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What is grounded theory?
  1. Helen Noble1,
  2. Gary Mitchell2
  1. 1School of Nursing and Midwifery, Queens's University Belfast, Belfast, UK
  2. 2Four Seasons Health Care, Belfast, UK
  1. Correspondence to : Dr Helen Noble
    , School of Nursing and Midwifery, Queens's University Belfast, Belfast BT9 7BL, UK; Helen.noble{at}

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Grounded theory (GT) is a research method concerned with the generation of theory,1 which is ‘grounded’ in data that has been systematically collected and analysed.2 It is used to uncover such things as social relationships and behaviours of groups, known as social processes.3 It was developed in California, USA by Glaser and Strauss during their study—‘Awareness of Dying’.1 It is a general methodology for developing theory that is grounded in data which is systematically gathered and analysed.

Features of GT

  • Data collection and analysis occur simultaneously.

  • Categories and analytic codes developed from data. Pre-existing conceptualisations not to be used—this is known as theoretical sensitivity (see below).

  • Theoretical sampling used to refine categories.

  • Abstract categories constructed inductively.

  • Social processes discovered in the data.

  • Analytical memos used between coding and writing.

  • Categories integrated into a theoretical framework.4

Carrying out a GT study

First the area of interest is identified. Theoretical preconceptions should be avoided, although it is accepted this is difficult in practice. Analytical procedures and sampling strategies are then used and the study is finished when theoretical sampling reached5 all discussed below. Data collected may be qualitative or quantitative or a combination of both. Data collection methods often include in-depth interviews using open-ended questions. Questions can be adjusted as theory emerges. Observational methods and focus groups may also be used.

Theoretical sampling

Glaser and Strauss (1967) first mentioned theoretical sampling and described a process of generating theory from data which includes collecting the data, then coding …

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