Grounded Theory, A Practitioners Methodology: collaboration is the key to meaningful situated data

In my last BLOG I suggested Grounded Theory Method (GTM) as a useful methodology for practitioners. In this one I hope to explain why. Previously I described GTM as a marriage of two traditions; firstly the pragmatic approach adopted by Anselm Strauss at the University of Chicago, which favoured a more qualitative tradition and the more empirical approach of Barney Glaser at Columbia University.

It seems to me that one of the dangers of practitioner-research is that it can fall into one of two camps. The first type is the  “touchy feely humanist” type, who has a relativist epistemic perspective and uses action theory or a phenomenological approach to study a situated context.

The second type is the “hard-nosed empiricist”. This type slavishly follow the scientific method, has little interest in metaphysical or epistemic issues and who regards “humanist types” as being “to blame” for all the ills of the educational world. This includes but is not limited to: poor behaviour, progressive teaching approaches, “dumbing down”, poor “grammar and spelling” and and and….! You get the drift.

The “touchy feely humanist” study generates situated data that often, isn’t generalisable and can suffer from limited data by its very nature. For example, the study that finds that disability is not managed particularly well in one school or college, may not be true, of other schools or colleges.

The “hard-nosed empiricist” ironically can suffer a similar problem. They produce data related to a specific causal event that may not be transferable to other contexts. The study that finds a relationship between a particular teaching approach and say, for example, university students, suddenly finds that it stops working when that teaching approach is adopted with NEETS.

Of course I am being somewhat flippant for the purpose of effect, anyone who has ever dipped his or her toe into the murky waters of research will conform to one stereotype or another but there is a serious point to be made.

The problem is that both approaches tend to generate data without any theoretical framework. Foucault (1977) cited in Anyon (2009), describes data without a theoretical framework as a kind of “blind empiricism” that yields data but very little explanation. Empirical studies in education have mainly focused on the micro activities in the classroom, which have largely ignored macro institutional elements such as social policy or political environments (Anyon, 2009).

Let’s be honest it’s not easy being a full time practitioner and a researcher. It’s relatively easy to slide into the comfort of relativist epistemologies and even easier to adopt the stance that metaphysical and epistemic options are for wimps and “wishy washy liberals”. Practitioners do not have the time to network, develop sympathetic peer review networks or establish relationships with policy “wonks”. At this moment in time the practitioner-researcher role in the research hierarchy could be described as experts in the “situated context”.

So what makes GTM different? Well it doesn’t necessarily offer a description of a situated context, although arguably it can (Charmaz 2006), in other words it doesn’t just describe, “what is”. GTM offers a conceptual theoretical perspective that underpins other empirical work. GTM is not looking to describe a particular “thing,” it looks to generate a hypothesis for other researchers to test in other situated contexts. In GTM terminology this is described as two types of theory; substantive and formal theory.

Charmaz described traditional interpretative theory as allowing for indeterminacy rather than seek causality. It prioritises patterns and connections rather than “linear thinking” (Charmaz, 2006). As a consequence Layder (1994) criticises a failure of more traditional interpretative theory to describe “more general theoretical” stances in qualitative approaches. He describes these as focusing on the subjective and not contributing towards a cumulative body of knowledge. He proposes GTM as a partial solution to this problem, albeit criticising its focus on data and situated context, which can preclude the influence of “other domains”.

You can see the problem. The “touchy feely humanist” researcher can generate descriptions of umpteen different contexts but so what? The “hard-nosed empiricist faces the problem that all practitioners experience on a daily basis, quite simply, that classroom dynamics change from group to group, what is true of one group may not be so of other groups in a highly diverse and differentiated education system. So what’s missing. Well arguably it’s a theoretical perspective; a narrative that binds research together, a theoretical proposition,

There is an on-going conversation in research as to what constitutes a theory. Different epistemic camps offer different accounts of theory. It is perhaps unfair to pigeonhole particular researchers as being from one tradition or another. Broadly speaking though, Glaser (1998) accentuated a positivist approach seeking a context free but modifiable theoretical statement whilst Strauss and Corbin (1994) emphasised relationships amongst contexts.

Glaser and Strauss (2011, p. 3) describe theory as:

A strategy for handling data in research, providing modes of conceptualisation for describing and explaining. The theory should provide clear enough categories and hypotheses so that crucial ones can be verified in present and future research, they must be clear enough to be readily operationalised in quantitative studies when these are appropriate.

Building on the work of Merton (1957) they describe GTM as a mid-range theory, in between the grand theories of Marx and the minor working hypothesis of everyday life. For Merton theories are interconnected propositions from which empirical uniformities can be derived, they are generalised, abstracted but are held to be true for certain categories, contributing to more general theories.

Merton argued that concepts represent one way of generating generalised knowledge. As previously described a problem identified with many qualitative studies is that they are locked into situated descriptions. Glaser (2002) argues that this is not the case with GTM studies. Like Merton, he argued that concepts should describe and be used conceptually to analyse data variation, acting as a lens in further investigations of new data.

Developing concepts within a theoretical model allows the researcher to hypothesise about the relationships between the variables. Middle range theories facilitate research that is both empirically based and theoretically relevant.

This approach, it seems to me, is relevant for practitioners. Every so often the medical-model raises its head, often by non-educationalists. More recently, Random Control Tests (RCT’s) have been promoted by Ben Goldacre, a medical researcher, in conjunction with the Department for Eduation (DfE). It would seem to me that few educationalists would regard RCT’s as the solution to the problems of education; being a quite different field to medicine in many ways. The former is a social phenomenon, or it is until we fully understand cognition, as opposed to a physical (and social) one. In fact it seems to me that the “medical model” seems to say more about the desperation of policy makers, as opposed to the purposefulness of the medical-model to education. It says a lot about how highly or otherwise educational research is regarded.

To sum up, I think GTM offers a middle ground to practitioner-researchers; a way of generating a hypothesis, for others, to use. Practitioners may well be the “experts of the situated context” but I think the data derived needs to be purposeful to others. In particular, academics who can engage with practitioners in an on-going professional relationship, as equals, in the research process.


All typos, errors and conceptual fallacies are due to a lack of time, and indolence on the part of the blogger, whoever he or she maybe. I accept no responsibility for any of them.


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