Grounded Theory Building in Process Research

By Harry Sminia, Strathclyde Business School, Glasgow, Scotland, UK

Grounded Theory emanated from the work done by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss, investigating terminally ill people (Glaser & Strauss, 1965). They put together their experiences of constructing theory in a systematic fashion in a book that was published two years later (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Since then, Grounded Theory has become ‘the’ method for inductive theory construction. It was revisited and updated 23 years later (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) and it formed the basis for the Eisenhardt (1989) account of how to construct (management and organization) theory from case studies, which in turn became a template in itself (Langley & Abdullah, 2011). This approach became so prominent that it was found that referring to Glaser, Strauss and Corbin and to Eisenhardt would increase the probability of acceptance in US based journals (Bengtsson, Elg, & Lind, 1997).

Both Glaser and Strauss (1967) and Strauss and Corbin (1990) contain procedures and principles describing what needs to be done to develop a theory from raw data. It basically boils down to going through the raw data several times while developing an ever more general set of ‘codes’ by which the data can be categorized. These codes then eventually provide the vocabulary that is to be utilized to formulate the theory. Software programs like Atlas.ti, Kwalitan or NVIVO have been developed to manage this process. The Grounded Theory method has informed many classic process research projects. Examples are the Minnesota innovation studies (see Van de Ven & Angle, 1989), Burgelman’s (1983) research into corporate venturing, and Leonard-Barton’s (1988) work on technological change.

There are, however, a couple of caveats with this method. Although the whole purpose is to construct theory from raw data in a systematic and traceable manner, the actual emergence of the codes and categories and how they link together in the mind of the researcher while he/she is engaged with the data remains a bit of an obscurity. Klag and Langley (2013) referred to this as the ‘conceptual leap’. This can be described as the proverbial ‘coin dropping’ moment by which the ‘wood’ emerges from the ‘trees’. Whether this moment takes place or not will be a matter of wait and see. This is a risk which is very much part of this method. American philosopher Charles Peirce suggested such creativity in knowledge creation needs abduction more than induction (also see Van de Ven, 2007, chapter 4). In abductive reasoning, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and the necessity is provided with an initial anomaly or unexpected and surprising occurrence, which then triggers the imagination that eventually might lead to a conjecture: a newly proposed explanation and understanding of something that appeared anomalous before.

Grounded theory also has a somewhat troubled relationship with existing theory. There are two aspects to this issue. Firstly, because this is primarily presented as an inductive method, it should only be used in situations where existing theory does not appear to apply. With so much theory around, this can be difficult to argue. Secondly, because of the method’s profoundly inductive nature, the analysis is not supposed to be biased by existing theory. However, it is impossible for any researcher to completely blank her/his mind from any initial interpretation before commencing with the analysis. Besides, any research question that is formulated, in a way, theoretically brackets the phenomenon under investigation. This tension is certainly put to the test with the usage of ‘sensitizing concepts’ during the analysis. On the one end, these concepts are an often necessary first ‘lead in’ into the mass of data that has been collected. On the other hand, they do theoretically bias the analysis, as they reflect some preconceived understanding of the phenomenon under investigation. There are no rules for finding a middle ground, and it is an easy target for those who wish to criticize the research. It is also at this level that a process research project that makes use of Grounded Theory, either implicitly or explicitly tends to take a stance with regard to the basic process theory that informs the analysis (Klag & Langley, 2013). The sensitizing concepts that are being used or the manner in which the research question is being phrased tends to reflect whether a process is thought of as primarily being driven by independent agents, by constraining outside circumstances, or by a mixture of both.

When Grounded Theory was developed in the 1960s, process research was very much in its infancy and judging from the way they conceptualized theory in their work, it can be argued that what Glaser and Strauss had in the backs of their minds was a variance approach to social theory. This means that the entities to which the codes are supposed to be attached tend to be agents or agent-derived, and not events, as the process researcher would prefer (Langley, 1999). This is a bias that can also be found in the software that was developed to manage the coding process. It can therefore turn out to be somewhat difficult to conduct an event-based analysis that concentrates on the continuity and change of the phenomenon under study over time. For instance, the essential step in any process analysis to put the data in chronological order is often lacking from the prescribed procedures and it can proof to be difficult to do with the available software, although Strauss and Corbin (1990) do urge the analyst to keep an eye open to change.

Grounded theory is essentially multi-purpose in the sense that it can be used in process research designs that aim to find a unique sequence explanation, or it can be part of projects that aim to find more generalizable explanations. In case of the unique sequence explanation, the ‘theory’ that is being developed here basically aims to capture this one unique sequence. If the purpose of the research is to try to find more common process patterns and / or typical key events, then these patterns or those key events should be captured by the emerging theory. The same can be said when the purpose of the research is to find a generative mechanism that is responsible for creating particular process patterns. It is this generative mechanism that the theory should capture. If the ambition is to develop theory that is relevant beyond the cases under study, Grounded Theory is conceived to be only a first step, and it should be followed up by deductive research to test the generalizability of the proposed theory.


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Van de Ven, A. H. (2007). Engaged Scholarship: A Guide for Organizational and Social Research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van de Ven, A. H., & Angle, H. L. (1989). An introduction to the Minnesota innovation research program. In A. H. Van de Ven, H. L. Angle, & M. S. Poole (Eds.), Research on the Management of Innovation: The Minnesota Studies (pp. 3-30). New York: Ballinger.

© 2011 Harry Sminia