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Getting serious about grounded theory

Angela McCarthy
University of Notre Dame Australia

The genesis

This paper presents how I came to use grounded theory and the immediate consequences of that decision. The choice of research methodology and the task of learning to use it with sufficient expertise, are difficulties that face every recruit into the world of PhD candidature. Many offer opinions and advice, some of more weight than others, but in the end it is the candidate who has to decide and defend that decision. My first forays into this area were alarming in their complexity and so I offer this paper as a useful description of that journey.

I began my research in semester 2 of 1997. During work on a research methods unit I began to consider an area of interest and the type of research best suited to my particular strengths. My involvement in Catholic education over a long time was an obvious area for consideration and a topic of interest emerged from discussions with the Director, principals, teachers, university staff and parents.

Considering my personal strengths in research I became aware that description is my personal language of disclosure and the inductive nature of qualitative methods of research is far more accessible for me than quantitative structures and statistical analysis. I had completed a small study in educational psychology using quantitative procedures and while it was assessed as being of high quality I was aware that a qualitative form of research was more suitable to my particular skills.

Initial proposal

After a further twelve months of investigation and a self-directed study unit focusing on both the research question and the methodology, I presented my initial proposal to my supervisor and another senior colleague and was faced with a long, challenging session of defense. My confusion seemed to be complete until the final sentence of congratulations. Such a rigorous challenge was just the beginning although I was fairly convinced during the process that it was my end.

The research paradigm

The problem that I chose to investigate was about the choice of Catholic secondary education. In many Catholic schools there are now long waiting lists as more and more parents seek this particular form of education for their children. Information about the parents' perspective will have interest to those directing policy decision, those involved in financial decisions and wider interested Church personnel. It has been researched before by groups and individuals in the eastern states all using quantitative procedures. I felt that the situation could be enriched by descriptive means of research, and through the descriptions, a theory emerge. Bussis et al (1976) speak of the need for a change of methodological paradigm when dealing with education. Those measuring educational information without reference to the context offer limited information. In the effort to be able to generalise, positivist research has been limited to measuring what goes in and what comes out as if every being is the same. Bussis et al (p.14) maintain that
a revised paradigm for research would have to be as much concerned with the quality of experience and the meaning of behaviour as with the occurrence of behaviour, and it would not assume that similar behavioural expressions by different people necessarily have similar meanings. Thus, it would encourage research and evaluation strategies aimed at eliciting meaning and uncovering various qualities of human experience, thought, and production. Such strategies might include, among other things, an in-depth interview of the kind developed for this study, Piaget's "methode clinique", observation, the documentation of environments, and the analysis of work products and of language samples. These and similar strategies lend themselves to a potential use that is more in the spirit of inquiry than that of "criterion testing." (Bussis et al, 1976, p. 14-15).
At the time of writing, back in 1976, Bussis and his colleagues found that the in-depth interview was not a common precedure in educational research (1976, p.15).

The intention of my research is not to describe the specifics of parental choices in education but rather to probe what the "described behaviours represent" (Bussis et, 1976, p.15).

Why use grounded theory?

Initially I pursued the idea of using ethnography as the best possible approach to the question. James Spradley's (1979) work on the ethnographic interview was carefully reviewed but then for the best possible presentation and analysis of a rich description I felt that grounded theory would give the rigour required. I read many different articles written by grounded theory proponents and also the results of research by grounded theory researchers. It became quite clear that unless one approaches this methodology with dedication it will not be useful. Glaser and Strauss' books as well as Strauss and Corbin's Basics of Qualitative Research (1990) are important texts. A more recent text that I found immensely useful is Keith Punch's Introduction to Social Research (1998). He provides an excellent description of grounded theory as well as section on grounded theory analysis.

A further discovery once I began to work with grounded theory was the labour intensive nature of the procedures. It is labour intensive in the management and processing of data and in the development of theory as it becomes quite obsessive to the point where the question is asked "Is there life after grounded theory?". One can't just do "a little grounded theory".

Three stages of developing the research topic

Only recently have I become more settled with my actual research question. Initially I was asking a "why" question and through a particular seminar group of other PhD candidates using grounded theory I came to see that such a question is inappropriate in grounded theory because in order to get the richness of text required to allow a theory to emergy, I needed to have open ended questions. The response from my supervisor was that I should be careful that the research fits the question, not the question being made to fit the research method. Therefore I needed to employ the hermenuetics of suspicion. Hermeneutics denotes the study of understanding, interpretation, and meaning (Kerdeman, 1998) and so to approach both the question and the methodology chosen with suspicion left me open to other possibilities that may be more useful in interpreting the phenomenon of interest.

Stage one

My study has developed in three stages. Firstly, I took a two pronged advance, probing both the question and grounded theory. Reading alone however, cannot completely inform a researcher about grounded theory, an experience of working with the procedures is necessary as well as constant contact between others using grounded theory. I began by seeking a sample of participants for interviewing that were closest to the decision of choosing a Catholic secondary school, for example new enrollees in Year 8. After a few interviews it became obvious that the sampling was flawed and so was the question that I was asking. It was a "why" question and did not allow for any further dimensions of the phenomenon. It seemed very two dimensional. For example, one participant had just enrolled his fourth child in a Catholic secondary college. When asked why he had made this enrolment the answer was simple. All the children had attended Catholic primary schools and the older siblings had all attended this particular college successfully. Why change anything? The decision to be involved with this particular college was made many years previously.

At this stage I considered changing my methodology and doing a case study of a particular school and the reasons for choice in the parental body. Upon reflection it presented even more limitations.

Stage two

The second stage was when I changed my question to ask not "why" but "what motivates..." as I wished to get to the motivation behind the choice. Again, this seemed very two dimensional as I moved into coding the data and I was not able to produce the richness of text that I was expecting. For example, my third participant was chosen because of the recent enrolment of their fourth child in a Catholic secondary school. The motivation for the enrolment was so obvious as with the previous family mentioned, that it became a non-question and so I had to look to a richer field. The interview developed around the story of the family history in Catholic education and offered a view into Catholic culture. During this time my interviewing technique was developing rapidly and my reading list on qualitative interviews lengthened considerably. Some of my earlier coding is now not useful because I found that I was pre-empting the participant's comments and so the words were mine, not those of the participant.

Stage three

The third stage developed recently when I began to look at the whole phenomenon of choice. The participants are now invited to tell the story of how they came to choose this particular form of education. It has yielded great riches so far and now allows the possibility of a bed of data from which will emerge a theory that is grounded in the stories of the participants and that can lead to a fullness of understanding that will complement the quantitative studies produced so far.

My particular interest in Catholic education provided the opportunity to keep the research at a manageable level. Now my research topic is "Choosing Catholic secondary education: A Grounded theory Study". The interview style has become one described by Rubin and Rubin (1995, p.123) as guided conversations. I initiate a conversation about education in the broad context of life and as the story unfolds, the details emerge as a rich source of data. The action of "choosing" takes a circuitous route.

As I become more serious about grounded theory I am beginning to see the possibilities that it offers through its rigorous demands, possibilities of a more complete understanding of the area under study.

The journey

While my body of knowledge in my area of study has increased slowly, I have found that the PhD journey is not so much about the information gathered but about the personal process of finding one's way. It is not just about the methodology chosen, it is about the profound experience of adult learning when one is reduced to being a novice again. In middle age the feeling of incompetency and isolation can be destructive and so safeguards, both personal and academic, need to be put into place.

At present I am working in several different areas: refining and developing my understanding of grounded theory and writing about the methodology as I go, interviewing and coding, learning about the software that I am using, writing up my own biases to be added as an appendix, and developing my interviewing techniques.

The main thing that I have learnt so far is how little I know.


Bussis, A.M., Chittenden, E.A. and Amarel, M. (1976). Beyond surface curriculum. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

Kerdeman, D. (1998). Hermeneutics and education: Understanding, control, and agency. Educational Theory, 48(2), 241-267

Punch, Keith F. (1998). Introduction to social research: Quantitative and qualitative approaches. London: Sage Publications.

Rubin, H.J. and Rubin I. S. (1995). Qualitative interviewing: The art of hearing data. London: Sage Publications.

Spradley, James P., (1979). The ethnographic interview. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Strauss, A. and Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research. California: Sage Publications.

Please cite as: McCarthy, A. (1999). Getting serious about grounded theory. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1999. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1999/mccarthy.html

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