“Theory” and “grounded theory”

Conducting a “true” grounded theory (if there such a thing) in which the researcher develops a “grounded theory” about a topic is very challenging. As originally construed by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss (1967), a grounded theory study attends to theoretical sampling, along with simultaneous data collection and analysis. Studies often involve larger numbers of participants than doctoral students typically recruit. In my view, many qualitative studies apply the analytic procedures outlined in grounded theory methods texts (i.e., constant comparative methods), rather than developing “grounded theories”. To make things more complicated, there are multiple versions of grounded theory that outline different approaches. For example, you will find explanations of grounded theory methods with and without axial coding; constructivist grounded theory (Charmaz, 2014); and grounded theory influenced by postmodernism (Clarke, 2005).

In this blogpost, I’ll take a closer look at “theory” and how it is discussed in methodological writing about “grounded theory.”

“Theory” and grounded theory

Let’s look further at how theory is defined in relation to grounded theory.

First, Glaser and Strauss (1967) distinguished between “substantive” and “formal” theory. They wrote:

By substantive theory we mean that developed for a substantive, empirical area of sociological inquiry, such as patient care, race relations, professional education, delinquency, or research organizations. By formal theory, we mean that developed for a formal, conceptual, area of sociological inquiry, such as stigma, deviant behavior, formal organization, socialization, status congruency, authority and power, reward systems or social mobility”. Both types of theory may be considered as “middle-range.” That is, they fall between the “minor working hypotheses” of everyday life and the “all inclusive” grand theories (pp. 32-33).

Ian Dey (1999) explained further:

…a substantive theory is not designed to explain phenomena at a lower level of generality; rather, it is designed to account for a particular phenomenon where that particularity is defined in terms of time and space. Thus a substantive theory has a particular subject (specified in time and space) while formal theories have general subjects, which at least to some extent escape spatial and temporal boundaries (p. 210).

Examples provided by Ian Dey that show the difference between a “substantive” and “formal” theory include:

  • The evolution of British welfare state in postwar years (substantive theory).
  • The evolution of welfare states (formal theory)

Notice that the former is specifically situated in Britain, where as the latter might be applied more broadly.

As another example, Glaser and Strauss examined expectations of dying in hospital wards. They developed a substantive theory on “awareness of dying” which explained the different kinds of interactions between patients and others based on whether the patient was aware that they were dying (Glaser & Strauss, 1965).  In their 1967 book, they discussed how they could take this theory, and develop it into a formal theory based on “awareness contexts.” They also developed a formal theory concerning “status passages” that developed from their initial work on the status passage involved in dying. The formal theory can be applied to other “transitional statuses” (e.g. the passage between being single and married; being a citizen to being imprisoned).

Kathy Charmaz (2006) discussed “theory” in terms of whether it is “positivist” or “interpretive”. In Charmaz’s view positivist theory is “a statement of relationships between abstract concepts that cover a wide range of empirical observations” (p. 125)…”positivist theory seeks causes, favors deterministic explanations, and emphasizes generality and universality” (p. 126). In contrast, “interpretive theory calls for the imaginative understanding of the phenomenon. This type of theory assumes emergent, multiple realities; indeterminancy; facts and values as linked; truth as provisional; and social life as processual” (p. 126). Whereas interpretivist theories focus on understanding of phenomena studied, positivist theories focus on explanation and prediction. These different perspectives on “theory” align with Charmaz’s argument for “objectivist” grounded theory and “constructivist” grounded theory (Charmaz, 2000). Charmaz’s work aligns to “constructivist” grounded theory.  

How is theoretical sampling used in grounded theory?

Charmaz discussed Hood’s (1983) study of married women’s self-concepts and friendship networks when they returned to work after having children as an example of “theoretical sampling” (cited in Charmaz, 2006, p. 97). Hood came across an emergent issue early in her study: that of how couples negotiated childcare and house work when women returned to work. She shifted her data collection to specifically address this issue, and recruited husbands to interview and other forms of data collection (questionnaire, follow up telephone interviews, field notes). Charmaz (2006, p. 100) distinguished between other forms of “sampling” used in the initial stages of a study and “theoretical sampling.” Charmaz noted that “initial sampling in grounded theory is where you start, whereas theoretical sampling directs you where to go” (p. 100). Similarly, LeCompte and Priessle (1993) identified theoretical sampling as a taking places in the later stages of a study.

What next?

The diversity of viewpoints on how grounded theory research is accomplished is one reason why there are critiques and cautions to qualitative researchers. See for example:

Thomas, G., & James, D. (2006). Reinventing grounded theory: Some questions about theory, ground and discovery. British Educational Research Journal, 32(6), 767-795.

If you are planning to use elements of grounded theory (e.g., constant comparative analysis), or develop a study that draws on grounded theory, it is useful to be aware that there are many variations in how grounded theory scholars have discussed their work. I recommend taking care to gain a good understanding of the debates in the field, as well as work by second generation scholars (Morse et al., 2009). Whatever approach you use in your research, be sure that you are informed, understand how terms are defined, and accurately cite and apply the work of scholars whose work informs your own.

All the best with your research.

Kathy Roulston


Charmaz, K. (2000). Grounded theory: Objectivist and constructivist methods. In N. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed., pp. 509-535). Sage.

Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis. Sage.

Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory (2nd ed.). Sage.

Clarke, A. E. (2005). Situational analysis: Grounded theory after the postmodern turn. Sage.

Dey, I. (1999). Grounding grounded theory: Guidelines for qualitative inquiry. Academic Press.

Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1965). Awareness of dying. Aldine.

Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Aldine de Gruyter.

LeCompte, M. D., & Priessle, J. (1993). Ethnography and qualitative design in educational research (2nd ed.). Academic Press.

Morse, J. M., Stern, P. N., Corbin, J., Bowers, B., Charmaz, K., & Clarke, A. E. (2009). Developing grounded theory: The second generation. Left Coast Press.

See also:

Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (2015). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (4th ed.). Sage

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