Grounded Theory Method and Symbolic Interactionism: Freedom of Conceptualization and the Importance of Context in Research


  • Sarah Hewitt Massey University
  • Jane Mills La Trobe University
  • Karen Hoare Massey University
  • Nicolette Sheridan Massey University



grounded theory methodology, symbolic interactionism, qualitative research, conceptualization, context, culture, pragmatism


Symbolic interactionism (SI), a perspective used to understand human conduct, is commonly said to underpin grounded theory methodology (GTM). However, the purpose of GTM is to produce substantive explanatory social theory from data without reliance on prior assumptions. Therefore, some argue that SI is an unnecessary theoretical constraint on the principal aim of GTM—the free conceptualization of data. In this article we use examples from an ongoing constructionist grounded theory study into the negotiation of nurses' roles in general practice in New Zealand, to demonstrate how SI can inform GTM regarding conceptual development and context. We argue that by asking three questions from a symbolic interactionist perspective, at each stage of the research process, freedom of conceptualization may be enhanced and awareness of contextual matters promoted to better bridge world views.


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Author Biographies

Sarah Hewitt, Massey University

Sarah HEWITT is a registered nurse and PhD candidate, in receipt of a Massey University Doctoral Scholarship. Working in primary health care in New Zealand, in both clinical and managerial roles, she has an interest in innovation in models of health care delivery and preventive health. Currently researching processes of nurses' role negotiation in general practice, she has previously investigated the effectiveness of primary cardiovascular disease risk assessment.

Jane Mills, La Trobe University

Jane MILLS is one of Australia's most experienced primary health care academics having led and managed teams in both government and tertiary sectors. She is currently the dean of La Trobe Rural Health School. An internationally recognized grounded theorist, in the past decade she co- authored with Professor Melanie BIRKS the popular text "Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide," which has furthered the development of fundamental grounded theory methods of theoretical coding and storyline analysis. The original text has over 3,000 citations and has been reprinted several times since its publication in 2011.

Karen Hoare, Massey University

Karen HOARE is a nurse practitioner and partners with four general practitioners in a practice in South Auckland. Additionally she has an appointment as professor in the School of Nursing at Massey University. Her specialist areas of research are children and young people. She completed her PhD using a grounded theory design to investigate how practice nurses use information in their work in New Zealand. She has written a number of papers relating to grounded theory methods. One of her main interests is building support for children's nursing in low and middle income countries. She is currently coaching senior nurses in Africa as a member of the University of Cape Town's Child Nurse Practice Development Initiative.

Nicolette Sheridan, Massey University

Nicolette SHERIDAN is one of Aotearoa New Zealand's most highly regarded nurse academics with tribal affiliations to Ngāpuhi. She has a PhD in public health and nursing, and qualifications in occupational health practice and education. Nicolette has led international research into equity in healthcare and is the lead investigator of a national study into the effectiveness of primary care measuring differences in patient outcomes delivered by different models of general practice. She is head of the school of nursing at Massey University. Her research interests include consumer experiences of long-term conditions and disparities in primary health care services between indigenous and non-indigenous citizens, and Pacific and non-Pacific citizens, as a means of monitoring government commitment to indigenous rights and equity in healthcare.




How to Cite

Hewitt, S., Mills, J., Hoare, K., & Sheridan, N. (2022). Grounded Theory Method and Symbolic Interactionism: Freedom of Conceptualization and the Importance of Context in Research. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 23(3).



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