Practicing Grounded Theory (part 1)

I have been wanting to write an informal but practical “tips list” of sorts ever since I have largely completed my research that uses grounded theory methodology (GTM). (Why largely? More on that later). This draft has however been in untouched since Oct 2022…🀣 but writing this paragraph in Jan 2023, I am better equipped to consolidate my learning to share with novice GTM practitioners.

This two-part article aims to address a problem experienced in learning and practicing GTM- after I’ve read as many methodology articles and chapters as I can, how do I REALLY do it? One glaring gap was the lack of discussion and examples of how the researcher as a person engaged with the data through GTM- how can a person with all our subjective perceptions function well as a tool for data analysis?

Preface: Since the creation of “grounded theory” by Glaser & Strauss in 1967, there has been various developments of the GTM to align with the epistemological and ontological bases in research- resulting in different GTM approaches. I use a critical realist GTM (Hoddy, 2019)- a short explainer on the philosophy of critical realism can be found here. As the basic GTM phases are largely the same across GTM approaches (except for maybe prior literature review), the article will be organised along these phases. Phases seem to connote a sequential process- far from that! GTM works best for those who are okay with straddling the in-between of phases and the uncertainty/frustration of iterating the phases. (But hey, isn’t that like life? I believe I have grown as a person through practicing GTM)

Part 1 will cover: Literature Integration –> Open Coding –> Axial Coding; while

Part 2 will cover: Theoretical Sampling <—> Interviewing –> Saturation// Abstraction

Literature Integration

Ironically, literature integration features significantly in the thesis/research write-up process. However, I have chosen to write this first as starting off strong in literature integration set a good foundation for my GTM practice.

How can I use the literature to prepare myself for actual application of the GTM?

  • Leveraging on progress reports in the PhD: The literature review chapter in my thesis was written before I started data collection. It became an invaluable chapter as it contained not just a review of the theoretical frameworks used in theoretical sensitisation, but also my critiques on these theoretical frameworks which was used to argue for a research gap
  • Organisation is key: Having an excel sheet to aggregate, organise, and easily revisit the vast amount of literature read (I adapted the template from CityU’s library) was essential. I referenced and added on to a main excel sheet during research conceptualisation and throughout the GTM process. It has helped with both theoretical sensitisation and alternative casing in abductive analysis, as I could easily cite literature in my memo-writing so that my analysis was both grounded in data and theory.

The traditional thesis format does not reflect how the research using GTM was actually conducted. How can I integrate literature into my write-up in a way that reflects the GTM process?

  • Diagramming the process of literature integration: I have used Lo (2016)‘s diagram for my write-up
  • Consider a ‘bridge’ chapter: This ‘bridge’ chapter between the literature review and findings would make transparent the successive iterations of the emergent theory, the theories used to guide analysis, and how the GTM is truly ‘grounded’ in the data

Open Coding

Should I use a computer software, which one to use, and how best to use them?

There are a myriad of articles on this subject and thus I will focus on my personal insights of using the ATLAS.ti software to conduct the GTM below.

  • Intentional use of software: With criticisms levelled on qualitative researchers ‘being led’ by analytic software, I took an intentional approach on using ATLAS.ti. Memos were assiduously made on how data was categorised and what software functions were used
  • with researcher as THE tool: For me, the ATLAS.ti software was chosen over NVivo for its visuals and layout- this made it handy to help in the speedy categorisation of data. Ultimately however, the researcher is the tool to not just organise, but derive a second or even third layer of abstraction from the data. This means a few things, which I will explicate below.

What does it mean for the GTM researcher to be THE tool?

  • Reflexivity: A fundamental and yet unmeasurable quality or skill of applying GTM is reflexivity. (To my fellow social workers: You have an advantage here as our profession also demands this quality) Reflexivity in GTM looks something like this:
Coding Memo: In-between Open and Axial coding

In the above, I highlighted my examination of a potential decision in interview questions. Reflexivity is an all-encompassing demand in GTM; from the examination of one’s perceptions and experiences related to the research topic, to the judgment calls made in the practice of GTM. The importance of memo-writing cannot be overstated. (I use OneNote as it auto-saves and syncs on different computers)

  • Self-care: For reflexivity to flourish, one needs to nurture self-care. I remain very grateful to my first supervisor who had high expectations, and also gave me the space to self-care. (Note to thesis supervisors πŸ˜›: This looks like him supporting my decision to go for a spiritual retreat unrelated to academia per se and the HUGE flexibility I got) Oftentimes in qualitative research, we find that ideas strike us when or after we are relaxed: after I’d a good toilet break, receipt theorising in a cafe, or after I had a good few days without opening ATLAS.ti…
  • Receipt theorising (or, whatever works): While ATLAS.ti is helpful, some of the foundational elements of my emergent theory had its humble beginnings on receipt paper. The beauty of receipt theorising is that, because the receipt paper was meant to be thrown anyway, it somehow facilitates my brainstorming. With no ideas set in stone and the openness to try and see if that fits the data. I especially love diagramming and below is how I tried to integrate the emerging theory with the extant frameworks:
Incidentally, had this mini eureka in a cafe πŸ™‚

Axial Coding

The tips in Open Coding are pertinent here too, but on top of that, some practical things I wished I could have known are:

What does this process look and feel like? (Am I normal?)

  • It feels like crap, elation, boredom, self-doubt, accomplishment: I read somewhere that the GTM researcher needs to okay with uncertainty. From the freshness of open coding, one wades into the open waters in axial coding. In good times, it feels like a mystery that one is an adventurer in. In bad times, it feels like one is forced to swim without land in sight.
  • It looks like re-re-re reading data and literature: Am I fitting my own conceptions into the data? What is the knowledge base I am drawing on to conceptualise as such, and is that trustworthy? (Reflexivity again) As I inched towards theoretical saturation, there were so many rabbit holes in literature that I followed in pursuit of that open door of data-fitted theory. (Note: this describes abductive analysis) If you refer back to the literature integration diagram, I explored a range of literature. Some of which had conflicting perspectives, which was uncomfortable but so necessary to go through and make sense of.

What did you find helpful in the axial coding process?

  • Distance: Both in terms of time and psychological attention. While too many other tasks depletes the cognitive bandwidth, having some tasks unrelated to the research helped me to relook at the data with fresh eyes. GTM is a create-tive process, and so at times when I feel like I have nothing to give anymore, I would perhaps read up journal articles related to my research interests. Sometimes the ideas presented actually helps me to draw links between the emerging themes!
  • Re-familiarisation with GTM articles and examples: Let’s face it, we may kind of forget how its ‘supposed to be done’ when we deep-dive into the data. Every so often I pull out articles and theses from the folders ‘GT examples’ and ‘GTM methods’. The SAGE Grounded Theory handbooks were helpful too, not least to have a basic understanding of the various GTM approaches so that I can identify literature that is pertinent to the critical realist approach which I have chosen.
  • Memo-writing: This is a point worth repeating- Keep extensive memos! In the thesis write-up stage now, I have a new level of appreciation on why memo-writing is emphasised across ALL GTM approaches. Below is a snap of my memo groups. I also have a brief description of what the memo group is for (Remember, this GTM is easily a 3 year process for a PhD thesis). For example, the memo group Interview Participants was used ”Β for memos on interview participants (unique characteristics that may warrant further exploration, non-verbal responses, preliminary thoughts)”.

Alright, so these are all I can think of when I imagine the tips that year 2 Kang Li would have wanted to know for these GTM phases, after reading the different GTM articles and book chapters. If there are some more questions or even suggestions to add on, ping me in the comments or via email! πŸ˜„

[Part 2 to be continued in March, after my thesis submission πŸ€—]

2 thoughts on “Practicing Grounded Theory (part 1)

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