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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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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