Originally posted: Fri, 24 Sep 2004 19:04:06
The title of this book is somewhat misleading, but it's corrected by the subtitle. This book is a grad-level introduction to grounded theory in particular, not qualitative research in general: competing qualitative research traditions such as participatory action research, ethnography, and case studies are not discussed. Granted, they often have much in common with grounded theory, but there are also a lot of differences. Unfortunately they're often simply lumped together.
That was certainly the case in the research methods courses I took in my PhD program, several years ago. I'm sure that was out of necessity, but I'd like to more strongly differentiate them in the course I'll be teaching this spring -- and to get them straight in my own mind. Similar terminologies, similar methods, and similar aims tend to introduce a lot of slippage into discussions of qualitative research. And I should add that there's sometimes a frustrating lack of detail about exactly how to deploy them, a lack of detail that I think points to the depth of experience and the level of practice it takes to do qualitative research well. Diana Forsythe's last article, on how ethnography is something done by people with PhDs in anthropology (as opposed to something one can learn in a three-day contextual design course), resonates more strongly with me every time I read one of these books.
A little background: Anselm Strauss developed grounded theory along with Barney Glaser. They deployed it in several studies and wrote several books on it. This one is meant for grad students, which probably explains why so much of it involves expressing empathy for the reader's struggles, discusses ways of managing one's emotions about one's project, and dispenses general advice. Unfortunately a lot of that advice seems obvious and not terribly helpful. Here's a sample from the last chapter, on writing up studies:
Our best counsel is to choose if possible a supportive yet critical advisor, and to write as good a manuscript as possible. If you produce solid research you are likely to earn your degree, unless none of the committee members can counternance qualitative research. If that is a possibility, then you should strive to keep the number of such potentially adverse critics on your committee to a minimum. (p.237)
Frustratingly, much of the book is taken up with similar text. (I suddenly realize that this text reminds me of another book I've reviewed.) That's unfortunate, because there's a lot of really good stuff in here -- if you're willing to dig.
What good stuff? Well, the book manages to lay out the basics of grounded theory quite well. We find that grounded theory emphasizes the inductive development of theories, first as substantive (situated in a particular context) and eventually as formal (examined in many such contexts) (p.174). We learn that there are four criteria for judging how well a theory applies to a phenomenon: fit, understanding, generality, and control (p.23). We find that -- just as in participatory design, incidentally -- "the research question in a grounded theory study is a statement that identifies the phenomenon to be studied" (p.38). And over and over we find that grounded theory is all about "integrating detail, procedures, and operational logic" (p.159) -- developing coherent, well integrated, and strongly connected theories through progressive waves of open coding and axial coding.
But then again, we also find that we can't reduce the approach to a set of steps that will necessarily produce a grounded theory study. I don't think this is the fault of the prose; rather, I think Forsythe was right in that these procedures and the judgment behind them must be learned through deep experience. This book outlines the methodological precepts and gives a lot of examples, but ultimately it doesn't seem to pin down the approach with much specificity, and I think that's because the approach doesn't lend itself to that level of operationalization. Which does put us as qualitative researchers in a difficult position: Strauss and Corbin talk often of grounded theory's rigor, but as an inductive method that doesn't and can't provide strong operational guidance, it seems that grounded theory would have difficulty making such a case for itself. I'll have to think about this further as I examine other qualitative methods.
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