Research Methods for Information Research

8. Some methodological matters

8.1 Grounded theory

I’m often struck by the conservative approach to research adopted by many people in the library and information research field. There are lots of small-scale qualitative studies, some theoretical models of information-seeking behaviour, and not much in between to build up a core of research knowledge. There was also the usual plethora of hypotheses to be viewed through the prism of the project being discussed.

What we now think of as scientific research is heavily shaped by Popper’s proposition that knowledge accumulates by falsification (or refutation) of hypotheses46. In the library and information research field (as in other areas of the social sciences) the idea of proposing hypotheses has been more or less readily accepted. Unfortunately, the complexities of doing research in the real world, where it is not possible to isolate and examine variables in turn, has led to perversion of Popper’s approach in two ways. First, researchers drift into hypothesis proving rather than hypothesis challenging: collecting evidence in favour of the hypothesis rather than making rigorous efforts to undermine it. Second, there is a tendency to rewrite the hypotheses during the course of the research, when the work begins to call them into question.

One answer to the perceived limitations of the hypothesis-based approach to social science research was proposed by Glaser and Strauss as long ago as 196747. Their concept of ‘grounded theory’ suggests that the theory should come out of qualitative research data collection rather than being proposed at the outset. Researchers have welcomed ‘grounded theory’ because it gets them out of the hypothesis strait-jacket.

Unfortunately, some researchers think that invoking grounded theory gives a license to by-pass the difficult research questions and to claim that their evidence supports whatever ideas they want to advance. In fact grounded theory offers a systematic approach based on constant comparisons, theoretical sampling and application of coding procedures. Three kinds of coding are at the heart of this approach: open coding (the initial process of breaking down, analysis, comparison and categorisation of data – labelling, grouping and re-grouping incidents or events to form categories and properties); axial coding (teasing out of hypothetical relationships between categories and sub-categories); and selective coding (assembling the categories into the core category that becomes the basis of the grounded theory – which might be described as making sense of the data).

Interestingly, the two authors have diverged in their approach, with Glaser challenging Strauss and his later collaborators for, in his view, forcing data into a preconceived framework48. In doing so, Glaser has given rise to further academic debate about whose interpretation of grounded theory should be preferred (with a recommendation that researchers should specify which version of each author’s approach is being followed)49.

46. POPPER, K. R. (1969) Conjectures and refutations: the growth of scientific knowledge [New edition London: Routledge 2002]

47. GLASER, B. G. and STRAUSS, A.L. (1967) The discovery of grounded theory: strategies for qualitative research Chicago, USA: Aldine.

48. GLASER, B.G. (1992) Basics of grounded theory analysis Mill Valley, California, USA: Sociology Press

49. BABCHUK, W. A. (1996) ‘Glaser or Strauss? Grounded theory and adult education’ Midwest Research-to-Practice Conference, Michigan State University October 1997 [Winning graduate student research paper from the 1996 conference]