Friday, 1 June 2012

When is a qualitative study a Grounded Theory study?

I recently came across Beki Grinter's blog posts on Grounded Theory. These make great reading.

The term has been used a lot in HCI as a "bumper sticker" for any and every qualitative analysis regardless of whether or not it follows any of the GT recipes closely, and whether or not it results in theory-building. I exaggerate slightly, but not much. As Beki says, GT is about developing theory, not just about doing a "bottom up" qualitative analysis, possibly without even having any particular questions or aims in mind.

Sometimes, the questions do change, as you discover that your initial questions or assumptions about what you might find are wrong. This has happened to us more than once. For example, we conducted a study of London Underground control rooms where the initial aim was to understand the commonalities and contrasts across different control rooms, and what effects these differences had on the work of controllers, and the ways they used the various artefacts in the environment. In practice, we found that the commonalities were much more interesting than the contrasts, and that there were several themes that emerged across all the contexts we studied. The most intriguing was discovering how much the controllers seemed to be playing with a big train set! This links in to the literature on "serious games", a literature that we hadn't even considered when we started the study (so we had to learn about it fast!).

In our experience, there's an interdependent cycle between qualitative data gathering and analysis and pre-existing theory. You start with questions, gather and analyse some data, realise your questions weren't quite right, so modify them (usually to be more interesting!), gather more data, analyse it much more deeply, realise that Theory X almost accounts for your data, see what insights relating your data to Theory X provides, gather yet more data, analyse it further... end up with either some radically new theory or a minor adaptation of Theory X. Or (as in our study of digital libraries deployment) end up using Theory X (in this case, Communities of Practice) to make sense of the situations you've studied.

Many would say that a "clean" GT doesn't draw explicitly on any existing theories, but builds theory from data. In practice, in my experience, you get a richer analysis if you do draw on other theory, but that's not an essential part of GT. The important thing is to be reflective and critical: to use theory to test and shine light on your data, but not to succumb to confirmation bias, where you only notice the data that fits the theory and ignore the rest. Theory is always there to be overturned!

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