Grounded Theory Methodology and Consumer Behaviour, Procedures, Practice and Pitfalls

Christina Goulding, Wolverhampton Business School
ABSTRACT - While methodologies such as phenomenology, semiotics, discourse analysis and post-structuralism are currently occupying prime position in the conversation about qualiative paradigms within the field of consumer research, grounded theory has largely been excluded. This paper argues that all too often, impressions of the grounded theory method are premised on a number of misunderstandings regarding the aims and procedures of the methodology. It attempts to explain the development of grounded theory and explicate the intellectual assumptions which underpin both the philosophy and application of the method. It offers an example of grounded theory research in order to illustrate the process of theory building, and concludes by summarising some of the problems and pitfalls associated with the methodology.
[ to cite ]:
Christina Goulding (2000) ,"Grounded Theory Methodology and Consumer Behaviour, Procedures, Practice and Pitfalls", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 261-266.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 261-266


Christina Goulding, Wolverhampton Business School


While methodologies such as phenomenology, semiotics, discourse analysis and post-structuralism are currently occupying prime position in the conversation about qualiative paradigms within the field of consumer research, grounded theory has largely been excluded. This paper argues that all too often, impressions of the grounded theory method are premised on a number of misunderstandings regarding the aims and procedures of the methodology. It attempts to explain the development of grounded theory and explicate the intellectual assumptions which underpin both the philosophy and application of the method. It offers an example of grounded theory research in order to illustrate the process of theory building, and concludes by summarising some of the problems and pitfalls associated with the methodology.


While methodologies such as ethnography, semiotics, and phenomenology are currently occupying prime position in the conversation about qualitative paradigms in social research, outside of the humanities, grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967) has largely been excluded (Spiggle 1994; Goulding 1998). This may be partly attributable to the language of the method with its connotations of positivist practices, inherent in the use of such terms as open coding, axial coding, verification procedures and so forth. Such attempts to structure, order and interpret data are commonly seen to defile the canons of pure qualitative research where the primacy of the subjective experience of the participant takes precedence over the interpretation of the researcher (Goulding 1998). This paper argues that all too often impressions of the grounded theory method are premised on a number of misunderstandings regarding the aims of the methodology and its procedures. It attempts to explain the development of grounded theory and explicate the intellectual assumptions which underpin both the philosophy and application of the method. It offers an example of grounded theory research through the demonstration of the process of theory development within the field of consumer behaviour. Finally, the paper examines some of the weaknesses of the method.


The roots of grounded theory can be traced back to a movement known as symbolic interactionism whose origins lie in the work of Charles Cooley (1864-1929) and George Herbert Mead (1863-1931). The concern of these scholars was to avoid the polarities of psychologism and sociologism. Psychologism is a view predicated on the assumption that social behaviour is explicable in genetic terms and by logical or neurological processes. Sociologism is the opposed fallacy which looks at personal conduct as if it were in some way programmed by societal norms (Blumer 1969). According to this paradigm, individuals engage in a world which requires reflexive interaction as averse to envirnmental response. They are purposive in their actions and will act and react to environmental cues, objects and others, according to the meaning these hold for them. These meanings evolve from social interaction which is itself symbolic because of the interpretations attached to the various forms of communication such as language, gestures, and the significance of objects. These meanings are modified, suspended or regrouped in the light of changing situations (Schwandt 1994).

Methodologically, the researcher is required to enter the worlds of those under study in order to observe the actor’s environment and the interactions and interpretations that occur. The researcher engaged in symbolic interaction is expected to interpret actions, transcend rich description and develop a theory which incorporates concepts of "self, language, social setting and social object " (Schwandt 1994, p124). The developed theory should be presented in a form that creates an eidetic picture, and enduring examples can be found in the work of such scholars as Erving Goffman (1959, 1961, 1970). Using these principles as a basic foundation, two American scholars, Glaser and Strauss, set out to develop a more defined and systematic procedure for collecting and analysing qualitative data. The method they developed was labelled 'grounded theory’ to reflect the source of the developed theory which is ultimately grounded in the behaviour, words and actions of those under study. They devised the method while researching the experiences of chronically ill patients. It was constructed as a means of systematically collecting data which could be interpreted and developed through a process which offered clear and precise guidelines for the verification and validation of findings. Such a procedure was deemed necessary given the climate which prevailed. The 'academy’ at the time largely regarded qualitative research as subjective, unsystematic, and above all, unscientific, and as such unworthy of serious recognition. Thus a method which could track, check, and validate the development of theory from a qualitative perspective was deemed both timely and necessary.


Grounded theory, in contrast to theory obtained by logico-deductive methods is theory grounded in data which have been systematically obtained through 'social’ research (Baker et al 1992: Stern 1994). Its development was part of a larger scale reaction against extreme empiricism or 'Grand Theory’ (Mills 1959) and it was first presented as a formal methodology by Glaser and Strauss in their 1967 book "The Discovery of Grounded Theory". The book was written in part as a protest against what the authors viewed as a rather passive acceptance that all the 'great’ theories had been discovered and that the role of research lay in testing these theories through quantitative 'scientific’ procedures (Glaser and Strauss 1967; Charmaz 1983). The emphasis behind grounded theory therefore became one of 'new’ theory generation. In keeping with its principles, the theory evolves during the research process itself and is a product of continuous interplay between data collection and analysis of that data. Consequently, unlike many other methods, the grounded theorist does not wait until all the data is collected before analysis begins; rather, the search for meaning through the interrogation of data commences in the early stages of data collection (Glaser & Strauss 1967; Glaser 1978, 1992; Charmaz 1983; Strauss 1991; Strauss & Corbin 1990, 1994; Stern 1994).


Most texts and articles on the subject advocate reading the original 'Discovery’ as a starting point. Whilst it may have dated somewhat since its publication, the guiding principles and procedures are explained in detail and endure as the essential guidelines for applying the method. It is also important to note that its original intent was a methodology specifically for sociologist. In recent years, the diffusion across a number of disciplines such as social work, health studies, psychology and more recently management, has meant the adaptation of the method in ways that may not be completely congruent with all of the original principles. However, despite conflicting perceptions over methodological transgressions and implementation, there remain a set of fundamental nomothetic principles associated with the method.


1: The identification of an area of interest and data collection

Initially, as with any piece of research, the process starts with an interest in an area one wishes to explore further. Usually researchers adopt grounded theory when the topic of interest has been relatively ignored in the literature, or has been given only superficial attention. Consequently, the researcher’s mission is to build his/her own theory from the ground. However, most researchers will have their own disciplinary background which will provide a perspective from which to investigate the problem. Nobody starts with a totally blank sheet. A sociologist will be influenced by a body of sociological thought, a psychologist will perceive the general phenomenon from either a cognitive, behavioural, or social perspective, and a business academic may bring to bear organisational, marketing, economic, or systems concepts which have structured their analysis of managerial behaviour. These theories provide sensitivity and focus which aid the interpretation of data collected during the research process. The difficulty in applying grounded theory comes when the area of interest has a long, credible and empirically based literature. Grounded theory may still be used, but work in the immediate area should be avoided so as not to prejudice or influence the perceptions of the researcher. Here the danger lies in entering the field with a prior disposition, whether conscious of it or not, of testing such existing work rather than developing uncoloured insights about the area of study. In order to avoid this, it is generally suggested that the researcher enter the field at a very early stage and collect data in whatever form appropriate. Unlike other qualitative methodologies which acknowledge only one source of data, for example the wordsof those under study as in the case of phenomenology, grounded theory research may be based on single or multiple sources of data. These might include interviews, observations, focus groups, life histories, and introspective accounts of experiences.

2: Interpreting the data and further data collection.

As the data are collected they should be analysed simultaneously by looking for all possible interpretations. This involves utilising particular coding procedures which normally begins with open coding. Open coding is the process of breaking down the data into distinct units of meaning. As a rule, this starts with a full transcription of an interview, after which the text is analysed line by line in an attempt to identify key words or phrases which connect the informant’s account to the experience under investigation. This process is associated with early concept development which consists of "identifying a chunk or unit of data (a passage of text of any length) as belonging to, representing, or being an example of some more general phenomenon" (Spiggle 1994, p493). In addition to open coding, it is important to incorporate the use of memos. Memos are notes written immediately after data collection as a means of documenting the impressions of the researcher and describing the situation. These are vital as they provide a bank of ideas which can be revisited in order to map out the emerging theory. Essentially, memos are ideas which have been noted during the data collection process which help to reorientate the researcher at a later date.

3: Theoretical sampling

A further feature of the method relates to the sampling of informants. Sampling is not determined to begin with, but is directed by the emerging theory. Initially, the researcher will go to the most obvious places and the most likely informants in search of information. However, as concepts are identified and the theory starts to develop, further individuals, situations and places may need to be incorporated in order to strengthen the findings. This is known as 'theoretical sampling’ which is "the process of data collection for generating theory whereby the analyst jointly collects, codes and analyses the data and decides what data to collect next and where to find it, in order to develop the theory as it emerges. This process of data collection is 'controlled’ by the emerging theory" (Glaser 1978, p36).

In addition to theoretical sampling, a fundamental feature of grounded theory is the application of the 'constant’ comparative method. As the name implies, this involves comparing like with like, to look for emerging patterns and themes. "Comparison explores differences and similarities across incidents within the data currently collected and provides guidelines for collecting additional data...........Analysis explicitly compares each incident in the data with other incidents appearing to belong to the same category, exploring their similarities and differences" (Spiggle 1994, p493-4). This process facilitates the identification of concepts. Concepts are a progression from merely describing what is happening in the data, which is a feature of open coding, to explaining the relationship between and across incidents. This requires a different, more sophisticated, coding technique which is commonly referred to as 'axial coding’ and involves the process of abstraction onto a theoretical level (Glaser and Strauss 1967).

4: Concept and category development

Axial coding is the appreciation of concepts in terms of their dynamic interrelationships. These should form the basis for the construction of the theory. "Abstract concepts encompass a number of more concrete instances found in the data. The theoretical significance of a concept springs from its relationship to other concepts or its connection to a broader gestalt of an individual’s experience (Spiggle 1994, p494). In turn, once a concept has been identified, its attributes may be explored in greater depth, and its characteristics dimensionalized in terms of their intensity or weakness. Finally the data are subsumed into a core category which the researcher has to justify as the basis for the emergent theory. A core category pulls together all the strands in order to offer an explanation of the behaviour under study. It has theoretical significance and its development should be traceable back through the data. This is usually when the theory is written up and integrated with existing theories to show relevance and new perspective. Nonetheless, a theory is usually only considered valid if the researcher has reached the point of saturation. This involves staying in the field until no new evidence emerges from subsequent data. It is also based on the assumption that a full interrogation of the data has been conducted, and negative cases, where found, have been identified and accounted for.


While there are many papers which describe and explain what grounded theory is and how to use it, one of the most common requests of the two original authors (Glaser and Strauss 1967) is for illustrations of the process to show how theories are developed (Strauss and Corbin 1994). An obvious response to this is to direct enquiries to published reports, papers or theses. However, as with any methodology, within the final body of the work, the actual processes of coding, reduction and concept development become subsumed and invisible in the final interpretation and presentation of the analysis. Therefore, the main aim of this section is to demonstrate the application of the method by drawing upon examples from the author’s research into consumer behaviour and the meanings derived from visiting heritage sites. By way of illustration, the development of a concept is outlined by first presenting a section of an interview transcript and part of a memo relating to it. Second, the process of abstraction is discussed in relation to the development of one concept, that of nostalgia, the properties of this concept, and, finally, its dimensions.

What follows is a section taken from a transcript of an interview with a female visitor to a living industrial museum in Shropshire. She was aged approximately eighty, was visiting with an organised group and was not a regular visitor to museums. The interview took the form of a semi-structured conversation, allowing her to elaborate on themes and issues that she felt were important to her experience at the museum. She also talked about her life outside of the museum, her family, and the past. One of the important factors that emerged was that of familiarity with a number of artefacts at the museum. These in turn induced nostalgic memories. The concept of nostalgia is described in the literature as being a 'rose tinted’ form of remembrance, or a longing for the past set against an unfavourable perception of the present (Davis 1979). The concept was identified by taking the whole script and conducting a line by line analysis, as indicated in the text. The interview transcript was then broken up and emerging themes grouped together. In this case the themes relating to perceptions of the past and present have been merged to provide a picture of the nostalgic reaction.

Informant: On the appeal of the museum

"we like these sort of places, you knw, old houses, gardens, all the people dressed up in the old costumes. The old ways of working...and you can buy nearly everything they make. You can stop and talk to the workers, have a chat............they’ve got it used to be. That’s how it was years ago, people used to leave their doors open and be in and out of each others houses. Everyone knew everyone else"

On perceptions of the past as the 'good old days’

"Well...........yes, well they were. People knew each other, you helped each other out if you were in trouble. Today people are frightened to open their doors. Back when I was young you might not have the things that are around today, but you made your own fun. You worked hard, you gave your wages to your mother and she’d give you your spending money. Life was a lot simpler was slower. I wouldn’t like to be growing up today."

On perceptions of the present

"it’s rush here there and everywhere. You turn the television on and all the news is about murders and robberies. People see things they can’t have and just go out and get them. There’s no respect left for anyone, teachers don’t or can’t control the kids and the old are just easy targets. It isn’t a society that values the older generations, but I remember when it did. You respected your elders and betters, you got a clout 'round the head if you didn’t’, but you learned lessons that saw you through life."

On positive aspects of contemporary life, role changes, support networks and health

"Oh I’m painting a really black picture. Of course there are some things that are better now’s only when you come to a place like this it makes you realise the sort of thing you miss. I mean, it takes you back. I’ve lost most of my family, my husband’s dead and so are a lot of my old friends, the ones I’ve known for years. So when you see things you can remember it brings back happy memories.

On perceptions of the living museum

"It’s not like a normal museum is it.........there’s so much going on here...............I spent over an hour in the squatters cottage down the hill talking to the lady in there. I had a go at the peg rug, and she told me all about the history of the place. I’ve just been in the chemist, I could spend hours in there looking at all the old potions and’s like going back in time."

On the past

"Well you worked hard, but there were other things that compensated for that, family, community, you felt safe."

On the disappearance of these social aspects and feelings of isolation

"To some extent they have. People are always moving from one place to another, you lose touch. At one time if you lived in a street every one would know each other. Half the time you don’t know who your neighbour is these days."

Immediately after the conversation had taken place a memo was written to capture initial ideas and to provide a sense of reorientation for the future. A memo may consist of a few lines or may be several pages long. The following memo relates to the extract presented previously and offers an example of some of the initial ideas about what was occurring in the data.

Memo Relating to the Transcript

"It is an interesting fact that although the woman is in her early eighties, she seemed to be relating personally to the era depicted at the museum even though the setting is supposed to be mid-nineteenth century. However, there is very little to pin-point its exact date. There is nothing at the entrance to 'periodise’ it. Architecture is mixed, ranging from seventeenth century to Victorian. It is almost as if a lack of relevant dating allows the visitor to decide what period it is. Personal identification then comes from being able to relate to it through association with familiar objects. These objects then constitute the criteria against which authenticity is evaluated and measured. Also noted is the constant use of such words as 'remember’, 'old days’, 'community’, 'safe’, 'real’. It is almost as if she is transposing her own past and memories onto the 'themed’ setting. The experience is personal and the living museum, provides a back drop for these memories. Contributing to this near idealisation of the past are perceptions of contemporary society and changes in role, security, community and belonging. The past is contrasted with the present and seems to represent a near polar opposite. Memories are selective (nostalgicBwistful longing for a past with the pain removed). Even negative aspects ('clout’ around the head) are rationalised or compensated for. Factors that appear to influence this nostalgic reaction include:

* Dissempowerment (devaluation of self in eyes of others)

* Isolation (from community & security)

* Dependency

* Alienation & loss of social contact

* Loss of significant others

* Geographical displacement

* Levels of anxiety and mistrust of the present

The experience is largely one of fantasy and escape, evoked through stories, exchange of information and imagination."


According to Glaser (1978), after the interview has been transcribed and a memo recorded, the next stage is to analyse the data line by line looking for codes in each sentence. At this stage the coding is unfocused and 'open’. Coding is the process of analysing data and at this point the researcher may identify hundreds of codes which could have potential meaning and relevance. However, as a result of constant comparison of subsequent data these are reduced and grouped into meaningful categories. Codes are the building blocks of theory. By coding in every way possible, it allows for direction before becoming selective. It begins by fracturing the data into analytical pieces which can then be raised to a conceptual level (O’Callaghan 1996). Analysis on this level forces the generation of core categories and guides theoretical sampling. Open codes need to be grouped and constantly compared in order to generate a conceptual code. This conceptual code should have properties which can be dimensionalised, but it is also important to note that the focus should not be on quantitative values but on meaning. Consequently, by taking the transcript relating to the concept of nostalgia, it is possible to identify properties relating to the nostalgic reaction and in turn their dimensional range. The concept of nostalgia has a number of properties. These were derived from the coding procedure, from words, sentences and phrases that indicated an array of influences and behavioural implications, yet in isolation answered only a fraction of the problem. So, for example, negative perceptions of the present would not have constituted nostalgia if the past was not perceived in the opposite light as better than the present.

Concept: Nostalgia

Concept Properties and their Dimensional Range

Empty role repertoire . . . . . . . . . Full role repertoire

Low social contact . . . . . . . . . . . High social contact

Disaffection with the present  . . . .Satisfaction with the present

Out of control  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . In control

'Rose’ tinted memory . . . . . . . . . Realistic memory

Fantasy and escape  . . . . . . . . . . leisure & recreation

Personal association  . . . . . . . . . .lack of association

These codes and dimensions can be used to compare the presence or absence of nostalgia from the data provided by subsequent informants. Essentially, they may offer an initial basis for further analysis. Concepts explain aspects of behaviour, but not the whole. They unite certain influences under an explanatory conceptual heading. For example, the interview revealed a reduced role repertoire, a lack of social affiliation, disaffection with the present and the loss of control. In contrast with the present, the past was perceived as a much simpler, better time. It was remembered affectionately, although in a somewhat coloured manner. The painful aspects were selectively filtered out or justified, thus enhancing the nostalgic feeling. Other concepts identified included perceptions of authenticity, cultural identification, social experiences and so on. Each of these had properties and dimensions which were noted accordingly. The development of a core category however, involved demonstrating the relationship of each of these concepts to each other in order to provide a theoretically integrated explanation of behaviour in this particular context. The more one finds concepts that work, the more the core category becomes 'saturated’ (Glaser 1978). Grounded theory is based on multi-indicator concepts, not single indicator concepts. A core category is a main theme. It sums up a pattern of behaviour pulling together identified concepts which have a relationship to each other. It is the substance of what is happening in the data Glaser (1978).


According to Charmaz (1983), both the assumptions and analytical methods of grounded theory have been criticised by some qualitative researchers ona number of accounts. For example, their are some suggestions that grounded theorists fail to give proper attention to both data collection techniques and to the quality of the gathered material. Such criticisms, she maintains, misinterpret the aims and methods of grounded theory. Katz (1983 p133) argues that the case for analytical induction can be made stronger with a number of revisions:

"If we view social life as a continuous symbolic process, we expect our concepts to have vague boundaries. If analytical induction follows the contours of experience, it will have ambiguous conceptual fringes.For the statistical researcher, practical uncertainty is represented by statements of probabilistic relations; for the analyst of social processes, by ambiguities when trying to code border line cases into one or the other of the "explaining" or "explained " cases."

This requires an understanding that codes and concepts do not have to be mutually inclusive or exclusive, but are transcending in the sense that the same code and meaning can legitimately belong to, and cut across, numerous cases. In addition to these very fundamental concerns, Skodol-Wilson et al (1996) provide a summary of some of the main misconceptions which have resulted in the 'methodological slurring’ of grounded theory (Baker, et al 1992; Morse 1994; Stern 1994; Wells 1995). These centre largely around generation erosion, premature closure, and methodological transgressions.

The first of these refers to the divergence in methodological development between the two original authors. This divergence has been a source of debate since Strauss and Corbin’s publication on the subject in 1990 which was vociferously attacked by Glaser (1992). Nevertheless, there have been further discrepancies in the development of the method from those other than the two key figures. Skodol-Wilson et al (1996) refer to the number of academics with no first-hand contact with either Glaser or Strauss who have independently invented rigid rules for judging the credibility of grounded theory products. Skodal-Wilson et al refer to these adaptations as 'cooked up’ translations which are guilty of breaching the essence of the method and the inherent creativity of the original. Such later additions include the requirement of a visual diagram with all grounded theories, and a statement that a sample size of twelve be the minimum for any grounded theory study, although it is unclear how this arbitrary figure was reached. Riley (1996) states that most studies achieve saturation between 8-24 interviews depending on the topic focus, although this in itself appears to go against the whole philosophy of theoretical sampling as it dictates and directs the research design right from the start.

The second point they refer to, premature closure, is a well debated area although it is often simply taken to mean leaving the field too early They extend this to include the under analysis of textual or narrative data. The method requires that the researcher move through a succession of stages starting with in vivo codes, or open codes (which are codes derived directly form the data), through to more abstract or second level categorical codes, and finally to the last stage of conceptual and theoretical codes which are the building blocks of theory.

At each of these levels the theory becomes more refined, integrating abstract concepts that cover behavioural variation. Therefore, while premature closure is usually associated with leaving the field too early, it can also occur in situations where the researcher has collected a wealth of data if the analyst does not move beyond describing what is in the data. As such, the grounded theory is based solely on participant’s descriptions, and not on developed concepts. It is important therefore that the researcher 'lifts’ ideas from the data and explains them theoretically in order to give meaning to descriptions of the behaviour.

The last point is that of methodological transgression. Such transgressions refer to "the frank violation of the grounded theory philosophy and methodology" (Skodol-Wilson et al 1996 p224). This may pertain to methodological muddling, such as phenomenological research being presented as grounded theory (Baker, et al 1992; Wells 1995, Goulding forthcoming) but also applies to cases where the canons of quantitative method are modified and applied to interview or textual data, and where the outcome is a study described in positivist terms, random sampling, reliability, validity statistics, independent and dependent variables and so on (Baker et al 1992). Grounded theorists strive to develop fresh theoretical interpretations of the data rather than explicitly aim for any final or complete interpretation of it (Charmaz 1983). This in itself is possibly the most important part of the process. It is also one which must ultimately be referred back to the method of analysis and interpretation. At the early stages of theory development, the interpretation should be presented to the original informants, to ensure that it is an honest representation of participant accounts (Riley (1996). This is done before the interpretation is abstracted onto a conceptual level and therefore becomes less meaningful to the individual. Ultimately, when using the grounded theory method, the researcher has an obligation to 'abstract’ the data and to think 'theoretically’ rather than descriptively. Furthermore, theoretical explanations of behaviour must allow for process, and recognise context and change.


With regard to the process of developing 'grounded’ theory, it may be argued that there are three basic stages that need to be addressed. The first one deals with the collection and interpretation of the data and is primarily concerned with demonstrating how, why and from where early concepts and categories were derived. In accordance with the principles common to the method, any theory should be traceable back to the data. Consequently, evidence needs to be provided as does the relationship between concepts, categories and this evidence. The second stage is to 'abstract’ the concepts and look for theoretical meaning. At this stage the concepts should be sufficiently developed as to warrant an extensive re-evaluation of compatible literature in order to demonstrate the 'fit’, relationship and, where applicable, the extension of that literature through the research findings. The final stage shoud present the theory, uniting the concepts and integrating them into categories which have explanatory power within the specific context of the research. Throughout the course of the research it is common to collect an extensive amount of data in the form of interview transcripts, field notes on observations, memos, diagrams and conceptual maps. These may ultimately amount to hundreds of pages and as such involve making decisions regarding what to present and what to leave out. Unlike quantitative methods where, for example, a copy of the questionnaire and statistical analysis can be inserted in the appendix for justification and evidence of findings, with qualitative research it is impossible to provide the full evidence in a manner that is as immediately accessible to the reader. Consequently, what is included in the work has to be selective, but still presented in such a way as to create a meaningful picture. It is important, therefore, to chart the process as it evolves, to use diagrams to illustrate the emergence of the theory, and to point to critical junctures and breakthroughs in terms of theoretical insights.


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