31 Jan 2008

Literature review in grounded theory

Recently, colleagues told me that they were working a paper about grounded theory (GT). They would say something bad about GT. Actually, it’s so normal that people have different opinions and GT has been debated more than thirty years.

I’m not an exponent of GT or Glaserian or Straussian. I hope I understand grounded theory rather than just use it for my research. Therefore, I feel that it is useful to write something about applying literature review in GT although it has been criticised for ignoring existing theories and failure to integrate the emergent theory with existing knowledge.

To clarify, I quote some original ideas here. We can have a look Glaser and Strauss, Strauss and Corbin, Glaser’s opinions of using literature review in a grounded theory study.

In the original book by Glaser and Strauss, 1967, chapter VII, they mentioned the benefits of using existent materials in sociological research and also its disadvantages. They did not say they reject literature review purely. Rather, they said, “… we shall detail some procedures for using various qualitative sources, alone and in combination, to generate theory effectively through comparative analysis” (Glaser and Strauss, 1967: 163). “Perhaps we should warn that the discovery of a cache can actually restrict the development of a researcher’s theorizing… this kind of ownership can yield great depth of substantive knowledge but add little to social theory”(Glaser and Strauss, 1967: 168). “…if his purpose is explicitly the generating of theory, the absolute accuracy of his library informants is, as we have said, not crucial. He can even be less concerned if he intends to use field materials for further verification” (Glaser and Strauss, 1967: 181). “…in a conscious attempt to focus sociologists’ attention upon the central issue – not which source is ideally most important, but on the need for assessing realistically which may be best used, alone or in combination , in a particular study” (Glaser and Strauss, 1967: 183).

In the book by Strauss and Corbin, 1998, chapter 4, page 48-53, they talked about how to use nontechnical literature. “To begin with, let us assure our readers that there is no need to review all of the literature in the field beforehand, as is frequently done by analysts using other research approaches. It is impossible to know prior to the investigation what the salient problems will be or what theoretical concepts will emerge. … It is not unusual for students to become enamored with a previous study (or studies) either before or during their own investigations, so much so that they are nearly paralyzed in an analytic sense. It is not until they are able to let go and put trust in their abilities to generate knowledge that they finally are able to make discoveries of their own” (Strauss and Corbin, 1998: 49). They listed 9 points of using the technical literature, and they are applicable for nontechnical literature as well. They suggested that the existing materials can be used as data or for making comparisons.

Glaser and Strauss contributed to GT separately since the first edition in 1990 of Strauss and Corbin’s book Basics of Qualitative Research and Glaser’s book Basics of Grounded Theory Analysis published in 1992. Later, Glaser published a series of publications to elaborate his view of GT. I cited his expression in a recent article “Remodeling Grounded Theory”. He stated, “Instead, GT methodology treats the literature as another source of data to be integrated into the constant comparative analysis process once the core category, its properties and related categories have emerged and the basic conceptual development is well underway. The pre study literature review of QDA is a waste of time and a derailing of relevance for the GT Study”.


From my point of view, it is clear to see that Glaser and Strauss originally emphasised the importance of generating theory based on empirical data rather than went to library to collect materials. Their arguments of using literature were relevant to the traditional research methodology used in the late 1960s. Both Strauss and Corbin and Glaser did not say doing GT without literature review. They suggested that literature review at the beginning is not the most crucial work in a study, but supplement, and literature can be used as data or sources for comparative analysis.

Also, there are a few articles that help us to understand the role of literature review, “Exploring the influences and use of the literature during a grounded theory” (Heath, 2006); “Grounded theory research: literature reviewing and reflexivity” (McGhee et al., 2007), and “The use of literature in grounded theory” (Hickey, 1997).

1 comment:

Charles Nelson said...

From what you've said, GT's stance on literature review seems to be begging the question on where researchers decide to begin their research. Is it possible to do grounded theory research in a vacuum devoid of any knowledge of the literature? Or, in the case of an experienced and "grounded" researcher, without knowledge of one's previous research? No doubt, comparative analysis with the literature is appropriate, but this seems to be a chicken-and-egg question.