Research: Grounded, Emergent and Trustworthy for Complex Environments

Grounded Theory is ideal for complex environment that need flexible, evolving, iterative and trustworthy research frameworks.  I have used grounded theory on numerous development research projects and found it to be a powerful concept.

Grounded Theory is a method of analysis that ties research to peoples experience.  As the name suggests it is valuable for creating theory that emerges from context and experience.  Grounded Theory uses both qualitative and quantitative methods and theoretical sampling. “The purpose of theoretical sampling,” as Corbin and Strauss (2008) point out, “is to collect data from places, people, and events that will maximize opportunities to develop concepts in terms of their properties, dimensions, uncover variations, and identify relationships between concepts” (p. 143). Analysis uses microanalysis, which is a form of “open coding” (p. 58) and axial coding to identify subcategories and linkages in categories (p. 63). Through the use of coding, various categories emerge from the data set. These categories show what is emerging in the context or subject of study. Categories are formed by various, similar sub-categories.

Figure 1 shows the process of grounded research. The design leads towards data collection. Ongoing analysis creates codes to influence further data collection. Codes are turned into subcategories. Subcategories become categories. Categories are saturated through more data collection. Categories are considered saturated when the researcher has numerous pieces of tracked data that communicate the same or similar message.  Categories often reflect what is emerging in a certain theme.  These saturated categories become grounded theory.   Different methods of data collection illuminate the data and provide deeper insights by reflecting consistencies and inconsistencies (Patton, 2002, p. 248).

Slide1It is important when doing Grounded Theory research to use qualitative soft wear.  I personally use Atlas Ti however most programs will be able to do what is needed -e.g. track data to the source, create memo’s, and create coding ext.

Ensuring Trustworthiness: A number of years ago Guba and Lincoln (1985) created qualitative categories (parallel criteria) that are comparable to proving validity of quantitative evidence.

Although this criteria is a standard for qualitative research it is often neglected in development research.  This is surprising because development organizations have numerous monitoring and evaluation needs, function in changing environments, work with innovative projects that need trustworthy theoretical backing, and have the need to show how their programming effects people in context.  Further, there is an increasing demand to prove the trustworthiness of the data.

What seems to be a common problem in development research is placing quantitative criteria (like objectivity or external validity) on qualitative frameworks.  The resulting data is not trustworthy because this criteria does not fit with qualitative standards for trustworthiness.

Grounded theory creates a framework for seeing emergent themes.  The trustworthiness criteria (Guba and Lincoln, 1985) is invaluable for ensuring the design will create data that is trustworthy.

I find it helpful in every design to use the criteria from Guba and Lincoln (1985).  A simple way to integrate trustworthiness into research is to describe how the specific project will use tools (as outlined by Guba and Lincoln, 1985) to ensure trustworthiness.  For example in the below table choose tools from each category (technique) to integrate into the design. Allow these tools to form what is needed to achieve the research.  Describe in narrative form how these tools will be integrated.  The Roberts Woods Johnson Foundation has links to definitions for all the tools found in the below table.


Quick Word on Triangulation: Surprisingly, many people equate the idea of triangulation as the sole tool that creates trustworthiness.  Although triangulation is an amazing tool it is only one part of trustworthiness. The strength of triangulation is that it gives various lenses through which to see sameness and difference within data sets.  Exploring the cracks that are reviled through the sameness and difference helps us further explore the data.  However, using triangulation as the only way to create trustworthiness in data leaves us wanting.

I would love to hear how others have used grounded theory or similar tools in their research.  Feel free to leave a comment or pass this article along to others.

About the Author: Dr. Matthew S. Will has over a decade of experience in International Development working and living in South East Asia and the Pacific.  If you would like to talk to him about innovative ways for a partnering towards a flourishing society click here.  Other method articles found on the flourishing and disadvantage web-site by Dr. Will are Mapping the Means to Citizen ActionTHE MODEL FLOURISHING, Who has Authority for People’s Well-Being?  Mapping Citizen Action, Change: Community Action and the Theory U and Theories of Change: Grounded for Complex Environments.


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