This line from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado captures the spirit of my research process and the theories that emerged from that process. Initially I set out, on what I thought was a well- traveled path, to find empirical evidence of what I knew to be true. I soon realized that conducting research centering on what matters to research participants— grounded theory research— means there is no path and, certainly, there is no way of knowing what you will find. The most difficult challenges of becoming a grounded theory researcher are:
- Acknowledging that it is virtually impossible to understand grounded theory methodology prior to using it,
- Developing the courage to let the research participants define the research problem, and
- Letting go of your own interests and preconceived ideas to “trust in emergence.”
Ironically (or maybe not), these are also the challenges of Daring Greatly and living a courageous life.
Below is an overview of the design, methodology, sampling, and coding processes that I use in my research. Before we jump in, I want to acknowledge Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss for their pioneering work in qualitative research and for developing grounded theory methodology. And, to Dr. Glaser, who was willing to commute from California to serve as the methodologist on my dissertation committee at the University of Houston: You literally changed the way I see the world.
THE RESEARCH JOURNEY
As a doctoral student, the power of statistics and the clean lines of quantitative research appealed to me, but I fell in love with the richness and depth of qualitative research. Storytelling is my DNA, and I couldn’t resist the idea of research as storycatching. Stories are data with a soul and no methodology honors that more than grounded theory. The mandate of grounded theory is to develop theories based on people’s lived experiences rather than proving or disproving existing theories.
Behavioral researcher Fred Kerlinger defines theory as “a set of interrelated constructs or concepts, definitions, and propositions that present a systematic view of phenomena specifying relations among variables, with the purpose of explaining and predicting the phenomena.” In grounded theory we don’t start with a problem or a hypothesis or a literature review, we start with a topic. We let the participants define the problem or their main concern about the topic, we develop a theory, and then we see how and where it fits in the literature.
I didn’t sign on to study shame— one of the most (if not the most) complex and multifaceted emotions that we experience. A topic that not only took me six years to understand, but an emotion that is so powerful that the mere mention of the word shame triggers discomfort and avoidance in people. I innocently started with an interest in learning more about the anatomy of connection.
After fifteen years of social work education, I was sure of one thing: Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The power that connection holds in our lives was confirmed when the main concern about connection emerged as the fear of disconnection; the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, something about who we are or where we come from, has made us unlovable and unworthy of connection. I learned that we resolve this concern by understanding our vulnerabilities and cultivating empathy, courage, and compassion— what I call shame resilience.
After developing a theory on shame resilience, and getting clear about the effect of scarcity on our lives, I wanted to dig deeper— I wanted to know more. The problem is that there’s only so much you can understand about shame and scarcity by asking about shame and scarcity. I needed another approach to get under the experiences. That’s when I had the idea to borrow a few principles from chemistry.
In chemistry, especially thermodynamics, if you have an element or property that is too volatile to measure, you often have to rely on indirect measurement. You measure the property by combining and reducing related, less volatile compounds until those relationships and manipulations reveal a measurement of your original property. My idea was to learn more about shame and scarcity by exploring what exists in their absence.
I know how people experience and move through shame, but what are people feeling, doing, and thinking when shame doesn’t constantly have a knife to their throats, threatening them with being unworthy of connection? How are some people living right alongside us in this culture of scarcity and still holding on to the belief that they are enough? I knew these people existed because I had interviewed them and used some of the incidents from their data to inform my work on empathy and shame resilience.
Before I dove back into the data, I named this study “Wholehearted Living.” I was looking for women and men living and loving with their whole hearts despite the risks and uncertainty. I wanted to know what they had in common. What were their main concerns, and what were the patterns and themes that defined their Wholeheartedness? I reported the findings from that study in The Gifts of Imperfection.
Vulnerability has consistently emerged as a core category in my work. It was a critical component in both my study on shame and my study on Wholeheartedness, and there’s even a chapter on it in my dissertation on connection. I understood the relationships between vulnerability and the other emotions that I’ve studied, but after years of dropping deeper and deeper into this work, I wanted to know more about vulnerability and how it worked. The grounded theory that emerged from this investigation is the subject of this book and another academic article in press.
As I’ve mentioned, grounded theory methodology, as originally developed by Glaser and Strauss and refined by Glaser informed the plan of research for my studies. The grounded theory process consists of five basic components: theoretical sensitivity, theoretical sampling, coding, theoretical memoing, and sorting. These five components were integrated by the constant-comparison method of data analysis. The goal of the research was to understand the participants’ “main concerns” related to experiencing the topic being examined (e.g., shame, Wholeheartedness, vulnerability). Once the main concerns emerged from the data, I developed a theory that explains how the participants continually resolve their concerns in their daily lives.
Theoretical sampling, the process of data collection that allows for the generation of theory, was the primary sampling method that I used in this study. When using theoretical sampling, the researcher simultaneously collects, codes, and analyzes data and uses this ongoing process to determine what data to collect next and where to find them. In line with theoretical sampling, I selected participants based on the analysis and coding interviews and secondary data.
One important tenet of grounded theory is the idea that researchers should not assume the relevance of identity data, including race, age, gender, sexual orientation, class, and ability. Although the relevance of these variables was not assumed, purposive sampling (intentionally sampling across identity data) was used with theoretical sampling to ensure that a diverse group of participants were interviewed. At certain points during my research, identity data indeed emerged as relevant, and in these cases purposive sampling continued to inform the theoretical sample. In categories where identity did not emerge as relevant, theoretical sampling was used exclusively.
I interviewed 750 female participants, approximately 43 percent of whom identified themselves as Caucasian, 30 percent as African-American, 18 percent as Latina, and 9 percent as Asian-American. The female participants’ ages ranged from eighteen to eighty-eight years, with a mean of forty-one. I interviewed 530 men, approximately 40 percent of whom identified themselves as Caucasian, 25 percent as African-American, 20 percent as Latino, and 15 percent identified as Asian. The mean age of the men interviewed was forty-six (the range was eighteen to eighty).
Although grounded- theory methodology often yields theoretical saturation (the point at which no new conceptual insights are generated and the researcher has provided repeated evidence for his or her conceptual categories) with far fewer than my total 1,280 participants, three interrelated theories emerged with multiple core categories and numerous properties informing each category. The nuanced and complex nature of shame resilience, Wholeheartedness, and vulnerability necessitated the large sample size.
A basic tenet of grounded theory is “all is data.” Glaser writes, “The briefest comment to the lengthiest interview, written words in magazines, books and newspapers, documents, observations, biases of self and others, spurious variables, or whatever else may come the researcher’s way in his substantive area of research is data for grounded theory.”
In addition to the 1,280 participant interviews, I analyzed field notes that I had taken on sensitizing literature, conversations with content experts, and field notes from my meetings with graduate students who conducted participant interviews and assisted with the literature analysis. Additionally, I recorded and coded field notes on the experience of taking approximately 400 master and doctoral social-worker students through my graduate course on shame, vulnerability, and empathy, and training an estimated 15,000 mental health and addiction professionals.
I also coded over 3,500 pieces of secondary data. These include clinical case studies and case notes, letters, and journal pages. In total, I coded approximately 11,000 incidents (phrases and sentences from the original field notes) using the constant comparative method (line- by- line analysis). I did all of this coding manually, as software is not recommended in Glaserian-grounded theory.
I collected all of the data with the exception of 215 participant interviews that were conducted by graduate social-work students working under my direction. In order to ensure inter-rater reliability, I trained all research assistants and I coded and analyzed all of their field notes.
Approximately half of the interviews were individual meetings and the other half happened in dyads, triads, and groups. Interview times ranged from forty-five minutes to three hours, with an average of approximately sixty minutes. Adjusted conversational interviewing was utilized because it is regarded as the most effective grounded theory approach to interviewing.
I used the constant comparative method to analyze the data line by line, and then I developed memos to capture the emergent concepts and their relationships. The primary focus of the analysis was identifying the participants’ main concerns and the emergence of a core variable. As I conducted additional interviews, I reconceptualized categories and identified the properties that inform each category. I used selective coding when core concepts emerged and the data were saturated across categories and across their properties.
Grounded theory researchers are required to conceptualize from the data. This approach is very different from traditional qualitative methods that yield findings based on thick description of data and participant quotes. To conceptualize shame, Wholeheartedness, and vulnerability, and to identify the participants’ main concerns about these topics, I analyzed data line by line while asking the following questions: What are the participants describing? What do they care about? What are they worried about? What are the participants trying to do? What explains the different behaviors, thoughts, and actions? Again, I used the constant comparative method to reexamine the data against the emerging categories and their related properties.
For the same reasons the grounded theorist allows the research problem to emerge from the data, a full review of the significant literature is conducted after the theory is generated from the data. The literature reviews done in quantitative research and traditional qualitative research serve as buttresses on both sides of research findings — literature reviews are conducted to support the need for new research, the research is conducted, findings emerge independent of the literature, and the research is again supported by the literature to demonstrate its contribution to the researcher’s profession.
In grounded theory, data buttress the theory and the literature is part of the data. I learned very quickly that grounded-theory researchers cannot go into the literature review thinking, The theory has emerged, I’m done, how does it fit? Instead, the grounded theorist must understand that the literature review is actually a literature analysis and it is not separate from the research but is a continuation of the process.
The references and related research quoted in this book both supported and informed the emerging theories.
EVALUATING GROUNDED THEORY
According to Glaser, grounded theories are evaluated by assessing their fit, relevance, workability, and modifiability. The theory has achieved “fit” when the categories of the theory fit the data. Violations of fit occur when data are forced into preformed categories or discarded in favor of keeping an existing theory intact.
In addition to fit, the theory must be relevant to the action of the area. Grounded theories are relevant when they allow the core problems and processes to emerge. Workability is achieved if the theory can explain what happened, predict what will happen, and interpret what is happening in an area of substantive or formal inquiry. There are two criteria for evaluating whether a theory “works”— the categories must fit and the theory must “work the core of what is going on.” Working the core means that the researcher has conceptualized the data in a way that accurately captures the participants’ main concerns and how they continually address those concerns. Last, the principle of modifiability dictates that the theory can never be more correct than its ability to work the data; thus, as the latter reveals itself in research, the former must constantly be modified.
As an example, I look at the various concepts that I presented in this book (e.g., the armory, minding the gap, disruptive innovation, etc.) and ask, “Do these categories fit the data? Are they relevant? Do they work the data?” The answer is yes, I believe they accurately reflect what emerged from the data. Like shame resilience theory, my quantitative colleagues will test my theories on Wholeheartedness and vulnerability and we will push the knowledge development process forward.
As I look back on this journey, I realize the deep truth in the quote I shared at the beginning. There really is no path. Because the research participants had the courage to share their stories, experiences, and wisdom, I forged a path that defined my career and my life. When I first realized and resented the importance of embracing vulnerability and living a Wholehearted life, I would tell people that I was hijacked by my own data. Now, I know that I was rescued by it.