An Introduction to Grounded Theory and Phenomenology

1. The Analytical Process of Grounded Theory

1.1 Overview

Grounded Theory (GT) is arguably the most successful qualitative research approach in contemporary social science and psychology. It is an inductive and emergent approach to produce new theories based on the analysis of qualitative empirical evidence. This is why it has been argued that GT methodology contains elements of positivism, hermeneutics as well as pragmatism (Age,2011). GT was originally formulated by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss (1967).

The term ‘grounded’ implies that theory is generated from social research data (Glaser &
Strauss, p.2). However, due to divergent philosophical and methodological developments
between the authors we talk of the ‘Glaserian School’ versus the ‘Straussian School’ of GT
(Zarif, p.972).

1.2 Analytical Process

The analytical process of GT can be broken down into four logical stages. The first stage starts as ‘Open Coding’ with the comparison of collected raw data such as e.g., from interviews, fieldnotes, reports or diaries. The constant comparison between data collection and data analysis is also known as theoretical sampling. It culminates in the extraction of salient categories and their related perspectives which are called ‘properties’ (Creswell, p. 195). Once no new categories emerge from open texts conceptual saturation has been reached (Kendall, 1999, p. 746) and a single core category is chosen as the phenomenon of interest (Creswell, p.196). In the second stage of ‘Axial Coding’ this central phenomenon is reiteratively compared and referenced against data. Data is restructured while new connections between categories are drawn involving causal conditions influencing the phenomenon, the embedded context, strategies for addressing the phenomenon and consequences of employing these strategies (Strauss & Cobin, 1990, p.96). Glaser disagrees with Axial Coding and argues that such a ‘conceptual description’ strays too far from the principle of true emergence to make for good GT (Kendall, p.747-748). In the third step of ‘Selective Coding’ the researcher creates a hypothesis or statements selectively inter-relating central categories in the coding paradigm (Creswell, p.196). The final stage of ‘Theoretical Coding’ consists for Glaser in the conceptual sorting of memos into a final theoretical outline to explain the core phenomenon (Grounded Theory Institute, 2011). The appeal of GT lies in its methodological rigor since each process-stage can be openly tested for the trustworthiness of data, the clarification of criteria and auditability of coding (Cooney, 2011).

2. Grounded Theory and Phenomenology

2.1 Similarities

GT and phenomenology both start methodologically with data-collection and generally share a descriptive approach. Both deal initially with unstructured data that undergoes continuous refinement and both crystallize central themes. GT and phenomenology are emergent strategies.

2.2 Differences
Phenomenology investigates phenomena of lived experiences in this world (Van Manen,
1990), whereby GT is thematically open. Phenomenology strives to capture the ‘essence’ of individual experience inclusive of what and how participants have experienced it (Moustakas, 1994). This differs from the goal of logically explaining the phenomena in GT. Phenomenology is interpreting experiences whereby GT extracts themes from data.
The bracketing-out of the researcher’s own experience to avoid bias is a major concern in
phenomenology (Crewell, p.78) whereby GT is taking an objectified stance between
researcher and data. Types of data in GT can be broad while in phenomenology the
predominant data collection is by in-depth interviews (although observation or documents are equally valid). Using interviews, a phenomenologist keeps centered on eliciting experiences whereby a grounded theorist ‘may move on to other data collection methods, or structured interviews, to saturate emerging categories.’ (Wimpenny & Gass, 2000, p.1491)


The main advantages of GT lie in its clearly structured approach and open accountability of process. One could however question if, strictly speaking, inductive ‘reliable’ knowledge is epistemologically possible since even the most carefully collected data is permeable towards normative implications, interests, bias and salient collective beliefs. This renders the idea of phenomenological bracketing highly attractive. Thomas and James (2006) ask what we miss or dismiss if we continue to use GT, which appears counter-intuitive to common sense and dismisses the validity and import of people’s account (Thomas & James, p. 790). Second generation Grounded Theorist Kathy Charmaz answers implicitly to this critique since she advocates a constructivist approach (Charmaz, 2008) allowing for multiple realities to be accounted for, inclusive of phenomenology. Justified compatibility rather than exclusivity seem to pave the way of future research approaches (Thomas, 2012).


Age, L. (2011). Grounded Theory Methodology: Positivism, Hermeneutics, and Pragmatism. Qualitative Report, 16(6), 1599-1615.

Charmaz, K. (2008). Constructing grounded theory, a practical guide through qualitative analysis. Sage Publications Ltd.

Cooney, A. (2011). Rigour and grounded theory. Nurse Researcher, 18(4), 17-22.
Creswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches (3rd ed.).Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine

Grounded Theory Institute. (2011, June 13). What is grounded theory?. Retrieved from

Kendall, J. J. (1999). Axial coding and the grounded theory controversy. Western Journal Of Nursing Research, 21(6), 743-757. doi:10.1177/01939459922044162

Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Strauss, A. L., & Corbin, J. M. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: grounded theory procedures and techniques. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Thomas, G., & James, D. (2006). Reinventing grounded theory: some questions about theory, ground and discovery. British Educational Research Journal, 32(6), 767-795.

Thomas, R. (2012). Five ways of doing qualitative analysis: Phenomenological psychology, grounded theory, discourse analysis, narrative research, and intuitive inquiry by F. J. Weitz, K. Charmaz, L. M. McMullen, R. Josselson, R. Anderson and E. McSpadden. British Journal Of Psychology, 103(2), 291-292. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8295.2012.02104.x

Van Manen, J. (1990). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy.Albany: State University of New York Press.

Wimpenny, P., & Gass, J. (2000). Interviewing in phenomenology and grounded theory: is there a difference?. Journal Of Advanced Nursing, 31(6), 1485-1492.

Zarif, T. (2012). GROUNDED THEORY METHOD: AN OVERVIEW. Interdisciplinary Journal Of Contemporary Research In Business, 4(5), 969-979.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s