Grounded theory technique

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Grounded theory is an evaluation study method where data is gathered, and through a systematic approach of coding, is used to generate a theory about a process. This contrasts with other research methods where a theory is posed first. The theory is thus “grounded” in the data. Although there are differences in approaches, coding generally includes open coding to develop themes or categories, axial coding to develop interrelations among categories, and selective coding, which develops a description of the process being studied. Analysis of the data and development of themes and categories begins almost immediately and guides further data collection, and further coding.


Grounded theory dates back to the 1967 work of Glaser and Strauss, The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Although it was originally used in sociology, but has since come to be used in many diverse fields, particularly in areas where interactions are studied. After the initial development, Glaser and Strauss disagreed on coding methods and developed different schools of grounded theory.

Principal Use

Grounded theory is principally used for studying processes or interactions for which existing theories are not sufficient, or for which there are no existing theories. In newer or developing fields such as medical informatics, there are numerous new types of interactions which are poorly understood, which may be particularly amenable to the techniques of grounded theory.


Grounded theory has the advantage of minimizing preconceived ideas. Extensive literature review is not done, and categories or themes are not predetermined. This ensures that themes in the data that are not present in pre-existing work are not missed. The theories that arise are often rich in detail and interconnections as well.


There are different approaches to coding, which may lead to disagreement over how best to approach this. The early coding of data may also lead to premature restriction of categories and limit flexibility

Examples in Informatics

  1. Kuziemsky CE, Downing GM, Black FM, Lau F. A grounded theory approach to palliative care systems design. Intl J Med Informatics. 76S (2007) S141-S148.
  2. Ash JS, Gorman PN, Lavelle M, Stavri PZ, Lyman J, Fournier L, Carpenter J. Perceptions of physician order entry: results of a cross-site qualitative study. Methods Inf Med. 42 (2003) 313-323.