Grounded Theory

From Sustainability Methods
Method categorization for Grounded Theory

Method categorization
Quantitative Qualitative
Inductive Deductive
Individual System Global
Past Present Future

In short: Grounded Theory is the inductive approach of developing concepts or theories from observed data without pre-determined assumptions, based on coding of information.


In the 1960s, empirical social science was stuck between a rock and a hard place. The critique of positivism was at its peak, all the while the recognition of social science as an empirical science was dominated by a lack of suitable methodological approaches. Classical surveys and other methodological approaches were criticised by the anti-positivists, and the lack of methods led to a problematic view of on social science form other disciplines. This problem can be strongly associated to the dominating reign of deductive approaches during this time, which was a suitable line of thinking in psychology, physics, agricultural research, biology or other fields, yet did not only pose an epistemological shortcoming, but was in addition not suitable for parts of science and knowledge production that built on inductive reasoning. In this context of the history and theory of science, the proposal of Grounded Theory can be seen as nothing short of a revolution.

SCOPUS hits per year for Grounded Theory until 2019. Search term: 'grounded theory' in Title, Abstract, Keywords. Source: own.

Following the increasing focus on the individual, Grounded Theory can be seen as a main stepping stone for a science that is interactive with non-scientists, and even can be interactive even within itself. From the perspective of philosophy of science, this is a clear commitment to the fact that there are branches of knowledge that do not build on theories, but instead derive theories from observation. This concluded a pendulum swing from Bacon and the inductive approach to the positivists and back, enabling a more pluralistic and diverse science that could approach new frontiers. What is more important, this approach paved the road for a thinking in science that was less absolute and pretending to be objective, but instead acknowledged that scientists look at parts of the picture, which are highly important, but should not be seen as objective facts.

What the method does

Grounded Theory is a systematic approach to derive hypotheses and theories that are open and more general, starting with research questions that may lead to the development of theories, often through qualitative analysis and coding. Researchers utilising the Grounded Theory approach thus typically formulate broad research questions that are widely unaimed at specifics, but instead try to observe and generate new insights. This is often done in a systematic sense through coding of information, thereby allowing for code items that are similar or at least allow for certain similarities to be identified and to be grouped in clusters. In the next step, such clusters of code items allow for the conceptualisation or formulation of a theory. More specifically, the Grounded Theory approach involves three main steps of coding: open coding, axial coding, and selective coding (Images from DELVE).

Open Coding - Image from

1) In the Open Coding, all the available data - e.g. interview transcripts - is broken down into smaller units such as sentences. All of these data units are then labelled as individual "codes" that summarize the data in a more abstract way. Two data units that belong to the same topic, idea, person or place receive the same code. This coding step may be influenced by what the researcher assumes might be relevant for the data, for example based on previous knowledge or available literature, but generally, this step should be done as openly as possible so that no bias is imposed by the researcher's assumptions.

Axial Coding - from DELVE (

2) In Axial Coding, all codes that have been created in the first step are now aggregated into overarching categories. This is done by reading the data and the codes again and again, and searching for connections between the codes, based on which they are organized by the researcher. These connections may be causal relations between codes, or additional context that one code provides for another code, and all codes are categorized accordingly. The researcher verifies the emerging categories by checking them against the data repeatedly to make sure that the categorization is true to the data. In the end, the original data has been reduced to overarching, interrelated categories, to which the original codes are now sub-categories.

Selective Coding - from DELVE (

3) Lastly, in Selective Coding, all categories are again abstracted so that one encompassing result emerges. This result can be a new theory, or an alteration of an existing theory. In any case, all categories and codes should be combined to one final narrative that explains all data. To do so, the researcher repeatedly considers all the connections between all the categories and codes, inductively develops new conceptualizations, and deductively verifies these in view of the original data.

An important tool in these three steps are memos. Memos are small notes that the researcher writes during the coding process. They can contain information about any kinds of issues the researcher encountered with the data, or their thoughts on the coding process, and notes for results of this process. The memos are an essential source of knowledge in the iterative and abductive process of Grounded Theory, where conceptual ideas are developed and neglected again and again. By checking previously written memos during later stages of the process, the researcher makes sure not to forget thoughts that they had initially. To this end, memos can be extended through diagrams that visually help make sense of and organize the codes and categories during the coding procedure.

This inductive coding approach can be seen as methodologically diverse, as it can build and integrate both quantitative and qualitative information. To this end, Grounded Theory is not really a clear and rigid regime on how to approach data gathering and analysis, but closer to a mode of research. Grounded Theory demands openness and being undetermined from previous assumptions. Instead it puts the test subjects into the center of the initial research question, and allows for an open minded conceptualisation of the data itself. While this takes experience, as it is widely building on the coding skills and generalisation choices of the researcher, it surely proves a counterpoint to the rigid hypothesis-driven deductive research approaches. A strong emphasis in Grounded Theory is on the documentation of the research process itself, as it is clear that the coding process is potentially rooted in preconcious recognition of the researcher.

Strengths & Challenges

The coding process in Grounded Theory-driven research strongly builds on the experience of the researcher, for better or worse. Very experienced researchers may look for mere confirmations of preconscious ideas and concepts, and may even flaw the coding process altogether. This criticism is also deeply rooted in the minds of many positivists, who reject inductive approaches altogether. While it should be noted that Grounded Theory is surely different from the hypothesis-driven research approaches, the emergence of Grounded Theory definitely solved a clear gap in research and science. It did not only enable open processes and theory-development with a more contextual focus, but more importantly, more diverse data formats were now considered relevant, as qualitative data often takes center stage in Grounded Theory. This surely unlocked new dimensions of knowledge altogether at a time when this knowledge was not only increasingly recognised, but many would agree also necessary. However, this created a pronounced challenge within social science, as it divided the community into the empiricists and the others, and faned the raging fire of the positivism dispute. The ethics of research itself were at stake for many, proving that Grounded Theory opened up another domain of knowledge, yet could not solve the overarching problem of critical rationalist, whose relationship with positivism was intertwined and questionable to many. This proves how scientific developments are not unconnected from societal developments, which in the 1960s were equally radical and fundamental.

Another source of criticism on Grounded Theory is that it is not a rigid and transparent method, but a diversity of approaches. While this plurality can be clearly seen as a strongpoint, it may make it difficult to approach this method without any experience or already known approaches. This can be seen as a tautological problem because the promised methodological plurality is nothing but micro-dogmas of individual researchers or their schools of thinking, who proclaim they know the best approach.

Yet another criticism could already be anticipated: We are not independent of pre-existing theories. The original postulation of Grounded Theory was well aware of that, and there was a clear recognition that we need to clearly indicate any form of bias or other influence. This, in turn, is of course hard to do if we are not aware of our own shortcomings. The positivist deducers consider this to be a severe flaw, yet I would highlight this as completely different forms of knowledge. The deductive and the inductive are not only different categories, but altogether different approaches to knowledge. Whoever aims at comparing them for a better or worse is bound to lose plurality, knowledge, and any debate about philosophy of science.


The greatest achievement of Grounded Theory is the opening up of the rigid tracks of positivism to a more inductive line of thinking. Grounded Theory is surely one step towards a more open scientific world beyond the often arrogant and expectation-driven deductive approaches that are laced with theories. In terms of history of science, this is a serious development, as it opened up a necessary debate, and contributed to the building of a bridge between the positivists and critical theory. While it could not altogether close this gap between these opposed lines of thinking, it most notably is also part of a movement that opened science for more qualitative inquiry, and a deeper look into societal structures, power, agency and the actions of individuals embedded in society and their millieu. Consequently, the openness of the method creates challenges not only when approaching the method for the first time, which is why building on the aforementioned established sequential coding procedure can be beneficial. As much as comparability between studies building on Grounded Theory can be a problem in the eyes of conservative researcher that rely on deduction, this comparison is obviously a mistake altogether. Every study building on Grounded Theory should be seen as a new proposal in the canon of knowledge. We can be sure that the context, settings and structures of each specific case will have been taken into account. As such, Grounded Theory paved the road to a science that is more interactive with its objects of inquiry, and thus created one of the first and deepest link to society.


Glaser and Strauss, who originally developed the methods in the 1960s, had a clash in the 1990, with Strauss (and Juliet Corbin) creating a proposal for a more systematic approach. Glaser then even proposed not to read previous literature altogether as not to be influenced or biased by it, and called for an inductive openness and emergence. Just as any methodological approach is sooner or later bound to diverge into progressive and conservative lines of thinking, Grounded Theory now becomes nested into smaller schools of thought, where procedures, approaches and the context of theory of science differ. The future may show whether these differences can be overcome and whether this is even necessary. Critical realism may offer a solution to this end, as the difference between everything that is real, everything that actually is, and all that is empirical allows the researcher to divide knowledge production according to these three categories. This can be quite relevant, as it allows for a systematic inquiry into social structures and phenomena, where the differentiation between that which can be inquired, and that which cannot be inquired, constitutes a safe haven for an ontological objective view of the world, that is all the while subjective in terms of epistemology. This is clearly a pronounced progress in the eyes of many when it comes to positivism in comparison. Objective knowledge is not only overrated and problematic, but may ultimately be inappropriate and unnecessary. Time will tell if Grounded Theory can contribute to the contextual and inductive knowledge needed to overcome the rifts that positivism created in society and science.

An exemplary study

The exemplary study on Grounded Theory by Kornilaki & Font (2019)

Kornilaki & Font (2019) used (Straussian) Grounded Theory to identify and explain "how socio-cultural and industrial norms influence the intentions and behavious towards sustainability of owner-managers of small tourism firms" in Crete, Greece (p.2). Grounded Theory was chosen since the inductive approach promised novelty in the theoretical perspectives on the topic, and in order to be more flexible to adapt to the responses by the participants in the study.

In a first step - and ongoing throughout the process -, the researchers consulted literature on the topic to "enhance their theoretical sensitivity and to compare the emerging theory with other work in the field" (p.184). Then, they selected 23 owner-managers from small tourism companies to engage with in an Open Interview. After a first broad analysis of the gathered data, key issues were identified, upon which another 16 partipants, including 14 of the first selection, were chosen for a second round of open interviews.

The interviews were recorded and transcribed, and key words or sentences were highlighted in the transcripts. Based on these key items, codes were developed openly and iteratively (open coding). The codes were then abstracted by grouping them into categories, with relationships emerging between the categories and codes (axial coding), which led to the development of hypotheses (selective coding).

In their results, the researchers claim that "[t]hrough constant comparisons of the data and of incidents, the researchers were able to see variations in the owner-managers’ behaviour depending on their circumstances, the environment, their different prioritisation of actions and strategic responses to events and problems, and the different consequences of those actions." (p.6). Participants were categorised based on their behavioral profiles, and the researchers were able to infer "a nuanced account of how social influence and social norms affect human behavior in relation to sustainability actions" (p.9).

Overall, the Grounded Theory approach provided in-depth insights into the owner-managers' perceptions of their own and others' behavior, and helped the researchers identify which influences determine this behavior.

Key Publications

Corbin, J.M. & Strauss, A. 1990. Grounded theory research: Procedures, canons, and evaluative criteria. Qualitative sociology 13(1). 3-21.

  • In this paper, Corbin & Strauss introduced the steps of open, axial and selective coding.


Kornilaki, M. Font, X. 2019. Normative influences: how socio-cultural and industrial norms influence the adoption of sustainability practices. A grounded theory of Cretan, small tourism firms. Journal of Environmental Management 230. 183-189.

DELVE. How To Do Open, Axial and Selective Coding in Grounded Theory. Last accessed 16.08.2021.

The author of this entry is Henrik von Wehrden.