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Discriminating Between Phenomenology and Grounded Theory Qualitative Research Case Study

Pages:7 (2226 words)



Topic:Grounded Theory

Document Type:Case Study


Phenomenology and Grounded Theory Approaches

Both phenomenology and grounded theory are commonly used approaches to qualitative research in the social sciences. While grounded theory and phenomenology can sometimes be used simultaneously in ways that “slur” or “blur” the distinction between multiple qualitative methods, researchers in education should ultimately focus their attention on the best method for exploring single, focused research questions and their real-world applications (Baker, Wuest, & Stern, 1992, p. 1355). Grounded theory has been described as a “practical method for conducting research” that shows how people construct meaning about their social world (Suddaby, 2006, p. 633). Therefore, grounded theory is sociological in origin and linked to the concept of symbolic interactionism (Starks & Brown Trinidad, 2007). The methods used for grounded theory approaches to research in the social science include observations and other ethnographic data collection techniques, coupled with open coding for data analysis (Creswell, 2013). Interviews are one of the most commonly used data collection methods in grounded theory, and is also used often in phenomenological research (Wimpenny & Gass, 2000). While the goals of grounded theory research in education can be pragmatic, such as to influence policy and practice, generally researchers use grounded theory in order to generate theory or suggest new directions for paradigms or concepts (Starks & Brown Trinidad, 2007). Essentially, the researcher shows how an emerging theory is grounded in reality, while also showing how the observed experiences, populations, or phenomena reflect emerging theory in the social sciences.

Phenomenology differs from grounded theory in several key ways, including its philosophical orientation. Whereas grounded theory focuses more on sociological interactions among research participants and sample populations, phenomenology focuses more on the abstract qualities and categories of lived human experience (Creswell, 2013). In phenomenological research, data collection can also be ethnographic in nature or include specific methods like interviews and focus groups. Like grounded theory, phenomenology usually entails the recognition of categories and themes that have distinct meaning for the population. The researcher seeks broad “essential” elements that characterized the lived, shared experience of the population under study (Starks & Brown Trinidad, 2007, p. 1373). Therefore, grounded theory and phenomenology are similar but they do use different research methods and have potentially different applications. As Suddaby (2006) points out, grounded theory is better used when the researcher is working with “knowledge claims about an objective reality,” and wants to observe or understand how actors construct meaning from their objective reality (p. p. 634). When researchers start more with a blank slate and want to uncover or explore a previously undefined or unknown issue, problem, or phenomenon, then phenomenological research methods would be better indicated. The researcher should ideally select the appropriate qualitative method to meet research goals and also to best investigate the implications of the research questions. Qualitative research examples highlight the strengths and weaknesses in both of these major approaches and show how each can be judiciously used in context.

In a dissertation presented to Liberty University, Norton (2013) uses phenomenological approaches to study the self-efficacy beliefs of teachers who persist in their profession. In “Marshaling Resources,” Yalof (2014) uses grounded theory to explore peer support systems used among students in online learning environments. A comparison of these two studies can be helpful for illustrating the differences between grounded theory and phenomenology in education research.

Phenomenology: Norton (2013)

Purpose of the Study

In “A Phenomenological Investigation into the Self-Efficacy Beliefs of Teachers Who Have Persisted in the Teaching Profession,” Norton (2013) clearly states the purpose of the research as “to examine the perceptions and characteristics” of teachers ‘in order to explain the phenomenon of teacher self-efficacy,” (p. 19). By investigating self-efficacy beliefs through interactions with teachers, the researcher also aims to prevent teacher burnout and dissatisfaction, thereby reducing employee turnover among educators (Norton, 2013). The researcher purposefully selects twelve teachers who have remained in the profession for more than five years, in order to examine how self-efficacy beliefs impact decisions to stay in the profession and attitudes towards their professional status and role.

Research Questions

Three research questions guide the Norton (2013) study. First, the researcher asks after the perceptions of secondary school teachers…

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…the phenomena in question.

Role of the Researcher

In this study, Yalof (2014) functions mainly as an observer. The researcher used online discussion groups, serving as moderator and facilitator to stimulate the types of discussions that would yield viable data for the grounded theory research.

Applying the Principles of Grounded Theory

Grounded theory is based on a process of uncovering implied meaning, showing how individuals construct their belief systems, worldviews, and social realities. As such, Yalof (2014) uses grounded theory to show how students construct their realities as participants in a virtual classroom. While the researcher could just as well have selected another type of qualitative research method like phenomenology, the grounded theory works well in that it draws attention to socially constructed realities.

Data Collection

The researcher collects data from eighteen undergraduate and graduate student-participants in fourteen online universities. Data was also collected via online forums and discussions.

Ethical Issues

The researcher does not indicate whether or not, or how, informed consent was given to the participants. This is ethically problematic, as it is uncertain that the participants were aware of their rights. Also, the researcher does not clarify the parameters of the methodology or how the data was analyzed. Therefore, the integrity of the research is seriously compromised in the Yalof (2014) study.

Challenges and Limitations

The Yalof (2014) study faces, but does not overcome, several challenges and limitations. The lack of informed consent is a major limitation, and so is the sampling method. The researcher also works with online students who may or may not be representing themselves or their views accurately. Grounded theory is an appropriate approach for exploring the research question, but Yalof (2014) does not execute the grounded theory research in ways that could yield meaningful results.

Overall Effectiveness

Although the topic and purpose of the Yalof (2014) study are of note to educators and policymakers, the Yalof (2014) research is ineffective overall.


Given the limitations of the Yalof (2014) study, it is recommended that future researchers take a more…

Sample Source(s) Used


Baker, C., Wuest, J., & Stern, P. N. (1992). Method slurring: the grounded theory/phenomenology example. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 17(11), 1355–1360.doi:10.1111/j.1365-2648.1992.tb01859.x 

Creswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches. eBook.

Norton, S.M. (2013). A phenomenological investigation into the self-efficacy beliefs of teachers who have presisted in the teaching profession. Liberty University Dissertation.

Starks, H., & Brown Trinidad, S. (2007). Choose Your Method: A Comparison of Phenomenology, Discourse Analysis, and Grounded Theory. Qualitative Health Research, 17(10), 1372–1380.doi:10.1177/1049732307307031 

Suddaby, R. (2006). From the Editors: What Grounded Theory is Not. Academy of Management Journal, 49(4), 633–642.doi:10.5465/amj.2006.22083020 

Wimpenny, P. & Gass, J. (2001). Interviewing in phenomenology and grounded theory: is there a difference? Journal of Advanced Nursing 31(6): 1485-1492.

Yalof, B. (2014). Marshaling resources. The Grounded Theory Review 13(1).

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