Grounded Theory


The Grounded Theory approach was first articulated by Glaser & Strauss in their 1967 book The Discovery of Grounded Theory

This book was written at a time when researchers in sociology were questioning the assumptions of positivism.  In many ways, this book can be read and understood as a response to positivistic approaches in sociology.  In fact, one of the goals of this book was to provide a 'legitimate' approach for doing qualitative research.  

Glaser and Strasss articulate an empirical approach for developing theory.  At the time, much of theory development was done a priori - before collecting and analyzing data.  Glaser and Strauss were arguing for an alternative approach, one that involves developing theories in a way that is connected to the data collection and analysis process. 


Grounded Theory is an approach for developing theory that is "grounded in data systematically gathered and analyzed" (Strauss & Corbin, 1994).

Common Methods used in Grounded Theory

Participant Observation. This involves the researcher immersing him or herself in the daily lives and routines of those being studied.  This often requires extensive work in the setting being studied.  This is called fieldwork.

Interviewing. Researchers using a Grounded Theory approach will learn about a culture or group by speaking with informants or members of the culture or group.  Talking with informants is called interviewing.  The types of interviews conducted by researchers using this approach  vary in degree of formality (informal interview to semi-structured to structured interviews).

Collection of Artifacts and Texts. Researchers using a grounded theory approach  may also learn about a group or culture by collecting and studying artifacts (e.g. written protocols, charts, flowsheets, educational handouts) - materials used by members of the culture in their daily lives.

The Grounded Theory Approach

The Grounded Theory Approach involves constant comparative analysis or what has come to be called the Constant Comparative Method.

This involves the researcher moving in and out of the data collection and analysis process.  This back and forth movement between data collection and analysis is sometimes called an 'iteration.'  Grounded theory research involves multiple iterations.

The process begins with the researcher asking a question or series of questions designed to lead to the development or generation of a theory regarding some aspect of social life (e.g. how do nurses see their role in the care delivery process in primary care settings?)

This generative question, leads to the first iteration of theoretical sampling.  Identifying an initial sample of people to observe or talk to (e.g. Registered Nurses).

After collecting some data the researcher analyzes it.  The process of analysis allows the researcher to begin to develop a theory with regard to his or her question.  Based on this initial theory, the researcher decides how next to sample (e.g. speak to nurses with varying educational backgrounds).  This is called Theoretical Sampling.

This process of continually collecting and analyzing data and engaging in a theoretial sampling process are critical features of the constant comparative analysis that Glaser and Strauss describe.

The comparative process continues until the researcher reaches saturation - the point at which there are no new ideas and insights emerging from the data.  Instead, the researcher sees strong repetition in the themes he or she has already observed and articulated. 

The process of analyzing the data also involves three level or types of coding:

  • open coding - where the researcher begins to segment or divide the data into similar groupings and forms preliminary categories of information about the phenomenon being examined
  • axial coding - following intensive open coding, the researcher begins to bring together the categories he or she has identified into groupings.  These groupings resemble themes and are generally new ways of seeing and understanding the phenomenon under study
  • selective coding - the researcher organizes and integrates the categories and themes in a way that articulates a coherent understanding or theory of the phenomenon of study.


Corbin, J. & Strauss, A. (1990). Grounded theory method: Procedures, canons, and evaluative criteria. Qualitative Sociology, 13, 3-21. 

Glaser, B. & Strauss, A. (1967). The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. Chicago: Aldine.

Strauss, A. & Corbin, J. (1994). "Grounded Theory Methodology." In NK Denzin & YS Lincoln (Eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 217-285). Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications.

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