Grounded Theory

If you are interested in creating a theory based on your data, you might be interested in using grounded theory.

Grounded Theory is an iterative process in which you systematically develop an explanatory theory of basic processes. Although Grounded Theory is usually used for analysing interviews, it can also be used to analyse multiple data types such as case law, documents and videos. You can use Grounded Theory to answer the following type of questions:

  • How do judges come to a final decision in Full Court?
  • How do company directors decide whether they will file for insolvency?
  • How do insolvency practitioners investigate a potential liability claim?

In Grounded Theory, one of the major challenges is approaching your data inductively. Inductive reasoning implies that based on observations, you find patterns that lead to tentative hypothesis and eventually result in a theory. When using Grounded Theory, try to limit your literature research and focus on having an open mind whilst analysing your data. Although it is advisable to keep an open mind and not rely too heavily on existing literature when using grounded theory, existing literature can play an important role when you are grouping your codes into overarching categories. After all, existing work can provide you with sensitizing concepts. Rather than having a fixed meaning at the start of your research, sensitizing concepts are specified by examining how respondents talk about them and can be used for drafting the topic list for your interviews.

The data analysis mainly consists of coding your data. You can use Computer-Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis Software (such as Atlas.ti) for your coding process. The most-used coding process of Grounded Theory consists of three stages:

  1. Open Coding. You start by describing useful pieces of data with labels (in vivo coding), then take a new piece of data and consider whether you could code that new piece of data with existing codes (constant comparison). If not, create new codes. In this stage, you will group your codes into categories. This coding process will tell you when you have reached the point of “saturation”, the point when new data will not give you any new codes (information). When you are still creating new codes when analysing your data, you can use theoretical sampling to gather new data (e.g. cases, participants, documents) on certain underexposed concepts.
  2. Axial Coding. In this stage you will connect the categories to find patterns and connections between codes and categories.
  3. Selective coding. You will develop a storyline around your core category and the relation to other categories. After identifying the core category, you go back to your data to validate axial relations and to see if you can further code the data in relation to the main storyline. If needed, you can use theoretical sampling to gather new data until saturation is reached. Your final storyline will be the theory you created on the data.

Using grounded theory as an analytic approach means that you are deploying thematic analysis. That is, you aim to identify themes within your data through coding. Thematic analysis provides the foundation for various methods of analyzing qualitative data, including grounded theory. One important characteristic of coding within grounded theory is that you do not use a predesigned list of codes (for instance, based on the relevant literature). Instead, you derive codes from your data, in line with the inductive nature of grounded theory as described above.

During the coding process you will gather insights on certain relationships and theoretical implications. These insights should be noted by memoing them. By memoing regularly, you make sure that your coding is still meaningful and you theorize what your data shows. Atlas.ti for example provides for memoing. You use these memos to understand how you analysed the data.

When applying grounded theory, you can use either the full version or the abbreviated version. The full version is described above: you alternate data collection and data analysis until you reach a point of saturation and are able to develop a theory. In this way, the emerging theory can inform your data collection. In the abbreviated version, all data are collected first (again, until you reach a point of saturation) and analyzed subsequently. This latter approach does not enable you to adapt data collection based on your initial findings, but time and resource constraints may prompt the use of the abbreviated version rather than the full version of grounded theory.


  • Glaser & Strauss (1967). The discovery of Grounded Theory: strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.

    Glaser and Strauss are the founders of the Grounded Theory. You can use this book to get a full understanding of the method and its purposes.

  • Bowen (2006). Grounded Theory and sensitizing concepts. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 5(3), 12-23.

    This article shows how you can use sensitizing concepts to combine an open mind with a research question.

  • Boeije, H. (2002). A Purposeful Approach to the Constant Comparison Method in the Analysis of Qualitative Interviews. Quality and Quantity, 36, 391–409.

    This article provides for a useful guide for constant comparison, even when you are not analysing interviews.

  • Saldaña, J. (2015). The coding manual for qualitative researchers. Sage Publications, Inc.

    This book guides you through the coding process.

  • Kenny, M. & Fourie, R. (2015). Contrasting classic, Straussian, and constructivist Grounded Theory: Methodological and philosophical conflicts. The Qualitative Report, 20(8), 1270-1289.

    This article gives a clear overview of the different approaches to Grounded Theory.

  • Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. M. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. Sage Publications, Inc.

    This article presents the Straussian approach to Grounded Theory.

  • Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing Grounded Theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis. Sage Publications, Inc.

    This book presents the constructivists approach to Grounded Theory.

  • For concrete examples of Grounded Theory research, see the Grounded Theory Review.