Grounded Theory Methodology as Methodical Hermeneutics: Reconciling Realism and Relativism

By Rennie, David L. | Psychologische Beiträge, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Grounded Theory Methodology as Methodical Hermeneutics: Reconciling Realism and Relativism


Rennie, David L., Psychologische Beiträge


The grounded theory method was developed by Glaser and Strauss (1967) as an alternative to what they saw as a predominantly rational approach to theorizing in sociology. Thus, rather than conceptualizing theory and then testing it with data, in the grounded theory method the conceptualization of theory is derived from data. Since its inception, it has been taken up by several disciplines in addition to sociology, including psychology (e.g., Pilowski, 1993; J. Watson & Rennie, 1994). Typically, the application of the method involves understanding the meaning of texts of various sorts, whether as notes of participant observation of social conduct, extant writings, or transcriptions of interviews. Glaser and Strauss have always maintained that a grounded theory is relative to the perspectives) of the persons) producing it, and that different sets of investigators working with the same information may derive alternative theories from it. In compensation, they have held that this perspectivism is acceptable so long as each theory is accountable to the information. Thus, relativism and realism have been acknowledged, but only tacitly. Recently, I have brought the realism and relativism intrinsic to the grounded theory method out into the open, and have challenged that neither Glaser's (1992) nor Strauss's (1987; Strauss & Corbin, 1990, 1994) current methodologies adequately address the tension between them. I have held that, in order for this tension to be reconciled with the subject matter addressed by the grounded theory method and with the procedures constituting the latter, it is necessary to view it as a form of hermeneutics. Correspondingly, I have drawn upon phenomenology, C. S. Peirce's theory of inference, philosophical hermeneutics and pragmatism in support of the notion that the grounded theory method amounts to a union of hermeneutics and method, or methodical hermeneutics (Rennie, 1998a, 1998b, 1999; cf. Corbin, 1998; Madill, Jordan & Shirley, 2000).

Up to now, this methodical hermeneutics has been only sketched. In the present article, I more fully develop the arguments for it. I begin by examining the nature of the subject matter typically addressed in a grounded theory analysis, and the way it is dealt with, as a way of teasing out how the method resolves to hermeneutics. Within this examination, Continental philosophical thought is drawn upon to support the point that, as hermeneutical, the method addresses the tension between realism and relativism. I then turn to how induction is involved in the method. Here the application of C. S. Peirce's theory of inference is useful because Peirce worked out a way to support the claim that induction is self-correcting, which helps to make the grounded method sufficient unto itself rather than merely the first step in scientific inquiry. This outcome is in keeping with the intent of a hermeneutic analysis, which is to derive an understanding of the meaning of text -- an understanding that stands on its own. Moreover, as a pragmatist, Peirce held that knowledge production involves the perspectives of those engaged in it, which keeps in place the tension between realism and relativism.

Thus, the presentation has several objectives. The immediate goal is to establish that the grounded theory method is indeed hermeneutical. The second purpose is to raise the possibility that, although it was not conceived as such, the method actually constitutes an improvement, in some respects, on earlier attempts to apply method to hermeneutics. Integral to this second goal is a third intent, which is to challenge the philosophical hermeneutic critique that method holds little place in hermeneutics. Fourth, a practical goal is to derive from the study a constructive contribution to the debate on the validity and reliability of the returns from a grounded theory inquiry. Finally, throughout, all of these objectives are organized by the attempt to reconcile the realism and relativism intrinsic to the method.

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