Grounded Theory: An Introduction for IAs

In most research you start with a hypothesis and construct methods to test its validity.  But the goal of Grounded Theory isn’t validation. The goal is to accurately describe what is going on in a given context based on patterns in data.

Substantive Area of Interest

In the case of Grounded Theory, the context is called a substantive area of interest. Examples of a substantive area of interest include: online learning, a medical practice, watching a sporting event, and the like.

Let’s use “shopping online” as our substantive area of interest.

Collect Data

Data collection can include all manner of quantitative and qualitative data that is relevant to the substantive area, the actors within it, the challenges they face, and the behaviors they deploy to solve them. Data can come from interviews, participant observation, public records, the news media, etc.

Really, there is no limit, as long as it is relevant.

Open Coding

Open coding is the process of applying tags to the data. For example, if the data is in the form of field notes from an interview, the researcher will go through his or her notes line-by-line and write brief tags to identify key concepts. The codes act as identifiers that will facilitate the aggregation of these concepts into themes and sets of relationships. Eventually a theory will begin to emerge.


Writing memos captures this emergent theory. In the context of Grounded Theory, a memo is simply a brief piece of writing focused on some aspect of the codes, themes, and relationships. By sorting and aggregating the memos, the core category of the research will take shape.

For example, the core category in our study focused on online shopping may be “brand alignment” as it becomes clear that shoppers are looking for brands that fit their lifestyle.

Selective Coding

After the core category has been identified, selective coding begins. This means going back through the data to recode it based on the core category. Additional data may need to be gathered as gaps are encountered.

Using our example, we may go back and recode for expressions of brand awareness. We may need to set up a contextual inquiry to gather data on consumers’ relationships to different brands.

Now Read Up on the Subject

Glaser’s approach is to allow the core to emerge from the data. If a researcher studies the subject ahead of time, it may bias the analysis. Only after the theory emerges should the researcher study the existing literature and integrate it into the research.

Write It

After the literature review, all of the memos are sorted and edited in to a cohesive whole, supported by collateral material that supports the theory that emerged from the data.

Judging Grounded Theory

Because it is an inductive methodology, the criteria on which it is judged is not about validity. Glaser and Strauss identified four key concepts used to judge the results of the method:

Fit: How closely does the emergent theory fit with, and model, the behaviors within the core context of the research?

Relevance: Does the study capture and evoke the core concerns and challenges faced by the actors at the core of the research.

Workability: The theory accurately describes how the problems faced by the actors were solved, or could be solved.

Modifiability: The theory is flexible enough to adapt when new data is compared to the data gathered during the study.


Grounded Theory is a solid framework that allows for great flexibility in the collection of data. It harmonizes both qualitative and quantitative data. But the most attractive feature of Grounded Theory is its ability to identify the right channels for further study, and even for true quantitative validation.

Further Reading

The Grounded Theory Institute

Grounded Theory Online

Comments are closed.