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Theorizing Qualitative Research
By Iddo Tavory, Stefan Timmermans
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Where does a researcher turn to analyze qualitative data? Countless how-to books and software programs adapt qualitative data analysis to specific academic disciplines. Virtually all of those tools attempt to lead to a thematic analysis through grounded theory methodology. Not surprisingly, the majority of these books and programs struggle with the inductivist underpinnings of grounded theory. They accept the idea that qualitative researchers should approach their research endeavors with little theoretical preparation, or at least set aside all preconceived notions and build theory from the ground up through brainstorming sessions with small data snippets. The books then offer various methodological heuristics to stimulate theory "discovery."
Adopting methodological steps without a coherent epistemological stance, however, weakens the methodological potential for theory innovation. The problem is not with the specific methodological precepts of coding and memo writing that these methodological intermediaries develop, but with the way the intermediaries are anchored into a more general inductive view of social science, and how such a position then ends up structuring researchers' approach and research design. We thus need to come to terms with the role of induction as a logic of inquiry before we see how methodology operates in a framework of theory construction.
The alternative guidance for theory construction comes from deductive approaches to data analysis. The researcher starts with a strong preexisting theory and aims to modify this theory in light of the research data. The closest manifestation of deductive qualitative research in social science is the extended case method. In spite of its name, this approach is relatively quiet on the nitty-gritty of qualitative research and instead delineates analytical steps to move from observations to broader structural social forces in order to extend one's favorite theory. As we outlined in the introduction, such an approach risks shoehorning ill-fitting data—again affecting the research design that researchers opt for and the theorizations they produce. As with inductive approaches, the problem lies with the logic of inquiry.
This chapter thus takes a critical look at both inductive and deductive approaches to qualitative research, focusing on the ways in which these approaches emerged, on their analytic shortcomings and strengths, and on the way they structure practitioners' research design.
Grounded Theory as Mainstream Qualitative Data Analysis
Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss's The Discovery of Grounded Theory has become not only the gold standard for qualitative data analysis but one of the most cited books in the social sciences. Grounded theory has spread across sociology, nursing and medical research, computer and information sciences, education, law, management, and anthropology. Its coding schemes and heuristic principles have been incorporated into the most widely used qualitative data analysis software programs. Grounded theory has turned into a paradigmatic set of assumptions proclaiming how qualitative analysis should be done; researchers offer an almost obligatory nod to it in the methods section of qualitative research papers whether or not they actually used it.
Historically, grounded theory was located between two competing traditions of mid-century American sociology. Influenced by Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton at Columbia, Glaser emphasized the need for rigorously constructed middle-range theories based on explicit, transparent coding procedures. As a graduate of the University of Chicago's sociology department working with Herbert Blumer and inspired by Robert Park, Strauss stressed the need to capture fundamental social psychological processes as they unfold.
The approach followed Glaser and Strauss's ethnographic study of death and dying in the San Francisco Bay area. In 1958, researchers had declared the sociology of death and dying neglected and barren, but this situation changed in the early 1960s when Glaser and Strauss conducted a study of interactions between dying patients and health care providers in six Bay area hospitals. The study was groundbreaking for substantive and methodological reasons, and their development of "awareness contexts"—patterns of knowledge-relationship among doctors, patients, and families—captured the Zeitgeist by confirming that institutionalized dying led to widespread alienation and isolation. At a time when euphemisms, embellishments, or lies were routinely conveyed to patients about the severity or nature of their diagnosis and prognosis, Glaser and Strauss documented that terminally ill patients often went to great lengths to figure out their status, only to be confronted by a wall of silence from health care providers and complicit family members.
Their analysis, along with Kübler-Ross's influential writings on grief, galvanized a social movement aimed at humanizing dying that took the form of various hospice and palliative care initiatives. Besides crystallizing late modern unease with the medicalization of the dying process, their books aided the emergence of the influential labeling theory, produced a collection of concepts that became part of the sociological canon, and constituted a prime example of the application of a systematic qualitative methodology. Grounded theory, then, was initially intended as a methodological explanation of how the dying studies were conducted, and allegedly reflected Glaser and Strauss's ongoing research experience.
Glaser and Strauss also wrote polemically against what they considered the increasing devaluation of qualitative research. They originally aimed to justify qualitative research against a triple marginalization: theoretical marginalization by functionalist theorists spinning grand theories and looking for straightforward empirical verification; methodological marginalization in which qualitative research was relegated to the production of hypotheses to be tested by statistical quantitative methodologies; and a marginalization within the field of qualitative analysis: ethnographic researchers were said to conduct unsystematic, atheoretical research.
Glaser and Strauss expressed a growing disenchantment with functionalism and survey research. Grounded theory should thus be read alongside other books that came out in the late 1960s: Blumer's manifesto for symbolic interactionism, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's treatise on the social construction of reality, Harold Garfinkel's importation of Schutzian phenomenology into ethnomethodology, and Thomas Kuhn's influential account of scientific revolutions. Unlike these authors, however, Glaser and Strauss offered a realist methodology that aimed to regain qualitative research's legitimacy, ignoring some of the constructivist thrust of the times.
Thus Glaser and Strauss proposed that social scientists build theory "from the ground up" through systematic conceptualization and constant comparisons with similar and distinct research areas. The positivistic tenor is apparent in the privileged position they saw for a disinterested social science researcher and in the emphasis on an inductive methodology uncontaminated by preexisting theories. They advanced a set of methodological principles including theoretical sampling, theoretical saturation, open coding, and memo writing to guarantee that theoretical claims were supported with data. In essence, grounded theory presented an analytical choreography with a deep immersion in data and then a transcendence of this data to reach higher levels of abstraction and generalization. If performed well, the resulting dance emerged from lived experiences, actions, observations, and conversations while researchers simultaneously engaged in conceptually dense and theoretically rich writing.
A keyword search in databases of social science publications suggests that grounded theory did not become the dominant qualitative methodology until the late 1980s, when Strauss published Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists and he and Juliet Corbin issued the user-friendly Basics of Qualitative Research. As the titles suggest, both books were foremost methodology books. They pushed the formalization of qualitative methods hinted at in The Discovery of Grounded Theory to new levels with research paradigms, analytical matrices, different levels of coding, and systematic memo writing. Key methodological ideas such as theoretical sampling and theoretical saturation also gained prominence. Previously, grounded theory methodological practice had been spread largely through apprenticeship and workshops in San Francisco; these books made it possible for researchers not directly trained by Glaser or Strauss to practice grounded theory. The methods also diffused by way of incorporation in data analysis software programs—especially ATLAS.ti, which was explicitly modeled after a grounded theory analysis, but also other data analysis programs, such as NVivo, Transana, and MAXQDA, which also facilitate and speed up the different steps of coding and memo writing.
In the decades since publication of the original book, the founders of grounded theory have emphasized different epistemological characteristics, and the approach has splintered into a "classic" version associated with Glaser and an "interactionist" variant developed by Strauss and Corbin. The classic version highlights the goal of inductively developing formal theories and revels in the positivist heritage of grounded theory. The key issue, according to Glaser in an acerbic rebuttal to Strauss and Corbin, is to let "categories and their properties emerge which fit and work." The interactionist variant highlights data analysis as interpretative work and pays more attention to the position of the researcher in analyzing data. Kathy Charmaz advanced a "social constructivist" interpretation of grounded theory, and Adele Clarke adapted grounded theory in light of postmodern critiques of qualitative methodology. Among researchers, the variation is even more pronounced. Grounded theory has been used to label any research endeavor that involves coding, any form of qualitative data analysis, and any kind of theory construction. When researchers claim that their work is grounded, it often has little to do with the original methodological precepts; they often use grounded theory simply as a placeholder for methodological legitimacy when writing the methods section.
The Inductive Dilemma of Grounded Theory
Glaser and Strauss perceived a growing division of labor between theorists and empirical researchers in the 1960s when grand theorists such as Talcott Parsons, and Peter Blau created broad "logico-deductive" theories. These theories would then orient the work of empirical researchers in a feedback cycle of verification or refutation. Surveying the theoretical landscape, Glaser and Strauss argued that such an approach led to the development of theories with little connection to substantive social life because researchers would force data into the straightjacket of preexisting concepts.
Instead, they favored generating theories on the basis of the emergence of theoretical categories through a process of constant comparisons between similar observations to develop theoretical properties of an analytic category. The Discovery of Grounded Theory contains repeated admonitions not to be led astray by an early commitment to existing theory:
An effective strategy is, at first, literally to ignore the literature of theory and fact of the area under study, in order to assure that the emergence of categories will not be contaminated by concepts more suited to different areas. Similarities and convergences with the literature can be established after the analytic core of categories has emerged.
Glaser and Strauss posited an "inductive method of theory development" that led through a heuristic process of abstraction to either a substantive or a formal theory:
To make theoretical sense of so much diversity in his data, the analyst is forced to develop ideas on a level of generality higher in conceptual abstraction than the qualitative material being analyzed. He is forced to bring out underlying uniformities and diversities, and to use more abstract concepts to account for differences in the data.... If the analyst starts with raw data, he will end up initially with a substantive theory.... If he starts with the findings drawn from many studies pertaining to an abstract sociological category, he will end up with a formal theory pertaining to a conceptual area.
They proposed a "constant comparative method" that should be evaluated for transparency of the methodological process and the resulting conceptual framework: "Do the categories fit and work? Are they clearly indicated by data, and do they explain, predict, and interpret anything of significance?" Theoretical sampling suggests sampling comparison groups on the basis of "the theoretical relevance for advancing the development of emerging categories." In this way, grounded theory methodologists aspired to produce what Merton called middle-range theories "between highly abstract theory and the multitude of miniscule substantive studies."
At the same time, Glaser and Strauss cryptically noted that theoretical insights require cultivation of a capacity they called "theoretical sensitivity," consisting of the "ability to have theoretical insight into his area of research, combined with an ability to make something of his insights." Theoretical sensitivity expresses itself as an "armamentarium of categories and hypotheses on substantive and formal levels.... A discovered, grounded theory, then, will tend to combine mostly concepts and hypotheses that have emerged from the data with some existing ones that are clearly useful." Yet once again, they qualified their call for such theoretical sensitivity with the strong admonition that creativity is lost when social scientists commit themselves to "preconceived," "doctrinaire," or "pet" theories. Thus from the beginning, grounded theory's commitment to an inductive approach created an epistemological and practical dilemma: researchers were admonished to generate new theory without being beholden to preexisting theories, but they still required theoretical sensitivity based on a broad familiarity with existing theories to generate new theories.
This contradictory advice sidestepped a logical problem: induction does not generate theory. Induction helps substantiate generalizations using repeated or accumulated observations: because we have seen several instances of status reversal in interracial marriage, we may presume that status reversal is the norm in interracial marriages. However, inductive logic cannot tell us which objects to focus our attention on, or how we should link the different observations. It doesn't tell us what an "interracial marriage" is, what "status reversal" might be, or how we should go about linking them. Induction, as Peirce put it, is "ampliative"; it strengthens, or "amplifies," our notions of the world by broadening the database. Here, Glaser and Strauss confuse culminating and strengthening substantive theories with the discovery of an entirely new theoretical framework.
Glaser and Strauss's approach to induction resembles that of early empiricist philosophers who contended that the only reliable theories are those generalized from observable data. Francis Bacon argued in his 1620 Novum Organum for freeing one's mind from theoretical preconceptions before conducting research, letting go of the "idols" of preconceived notions. However, even at the time, philosophical "rationalists" attacked Bacon's "naïve empiricism," and his philosophy was dealt a devastating blow by Hume's "problem of induction" and Kant's critique of any claim to naturally perceived causal relations. The inductive logic of the tabula rasa could not be sustained. Most social scientists and philosophers of science take as a starting point that observation is necessarily theoretically informed. Induction has an important place in research, but its strength is not in generating new theories.
Most of the primary and secondary literature of grounded theory tried to reconcile the core tension built around induction into the original Discovery of Grounded Theory. Various authors suggested a combination of two solutions: embedding basic theoretical frameworks in grounded theory and using heuristic tools to formalize the process of emergence.
Excerpted from Abductive Analysis by Iddo Tavory, Stefan Timmermans. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction: Toward Abductive Analysis
1: The Alternatives
2: Semiotics and the Research Act
3: Abduction and Multiple Theories
4: Abduction and Method
5: Variation and Consequences-in-Action
7: The Community of Inquiry
Conclusions: Abductive Analysis
Appendix: Synopsis of Abductive Analysis