The accidental grounded theorists

On Friday I had reason to ponder the relationships between theory and data, and the boundaries between different types of qualitative research. This was day two of my Working and Leading in Complex Systems professional doctorate module. What I discovered is that I may, in fact, have become an accidental grounded theorist. Or possibly not…I’ll let the reader decide.

During a talk about critical junctures I said how, in our recent paper, Nicola Evans and I had elected to lay out our theoretical contribution (i.e., our idea of ‘critical junctures’ as pivotal, punctuating, moments initiating or taking place within longer individual trajectories of care) ahead of displaying our data. We had done this even though our ‘theory’ had in fact been fieldwork-driven, as we then demonstrated in our article with extended, illustrative, extracts. Quite reasonably, in the classroom I was asked if we had therefore used a grounded theory approach.

This question got me thinking. My immediate response was that Nicola and I had developed a concept from empirical data but had absolutely not claimed to be ‘doing grounded theory’. In fact, the thought had never occurred to us (or to me, at any rate).

And there’s the nub of it. What does it actually mean to ‘do grounded theory’? Follow a stepwise recipe from a methodological cookbook? Or range freely over one or more sets of data in the search for new insights? Without wanting to suggest that ‘anything goes’ in terms of methods, I wonder if we can sometimes get too hung up on techniques and ‘rules’ when it’s the principles which really matter? In our critical junctures paper these included a commitment to the inductive ‘drawing out’ of conceptual insights from an analysis of talk and action. They also included the idea of staying close to our data, and of offering fieldwork extracts in support of the theory. I personally have no wish to agonise over what flavour of ‘doing qualitative research’ we have done here, and I’m also not sure that all of the finer distinctions and sub-divisions necessarily matter or even make sense.

But perhaps I’m missing something.

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