Grounded theory

About the “What researchers mean by...” series

This research term explanation first appeared in a regular column called “What researchers mean by…” that ran in the Institute for Work & Health’s newsletter At Work for over 10 years (2005-2017). The column covered over 35 common research terms used in the health and social sciences. The complete collection of defined terms is available online or in a guide that can be downloaded from the website.

Published: January 2012

Traditionally, scientists collect information to test a potential explanation or assumption. For example, let’s say you are studying the role of supervisors in the return to work (RTW) of injured workers. Based on existing research, you might hypothesize that supervisors facilitate RTW in an important way, and then subsequently design a survey that asks workers about the role of supervisors to test this hypothesis.

Grounded theory, used in qualitative research, takes a different approach. First coined in the 1960s, it was an alternative to the mainstream approach in which information was collected to test a theory. Grounded theory emphasizes starting from the ground up (i.e. generating theory from data) rather than from the top down (i.e. using data to test theory). In other words, it favours an inductive approach, rather than a deductive one.

Let’s return to our example. Taking the grounded theory approach, you might enter into the RTW study with similar ideas about the role of supervisor support, but you would remain open to other theories stemming from the data you collect. You might learn something wholly unexpected.

Theoretical sampling

You would start by carefully selecting the people you want to interview (“cases”) and the types of workplaces you want to observe (“settings”), with the aim of getting the richest possible information. Your research plan might involve interviews or focus groups with injured workers who have and have not returned to work, in addition to supervisors and co-workers. As well, different types of workplaces, from blue- to white-collar environments, may be included in the sample. This is called theoretical sampling.

Constant comparative method

Next, you would constantly compare the information you gather with what is already known, and refine your explanations or theories as you go. This is called the constant comparative method, and it is central to grounded theory. For example, you might compare supervisor/worker relationships across different jobs and types of workplaces.

Data might emerge that indicate supervisors are supportive when worker absences are brief, but not as supportive when the absences get longer. In the end, you may learn that supervisors play a relatively minor role compared to co-workers.  This new knowledge would cause you to reconsider your previous understanding.

Grounded theory can take researchers in new and fruitful directions because it involves an interactive process where the overarching goal is to test and refine emerging ideas. It’s easy to see how it can broaden the reach of an existing theory because it forces the researcher to change the scope of the study to incorporate new information. As such, grounded theory generates a high quality of research, revealing multi-layered interpretations of social life. A rich and detailed understanding of systems and processes is made possible.

Source: At Work, Issue 67, Winter 2012: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto