11.17.2017

Constructing Grounded Theory: A Qualitative Research Method Suited for Artists



For my doctoral studies in Art Education I am learning to do qualitative research.  Many people hear the word research and think of lab coat donning scientists in a sterile environment and many moons ago so did I.   As an artist, it is heartening to now know that qualitative research has greatly expanded to a full array of methods.  I’m only at the beginning of learning about these methods, but I am already enjoying this journey and am excited to learn more.  I’m currently exploring the grounded theory method, which to me seems akin to the artistic process.  I’d like to share this method with other artists and art educators to get of glimpse of how research may be closer to their natural way of working than you may think when hearing the word research.  A book that I’ve found helpful to begin to understand this method is Kathy Charmaz’s (2014) Constructing Grounded Theory, Second Edition.  Hopefully you will see how, contrary to what some may think, this method can be useful to novices as well as advanced practitioners.
The Process of Grounded Theory (Charmaz, 2014, p. 18)
The grounded theory method of qualitative research, while it may seem complicated or advanced, is really just a systematic explanation of what most qualitative research is about.  And research, like art, is at root about observation.  Grounded theory is a flexible and systematic qualitative method of collecting and analyzing data for the purpose of constructing theories. It is well suited for multiple professions and disciplines. Even if you are not intending to construct a theory, many artist researchers may find Charmaz’s book useful.  While this book guides the researcher through the process of utilizing grounded theory for theory construction, it also offers tools and strategies for collecting, sorting, synthesizing, coding, comparing, categorizing, and analyzing data.  The book provides the reader with helpful guidance from the early stages of collecting data to the final analytic and writing process. While this method may sound advanced and complicated, a helpful diagram in Chapter 1 (p. 18) visually represents the process of grounded theory from the original research question to the writing and dissemination of information.  This will help to ease initial reservations and provide a framework and glimpse of what the book and grounded theory have to offer.  
Kathy Charmaz is a professor of sociology and her research interests include suffering and chronic illness. She has been studying and developing grounded theory from her early days as a doctoral student of Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss, the originators of grounded theory.  Since that time she has contributed to the development of grounded theory as a contemporary constructivist practice.  In constructivist grounded theory, in addition to following leads found in the data, the participants’ and researcher’s viewpoints and how these affect the research are acknowledged and valued.  
Charmaz begins with a historical overview of grounded theory which was originated by Glaser and Strauss in 1967 with their seminal work, The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research.  Grounded theory was originally rooted in positivism, which emphasized causes, explanations, and generality of explanations of abstract concepts. It has developed since that time toward a constructivist approach which combines inductive, comparative, emergent, and open-ended methods with flexible guidelines and an awareness of participant and researcher voice and position.
As with Grounded theory, the book then begins with the topic of gathering data.  Data can include many things such as observations, reports, documents, interviews, field-notes, and records.  With an emphasis on rich data, Charmaz highlights the flexibility of grounded theory methods in continuing to gather data throughout the process, following leads as they emerge, and always keeping an eye on quality.  Data can be gathered from diverse sources such as ethnographies to extant documents as well. From data collection through theory building, the researcher constantly compares data, codes, and categories to see what emerges.  
 After introducing Glaser and Strauss’ foundational method, Charmaz then moves into the topic of interviews.  Over two chapters, she covers methods for crafting questions, preparing guides, and conducting intensive interviews.  The emergent and open-endedness as well as the researcher’s role in the product and process are addressed.  She explains how intensive interviewing is particularly suited to grounded theory because they share similar qualities of open-endedness and a depth of exploration.  Another helpful diagram (p. 88) is provided showing how interviewing in grounded theory is conducted and how it leads to theoretical sampling and assessment.  
Once the data gathering process has begun in grounded theory the coding process follows.  Chapter 5 guides the reader through the beginning steps in the coding process.  While the word ‘coding’ may have a mathematical ring, it really is just a way to help you make sense of the information you have gathered.  Through coding, links are made to help explain the data you’ve collected and begin to understand what it all means.  There are two main phases of coding.  In the initial phase you name words, lines, and/or segments.  This involves the initial sorting of codes to synthesize, integrate, and organize your data. Charmaz explains that coding can be as simple or complicated as the researcher likes and as suits the needs of the project. She even hints at incorporating playfulness in the research approach with the idea that trying out innovative ideas may reap big rewards.  Sounds like creativity to me!
From initial coding the researcher moves into focused coding, which is the second coding phase. Additional phases may be axial coding and theoretical coding. The focused coding phase can bring rapid development to the analysis.  Charmaz highlights the importance of checking the codes and categories for preconceptions, how to avoid them, and  how to deal with them if they are found in the codes and categories.  This makes me think of my contemplative art practice.  I don’t plan what I’m going to paint or sculpt in advance, I just start, see what develops, and follow the process.  There is a process of constant comparison going on throughout the entire process in both art-making and grounded theory.   
As I paint I sometimes write thoughts or ideas that come to mind.  These notes help me to begin to understand what is transpiring in my painting.  This is very to similar memo writing in grounded theory (although my painting notes are a bit more minimalistic).  But all the same, memo writing is an important step in gathering data and writing up what you’ve found in the form of a paper or report.  In this crucial phase in grounded theory research, the researcher will analyze the codes and data.  Charmaz gives many helpful hints, such as keeping a journal, ways to organize various types of memos, as well as useful writing techniques.  Many examples of memo-writing are given which I found helpful.
From memo-writing the process advances to theoretical sampling, saturation, and sorting.  Theoretical sampling helps to develop, narrow, and refine your categories.  Saturation is determined by new data no longer prompting theoretical revelations or properties for categories.  Once the categories are developed they can begin to be sorted for theoretical connections at an abstract level.  Diagramming, in which the connections are represented in a visual format, may be helpful at this point.  Charmaz gives suggestions on methods to achieve this stage such as conceptual maps, visual diagrams, and conditional/consequential matrixes.    
Chapter 9 returns to the idea of what actual theory is and how a grounded theorists would go about proposing theories.  This will be especially helpful for the beginning researcher.  Charmaz discusses positivist and interpretive inquiry, and objectivist and constructivist grounded theory.  There is a useful table comparing objectivist grounded theory and constructivist grounded theory (Figure 9.1, p. 236).  
Chamaz next discusses symbolic interactionism and grounded theory and suggests the two as a “theory-methods package” (Charmaz, p. 277).  As a doctoral student in art education, I appreciate this connection being spelled out in the book because I will have to choose a theory and a research method for my dissertation.  Symbolic interactionism, an explanatory theory, offers a dynamic world-view in that it considers self and society as being constructed by human actions. It is particularly suited to grounded theory because both analyze the present unfolding of situations/data and value the present to inform understandings of the past.  Each can advance the other. As an artist, the connection between symbolic interactionism and grounded theory is a win-win situation since both analyze the present unfolding of situations and data similar to the unfolding of the creative art process.   
For the final phase of grounded theory research method, Charmaz (2014) details the process of writing the draft of the study.  A useful diagram of the report writing process is offered (Figure 11.1, page 286).  Seeing a visual overview of the daunting task of compiling research into a written report may help to ease any anxiety that may occur at this point and serve as a helpful guide in the process.  Charmaz points out that even at this point, one may likely still be making discoveries and continuing to hone connections and analyses.  Sound familiar?  Just like the old adage, when is an artwork completed?  There is even a very practical section on crafting a title and writing abstracts and keywords for those aspiring to publish their work.
Charmaz uses the final book chapter to reflect on the grounded theory research process and points to new developments in this method including mixed methods, social justice and global perspectives. She concludes with criteria for evaluating grounded theory and the possibilities of this qualitative research method contributing positively to our world.  
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I recommend that Kathy Charmaz’s (2014) Constructing Grounded Theory, Second Edition, be approached much like grounded theory itself, with an open mind and adapt it to suit your needs.  While there is much detail with rich examples, this is not a step-by-step guide.  At first, the beginning grounded theory researcher may find themselves feeling a little overwhelmed.  But with trust in the knowledge and expertise of this experienced researcher will lead to more successful results than a simple guide could provide.  For the experienced researcher, Charmaz offers contemporary constructivist perspectives on classic grounded theory.  Those with experience in grounded theory methods no doubt will feel right at home jumping in at the particular point of inquiry that suits their current research needs.   
With grounded theory’s focus on data collection, coding, and analyzation, all qualitative researchers will find this book a valuable resource.   Charmaz’s (2014) constructivist approach is very helpful in providing guidance in the sensitive collection, organization and analyzation of large amounts of data.  I also think most artists and art educators will find the constructivist approach a good fit akin to the creative process.  All researchers will find the sections on report and abstract writing both practical and useful.   
As a new researcher myself, I did find questions arising at certain points where I felt the book could have offered more detail.  For example, when talking about theoretical coding, Charmaz does not give much detail, except to allude to some of Glaser’s coding family categories and some critiques of using theoretical coding.  I did not feel that I could grasp a full picture of theoretical coding.  The author ended saying that researchers should basically just trust in the process and let codes arise from data because over-reliance on theoretical coding has its pitfalls. I felt that I had to trust in her expertise or go to another source of information to make this decision for myself.  Also, the issue of theoretical coding made me think of how it might be useful to know what previous art educators have used for theoretical coding categories and this perhaps is a topic that could be covered in a book on grounded theory specific to art education.
One place where the author provides organized detail is in the table of contents.  At first glance it might be a bit overwhelming in the sheer amount of information covered, but the book is well organized with chapters, headings, and subheading and these are clearly laid out from the beginning.  This makes skipping around to the a particular section very efficient and helps make the large amount of information covered easily accessible and manageable.    
As an artist and art educator, I am drawn to grounded theory’s iterative nature.  The process seems akin to the creative art process.  The method allows for creativity and flexibility which make it a perfect fit for art and art education related research.  Process is an inherent part of the approach.      
Overall, I highly recommend this book to all qualitative researchers. It is a book chock full of information.  For the beginning researcher, I would advise more than one reading to fully comprehend the beauty and usefulness of the book. While the sheer amount of information may be a bit overwhelming at first, the book will quickly lead to a depth of understanding of the grounded theory method of research. Just as grounded theory research commences with the first gathering of data, so does the comprehension of this systematic approach begin from the first couple of chapters with this book.  Both are a process that will build upon itself.  The advanced researcher will find that the book helps move them toward more contemporary and inclusive practices.  The beginning and advanced researcher alike can benefit from its iterative nature.  Researchers intending to use other qualitative methods will find grounded theory methods useful in learning how to organize and analyze their data.



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