairly good idea of when your work-time and wild-times are going to take place. The main thing with food and drink is to avoid thinking, thinking, that your mental health can maintain your physical health. Take a more holistic view to what you are digesting, mentally and physically.

IMG_1589My last point, and I think this is the biggest point, relates mainly to my experiences in sociology, philosophy and culture studies – so I am note sure it entirely applies to subjects such as history or literature. You are welcome to criticize this as entirely my own view, but I am entitled to one: I have found in the past that students of sociology, culture studies or philosophy are generally people who have previously been marginalized in their lifetime, in some way or another. Therefore, we have grown up with a heightened sense of self as distinguished from society, and this attracts us to these subjects, and makes us good students in these disciplines. Most of us mainly deal with issues (“dualisms”) such as free will and determinism, subjectivity and objectivity, structure and agency, or individualism, solipsism, existentialism and so on. In researching such subjects we are constantly to further question and probe your Self – Who are “You” as an observer? What knowledge can “You” contribute? and so on. There is a constant demand for critical, self-reflexivity and this is something you could well have grown up with your entire non-academic life already. We all have our own view on this subject, some more extreme than others, I am more than willing to accept an external, objective, real world within which I play a role. But, be weary of this trap, the never-ending cave of solipsism, where you will constantly be re-re-re-re-re-eternally re-evaluating your role as a social observer before any social observing, criticism, writing or work gets done. My advice, if you feel yourself getting into that re-eternal occurrence (as Nietzsche would call it), then get outside, get active, get sporty, get jogging, get participating and get socialising.