Chapter 25: Grounded theory analysis

Darshini Ayton

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Describe grounded theory analysis.
  • Understand how to conduct grounded theory analysis.
  • Identify the strengths and limitations of grounded theory analysis.

What is grounded theory?

Grounded theory is both a study design (see Chapter 10) and an approach to data analysis. Grounded theory aims to provide an explanation from the data about a phenomenon or concept. As noted in Chapter 10, there are methodological differences in the research design of grounded theory approaches, and hence different processes of analysis align with the specific methodological approach undertaken. Researchers need to ensure that the methodological and analysis approach are aligned.

Table 10.1 in Chapter 10 outlines three grounded theory approaches: Classical grounded theory, Straussian grounded theory and Constructivst grounded theory.1 In this chapter we expand on these approaches, specific to the analysis of data.

How to do grounded theory analysis

Classical grounded theory

The main focus of classical grounded theory as devised by Glaser and Strauss2 is to develop a theory that explains the participants’ stories or behaviours. The three steps of Classical grounded theory take the data from the abstract to interconnected ideas. Classical grounded theory is positioned within the positivist paradigm, and the steps for coding and analysis outlined here are objective and systematic:

Open coding is, as the name suggests, typically unfocused and seeks to explore all elements of the data. The transcript is divided into comparable sections (e.g. comparing similar descriptions of the phenomena) and these are given a code. This enables the researcher to group the codes, to create categories. As new phenomena, incidents or situations are identified in the data, they are compared to the categories and are either combined into an existing category or a new category is developed. This form of coding leads to the identification of what is called the ‘core category’, which is the most frequently occurring category that explains most of the data.1, 3

Selective coding is a step in which the researcher focuses on the core category and codes data to this core category. The purpose is to expand the core category and determine how it relates to other categories; to validate and test the relationships; and to continue refining and developing the core category. Selective coding continues until the core code is ‘saturated’; that is, no new data changes the core code. This may require moving back and forth between codes or categories within transcripts to continue to look for how the codes may relate to each other, or collecting more data to continue to develop the core category. Codes and categories are then integrated, which leads to the development of the theory.1, 3

Theoretical coding is a step in which the researcher creates a theoretical outline of how the categories developed in the earlier rounds of coding relate to each other. The researcher may choose to organise and categorise codes using the Six Cs model: causes, contexts, contingencies, consequences, covariance and conditions.4 It is important to include memos alongside the codes in this step. Memos are the researcher’s thoughts and ideas about the analysis, written during the research (following data collection, while reading the transcription and throughout the coding process).1

Straussian grounded theory

Straussian grounded theory was developed by Strauss and Corbin,5 and is considered methodological (pragmatic and post-positivist) rather than ontological and epistemological, and this is its main difference from classical grounded theory. The coding process is as follows:

Open coding is the first level of coding and involves breaking down the data into smaller sections; this is usually done through line-by-line coding, to identify concepts and key phrases. The researcher typically applies codes to ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, and ‘how’ in the text as a first round of coding.

Axial coding is the second level of coding, which links the data conceptually. Axial coding refines and aligns the open codes and identifies relationships or links between the codes. It seeks to pull the codes back into the categories of the ‘conditions’ of the data, looking for conditions, actions or interactions and consequences. This is where the core codes emerge.6

Selective coding is the third level of coding, in which the researcher selects and integrates the axial codes into a higher level of conceptual meaning. This coding step then leads to theory development.4

Constructivist grounded theory

The main focus of constructivist grounded theory, developed initially by Kathy Charmaz7, sought to move away from the positivist and post-positivist paradigms of other grounded theory approaches to recognise that reality, and consequently the research process, is socially constructed. It uses two main stages in coding:

Initial coding seeks to remain close to the data. Some researchers conduct word-by-word coding, which is helpful when coding documents as it focuses the researcher on words and their meanings. Researchers typically conduct line-by-line coding. It is during this initial coding stage that the researcher seeks to code for participants’ meanings, feelings and actions, and the consequences of the actions. The focus is on the process, how it can be defined and how the process develops. During initial coding, the constant comparative method is used to compare the codes within the same interview, to explore whether and how the codes align or diverge. Then codes are compared across interviews of similar phenomena or experiences.6,7

Focused coding is more directed and selective than initial coding, and focuses on synthesising and explaining larger segments of the text. The most frequent codes are applied to these larger segments of text to explore whether they can be maintained consistently and make analytical sense.

Note that initial and focused coding are not linear processes; the researcher often needs to move back and forth between the two approaches.7 This is because the researcher may have coded the first three transcripts with initial coding and then focused coding, and then in coding transcript four, a new concept becomes more evident in the data. The researcher will then go back to the earlier transcripts to explore if the concept can be identified.7

Axial coding, when used in constructivist grounded theory searches for links between experiences that have been categorised. This process leads to more categories, subcategories and links, and is part of the focused coding step. For example, in research involving older people who had experienced a fall, some of the older people explicitly used the word ‘fall’ while others avoided the word and instead used words such as ‘stumbled’, ‘tripped’ or ‘went over’. When looking for links between these different ways of talking about falls, the researchers found that participants who identified as ‘being old’ (which had nothing to do with chronological age!) were more likely to use the word ‘fall’, whereas participants who rejected the label of being old were more like to use synonyms. People who did not use the word fall explained the reason for the fall as ‘I was rushing’, and ‘I wasn’t wearing the right shoes’. Axial coding in this instance examines the socially constructed reality of the participant, such as their biographical details, social conditions, reasons for sharing, who was present and the assumed consequences of describing their fall.8, 9

Theoretical coding follows focused coding and is a more emergent process in constructivist grounded theory when compared to other forms of grounded theory analysis.6 Theoretical coding is the conceptualisation of how the focused codes may be integrated into a theory – basically into an analytical story.7 Charmaz cautions that theoretical codes may lead the researcher to believe there is objectivity to the analysis, and hence advises to use theoretical coding only if it will sharpen and clarify the analysis.7

A contemporary example of grounded theory is Dr Brené Brown’s TED Talk, titled The Power of Vulnerability.9 At about the 6-minute mark, Brown describes her process of analysis. She describes having divided her data set between participants who had a strong sense of worthiness and those who struggled for it. She then conducted a constant comparative analysis between the two data sets, seeking to understand participants’ conceptions of vulnerability and shame. This process of constant comparison is a key element in grounded theory analysis.

Advantages and disadvantages of grounded theory analysis

Grounded theory analysis is rigorous and can lead to the formation of robust theory as it develops from the micro to the macro layers of data. However, the process can be time and resource intensive, particularly with the concurrent data collection and analysis required in theory generation (see Chapter 10: Grounded Theory). The complexity of the interplay between the different phases of data analysis and can be particularly daunting for students and new researchers, and the theory generated can be insubstantial if insufficient data is collected and analysed.5 Table 25.1 provides examples of two grounded theory studies.

Table 25.1. Examples of grounded theory

Title '“Voluntary” in quotation marks’: a conceptual model of psychological pressure in mental healthcare based on a grounded theory analysis of interviews with service users10 Outsiders in the experts’ world: a grounded theory study of consumers and the social world of health care11
CC Licence CC BY 4.0 CC BY 4.0
First author and year Potthoff, 2022 Chamberlaine-Salaun, 2020
Aim/research question ‘To develop a conceptual model of psychological pressure based on the perspectives of service users.’ (p3) 'To identify and explain processes of interaction between consumers and health professionals that are not bound by specific health
professions, health settings, or health conditions.’ (p2)
Study design Grounded theory Grounded theory
Data collection Semi-structured interviews with 14 mental health service users having self-reported psychiatric diagnosis and prior experience with coercion in mental health care Demographic questionnaires, interviews, consumer diaries, digital storytelling, observations, and field notes
Analysis and coding approach Grounded theory according to Strauss and Corbin12, using open and inductive approaches, followed by axial coding and selective coding Essential grounded theory methods as ascribed by Birks and Mills13 (constructivist grounded theory). Initial coding, concurrent data generation or collection and analysis, constant comparative analysis, intermediate coding, theoretical sampling, selecting a core category, advanced coding and theoretical integration, and writing memos and theoretical sensitivity.
Results A contextual model of psychological pressure was constructed.
(see Figure 2 in the article):

  • elements of the model

  • aims of communication

  • pressure to improve adherence to recommended treatment

  • pressure to improve adherence to social norms

  • ways of communicating

  • explicit statements

  • nonverbal communication

  • things that go unsaid

  • contexts of communication

  • the quality of the personal relationship

  • the institutional setting

  • the material surroundings

  • convergences between the parties’understanding of mental disorder

Key findings from this study relate to the culture shock that participants experienced when they unexpectedly entered the social world of health care, and the social categorisation of roles within that world that result in them having to learn a new role and establish a presence to receive tailored care.


Grounded theory aims to develop theory about a phenomenon. The three main forms of grounded theory stem from different ontological and epistemiological positions: classical grounded theory, Straussian grounded theory and constructivst grounded theory. Researchers need to ensure that their research design aligns with the analytical approach undertaken.


  1. Breckenridge J. Doing classic grounded theory: the data analysis process. SAGE Research Methods Cases Part 1. SAGE Publications, Ltd; 2014.
  2. Glaser B, Strauss A. The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. Aldine; 1967.
  3. Moghaddam A. Coding issues in grounded theory. Issues in Educational Research. 2006;16(1):52-66. Accessed September 18, 2023.
  4. Williams M, Moser T. The art of coding and thematic exploration in qualitative research. International Management Review. 2019;15(1):45-55.
  5. Mohajan D, Mohajan HK. Straussian grounded theory: an evolved variant in qualitative research. Studies in Social Science & Humanities. 2023;2(2):33-40. doi:10.56397/SSSH.2023.02.06 Accessed September 18, 2023.
  6. Belgrave LL, Seide K. Coding for grounded theory. In: Antony Bryant, Charmaz K, eds. The SAGE Handbook of Current Developments in Grounded Theory. SAGE Publications, Limited; 2019.
  7. Charmaz K. Coding in grounded theory practice. In: Charmaz K, ed. Constructing Grounded Theory – A practical guide through qualitative analysis. SAGE Publications Ltd; 2006.
  8. Ayton D, Morello R, Natora A, Yallop S, Barker A, Soh SE. Perceptions of falls and falls prevention interventions among Personal Alert Victoria clients. Health Soc Care Community. 2018;26(6):970-978. doi:10.1111/hsc.12626
  9. Tsindos T, Ayton D, Soh SE, Ackerman IN. Perceptions of falls risk and falls prevention among people with osteoarthritis. Disabil Rehabil. 2022;44(10):1839-1846. doi:10.1080/09638288.2020.1806364