Theory that's worth a bit of work
Grounded theory offers robust principles and practical models that could benefit quallies, says Andy Barker
Reading Constructing Grounded Theory A Practical Guide Through Qualitative Analysis, by Kathy Charmaz, is a little like getting a new mobile phone. Its new, slim, elegantly packaged, does lots of clever stuff, but the practicalities of everyday life stop you getting much further than calling and texting. Whats more theres something a little bit nerdy about using all the functions (inter-continental fridge temperature adjustment by SMS, and the like).
This is, of course, the academic-practitioner dilemma in a nutshell. Constructing Grounded Theory is, however, a book which really could, with only a small amount of effort on the part of your jobbing quallie, reward the additional work. And what will the inquisitive qual researcher learn?
Well, first of all what grounded theory is (theory based on empirical, in this case qualitative, study rather than on a priori principles and existing axiom), although actually this isnt the point. The real point is that grounded theory is sort of what we quallies do (or should do) already we do fieldwork and then build a more theoretical story around it. So far, so good, but recognition alone is not much of a benefit.
In addition to the gosh I didnt know I was doing grounded theory aha moment, the really useful things that you could learn from this book are some robust principles and practical models and activities (it is one of the most practical academic texts I have read for some time) to enhance and develop your own practical qualitative activities. For example:
<li>Memo-writing (a wonderful capture and exposition of what commercial quallies would consider the core of qual analysis and interpretation; this will resonate with qual researchers but also add significantly to their intuitive analysis toolkit);
<li>A detailed checklist for quality of analysis and reporting (credibility, originality, resonance, usefulness) which again provides an excellent route map to better content and deliverables.
Sure, commercial quallies dont have the luxury to conduct a full-scale iterative project à la grounded theory. We can, however, do what we do so well, which is take inspiration from this particular academic arena, nick it, bend it, shape it, use it to develop better practice.
More generally, this book highlights the fact that there is lots of really great stuff in the academic world from which we can benefit on our terms and I think this is still a very relevant message in the increasingly narrowly commercially focused world of qual.
The author states one of her aims in the book as follows: Whether you pursue ethnographic stories, biographical narratives, or qualitative analyses of interviews, grounded theory can help you make your work more insightful and incisive. We can all of us, all of the time, use a bit of that.
Buy the book
Grounded Theory: Methods for the 21st Century
Kathleen C. Charmaz, Sage Publications Ltd 2005.
Head of Qualitative Research, Populus Ltd
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, May 2006
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2006