Academic journal article Electronic Journal of Business Research Methods

Contextual Sensitivity in Grounded Theory: The Role of Pilot Studies

Academic journal article Electronic Journal of Business Research Methods

Contextual Sensitivity in Grounded Theory: The Role of Pilot Studies

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Qualitative research is context-bound. This means that the researchers have to be sensitive to the context of the research and immerse themselves in the setting and situation. (Holoway, 1997:5)

Grounded Theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Glaser, 1992; Strauss and Corbin, 1990) is a research methodology in which theory and models are inductively extracted from the analysis of contextual data. This analysis involves the iterative discovery of concepts and tentative explanations of phenomena, as theory emerges from data. Because there is no preliminary testing or replication of any a priori theory, the method stands for its dedicated grasp of substantive areas, which is not static and suffers alterations with the discovery and constant comparison of new data, until sufficiently stable defining properties, explanatory categories, and linking sets of relationships are achieved.

This pre-emptive endeavour (Glaser, 1992) places upon the researcher a pioneering aura, in the sense that the newly discovered theory is applicable locally and solidly grounded in context-specific core values, understandings and boundaries.

Moreover, the method's intrinsic link to practical experience and the recursive procedural loops of theoretical formulation - comprehending a permanent interplay of the human-activity system and individual characteristics - lead to one more essential condition determining any successful Grounded Theory research: it must fit to context without force (Flower, 1989:296).

Therefore, this paper argues that knowledge of the context is a fundamental information resource in improving researchers' understanding of activities, relationships and stakeholders' thinking. Therefore this knowledge of the context becomes a key aspect in collecting data from and interacting with informants. This was clearly defended by Glaser and Strauss (1967:46) when proposing that insight as well as theoretical sensitivity were the main components in the social scientist armoury. Our proposition is that this insight that must necessarily include understanding of the complex contextual characteristics of the human-activity system being studied should be considered at the beginning of the process of grounded theory rather than later on in the process.

A number of propositions have been made to link the emerging theory with the context, such as the reflective coding matrix, which serves as a relational bridge from the analysis of axial coding to the interpretation of selective coding (Scott and Howell, 2008) or the conditional matrix coding which comes after dimensionalising and axial coding (Schatzman, 1991). These approaches aim at making the researcher's emerging theories denser, more complex and more precise (Charmaz, 2003).

The proposition in this paper is that the insight proposed by Glaser and Strauss (1967:46) should be acquired much earlier in the process of data collection and analysis, that is a precursor to the iterative process that characterises axial coding and theory building. In fact, most of the discussions on Grounded Theory application focus on "beyond the decisions concerning initial collection of data [which] cannot be planned in advance of the emerging theory" (Glaser and Strauss, 1967:47). This poses two major problems. First, the process of identifying "what groups and subgroups does one turn to next in data collection" (Glaser and Strauss, 1967:47) may be very long and depending on the researcher's own theoretical sensitivity may lead away for the convergence of theory or even result in erroneous and biased theoretical propositions. Therefore, sound contextual sensitivity is important from the very early stages of the research process. Second, the choice of these groups should be guided by a sound contextual sensitivity in order to identify the theoretical purpose that leads to the selection of multiple comparison groups. Therefore, this contextual sensitivity is not only fundamental at the onset of the project but also during the whole process of constant comparison and theoretical sampling. …

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