Grounded Theory and Ethnography. The Advantages and Disadvantages of Grounded Theory Methodology and Ethnographic Approaches to Qualitative Research

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Contents ... 2
Introduction ... 3
Grounded Theory Approach ... 3
Ethnographic Research Approach ... 5
Grounded Theory V Ethnography ... 7
Conclusion ... 9
Bibliography ... 10

The discussion that follows is a comparison and contrasting of two analytic schemes that could
be used in the qualitative data analysis. The discussion focusing on the grounded theory
methodology and ethnographic approaches to qualitative research critically addresses the
advantages and disadvantages of the two approaches by highlighting their applicatory strengths
and weakness in qualitative research studies followed by a brief comparative discussion of the
combined strengths and weaknesses and a brief reflection on the application of IT tools in the
research approaches.
Grounded Theory Approach
The concept of grounded theory methodology explicitly involves `generating theory and doing
social research [as] two parts of the same process' (Glaser, 1978, p.2) In 1967 the publishing of
`The Discovery of Grounded Theory' by Glaser and Strauss (1967) was a seminal moment in
qualitative research, the main thesis of the book challenged the notion of testing hypothesis
beforehand based on theatrical assumptions, in contrast grounded theory suggested carrying out
research and analysis and building up concepts and theories from the ground up (Alasuutar,
Bickman & Brannen, 2008). In grounded theory methodology the literature review takes place
after the research, Glaser (1992, p.32) clarified that ` Grounded theory is for the discovery of
concept and hypothesis, not for testing re replicating them...It must be free from the claims of
literature and its findings and assumptions in order to render the data conceptually with the best
fit. Grounded theory must be free from the idea of working on someone else's work or

In grounded theory methodology the data collected to address the research question area may be
quantitative or qualitative or even a blend of both. The data collected is similar to other research
methodology. The data collected for analysis is coded. The coding of the data varies depending
on the stage of the research and purpose but analysis involves open coding, a process of creating
values, categorized and labeled. Following open coding, axial coding is required, the process
known as paradigm model is required to structure the data in order to establish the relationships
between the categories formulated during the earlier open coding process. The process of
selective coding enables the researcher to identify and specify the core themes leading to the
production of the narrative and emergence of the theory. In the final stages of the research
methodology the grounding of the theory continues with further refining and validation through
hypothesis testing. Glaser & Strauss (1967, p.28) argued `evidence and testing never destroy a
theory (of any generality), they only modify it. A theory's only replacement is a better theory'.
Both Barney Glaser and Anslem Strauss elucidated further on grounded theory by jointly
publishing several books on the subject before parting company and writing separately. Two
decades later Strauss and Corbin (1990) offered a more structured approach to grounded theory
analysis with a descriptive model which led to Glaser to critique the strategies, models and
procedural techniques of his co founder. Compared to Strauss, Glaser was a puritan of grounded
theory and argued that theory should emerge from constant comparison and should not be forced
research. Glaser considered Strauss and Corbins models of research to be too descriptive and
structured where as Glaser advocated a more emergent approach. Kools et al (1996) clarified as a
consequence of the divergence in approaches there was no consensus as to which yielded
superior interpretations of social phenomena.

By contrast Charmaz (2006) argued for a more modern constructivist approach to grounded
theory. Charmaz believed that the approaches advocated by Glaser and Strauss (1967) and
Strauss and Corbin (1990) were too pragmatic and suggested that how people constructed their
social reality was a key part of the research approach. Charmaz argued that extrapolated
interpretations of the researcher were just as important as the internalized interpretations of the
respondents and both gave a more reflective interpretation. Some critics argue that Charmaz
modern constructivist approach was juxtaposed as Glaser and Strauss (1967) approach to
grounded theory was influenced in part by symbolic interactions where interpretation of the
symbolic interaction was indicative to the extrapolation of meaning from the research.
Ethnographic Research Approach
Hammersley and Atkinson (1995, p.1) stated `in its most characteristic form...[ethnography]
involves the ethnographer participating, overtly or covertly in people's daily lives for an
extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions in
fact, collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the focus of the
In ethnography the analytical composition of data collection consists of fieldwork as an essential
part of the analytic method as well as the examination of existing secondary data. Direct
participation by the researcher within the research arena may also be required as well as
observation and structured and semi structured interview documentation and detailing of the
observation and experiences of the participants as well as the researchers own role both
objectively as well as subjectively (O'Reilly, 2005).

In contrast to grounded theory, ethnography methodology does not necessarily set out to test
hypothesis but instead explore social phenomenon. The scientific inquiry as a complete observer
both overt as well as covert requires disciplined preparation as the data gathered can often be
unstructured and not coded at the point at which the data is collected in the field. As the research
method is qualitative and subjective the statistical methods of quantification do not apply as the
scientific enquiry entails systematic recording of behaviors and recording of events and is more
concerned with the descriptions of phenomenon than in statistics.
In addition to observational field work, in-depth interviews of the research subjects are carried
out as empirical observational recordings and interpretations alone cannot provide the rich data
needed to obtain an in-depth perspective of the phenomenon being researched. Tuckman (1996)
stated that that ethnographic interviewing differed from other interview methods as they are
designed not just to collate information and facts but to extrapolate meaning from the collected
data. The combination of empirical observational recording and in depth interviewing allows the
meanings of the observed and recorded phenomena to be extracted from the research subjects in
their everyday lives.
As well as primary research techniques, secondary research is also considered a part of the
ethnographic research methodology, as this can help in identifying other ethnographic accounts
and the discourse surrounding the research area. The addition of secondary sources of data also
allows for a detailed and multi faceted perspective to be constructed in the analysis of the
research resulting in the production of a richly written account of the phenomenon being
researched. These techniques in the field of ethnography provided what Geertz (1973) famously
called the' thick description' and has become part of the notion of qualitative research.

The study of subjects and objects from a personal as well interpersonal distance can also have
certain limitations. Burns (1994) argued that the descriptive and interpretive nature of the
research procedure remain problematic particularly in replicating the entire research procedure
for validation purposes as ethnographic research can often span considerable time spans and
findings can differ as well be diverse due to the multiple contributory perspectives. The
observational recording of events is based on the mastery of the ethnographer and the imposition
of conceptual biases can alter the value free recording and analysis. The research data being open
to personal interpretation is also open to misappropriation as respondents or subjects may not
even mean what they say or say what they actually mean or may not even fully recollect or
transmit details of their recollections accurately requiring the ethnographer to possibly bridge the
gap between the data transmitted and recorded. The rich data could be lost in translation.
The conduct of the research method can also raise ethical concerns as the overt observational
fieldwork can lead to intrusion into the livelihoods of the research subjects and a lack of privacy.
Covert observation can also raise ethical concerns as this leads to an absence of consent in an
attempt to avoid the Hawthorne effect in deriving factual accuracy (Nord, 1963).
Grounded Theory V Ethnography
Grounded theory has certain similarities to ethnographic research methods such as in the mode of
data production through field work observation, qualitative interviews and documenting (Strauss
& Corbin, 1990). Because fewer assumptions are placed on the variable being studied both
grounded theory and ethnography can be a good method for exploratory research and hypothesis
generation. Both research methods can produce a more in-depth and detailed sets of data and is
ideal for recording attitudes, feelings and behaviors and can enable more complex aspects of

person's experiences to be studied with fewer restrictions and assumptions. Ethnography can
also be combined with grounded theory as the approach can provide the thick description data
for grounded theory analysis and can be conductive to theory building. (Glaser & Strauss, 1967)
Both research methods also share similar limitations in terms of verification. Babbie (1995, p.
A13) highlighted the importance of validity by suggesting `the reader should be in a position to
completely replicate the entire study independently' as this can prove the validity of the research
by other researchers within the social research field. The subjectivity of the research data can be
difficult to validate as well as replicate as information gathered can also be a conjectural
extrapolation and the researchers own biases may become embedded in the research which can
be difficult to identify or avert.
Denscombe (1998, p.208) identified `qualitative data as the product of a process of
interpretation, as both methods rely on the interpretation of the symbolic interactions, Bryman et
al (2008) argued that these qualitative methodologies lacked transparency as the reader may not
be able to ascertain exactly what the researcher did to arrive to the conclusion and is inherently
reliant on the skill and genuineness of the researcher. By contrast Glaser (1992) argued that for
the data to be valid rigorous and reliable it must be grounded and suggested grounded theory was
more conceptual than other qualitative research approaches.
Both research methods require collecting and analyzing unstructured information which can be
complicated and time consuming when collecting large volumes of data, codifying the findings
and applying themes and extracting meaning can be a difficult task as both research methods
have an association with interpretivism and rely in the skill of the researcher to determine the
quality and validity of the research. In recent years the use of specialist IT tools to carry out the

processing of qualitative data has further complicated the process. Computer assisted qualitative
research can help manage large amounts of text data as well as retrieval and manipulation of data
by sorting and assembling the coded data in quick succession but the disadvantages to specialist
IT tools lie in breaking the natural flow of the narrative of the research. By coding the data line
by line using IT software the natural flow of the narrative is often broken. All computer
programs are designed to follow a mechanical set of calculated outcomes and as a consequence
the analysis could become superficial. The ability of the researcher to master the software could
also determine the quality of the rendered data as the ability of the researcher to apply the most
relevant analytic data manipulation and presentation will determine the narrative and meaning of
the data. Programs such as Nvivo MaxQda etc can aid in reducing the amount of data by
condensing and synthesizing data but ultimately it is the researcher's expertise that will
determine the quality of the analysis.
`The differences between methodologies do not suggest differences in quality, but in their nature
and purpose' (Sarantakos, 2005, p.49). Both research approaches are valuable in their own
context and are highly useful as qualitative approaches to research. The foundations of the good
research depend on safeguarding against errors by not paying attention to the crucial factors of a
well planned systematic approach that delivers informative and clearly understandable results in
a format that is easily understood by the reader which is honest unbiased and transparent, the
findings from the research approaches should establish a workable set of outcomes that is of
interest and benefit to the reader, researcher, sponsor and decision makers.

Alasuustari,P, Bickman, l, & Brannen, j., (2008) The sage handbook of social Research methods,
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Babbie, E., (1995) The Practiseof Social Research, 7
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Burns, R, B., (1994) Introduction to Research Methods, Melbourne Longman, Cheshire.
Bryant, A, Charmaz. eds., (2007) The SAGE handbook of Grounded Theory, Paperback Edition,
SAGE Publications Ltd.
Bryman, A.,(2008) Social Research Methods, 3
Edition, Oxford Press University
Charmaz, K., (2008) Constructing Grounded Theory, A Practical Guide Through Qualitative
Analysis, SAGE Publications Ltd .
Denscombe, M., (1998) The Good Research Guide, Open University Press.
Geertz, C., (1973) The interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, Basic Books Publishers, New
Glaser B, G, Strauss, A, L., (1967) The Discovery Of Grounded Theory, Strategies For
Qualitative Research, Weidfield & Nicolson, London.
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Glaser, B, G., (1978) Theoretical Sensitivity, Mill Valley CA, Sociological Press USA.
Hemmerly, M & Atkinson,P., (2007) Ethnography: Principles in Practice (3
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and New York, Routledge.

Kools, S, M, McCarthy, R, Durham and Robrechi, L., ( 1996) Dimensional Analysis:
Broadening The Conception of Grounded Theory, Qualitative Health Researcvh 6 (3) 312-331.
Nord, W, R., (1963) A field experiment on Hawthorne effect and psychological demand
characteristics, Cornell University.
O'Reilly,K., (2005) Ethnographic Methods, London and New York, Routledge.
Sarantakos, S., (2005) Social Research, 3
Edition, Macmillian
Strauss, A, L, Corbin, J, M., (1990) Basics of Qualitative Research, Grounded Theory: Basic
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The Grounded Theory Institute, The official site of Dr. Barney Glaser and Classic Grounded
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Grounded Theory and Ethnography. The Advantages and Disadvantages of Grounded Theory Methodology and Ethnographic Approaches to Qualitative Research
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