Researching organisational behaviour: An Introduction to grounded theory

Bourke, S,, Cikoratic, J. & Mack, G


Focusing on the role of grounded theory in qualitative research method, these notes offer a clarification of the method’s meaning. They also explore the promotion of consistency in grounded theory usage and suggest reasons for misunderstanding grounded work aspects of qualitative research.


Traditionally, qualitative research methodologies have been developed for and largely restricted in application to the social science fields of social work, nursing and education. Research into organisational behaviour has traditionally been restricted to the investigation of those phenomena that could be reliably researched using scientific empirical methods. More recently qualitative research methods, such as grounded theory, have been finding favour with researchers interested in exploring, understanding and explaining organisationally contextualised human interaction.

In this article we offer a brief introduction to grounded theory as research methodology. We identify its historical origins and defining features and then highlight some of its potential strengths and limitations in both theory and application. In conclusion, we offer some thoughts on grounded theory’s suitability for the researcher of organisationally contexted human interaction as an alternative to the more common methodologies of case study, content analysis, discourse analysis, systems theory and the various scientific empirically based approaches.

What is grounded theory?

Grounded theory describes a methodological approach to the discovery and generation of "adequate sociological theory" (Wells 1995) directly from qualitative data, was originated and most fully articulated by Glaser & Strauss in their seminal work ‘The Discovery of Grounded Theory: strategies for qualitative research’ (1967). The objective of the grounded theoretical approach, as interpreted by Wells (1995), is an explanation of the variability in social interactions, the social structural conditions that support the interactions, the consequences of the interactions and the conditions that support changes in interactions over time.

Whilst there are a variety of applied interpretive assessments of what constitutes grounded theory, it would seem that the one developed by Strauss and Corbin (1990) is referenced most commonly by researchers as being essentially "the clearest theoretical exposition of this important research tradition" (Miller & Fredericks 1999). Strauss and Corbin define a grounded theory as one that is;

...inductively derived from the study of the phenomenon it represents. That is, it is discovered, developed and provisionally verified through systematic data collection and analysis of data pertaining to that phenomenon. Therefore, data collection, analysis and theory stand in reciprocal relationship with each other." (Strauss & Corbin 1990 p23)

In an historical context, grounded theory is generally regarded having evolved from and continues to be compatible with the symbolic interactionist approach to the study of human behaviour (Robrecht 1995, Wells 1995) which characterised the work of sociologist George Herbert Mead and later that of Blumer (1969).

Symbolic interactionism, as articulated by Blumer, is based on three key premises: "Human beings act toward things based on the meaning that the things have for them; the meaning of such things is derived from the social interaction that the individual has with his fellows; and meanings are handled in, and modified through an interpretive process and by the person dealing with the things that they encounter." (Blumer 1969 p2)

It has been suggested by a number of authors that grounded theory has been and continues to be the research methodology of choice in the qualitatively oriented research fields of medicine, nursing, social work and education (Wells 1995, Miller & Fredericks 1999).

The common socio-behavioural foundation that these human science research fields share with the study of organisationally contexted human interaction suggests that grounded theory may also be a useful methodology for application in the investigation of phenomena in this later domain .

It is the extent of grounded theory’s practical and theoretical suitability as a form of qualitative inquiry into organisationally contexted phenomena that we are seeking to evaluate.

The generation of grounded theory

The foundation of the grounded theory process is the requirement for a constant comparative analysis of the qualitative data which has been collected and, in turn, the dynamic interrelationship that this has with hypothesis development and ultimately, theory generation.

In grounded theory, data collection and theory generation are considered as "two parts of the same process" (Robrecht 1995; Glaser 1978; Glaser & Strauss 1967). The original derivation of grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss 1967), which focused critically on the generation of theory from data without reference to the researcher’s prior knowledge of the phenomena under investigation, arguably lacked clarity and precision in defining the methodological procedures or steps required of the researcher in correctly undertaking the process (Schatzman 1991).

The procedural stages Glaser & Strauss (1967) outlined were reflective of a rather "parsimonious structure" (Miller & Fredericks 1999). Recent attempts to overcome this lack of procedural clarity (eg. Strauss & Corbin 1990) have been criticised on the basis that the operational procedures prescribed by the authors implicitly require application of the researcher’s prior knowledge (Robrecht 1995) - a violation of the underlying premise of the methodology.

Bearing in mind that a fine balance between prescription and generality is required, based on Glaser & Strauss’s lean structure, the following is an interpretation of the steps to the generation of grounded theory:

a) Data collection - As grounded theory is a tool for qualitative investigation, the commonly referenced forms of data collection are social interaction, field studies, participant observation and semi-structured interviews. This is not to suggest that other techniques for capturing qualitative data on human interaction may not be as or more appropriate in a given situation.

b) Data analysis - Grounded theory focuses on the constant comparison of the data leading to coding and then categorisation of the data. Hypothesis formulation can (and is perhaps expected to) occur before, during and after the initial process of data collection has occurred.

Constant comparison focuses on "the simultaneous conceptualisation and assessment of the similarities and differences in social interactions" in search of a "core idea that could explain variability in interactions" (Wells 1995). This process of data collection, data analysis and hypothesis is interrelated and cyclical in that each may influence the other.

To assist the researcher in coding/categorisation of data and the selection of the core idea that explains the phenomena under investigation, Schatzman (1991) proposed a new model of naturalistic qualitative research as an alternative to, and an extension of, grounded theory that he called dimensional analysis.

Schatzman’s model, taking very much the symbolic interactionist approach, arguably offers greater operational guidance to the researcher in categorising or dimensionalising the data through a process of inductive and deductive reasoning.

c) Theory delimitation - once the core ideal has been identified, new data on interaction is sought to "confirm and disconfirm the elaborated concepts and the relationship among them" (Wells 1995). This process is continued until no new insights into these relationships in terms of the core idea or dimension are revealed.

d) Theory definition - Definition of the theory is the final stage of the process. The resulting grounded theory is intended to be a rich, "powerful and parsimonious explanation" of the investigated phenomenon (Wells 1995). The better view seems to be that, as it is a form of inductive reasoning, once a theory has been arrived at, the process itself is complete and testing of the theory is not required to confirm its status as a validly grounded (Miller & Fredericks 1999).

A more detailed discussion of the qualities, which define true grounded theories in terms of the Glaser & Strauss (1967) conception, follows.

Judging grounded theory

Assuming then that the researcher can understand and satisfactorily resolve the methodological mysteries of grounded theory and is able to generate a theory from qualitative data, judging the applicability of the resulting theory to the investigated phenomenon becomes the final stage of the process. How does one determine at the conclusion of the process that a ‘grounded’ theory has been arrived at? What are the tests invoked to judge the applicability of the theory to the phenomena under investigation?

In answer to these questions, Glaser & Strauss (1967 p237-250) and Glaser (1978) propose four criteria for judging a theory as grounded - fit, understanding, generality and control. The concept of ‘fit’ suggests a theory’s applicability to, or coverage of, the data that in turn delimits the boundaries.

Understanding is directed to and linked with practical application by researchers and laymen. Generalisation suggests the necessity of balancing theory abstraction and flexibility in application to ensure that the theory is "a general guide to multi-conditional, ever changing daily situations" (Glaser & Strauss 1967 p242).

Control refers to the capability that the theory provides to the practitioner to in the assist development of hypotheses regarding how the practitioner should act in particular situations that they may face (Wells 1995).

Collectively, the guidelines for theory judgement suggested by Glaser & Strauss (1967) seem directed to ensuring that the resultant grounded theory is able to be readily applied in practice by both laymen practitioners and academic researchers.

Robrecht (1995 citing Glaser 1978) suggests "...that the goal of the discovery process is a theoretical description of the basic social process that is most central or problematic to participants involved in the investigation". It appears that the ‘richness’ of this "running theoretical discussion", as Glaser & Strauss (1967) refer to it, is one of the key determinants as to whether one has a grounded theory which credibly explains and gives meaning to the phenomena which has been the subject of the investigative process (Miller & Fredericks 1999).


Grounded theory has, since its inception, been accepted as an important research methodology in the investigation of complex social interactions in the social science fields. Given the obvious similarities in human interaction that occur in these social areas and in organisations, grounded theory should conceivably be a potentially useful methodology for the exploration and examination of organisationally contextualised human interaction.

The problematic issues that have been identified in the generation of grounded theory, being the lack of clear methodological procedures and the danger of violation of the underlying premise in the data analysis process, are now well acknowledged.

This awareness and the solutions offered by Schatzman (1991) should assist in overcoming them. However, what is clear to us from our literature review is that production or generation of grounded theory is a complicated and time consuming process. It is of greatest value when the researcher has little knowledge of the subject field of qualitative inquiry that is likely to be the case in relation to the investigation of many organisationally contextualised phenomena.

Grounded theory’s greatest strengths are two-fold. First it permits the investigation of higher level and lower level factors of causation which is critical when investigating and seeking to explain variability in complex human interactions (Miller & Fredericks 1999). Second, as arguably an extension of Mill’s (1970) methods of inductive reasoning, grounded theory is a unique form of theory construction (Miller & Fredericks 1999).


Annells, M. (1996). Grounded theory method: Philosophical perspective’s, paradigm of inquiry and postmodernism. Qualitative Health Research Vol. 6 p379.

Analyses the ontological, epistemological and methodological stance of grounded theory method. Movement of the grounded theory method from a postpositive inquiry paradigm toward the constructivist inquiry paradigm; Evolution of the post-modern status of the method; Symbolic interactionism.

Cornett-DeVito, M.M. & Friedman, P.G. (1995). Communication processes and merger success. Management Communication Quarterly Vol. 9 p46.

Analyses the process of communication involved in mergers of companies throughout an exploratory study of mergers in four financial institutions in the US through the research methodology of grounded theory.

Glaser, G.G. (1978). Theoretical sensitivity. Mill Valley, CA. Sociology Press.
Glaser, B. & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. New York. Aldine.

Kools, S. & McCarthy, M. (1996). Dimensional analysis: Broadening the conception of grounded theory. ualitative Health Research Vol. 6 p312.

Describes the process of dimensional analysis proposed by Schatzman as an alternate method for the generation of grounded theory in research. Schatzman’s criticism of the original grounded theory method for its lack of structural foundation that would allow for the explicit articulation of the analytic process; Explanatory matrix; Data collection and management.

Locke, K. (1996). Rewriting the discovery of grounded theory after 25 years? Journal of Management Inquiry Vol. 5 p239.

Mill, J.S. (1970). A system of logic. London. Longman.

Analyses the process of communication involved in merger of companies through an exploratory study of mergers of four financial institutions in the United States. Hypotheses; Testing, Identifying communication contingencies; Merger stages; Data analysis and interpretation.

Miller, S.I. & Fredericks, M. (1999). Qualitative Health Research. Vol. 9 p538.

Argues that the concept of grounded theory, widely used in research in the human sciences, has not been adequately analysed as to its structure as a theory. Concerns with the grounded theory approach; Issues related to the classification of grounded theory; Notable advantage of grounded theory.

Robrecht, L.C. (1995). Grounded Theory: Evolving Methods. Qualitative Health Research Vol. 5 p169.

Examines the methodological issues raised by the attempts to refine the process of generating grounded theory. Historical context of grounded theory; Problematic methodological issues; Use of dimensional analysis as an alternative method.

Schatzman, L. (1991). Dimensional analysis: Notes on an alternative approach to the grounding of theory in qualitative research. In D.R.Maines (Ed.), Social organisation and social process: Essays in honour of Anselm Strauss (pp303-314). New York, Aldine.

Strauss, A & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Wells, K. (1995). The strategy of grounded theory: Possibilities and problems. Social Work Research Vol. 19 Issue 1 p 33.