Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Reducing Confusion about Grounded Theory and Qualitative Content Analysis: Similarities and Differences

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Reducing Confusion about Grounded Theory and Qualitative Content Analysis: Similarities and Differences

Article excerpt


Using an appropriate research method for inquiry is critical to successful research. Grounded theory and qualitative content analysis share similarities. Both are based on naturalistic inquiry that entails identifying themes and patterns and involves rigorous coding. They are both used to analyze and interpret qualitative data; however, the similarities and differences in grounded theory and qualitative content analysis have not been clarified in the literature (Priest, Roberts, & Woods, 2002), nor have they been consistently considered.

To illustrate, both have been considered equivalent approaches to interpret qualitative data (e.g., Priest et al., 2002). Grounded theory was treated as a research methodology, and content analysis as a method (e.g., Crotty, 2003); furthermore, grounded theory was considered a theoretical framework and content analysis a research method of textual data analysis (e.g., Patton, 2002). Qualitative content analysis was considered a strategy for the analysis of qualitative descriptive studies (Sandelowski, 2000) and a technique with overtones of other research methods, such as ethnographic and grounded theory (Altheide, 1987). Qualitative content analysis was unknown as a research method until recently, especially in English-speaking countries, because of the dominance of quantitative content analysis (Schreier, 2012).

Moreover, a researcher's approach purportedly following grounded theory actually seems closer to qualitative content analysis or other methods (Sandelowski & Barroso, 2003; Suddaby, 2006). Sandelowski and Barroso (2003) cited the discrepancy between "method claims and the actual use of methods" (p. 905) in research papers. Novice researchers, especially students who want to conduct qualitative research, are often confused by the characteristics of the two as result of the lack of comparative references. Some researchers who stated they had used grounded theory actually used qualitative content analysis, which incorporates some procedures of grounded theory, such as open coding or memoing (Sandelowski & Barroso, 2003).

Thus, the purpose of this paper is to clarify ambiguities about the characteristics of grounded theory and qualitative content analysis. Using our own research as examples, we have discussed the similarities and differences in the two in the following six areas:

a) background and philosophical basis,

b) unique characteristics of each method,

c) goals and rationale of each method,

d) data analysis process,

e) outcomes of the research, and

f) evaluation of trustworthiness of research.

We have also discussed the strengths and weaknesses of each. Through this paper, we expect to provide knowledge that can assist novice researchers in the selection of appropriate research methods for their inquiries.

Background and Philosophical Basis

Grounded Theory

The term grounded theory was introduced in The Discovery of Grounded Theory (1967) by Glaser and Strauss as "the discovery of theory from data--systematically obtained and analyzed in social research" (p. 1). Instead of verification of theories, they introduced a research method to arrive at a "theory suited to its supposed uses" contrasting with a "theory generated by logical deduction from a priori assumptions" (p. 3). According to Strauss and Corbin (1994) it is "a general methodology, a way of thinking about and conceptualizing data" (p. 275).

The Grounded Theory Institute, run by Glaser, one of the founders of grounded theory, defined it as follows:

Grounded Theory is an inductive methodology. Although many call Grounded Theory a qualitative method, it is not. It is a general method. It is the systematic generation of theory from systematic research. It is a set of rigorous research procedures leading to the emergence of conceptual categories. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.