"Emergence" vs. "Forcing" of Empirical Data? A Crucial Problem of "Grounded Theory" Reconsidered

Udo Kelle


Since the late 1960s Barney GLASER and Anselm STRAUSS, developers of the methodology of "Grounded Theory" have made several attempts to explicate, clarify and reconceptualise some of the basic tenets of their methodological approach. Diverging concepts and understandings of Grounded Theory have arisen from these attempts which have led to a split between its founders. Much of the explication and reworking of Grounded Theory surrounds the relation between data and theory and the role of previous theoretical assumptions. The book which initially established the popularity of GLASER's and STRAUSS' methodological ideas, "The Discovery of Grounded Theory", contains two conflicting understandings of the relation between data and theory—the concept of "emergence" on the one hand and the concept of "theoretical sensitivity" on the other hand. Much of the later developments of Grounded Theory can be seen as attempts to reconcile these prima facie diverging concepts. Thereby GLASER recommends to draw on a variety of "coding families" while STRAUSS proposes the use of a general theory of action to build an axis for an emerging theory. This paper first summarises the most important developments within "Grounded Theory" concerning the understanding of the relation between empirical data and theoretical statements. Thereby special emphasis will be laid on differences between GLASER's and STRAUSS' concepts and on GLASER's current critique that the concepts of "coding paradigm" and "axial coding" described by STRAUSS and Juliet CORBIN lead to the "forcing" of data. It will be argued that GLASER's critique points out some existing weaknesses of STRAUSS' concepts but vastly exaggerates the risks of the STRAUSSian approach. A main argument of this paper is that basic problems of empirically grounded theory construction can be treated much more effectively if one draws on certain results of contemporary philosophical and epistemological discussions and on widely accepted concepts developed in such debates. This especially refers to the critique of naive empiricism, to the concept of hypothetical or abductive inference, to the concept of empirical content or falsifiability of statements and to the concept of corroboration. URN: urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs0502275


grounded theory; induction; abduction; theoretical sensitivity; coding paradigm; theory building

Copyright (c) 2005 Udo Kelle

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