Like you (W, I presume), I’m also in the process of learning about grounded theory (GT). I find the methodology to be intense, intellectually challenge and replete with potentially contradictory claims. Avoiding those contradictions is, as far as I can understand, a major task for the grounded theorist. Schroth (2013) notes that;
“A grounded theory is neither valid or invalid, but rather it has more or less fit, relevance, workability and modifiability” (Schroth, 2013).
Looking just at “modifiability” as an example of a potential contradiction, this is the degree to which new data can result in the modification of the theory (Schroth, 2013). If a theory is stable, new data should not influence the theory significantly. Yet, achieving that stability may not come easily. Charmaz (2006) discusses the work of Carolyn Ellis whose grounded theoretical study entailed numerous visits to her research site, and;
“After a troubling revisit to the community three years following publication of her book, her subsequent reflections sparked new insights. Researchers with limited involvement in their respective fields probably would not have realised the limitations of their categories” (Charmaz, 2006, p. 181).
Ellis’ revision raises many questions, not least for novice researchers such as myself about the stability of any findings I may derive from my base data. Ellis is, in Charmaz’ (2006) characterisation, an experienced researcher, one able to revisit and reflect on earlier research. Unfortunately, Charmaz did not expand on Ellis’ transformation, but I wonder how much Ellis—as a researcher—had changed during the three years after her publication, and how much that change had altered her perspective, which led to “new insights”. If her own conceptual systems had changed (possibly through post-publication discussions of her book and having to answer challenges to her methodology and findings), the new Ellis’s views of the original data would be different. In other words, it would be a different Ellis who analysed the old data and not necessarily “limitations of their categories” that were understood. After all, no two researchers will code the same data in the same way (Charmaz, 2006).
My own way of dealing with this problem is to critically and closely read the original phenomenological studies in personal epistemology. Currently, I am living with Baxter Magolda’s (1992) “Knowing and Reasoning in College”. Her analysis of the raw data is fascinating, and seeing how she demonstrates the theoretical underpinning of her theoretical categories through the raw data is illuminating. However, I can also pinpoint instances where the quotations from participants may be interpretations that are forced into categories and that may offer other interpretations if those categories were not present.
Baxter Magolda, M. B. (1992). Knowing and reasoning in college: Gender-related patterns in students’ intellectual development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis. London: Sage.
Schroth, S. T. (2013). Grounded theory. In Salem Press Encyclopedia. Salem Press. http://doi.org/10.1080/07351698809533738