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.

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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.

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

  1. James –
    Your dilemma is interesting and one that many students your situation most likely face. Your comments suggest that while you may have chosen a “topic, hypothesis, written a literature review and plan for the next two years,” you have not chosen an objective. A clear objective or goal of your work seems to have been left out of your planning. What is your objective? What are you hoping to accomplish? What will the outcomes enable you to say? The ultimate usefulness of your outcomes will reside in the ability for the reader/user of your research to do something of value. Do you want to extend knowledge on a particular theory? Do you want to provide recommendations to farmers re: the use of “high-technology” in agriculture?

    If, as you say, you want to take a grounded approach and see where the empirical data lead you, then do that. Stay focused on that. Then, when you have completed your data collection you can utilize you knowledge of various theories or ideas to verify and interpret your data.

  2. Hi James

    Thanks for quoting our work, am glad you are finding it helpful. A couple of points for you to consider. Your previous reading of the various theorists that you mention has raised your theoretical sensitivity to the substantive area of investigation. That’s perfectly OK, non of us enter the field as a ‘tabula rasa’. What you need to think about it how your knowledge of this range of extant theories is influencing the analysis of your data. The bottom line question is, are you forcing your data into particular codes and categories that arise from the extant theory? I somehow doubt that you are committing this grounded theory sin based on the way you have written about your participants. Rather than seeing extant theory as something that you risk applying to your data, think of it as informing the questions that you want to ask of the data. Questioning the data is fundamental to the method of comparatively generating/collecting and analysing data. You question the data in order to make sense of the data. This will likely raise further questions about the substantive area of enquiry and you theoretically sample in order to answer those questions.

    Hope this helps, send me an email if you have any more questions.

    Warm regards Jane Mills

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