Title: The evolving nature of grounded theory: experiential reflections on the potential of the method for analysing children‟s attitudes towards physical activity.
Keywords: Research methodology, grounded theory, children‟s physical activity.
Charles Buckley, Sport Studies, Liverpool Hope University College, Hope Park, Taggart Avenue, Liverpool L16 9JD.
Michael Waring, School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Loughborough University, Loughborough, Leicestershire, LE11 3TU
Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Glamorgan, 14-17 September 2005
There is growing evidence that obesity levels among children are high and increasing (Department of Health, 2004) and that children have become physically less active in recent decades (Boreham and Riddoch, 2001). This, together with the concerns about declines in girls‟ physical activity after the age of 11 (Sproston and Primatesta, 2003) means that understanding children‟s attitudes towards physical activity, especially in childhood, is becoming increasingly
important. Factors surrounding physical activity behaviours are complex and relate to mediating factors such as social, cultural and gender structure of societies (Garrett, 2004). Despite the wide acknowledgement of the desirability of promoting physical activity in youngsters, relatively little is known about their decision-making processes or factors which serve to mediate their choices about the value of various forms of physical activity such as physical education, sport and certain aspects of their leisure time.
It has been claimed that grounded theory is the most widely used qualitative method in social science research (Locke, 2001) and presents a distinct methodology for generating theories about substantive areas for which there are few existing theoretical explanations. Despite this there are few studies which employ this approach in the area of children‟s sport and physical activity.
This paper highlights the evolving nature of grounded theory, in particular, the disputes between the original authors and, using case study material from two separate projects, considers some of
the realities of working with children using recommendations from Glaser (1978, 1992) and Strauss and Corbin (1990, 1998), in particular, differences that are apparent in the role of the researcher in framing the research question (s); the degree of formal structuring to coding data and developing a theoretical framework. The authors‟ reflections highlight a number of
methodological considerations for researchers in this area who have used or are considering the use of grounded theory.
Physical activity contributes to well-being and good health (Department of Health, 2004) and can take place in a number of formal and informal contexts such as sport, physical education and people‟s leisure time. The publication of Game Plan (DCMS, 2002) by the Strategy Unit in December 2002 clearly highlighted the British government‟s desire and commitment to develop
sport and physical activity culture over the next 20 years. In outlining its proposal, it acknowledged the significant behavioural change required in various contexts in order to achieve this.
Factors affecting children‟s attitudes towards physical activity and sport are complex and
mediated by a range of variables such as social class, gender and race (Azzarito and Solomon, 2005); body image (Duncan et al, 2004) and physical identity (Garrett, 2004). Studies need to
appreciate and accommodate the complexity of young peoples‟ lives „in the round‟ rather than,
as with much of the extant work on young people‟s participation in sport and physical activity, investigating processes from a purely physiological, psychological or health promotion perspective in which there is a tendency to focus on rational choices or behaviours of individuals (Smith and Green, 2005). However, early childhood literature describes children as a special population about whom we know very little (Mac Dougall et al., 2004).
Holloway and Valentine (2000) have charted what continues to be a bourgeoning interest in attempts to understand children‟s lives which has resulted in an increase in the mass of critical studies in this area. Greater consideration within the body of literature has been given to adolescent young people (Keddie, 2005; Sirin et al., 2004 and Bell and Bromnick, 2003),
however, there have been relatively few qualitative studies in this area which consider younger children. Investigations into childhood decision making processes present a number of challenges for researchers trying to make sense of their behaviour patterns. Such challenges include: interviewers underestimating the time children commonly take to answer, child memory limitations, imbalances in power relations between interviewer and child (Kellet and Ding, 2004).
Further difficulty arises when attempting to make sense of the sometimes transient and intricate world of child sub-cultures. Children perceive the world in a different way from adults, acknowledgement of which is crucial for researchers in this arena (Grieg and Taylor, 1999). In addition the growing recognition that children should not only be given a voice, but play a critical role in providing us with insights into what childhood means is a vital component of such research (France, 2004) so that children can quite rightly be placed as „social subject‟ rather than an „object‟ of study. In so doing we will then generate increasingly valuable insights into what it means to be a child (James and Prout, 1998). Such involvement of children and young people in the research process is receiving increased interest. This is something which has already been acknowledged elsewhere (Jones, 2004), although it is still in its infancy (MacPhail and Kinchin, 2004).
; Why grounded theory?
It is a methodology that has been used to generate theory in areas where there is little already known (Goulding, 1998). Its usefulness is also recognised where there is an apparent lack of integrated theory in the literature (Goulding, 2002). Grounded theory “adapts well to capturing
the complexities of the context in which the action unfolds…” (Locke, 2001:95) and emphasises
process. In so doing it assist the researcher in retaining the link between culture, language, social context and construct (Gales, 2003). Therefore, grounded theory generates theory that is of direct interest and relevance for practitioners in that it analyses a substantive topic and aims at discovering a basic social process (BSP) which has the potential to resolve some of the main concerns of a particular group (Jones, 2002).
; Grounded theory
“I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
(Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
Perhaps the most central and distinguishing feature of the grounded theory approach is the notion of inductive reasoning. Parker and Roffey (1997) argue that grounded theorists do not profess neutrality from the research subject but refuse prior commitment to any particular pre-existing theory when entering the research site. Glaser (1992) recommends that researchers use
their theoretical sensitivity (their knowledge, understanding and skill) to generate concepts from data and relate them according to normal models of theory in general and theory development in sociology in particular.
In addition to entering an area without pre-conceptions, the constant comparative method is central to distinguishing the grounded theory method. It is comprised of four stages which take place throughout the whole study. The stages involve: comparing incidents applicable to each category generated; integrating categories and their properties; delimiting the theory and writing the theory.
Data collection and analysis proceed simultaneously in a grounded theory analysis. Memo-making leads directly to theoretical sampling, which involves collecting more data for the purposes of developing the emergent theory. This differs from purposeful sampling which Glaser argues is worked out in advance of the study. The analyst who uses theoretical sampling cannot know in advance what to sample for and where it will lead (Glaser, 1992).
Misuse of grounded theory
Stern (1994) believes that many researchers who claim to be using grounded theory are really muddling methods. The apparent dichotomy between approaches of the two original authors with their methods described as “fundamentally different” is often unacknowledged (Stern 1994,
p.221). According to Skodol-Wilson and Ambler-Hutchinson (1996) those researchers in the area of nursing, where the method is widely used, are now obliged to specify whether the grounded theory approach they employed was the original Glaser and Strauss (1967) version, the Strauss and Corbin (1990, 1994, 1997, 1998) renditions, or the Glaser (1978, 1992, 1994, 1998) interpretation.
Whether many researchers are actually following a full grounded theory has been questioned by a number of authors: Charmaz (2003) questions the extent to which many researchers actually follow a true grounded theory and argues that most researchers construct conceptual analyses instead of a substantive theory which is grounded. Campbell et al., (2004) also state that
“nowadays many researchers claim to have used „grounded theory‟ in their analysis, although in truth not many implement the complex procedures outlined by its designers to the full. “ (p. 128). Unfortunately, the multiple interpretations of grounded theory fail to be acknowledged in many
studies which claim to use the method.
Parker and Roffey (1997) argue that the essential major areas of difference in approach between Strauss and Corbin and Glaser may be expressed as:
1) The approach to generating the focal research issues;
2) The degree of formal structuring of the approach to coding data;
3) The degree of formal structuring of the approach to generating a theoretical framework.
; Experiential reflections using Glaser v Straussian grounded theories
The two authors of this paper were both involved in using grounded theory in the area of children‟s physical activity research and the following issues are reflective thoughts following their research. One project used a predominantly Straussian approach, the other, a Glaserian. In this reflective analysis, the paper considers the extent to which researchers should feel obliged to follow one of the versions of grounded theory.
Entering the area
Strauss and Corbin (1990) recommend using what they call technical literature in the early stages of the research. Glaser (1992) stresses that non-related literature only should be used initially and later, when the researcher is sure of the emergent categories, related literature can act as more data. The paucity of qualitative research in the area of children‟s physical activity
presents great potential for researchers to enter the area with an open mind, even for those who are working in related fields.
The researcher following Glaser‟s recommendations should be aware that the starting point for
their research should be an „area‟ rather than a „problem‟ and that asking specific questions should not form part of the analysis. Significantly for the beginner researcher this could present a dilemma and challenge in gathering initial data for coding. Glaser (1992) recommends that the researcher enters the field “with abstract wonderment of what is going on that is an issue and how it is handled” (p.22) and that “the researcher never never asks the question directly in
interviews as this would preconceive the emergence of data”. He goes on, “think theory, talk everyday common sense English” (p.25). The greater freedom offered to the researcher in Glaser‟s model might facilitate the generation of concepts which are emergent and discovered
from data but present a very difficult challenge for inexperienced researchers. Interviewing young children using the emergent approach to generating a research focus presents difficulties for neophyte researchers who might prefer the greater freedom offered in Strauss and Corbin‟s
framework for setting more specific research questions. Strauss and Corbin (1998) stress however that: “…it is necessary to frame a research question in a manner that will provide the flexibility and freedom to explore a phenomenon in depth” (P. 40). Questioning during the early
stages of research for Glaser should be unstructured and open-ended, with the objective of maximizing diversity.
A potential advantage of the Strauss and Corbin (1990, 1998) model for researchers in the area of children‟s physical activity is the structure and practically oriented steps for generating grounded theory. Indeed, even for the early stages of the research process and generating the research question they offer more procedural advice. Strauss and Corbin (1994) suggest that researchers should reflect critically on themselves and their behaviour, as well as continuing to positively emphasise the researcher‟s familiarity with the grounded literature associated with the research area in such a way that it might be played against systematically gathered data.
Coding procedures and the paradigm model
The early stages of grounded theory involve open coding, both Glaser and Strauss start with this process. Early codes may be in-vivo and represent direct quotations from the respondents or
descriptive whereby the analyst assigns a label to best describe the incident. In both case studies of the authors using Straussian and Glasarian approaches to grounded theory, it was found to be useful to employ predominantly in vivo codes for a relatively substantial part of the research
process as this encourages the analyst to spend time checking the suitability of selected codes and only start the process of abstraction when they have become familiar with the culture and language of the children. Examples from Buckley‟s study included: “boys do it better”, “playing with my friends” and “doing it for the school”. This is also important to maintain the notion of
fit which is fundamental to the emerging grounded theory. Subsequent substantive theories are also more likely to have relevance to teachers and related professionals in the area of children‟s physical activity if the resultant analysis is accessible and written in a language which has meaning and is understandable and, is grounded I children‟s natural discourse.
Perhaps one of the major differences in approach between Glaser and Strauss and Corbin is their approach to coding and theoretical sampling. Strauss and Corbin (1990) introduced a new coding process with a strong emphasis on conditions, context, action/interaction strategies and consequences. Strauss and Corbin (1990) also introduced a third type of coding, axial coding, to specify the dimensions of a category and link categories with sub-categories. Glaser (1992) suggests that this model “teaches the analyst to force a full conceptual description on data with
no questions about whether the links are relevant to any emerging theory that really explains how the participants process their main concerns” (p. 63). However, Strauss and Corbin (1990)
state that autonomy remains in their framework, for example, as there are a number of variations in open coding available to the researcher, which include line-by-line analysis, by sentence or paragraph or considering the whole document. They leave the choice up to the individual researcher, something which Glaser (1992) appears to have overlooked. Unfortunately, what also appears to have been overlooked by Glaser and others is the intended use as a pedagogical tool which the Basics of Qualitiative Analysis (Strauss and Corbin, 1990) text was intended to be for us especially, but not exclusively for those who may be new to the methodology. Strauss had noted that it is useful, in as much as a manual is useful, but not to be taken as an exact recipe (personal communication with Anselm Strauss 21.11.94).
The role of the researcher
A central difference between the two approaches is the role of the investigator in the research process. Strauss and Corbin (1990) emphasised a very active, even provocative role in which researchers essentially interrogate the data; Glaser sees this as a violation of his more restrained approach in which researchers remain entirely distant and independent from the phenomenon under study.
The influence of the researcher on the data is a concern for sociologists (Kvale, 1996). Postmodern writers are sceptical of the way in which grounded theorists group codes and construct theories by collapsing and reorganising the data. Ways of neutralising researcher bias in interviews have been suggested. The issue of accommodating „multiple voices‟ is given consideration by Strauss & Corbin (1994) who accepted that these voices are interpreted conceptually by the researcher. However, they suggested that “coding procedures, including the
important procedures of constant comparison, theoretical questioning, theoretical sampling, concept development, and their relationships, help to protect the researcher form accepting any of these voices on their own terms, and to some extent forces the researcher‟s own voice to be questioning, questioned and provisional” (p280).
Glaser & Strauss (1967) emphasised the need to ensure subsequent theories, had use, and were comprehensible to those under study, together with obtaining feedback from interviewees about the accuracy of collected data. Lincoln and Guba (1985) recommend member-checking as part of the qualitative research process. Goulding (1998) reinforces this suggesting that grounded
theorists should present their interpretations to the informants to ensure it is an honest representation of participant accounts.
Goffman (1959) points out that “actors” can give researchers a false impression of the phenomenon, in each individual‟s commitment of how to present “self” to “others”. „Being like
and liked by others‟ was one of the subcategories which emerged in Buckley‟s grounded theory study with adolescent children which reinforces the idea that children in interview situations may give answers they feel others want to hear. Strauss and Corbin (1990) allow for the asking of more direct questions and view everything as data. In this way, Buckley and Waring both used the strategy of making notes relating to the dynamics of the interview and bracketing whereby children‟s non-verbal cues and signals were noted and potential interviewer bias documented throughout the process (the final point is a strategy recommended by both Glaser (1978) and Strauss and Corbin, 1990). It is also emphasised in an arguably alternative version of grounded theory by Charmaz (2003).
Demonstrating the conceptual links in grounded theory
Both Glaser and Strauss and Corbin recommend the use of diagrams in the process of generating theory. In the Basics of Qualitative Research Strauss and Corbin (1990) include a section on
memos and diagrams which is recommended for use throughout the research process. A technique used by grounded theory researchers is to produce visual representations of relationships between concepts in the form of diagrams. Strauss (1987) suggests that this strategy encourages theory building and a clearer understanding of data. Diagrams, according to Strauss and Corbin (1990) can take the form of logic diagrams which show the logical
relationships between categories and their subcategories and integrative diagrams which are
used to try and show conceptual linkages.
The theoretical framework in Buckley‟s study incorporated diagrams to allow the researcher to provide visual representations of the relationships between the various identities emergent from the analysis of data. Logic and integrative diagrams were used throughout the study such as diagram 1. This shows some of the essential and secondary traits of one of the identities which made up the subcategory of Sporty Participant and its relationship with the core category. The subsequent core category core category was labelled, „Interpreting Myself‟ - The Identity Profile
Continuum‟. (Diagram 2) This Basic Social Process (BSP) (Glaser, 1978) is one in which children make judgements about themselves, their physical abilities and skills, their relationships with peers, parents, teachers and coaches.
Waring‟s study incorporated both logic and integrative diagrams: In his study he found that: The
inter-relationships between key agents, especially the young person and their parents, are formulated through compromise and coercion to try to best satisfy each other‟s personal agendas. The nature of this agenda is based on the definition associated with three roles, which gatekeepers adopt (guardian, facilitator, enforcer). The definition of each role affects the manner in which young people individually as well as collectively with the other gatekeepers, construct a framework incorporating an evolving combination of processes; negotiated independence, safekeeping, rationalising rewards, networking, re-prioritisation and vacuum strategies. Diagram 3 illustrates this on a conceptual level. Such processes vary according to the context and nature of the physical activity and create a complex causal web. The gatekeeping processes are consciously, as well as unconsciously, manipulated relative to the social and physical context in which the young person and other gatekeeping agents (parents, school and peers) exist and find themselves.
Which one to choose?
There is an enticing simplicity about the central theme of Glaser‟s approach, the constant comparative method: “categories emerge upon comparison and properties emerge upon more comparison. And that‟s all there is to it” (Glaser 1992, p.43). However, for the inexperienced or neophyte researcher, this lack of procedural guidance can be very daunting. A possible advantage of the Strauss and Corbin approach lies in its more structured and practically oriented approach, assisting the researcher to make sense of large volumes of qualitative data. However, whilst their procedural advice is more specific than previously articulated versions of Glaser and Strauss, the researcher following their general approach still has flexibility in choice of method and data interpretation.
Both Glaser‟s and Strauss and Corbin‟s approaches are extremely complex in their own way. Stern‟s (1994) emphasis on the need for mentoring reiterates both Glaser‟s (1978) and Strauss‟s (1987) call for this approach. She believes that it cannot be learnt from a book:
“it may be possible to learn brain surgery from a book, but it is far from usual. And brain surgery is easier!” (p.219).
Moreover, it could be argued that if the researcher is to make an informed choice about the correct methodology which suits their field of research and views on the nature of reality, then
an understanding of the complexities of the Strauss/Glaser debate is essential. Goulding (2002) argues that any attempt to pick and mix from the two approaches identified by Glaser and Strauss and Corbin would be inappropriate as there are differences in terminology and procedures. However, Heath and Cowley (2004) suggest that the novice researcher should set aside anxieties about whether they are „doing it right‟ and adhere to the central principles of grounded theory such as constant comparison and theoretical sampling and discover which approach best suits their cognitive style. The purpose of grounded theory, they argue, is not to discover the theory, but rather a theory that aids understanding in the area under investigation. Charmaz (2000) has argued that grounded theory methods evolve in different ways depending on the perspectives of the researcher and that by exploring the underlying ontological and epistemological perspectives can help researchers acknowledge the limits of their studies. In this way, the logic-of-justification of the method (Piantanida et al., 2004) becomes more important in
the area of grounded theory which is characterised by methodological ambiguity.
Dey (1999) argues that despite its immediate appeal grounded theory raises more questions than it answers, however, he suggests that this may be of considerable merit as it obliges us to face up to basic questions about the very nature of research which requires reflection on what we are doing and how we do it. Parker and Roffey (1997) also suggest that whilst researchers might identify differences between the methods advocated by Glaser and Strauss and Corbin, the methodology will remain as a potentially important research focus as differentiation expands its analytical options and ultimate theoretical dimensions.
Grounded theory lends itself well to children‟s physical activity research as it encourages researchers to follow pertinent leads which emerge in the data to a variety of sources which may be of potential relevance. It also allows the researcher to bridge the gap between authentic accounts of the individual case and generalised accounts which offer meaningful advice for curriculum planners and related professionals in the area of children‟s sport and physical education.
For teachers and professionals concerned with promoting children‟s physical education, sport and physical activity grounded theory can help identify a number of different perceptions held by key actors and a more informed basis for policy development. In addition, it can offer a viable alternative to challenging some of the taken-for-granted assumptions about the complex realities of children‟s social worlds. It can provide a fuller theoretical framework for understanding certain cultural phenomenon across a variety of settings such as the school, family,