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Sunday, 25 July 2010

Grounded Theory - a Potential Methodology for 'Inferential' Research Questions

Grounded theory is a methodology, originally championed by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss (1967), whereby an abstract theory is strived for from the views/interactions of participants by means of comparing data. In this research, middle leader motivation to impact on whole school decision making was the key topic of the report.

During the initial research study, quantities of primary data was collected on multiple-levels and scrutinised closely to find common codes and categories. Key concepts and codes were used to generate an overarching concept, school culture, which was later linked together with the sub concepts of 'the role of the middle leader', 'balkanization', 'collegiality/capacity building' and 'structural hierarchy', to ascertain and establish theories to answer research questions. Constant comparison of the key concepts and themes within the data maximised and increased the validity of the findings. This analysis will result in an eventual theory which will be said to be ‘grounded’ in the data and be used to provide viable answers to the focus questions posed.

Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss (1967) created the concept of grounded theory which came at a time when qualitative researchers, in their desire to seek explanations for human behaviour, used predominantly positivistic methods. In an attempt to give research findings credibility within a positivistic research paradigm, which ultimately prided itself on virtues of exactitude and objectivity, human behaviour was being reduced to quantifiable variables. There is a current vibe of dissatisfaction with pure quantitative methods within the positivistic research field and positivist researchers are increasingly looking to Glaser and Strauss's (1967) grounded theory methodology, usually incorporated as part of a mixed methods approach, to report on human behaviour (Barker 2009).

Qualitative research claims that realities are created through individual and collective actions, however, grounded theory doesn’t purport to pitch a single reality and open ended interviews will be used to gather data at an early stage in the study. It is important that the generated theory should be ‘grounded in’ and traceable to the data to make it valid (Goulding 1999).

Glaser and Strauss (1967) presented a comprehensible framework for interpreting data that is widely recognised in the educational field. In this research, four main stages will be used; gathering primary interview data, coding it, identifying key emerging concepts and then creating theoretical interpretations based on logically linking up the emerging concepts to generate a theory which will be ‘grounded in the data’. This research study is underpinned by the idea that within the interview data that there might not be one interpretation that is the ‘true’ reality.

The overarching aim of this particular research is to explore the experiences and thoughts of middle leaders and senior leaders in Schools A, B & C with regards to whole school decision making and comparing the evidence in the data with current academic thinking.

Grounded Theory is arguably a suitable method to attempt to explain ingrained human behaviour and experience as this research does not aim to look for a final and single ‘truth’ as in the positivistic vein but to conceptualise what is happening in the field. This method could, perhaps, lend itself well to be a powerful means of arriving at meaningful conclusions, answering the research questions posed and also generate theory which is acceptable within the academic world in addition to being relevant to the participants.

Grounded theory is arguably more superior to other ethnographical methods (Barker 2009) as it succintly presents a way of analysing data whereas other qualitative methods, such as case studies and observation, provide a more general principle of application. It is not open to interpretation in quite the same way that other qualitative methods could be.

Grounded theory fits in well with the posed research questions as it does not necessitate the researcher to maintain an objective distance from the participants, therefore, tacit knowledge can legitimately be linked with the participants thinking to help generate a more local and contextual theory to answer the focus questions. However, there must be an acknowledgement by the researcher that the data is only a ‘snapshot’ of what is happening at that particular time (Mehmetoglu & Altinay 2006). Care must be taken that 'the snapshot' is not interpreted as the ‘truth’ but more of a conceptual insight.

In this research, I have located the research questions but have not proposed any hypothesis as to what the outcomes of the data are expected to be, keeping in line with the emergent properties of grounded theory. A logical prediction can be made as to what the differences will be for middle leaders based on previous studies by leading academics in this area.

The purpose of this study is to compare the link between the sub concepts of collegiality/capacity building, role of middle leaders, hierarchy and balkanization to these participants and their context to generate a local theory they can use to improve practice. It is not to simply point out and highlight what is already known and well documented about these concepts by other academic authors. I have not been directional and predicted a testable hypothesis as to what I expect to find in my findings, e.g. middle leaders have no say in whole school decision making. I have decided to use, what Creswell (2003) terms a nondirectional hypothesis as the findings could go either way. This is the purpose of using grounded theory to see what is happening. As grounded theory operates in a relatively reverse fashion from the traditional positivistic sciences, it has attracted some criticisms.

Further thought needs to be given as to how to overcome any areas of contention of using grounded theory as the main methodology in this research in preparation for the viva and final doctoral thesis.

Nasima Riazat
Doctoral Researcher - Educational Leadership
Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology
The Open University


BARKER, T. (2009) ‘An Introduction to Grounded Theory’, University of Herts.

CRESWELL, J. W. (2003) ‘Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods Approaches’. Second Edition. Sage Publications, California USA.

GLASER, B. G. and STRAUSS A., (1967) ‘The Discovery of Grounded Theory’, London, Weidenfield and Nicolson.

GOULDING, C. (1999) ‘Grounded theory: Some Reflections on Paradigm, Procedures and Misconceptions’. Working Paper Series, University of Wolverhampton.

MEHMETOGLU, M., & ALTINAY, L. (2006) ‘Examination of Grounded Theory Analysis with an Application to Hospitality Research’ in International Journal of Hospitality Management, Volume 25, Number 1, pp 12-33.

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