Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly
Grounded theory (GT) made its appearance in the social sciences in 1967 with publication of Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss’s The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Glaser and Strauss advocated for systematically discovering and interpreting empirical data to generate theory, in contrast to testing or verifying theory derived from a priori assumptions. In the intervening 50 years, GT has spread into a wide range of fields including journalism and mass communication. Variations of the method have been developed, and debate has ensued about its relation to positivism and constructivism as well as pragmatism and postmodernism and about its value for critical race theory, feminist theory, and indigenous and other critical methods and theories. When and how is it best used? Is it misunderstood or misused by some? Is it more than a method?
We asked senior scholars with expertise in GT to reflect on these issues, beginning with Vivian Martin, coeditor with Astrid Gynnild of Grounded Theory: The Philosophy, Method, and Work of Barney Glaserpublished by BrownWalker Press (2012). Martin, professor and chair of the Department of Journalism at Central Connecticut State University, argues the method has been misunderstood even by those who use it, often conflated with qualitative studies, with only two GT studies published in journalism and mass communication. It is practical and subversive, she observes, with the ability to develop new concepts and link ideas across disciplines. She advocates a closer adherence to Glaser’s original intentions for the method.
Responding to Martin is Clifton Scott, associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Scott is the author of “Grounded Theory” in Encyclopedia of Communication Theory, edited by Steven Littlejohn and Sonja Foss published by SAGE (2009). While agreeing with Martin that the name often is misapplied, Scott argues for less preoccupation with policing the purity of the method in favor of developing multiple approaches appropriate to it as a methodology.
Reacting to both Martin and Scott, Bonnie Brennen critiques the original GT approach as neglecting “methodological self-consciousness,” which would uncover researchers “theoretical assumptions, power relations, class positions and personal experiences.” Brennen, the Nieman Professor of Journalism in the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University, is the author of Qualitative Research Methods for Media Studies, second edition, published by Routledge in 2017.
Finally, Meenakshi Gigi Durham, responding to all three, expresses optimism about GT’s potential to spur new inquiry through exploration of social life, while she proposes that, like all theory, it be seen as necessarily dynamic and evolutionary. Durham is a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She is the editor with Douglas M. Kellner of Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, second edition, published by Blackwell (2011).
Lana Rakow, Associate Editor Louisa Ha, Editor
Martin, Vivian B.; Scott, Clifton; Brennen, Bonnie; and Durham, Meenakshi Gigi, "What Is Grounded Theory Good For?" (2018). College of Communication Faculty Research and Publications. 502.