Grounded Theory, a Practitioner’s Methodology: Part One – A marriage of two traditions

There has been much talk of evidence in education by BLOGGERS recently but nothing really about the mechanics of Practitioner Research; methodology, epistemic stance etc. Recently BLOGGER Dr Carol Webb wrote about a methodology called Grounded Theory (GTM).

Carol gave an excellent description of the nuts and bolts of GTM however I would like to try to explain why it should be important to Research Practitioners in education. In fact I am going to argue that GTM, is the ideal methodology for practitioner-researchers.

So what is Grounded Theory Methodology (GTM) and why is it different to other methodologies? Perhaps it’s easier to describe what it’s not. It’s not a qualitative methodology, such as Action Research, that solely describes “stuff”, although it can, in a situated context. It is essentially an inductive methodology that offers a theoretical proposition that can be generalised.  You could describe it as a means to generate a hypothesis that can be tested by positivists or other qualitative researchers in other situated contexts.

So why is that important? Well education research is complex, it attracts two equally valid criticisms; firstly that pedagogy cannot be reduced to the causal events of positivist research, and secondly that qualitative methods simply give descriptions of unrelated situated contexts. In that sense, both quantitative and positivist research suffer the same issue. They both offer snapshots of particular circumstances and situations that have to be interpreted into practice. Arguably GTM offers both research traditions, a more wide ranging theoretical proposition.

Alright I accept that if you aren’t familiar with the arcane world of research methods then this may well be just “gobbeldy gook”. So I will start at the beginning with the birth of qualitative methods.

Qualitative research methods arguably began as, an early variant of, what became the ethnographic tradition. Its roots based in European exploration from the fifteenth century onwards. European explorers encountering indigenous populations in the Americas and other parts of the world sought to explain culture and customs that challenged western traditions. In particular, there was a need to explain these customs within the context of the religious practices of the time.

Attempts to understand these cultural practices, documented in accounts from missionaries and travellers, sought to explain cultural differences, but often did so with few methodological tools at their disposal. A key tension in these accounts and it is one which, in slightly different forms, runs through today’s methodological debates about ethnography, is the attempt to understand one cultural tradition from the premise of another.

By the early twentieth century, social anthropologists such as Malinowski placed methodological claims considerably to the fore in their writing. These early forays were generally characterised by the lack of self-doubt about the authority of the writer, an issue that is to the fore in current qualitative research. Their writing included few direct quotations from participants, rather immersion in the field, gave the researcher the credibility to proffer an opinion, and there was little scrutiny of the subjectivity of that opinion, or the philosophical perspective of the writer.

Denzin and Lincoln (2000), commenting on the work of early qualitative scholars such as Mead and Malinowski described this period as the traditional moment. They characterised ethnography at that time as being objectivist, somewhat sympathetic to an imperialist understanding of the world, and committed to the view that their work was contributing to a greater body of knowledge that was both timeless and expansive.

Seale (1998) described the period prior to the war whereby Chicago School ethnographers under Park and Burgess began to replace an explicitly Christian ethos with a generally humanistic agenda. They used qualitative (and sometimes quantitative) methods to document the lives of a variety of usually, (but not always) urban social groups in their own societies. Perhaps the most famous of these studies was William Foote Whyte’s account of Street Corner Society published in 1943. This was an account of Italian Americans in Boston, widely regarded as an exemplary application of qualitative method and, in particular, participant observation.

Researchers considered their work as both a contribution to a historical record and an on-going literary tradition. Often, accounts documented the socio cultural practices of new world societies but also remained accessible to readers at home.

The development of the qualitative interview, as we would understand it today, emerged in the post-war period and social research methods adopted by commercial organisations wanting to improve their communication with consumers. Before the 1940s, people just interviewed. In the post-war period, business adopted formal methods of research investigation as a means to understand the newly emerging consumer society. The need to engage a readership by merging the research perspective with a literary and historical tradition was lessening. Researchers themselves were increasingly not, “so called experts”, who would immerse themselves into their subject matter, but “hired hands” who often had no experience or expertise in the subject matter (Seale, 1998).

All the characteristics of expertise that had been valued in the traditional period were disappearing. No longer immersed in the field, nor explicitly well educated (although they may well have been), the new researchers’ credibility rested in their research techniques and use of data.

At the same time, the Anglo-American analytic philosophical tradition was emerging as the dominant research approach in American universities. Denzin and Lincoln (2000) described this phase as the modernist phase, encompassing the post-war years to the 1970s, describing it as a period when qualitative methods began to formalise.

Annells (1997) described how two researchers Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss developed GTM against this backdrop.  They began their research collaboration in 1960. GTM was borne out of their personal experiences of terminal illness. Theirs was an attempt to formalise a rigorous, qualitative method of inquiry, challenging the contemporary thinking of the time. It was also, of its time, influenced by the University of Chicago’s tradition of pragmatist scholars, Dewey and Mead and contemporary developments such as the symbolic interactionism of Herbert Blumer; as well as the more positivist tradition of Columbia University and scholars such as Paul Lazarsfeld, a sociologist within the emerging field of media and mass communication developing social surveys from a more positivist perspective.

Charmaz (2006), recounting the story of GTM, described the inevitable consequence of the on-going importance of positivism in social theory as leading to an increased focus on testing existing theories as opposed to developing new ones, which has led to a division between theory and research. In other words then like now there were a lot of unrelated studies offering small sample snapshots of often similar but unrelated issues that were not easily transferable into practice and largely based on existing theories.

GTM however combined the positivist traditions that Glaser experienced at Columbia University and the qualitative approach of Strauss who had experienced the pragmatism that was popular at the University of Chicago. Glaser imbued GTM with dispassionate empiricism, rigorous coding emphasis on emergent discoveries” whilst Strauss emphasised the importance of human agency. For Strauss, subjective and social meaning emerged through action and the use of language. GTM was borne out of a need to marry the rigour of positivism with some of the flexibility of qualitative methods.

Part two: What is GTM and why is it useful for educational practitioners.


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