In this first of a series of blog posts running up the #micer16 meeting, Chris Randles, University of Hull, introduces the theoretical framework underpinning his research. Chris’ talk itself will pick up from this introduction, describing how he completed his own project within this framework. Please feel free to comment on this article below, as these comments can help us inform the discussion section after Chris’ talk. You can read the paper associated with Chris’ project on the CERP website, which is free to access: “Expert vs. novice: approaches used by chemists when solving open-ended problems“
What is grounded theory?
Grounded theory is a systematic framework involving the development of theories based on analysis of data. Participants engage in a world that requires reflexive interaction due to goals being driven by behaviour relating to social interaction . It is primarily used in the social sciences as a means of analysing qualitative data. It is perceived as the reverse framework from conventional scientific theory used in other frameworks, in that the hypothesis is derived from the words and actions collected rather than proving/disproving particular phenomena. In this research framework the method is divided into five stages.
- Data is collected through a variety of sources (questionnaires, interviews etc.).
- Data is analysed for emergent themes within the data sets without preconceptions of their importance.
- These thematic events are then ‘coded’, by which key points are extracted from the data.
- These are then identified for their importance.
- Finally, a hypothesis or theory is developed centred around the data collected.
It is believed that grounded theory develops theories that are more close to reality .
Variations on a theme – other perspectives
Many researchers have hijacked the grounded theoretical framework in studies that are, lacking theoretical sensitivity engaging in purposive sampling and discrete sample interviews , resulting in stigmatisation that grounded theory encourages an “anything goes” approach . Grounded theory is not unified and as a result four separate philosophical perspectives on what ground theory is have emerged. These perspectives are the ‘original version’ , Glaserian grounded theory, Straussian grounded theory and constructivist grounded theory [6, 7].
Glaserian and Straussian approaches differ by collection and analysis of data
The ‘original version’ of grounded theory soon diverged with the original authors separating their views in to Glaserian grounded theory and Straussian grounded theory. The main differences between these two perspectives emerge in the collection and analysis of the data. Glaserian grounded theory is believed to be a more true representation of the ‘original version’, especially with the approach to data analysis, whereas Straussian theory is considered reformative with respect to data collection [3, 8, 9]. The original text documenting the data analysis process was vague, and consequently, Strauss, in collaboration with Corbin, attempted to increase understanding of data analysis during the grounded theory process [10, 11]. However, this explanation of the data analysis process was criticised heavily by the more purest grounded theorists, prompting comments that the analysis process had become “programmatic and overformulaic” .
Induction vs deduction
Furthermore, Glaser openly criticised his former research partner as promoting grounded theory as a “forced, full, conceptual description,” further stating that Straussian theory was no longer grounded theory and should never be considered so . These comments from Glaser prompted Strauss and Corbin to later modify their initial approach to data analysis and state that it had not been their intention to promote a rigid grounded theory and they were merely “guidelines, suggested techniques but not commandments” . Glaserian and Straussian grounded theory differed further on whether verification should be the product of grounded theory [9, 13-15]. Straussian grounded theorists believe that induction, deduction and verification are “essential”, whereas the Glaserian grounded theorists maintain that grounded theory should be inductive only . This is because in 1967 Glaser and Strauss wrote “… generation of theory through comparative analysis both subsumes and assumes verification and accurate description, but only to the extent that the latter are in the services of generation” , inferring that the process is inductive and theory developing .
Straussian grounded theorists stress the importance of deduction and verification, suggesting the role induction plays in grounded theory as being over stated [9, 16]. Straussian and Corbin wrote that validation was “a process of comparing concepts and their relationships against data during the research act to determine how well they stand up to such scrutiny” . In this definition, the process of data analysis in grounded theory shifted for Straussian grounded theory, a claim never denied by Strauss, from an inductive process to an abductive process . This transition means that Straussian grounded theory has moved towards a more constructivist perspective of grounded theory where the “researcher arrives at the most plausible interpretation of the observed data” . Still, Glaser insists that the only true version of grounded theory is the one originally proposed, insisting the theory emerges from the actual data [13, 15-17].
Constructivist grounded theory: a middle ground?
Constructivist grounded theory was first proposed by Charmaz [6, 7] as an alternative to the complications associated with the Glaserian theory  and Straussian theory  as previously discussed. Charmaz stated that the objective of developing constructivist grounded theory was to “take a middle ground between postmodernism and positivism, and offers accessible method for taking qualitative research into 21st Century” . The addition of the constructivist perspective in the arsenal of a the grounded theorist’s methodology maintained the inductive nature of the ‘original version,’ with the rise of philosophical stance of constructivism . Furthermore, Charmaz criticised the reporting of findings in the ‘original version.’ Instead of the observation of patterns emerging from the data, Charmaz proposed that researcher and participant construct the common understanding of a shared reality and this shared reality is the objective of the researcher.7 However, the same criticism about alteration of the original grounded theory methodology levelled towards Strauss have been directed at Charmaz. The main question has been, how far can an original methodology be altered or modernised before it no longer can be considered that original methodology . Glaserian theorists contest that constructivist grounded theory differs too much from the ‘original version’ to be considered grounded theory .
A road map for chemistry education researchers?
A review released by Taber attempted to provide a formal structure to the ground theory approach, and the figure shows the flow chart algorithm used to help chemistry education researchers enter the field of grounded theory research . As with the initial five stage process, Taber’s model begins with the collection of data and development of the codes, demonstrating the cyclic nature of grounded theory. However, the algorithm does run the risk of falling into the trap of becoming too prescriptive, the same trap Glaser accused Strauss of falling into with the development of Straussian Theory. It is clear that the model does allow chemical education researchers access to an unfamiliar research methodology they may struggle to understand, although care should be taken to ensure the prescriptive nature of the flow chart does not impede the continual development of exploring the data under a grounded theory methodology.
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