Grounded Theory – as a method of analysis


My chosen form for these researches is “Practice as Research”. I am recording, studying and deconstructing my own, often intuitive, practices in order to find what are the factors that drive me towards particular subjects, locations and compositions. As I learn about my own practices I am also asking other photographers about how they approach similar situations. How are we different? How are we the same?

My ultimate goal is, by understanding the drivers behind the intuition, I will be able to consciously use and or over-ride my processes and so gain greater control over the meaning and narrative of my images.

This is an Autoethnographic approach. However, typical Autoethnography does not feel totally appropriate or complete for someone who has an engineering and analytical background. Consequently, I have been looking for a method for analysis that uses autoethnography as its source of data but then mixes more analytical tools to reach its conclusions.

I am using a paper by Steven Pace, a Senior Lecturer in digital media in the School of Creative and Performing Arts at Central Queensland University and written for the Creativity issue of “Cognitive, Social and Cultural Perspectives”, in 2012, as my source for the understanding of the different forms of Autoethnography.

The output of Autoethnography has been, typically, “an evocative narrative written in the first-person style such as a short story or novel” it allows artist and others “to reflect critically upon their personal and professional creative experiences”. However, it is “criticised for its rejection of traditional analytic goals such as abstraction and generalisation”.  (Pace, p2)

He lists the following characteristics of “evocative autoethnography”:

  • “the author usually writes in the first-person style, making himself or herself the object of research;
  • the focus of any generalisation is usually within a single case over time rather than across multiple cases;
  • the writing resembles a novel or biography in the sense that it is presented as a story with a narrator, characters and plot;
  • the narrative text is evocative, often disclosing hidden details of private life and highlighting emotional experience;
  • relationships are dramatized as connected episodes unfolding over time rather than as snapshots;
  • the researcher’s life is studied along with the lives of other participants in a reflexive connection; and,
  • the accessibility of the writing positions the reader as an involved participant in the dialogue, rather than as a passive receiver.” (Pace, p5)

This “evocative” autoethnography does not fit with my own practices, not least because my practices include technical as well as social and cultural aspects. I am not trying to write and autobiography and certainly not a novel and I do want to generate abstractions and generalisations from qualitative as well as quantitative data.

The next type of autoethnographic research method discussed by Pace is “Analytic Autoethnography. He describes 5 key features of this form:

  • “the researcher is a complete member of the social world under study;
  • the researcher engages in analytic reflexivity, demonstrating an awareness of the reciprocal influence between themselves, their setting and their informants;
  • the researcher’s self is visible within the narrative
  • the researcher engages in dialogue with informants beyond the self; and,
  • the researcher demonstrates a commitment to theoretical analysis, not just capturing what is going on in an individual life or socio-cultural environment.” (Pace, p5-6)

This Analytic approach is much closer to the form my researches have taken. However, “Grounded Theory” takes it one step further:

“Grounded theory is an investigative process for building a theory about a phenomenon by systematically gathering and analysing relevant data”.

“The aim of this primarily inductive research method is to build theory rather than test it. Grounded concepts, relationships and theories are suggested, not proven.”

“A grounded theory researcher does not commence a study with a preconceived theory that needs to be proven, as is common in deductive research methods. Instead, the researcher begins with a general field of study and allows the theory to emerge from the data” (Pace, p6-7)

The final quote, in particular, fits well with my own research goals. Consequently, I will be loosely following Grounded theory’s 4 stages:

  • open coding, which involves breaking the data down into significant concepts;
  • theoretical coding, which involves reassembling the significant concepts with propositions about their relationships to each other;
  • selective coding, which involves delimiting the analysis to only those concepts and relationships that are related to the core explanatory concept; and,
  • sorting the theoretical memos into an outline and writing up the theory. 

(Pace, p8)

I say I will “loosely” follow these coding stages as I do not want to formulate rigid strategies but, as noted by Charmaz (p523) and summarised below by Pace (p8-9), my use of Grounded theory needs to recognise several assumptions:

  • “people create and maintain their own realities by seeking understanding of the world in which they live and by developing subjective meanings of their experiences;
  • grounded theory researchers can only claim to have interpreted a reality, dependent on their own experience and the study participants’ portrayals of their experiences, rather than a uni-dimensional, external reality;
  • grounded theory does not seek a single, universal and lasting truth, but remains realist because it addresses human realities and assumes the existence of real worlds;
  • grounded theory is not free from bias, but reflects how the researcher thinks and what the researcher does about collecting and shaping the data;
  • grounded theory tells a story about people, social processes and situations that has been composed by the researcher—it does not simply unfold before the eyes of an objective viewer; and,
  • grounded theory does not approach some level of generalisable truth, but constitutes a set of concepts and hypotheses that other researchers can transport to similar research problems and to other substantive fields.” (Pace 8-9)

As Pace notes in his conclusion:

“analytic strategies can be used successfully within autoethnographic studies… when researchers treat them as flexible strategies rather than as a set of prescriptive procedures and rules….This flexibility does not imply a lack of rigor or diligence. Rather it represents the freedom to modify research designs as required”.  (Pace, p13)


Charmaz, K. ‘Grounded theory: Objectivist and constructivist methods’, in N K Denzin and Y S Lincoln (eds), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 509-35

Pace, S, Writing the self into research: Using grounded theory analytic strategies in autoethnography, viewed on12/11/17



2 thoughts on “Grounded Theory – as a method of analysis”

  1. I must admit “Grounded Theory ” sounds much more like real life than the the others. However a cautionary tale. When I was young we did a lot of shooting including clays and a friend of my fathers was a superb natural shot. So good the he got swept in to Scottish team. Now this involved coaching, analysing his style, breaking down the elements to improve. His scores went downhill as he started thinking about what he was doing and as a result he was never as good a shot again. Although interestingly enough when he was game shooting he was still as good as ever. A different discipline and thus the analysis wasn’t kicking in.
    Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t analyse to improve but to my mind there can be a danger of overthinking the process of taking pictures.

    1. Thanks Neil. I understand what you are saying. What I really like is the flexibility of Grounded theory to modify the processes and directions as you learn. It is a much more an organic, than scientific way of working. But, as you imply it is far more rigorous than the evocative auto-ethnography. It’s a good middle ground that appeals to the analytic in me whilst not constraining my creativity- I hope!

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