Basics of Research Process

Grounded Theory: Guide on Research, Methods and Examples

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Grounded theory is a research methodology that involves developing a theory or model based on empirical data. As its name suggests, its primary goal is to devise a theory that is grounded in the data and reflects the perspectives the people being studied. In grounded theory, data is collected through a process of constant analysis. Researchers compare new insights to existing data and revise their understanding until a clear theory emerges.

Want to develop a novice theory, but there is no available literature on the topic? Grounded theory will be your best bet if there are no existing hypotheses. In this guide, we will shed more light on this type of method and walk you through each step of the process. They say, grounded theory is a complex method. However after reading our blog post, you will realize that it’s not rocket science. But first things first, let’s start with a definition!

What Is Grounded Theory: Definition

Grounded theory (GT) is a popular research methodology used to develop a theory based on analysis of collected data. This research method is rather popular and can be applied in various studies. It is primarily used to understand behavioral patterns within a population. 

Grounded theory was founded by Glaser and Strauss. They were the first researchers who offered a comparative method for qualitative data analysis. This ‘invention’ was a real breakthrough in the research field since they proved that a theory can be produced inductively. The researchers challenged the traditional viewpoint that only quantitative data can be integrated to generate a hypothesis.

Types of Grounded Theory in Research

There are 3 main types of grounded theory in research:

  • Traditional This genre is otherwise known as classical GT. The main idea behind this approach is to develop a new theory after studying data. Coding (categorizing and numbering obtained data) is strictly inductive.
  • Evolved Modified GT is more systematic than a classical approach. It focuses more on how to structure data obtained during research. The use of extra literature isn’t common.
  • Constructivist Constructivist grounded theory relies more on researchers’ interpretation of the gathered data. This research method is aimed at understanding social patterns when no other study can’t explain it.

Grounded Theory Approach

Grounded theory approach is employed to refine the knowledge base. It helps to get new insights or develop hypotheses through systematic analysis. This approach is used when there is not much information on some phenomenon.

Here are several distinct characteristics of a grounded theory approach: 

  • Ideas appear from the collected data, not theoretical framework.
  • Inductive methods are preferred over deductive ones.
  • Codes sum up ideas and form categories.
  • Theory is generated on the basis of categories.

As you can see, this method is the exact opposite of traditional studies that use theoretical frameworks. Here, you should first collect the data and then form a hypothesis, not the other way around. 

Grounded Theory Vs Classical Study

Grounded Theory Methodology

The grounded theory method begins with observation. As was mentioned earlier, you have to collect data prior to analyzing it. There are several ways of gathering the key information:

  • Surveys
  • Interviews
  • Focus groups
  • Participant observation.

Once your data is shovel-ready, you will be all set to code it. Data analysis methods applied in GT include: 

  • Coding: determining the key properties to group elements by.
  • Categorization: grouping similar ideas to form a hypothesis.
  • Theoretical sampling: refining and adjusting categories.
  • Memoing: writing down field notes that back up analysis.
  • Integration: refined categories lay the basis for theoretical framework.

Important notice: you should collect and analyze data simultaneously. Grounded theory methods are flexible, so you can change a direction at any time. 

Grounded Theory Study: How It Works

Now that you know the main methods, let’s discuss how to build a grounded theory. There is an exact order you should follow. You basically should go all the way from sampling to hypothesis generation. Still, some procedures should take place during the whole course of study. In this regard, GT is more complicated than a simple linear process. So make sure you stick to our guidelines described below to run a successful study.

Purposive Sampling

Before gathering and analyzing data for a grounded theory study, you should conduct a purposive sampling. This type of sampling involves being selective. This way, you will be able to get answers from the right population. Use your own judgment when selecting participants for research. Here, you should pick those individuals that better fit your purpose. 

Your results shouldn’t necessarily be statistically representative. However, you should carefully choose members to ensure that your qualitative data can be generalized.

Data Generation & Comparative Analysis in Grounded Theory

As noted above, both data collection and analysis should happen concurrently in grounded theory research. GT was initially designed to promote the idea that qualitative data can also be useful in generating hypotheses. That being said, you can gather both quantitative and qualitative research data. At the same time, you should also make constant comparative analysis. This process involves comparing the codes and categories (more on this below).

Grounded Theory Coding

Coding is the main data analysis technique used in grounded theory study. Coding in GT is an analytical process of assigning labels and categories. This analysis method allows us to structure qualitative data. There are 3 types of coding that make separate stages in GT:

  • Initial coding (open coding) At this stage, researchers carefully go through the transcripts trying to recognize the key components. Later, these elements will form subcategories.
  • Intermediate coding (axial coding) The main task of this stage is to identify a relationship between the initial codes. You will have to organize the codes and group them into categories.
  • Advanced coding (selective coding) Selective coding is the last step in GT where you should find a connection between all categories. You will form a core category for developing a theory.

Once all categories are saturated and you don’t discover any additional details, you will be ready to build a grounded theory. This final point is called theoretical sensitivity. In other words, it’s an insight you get after analyzing all available data.

Theoretical Sampling

Sometimes, during grounded theory development you may need to generate more data. That’s when theoretical sampling comes into play. Theoretical sampling is a process that allows to add more categories or refine the existing ones. You may need it during any stage of data analysis. That’s when you will do data collection again. 

For example, you may study participants’ reaction to a new treatment method. Then, you conduct an interview and do initial coding. Then, you notice that participants' overall well-being also improves. At this stage, you want to do theoretical sampling and ask more questions to see if this treatment has other positive effects.

Memoing in Grounded Theory Research

Memoing is an important part of any grounded theory research design. You will be writing the field notes during the entire process. Whether you decide to extract more details or organize your data, you should document each step. Memos, or notes, are written reflective pieces that allow you to track your ideas.

Grounded Theory Example

Let’s have a closer look at a grounded theory research example so you can see a complete picture.


Researchers want to observe teenagers’ recovery from anxiety attacks using a special therapy. They decided to do GT, because no qualitative data was considered before. They interviewed each participant and carefully read all the transcripts. Then, they identified similar components that later formed categories. Researchers found a core category that helped to develop a GT.

Grounded Theory Research Pros and Cons

As an alternative to a classical method, GT has many benefits. However, you should also be aware of its limitations. This will ensure that you choose the best strategy.

                               Grounded theory advantages and disadvantages



Allows to discover a new phenomenon 

Extensive use of empirical data only 

Has high ecological validity 

Subjective findings 

Integrates qualitative data 

Complex process 

Offers a structured way to organize data 

Grounded Theory: Final Thoughts

By using grounded theory research, you can generate a hypothesis emerging from data. This approach requires that you strictly follow the process and make a comparative analysis. Make sure you go through each stage of coding and you will be awarded with a unique idea on social phenomena.

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FAQ About Grounded Theory Qualitative Research

1. What topics are better suited for phenomenological and grounded theory?

Grounded theory is better suited to understand social phenomena that haven’t been studied before. This approach allows us to examine understudied social processes and develop a hypothesis on the topic. Phenomenological research deals with all topics related to human experiences from a participant’s perspective.

2. What is the difference between grounded theory and thematic analysis?

Grounded theory is an approach that helps to generate a hypothesis grounded in data though comparative analysis. Thematic analysis is a data analysis method that allows to determine similar patterns during careful reading of transcripts. This method is widely used in GT.

3. Does grounded theory have research questions?

Unlike other types of studies, grounded theory doesn’t have research questions that define the scope of the research process. Here, it is research that produces a question.

4. What is a grounded theory research design?

Grounded theory research design is a method of hypothesis generation with the help of concurrent data collection and analysis. This approach was offered to suggest that qualitative data can also be used to build theoretical knowledge. It’s widely used when there are no existing ideas on the topic.

Article posted on:Nov 22, 2022
Article updated on:May 10, 2023


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