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Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2018

Page updated 9 February, 2018

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2018, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

3. Observation

3.1 Introduction
3.2 Aspects
3.3 Methodological approaches

3.3.1 Positivism and observation
3.3.2 Phenomenology and observation Observation for theory generation: emergent theory Grounded theory Grounded and grounding theory (or grounded approach) Observation for theory development: a naturalistic perspective Observation as a basis for identifying subjects' meanings Observation as a basis for empathetic interpretation Observation as the basis for deconstructing everyday life Observation as a process of establishing identity Observation as a means of discovering how communities operate

3.3.3 Critical social research and observation

3.4 Access
3.5 Recording data
3.6 Analysing observational or ethnographic data
3.7 Summary

3.3 Methodological approaches

3.3.2 Phenomenology and observation Observation for theory generation: emergent theory Grounded theory
The 'grounded theory' approach (Glaser and Strauss, 1967), widely referred to in the literature, is a process of inductive construction and testing of hypotheses and as such is similar to the positivists inductive generation of hypotheses, although going further in using the data themselves as the basis for suggesting theories.

Grounded theory works on the basis that, when undertaking observational (or ethnographic) research, theories evolve from the data. This is different from using observational data to illustrate a preformed theory.

Kelly (2003, p. 36), for example, cited Strauss (1987) and stated that in her research on Bosnian refugees that:

In order to go beyond description and develop a theoretical understanding of the interaction of policies with the refugees themselves, I have analysed the research findings using grounded theory modes of analysis.

Grounded theory is a straightforward approach, although it takes some imagination and lateral thinking to do it well. The approach is summarised in CASE STUDY Grounded theory.

Grounded theory is nothing more grandiose than coding and gradually refining the theoretical constructs that account for similarly coded material. This process evolves, through the next stage of refinement of the theoretical model, into a more delimited set of constructs that start to emerge as the theoretical explanation—emergent theory as it is known. As Cooper et al., (2004) stated:

An inductive, grounded theory approach was taken in the analysis of the transcripts and fieldnotes allowing the emergence of categories and themes from the data and the development of theory. Categories were refined and coding reviewed throughout the process...

For Glaser, the aim of the grounded theorising method is to discover the theory implicit in the data. There is a continuing search for evidence that disconfirms the emerging theory.

Glaser suggests two main criteria for judging the adequacy of the emerging theory: that it fits the situation and that it works, that is, it helps the research subjects make sense of their situation and experiences and to improve their management of the situation.

Grounded theory is not greatly different from analytic induction (Section; it draws heavily on that conventional ethnographic approach and, as was noted, is concerned, through theoretical sampling (Section, to explore the data systematically and as exhaustively as possible. Furthermore, in Glaser's formulation of theoretical adequacy his emphasis on practical relevance strongly echoes pragmatist philosophy.

Grounded theory is closely linked to interactionist approaches, which tend to favour the emergence of theory from the empirical data; Becker's labelling theory is an example.

Contextual Note:
Glaser and Strauss diverged in their development of grounded theory after their initial outline of the approach (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). Strauss and Corbin (1990) published a text book on qualitative research, which Glaser considered had misrepresented the most important features of grounded theory. Glaser (1992) describes how to undertake his style of grounded theorising. In particular, he argued there is a difference between letting the theory emerge from the data and forcing the data into preconceived frameworks.

Top Grounded and grounding theory (or grounded approach)
It is important to distinguish between grounded theory and grounding theory in empirical data.

Gottfried and Graham (1993) argued that, in their study of the development of culture in a new car factory, they:

adopted a grounded approach which promotes theoretical flexibility without abandoning a structural analysis, an approach which digs beneath the surface to uncover the ways in which political, ideological and economic apparatuses pattern practice.

In this situation, the authors are talking about grounding their analysis in observational data but this does not mean that they are using 'grounded theory' in the sense of inductively deriving theory from empirical observations. Indeed, Gottfried and Graham make no mention of Glaser and Strauss and are, in fact, undertaking a critical study (explored in more detail in Section 3.3.3).


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