How to Use Grounded Theory in Research

The inductive approach to social science research known as grounded theory represents a bottom-up method in which theory emerges from a process of data collection, coding and analysis. Rather than the top-down hypothesis testing approach used in most scientific inquiry, grounded theory assumes that theory is contained within the data collected. Uncovering the theory involves a process of writing memos in which the researcher articulates emerging ideas that become the basis of a theory.

Data Collection and Coding

Step 1

Choose a substantive research topic. Grounded theory researchers have used this approach to study organizational dynamics, management issues, primary and secondary education, health care services, race relations, juvenile crime and other topics.

Step 2

Identify a single question, known in qualitative research as a “grand tour” question, to serve as a springboard for data collection. Grounded theory researchers collect data primarily through qualitative methods such as interviews and documents. For example, asking a juvenile offender to describe his or her early experiences can serve as a grand tour question and establish a rapport. If the offender opens up and articulates experiences in his or her responses, this can help the researcher identify additional issues to pursue in the research process.

Step 3

Collect data using the research methods that are most appropriate for the subject you are studying. Although grounded theory is often associated with qualitative methods, some researchers use quantitative techniques or a combination of the two. Whatever method or methods you use, grounded theory research often follows purposive sampling, in which research subjects are selected because of what they know or who they are, rather than through random sampling procedures.

Step 4

Categorize and code your data. If you’re conducting interviews, this will require careful reading of interview notes and transcripts to note important patterns and themes. In qualitative research, data coding is a part of the analysis. Coding may also indicate a need for further data collection as new issues emerge.

Writing Memos and Articulating a Theory

Step 1

Write memos that connect the themes and patterns you have observed as you categorize the data. Memo writing is the step in which you begin to articulate the theory you will present in your report. The memos may indicate a need for additional coding and categorizing, or even further data collection.

Step 2

Review the research literature in your field of interest and consider how the previous studies fit into the theory you will articulate in your grounded theory report.

Step 3

Draft an outline of your report, using the completed memos as a guide. After doing this, write an analytical report that articulates your theory. Demonstrate how your theory explains the subject of your research. The value of grounded theory, after all, is how well it explains real-world situations.


The data collection, coding and memo writing steps often overlap in grounded theory research. It is important to be flexible and open to exploring new avenues of inquiry.