exploring the relationship between social science and software development methodologies: a blog by Pascal Belouin

‘Because emergence is the foundation of our approach to theory building, a researcher cannot enter an investigation with a list of preconceived concepts, a guiding theoretical framework, or a well though out design’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1998, p. 34).

Although this citation from Strauss and Corbin could make sense in the context of a practical, concrete application of grounded theory, one could not ignore the positivist undertone of such a statement in both its advocacy of inductive reasoning and its suggestion that ruling out the researcher’s preconceived ideas and concepts from the analysis process is indeed possible. Even though it may be feasible for a researcher to enter a social situation without a ‘list of preconceived concepts, a guiding theoretical framework, or a well thought out design’ if we interpret these as conscious, proactive steps towards the establishment of a theoretical framework surrounding the data analysis process, one cannot ignore the fact that the researcher could himself be seen as a social agent having a particular point of view that can be strongly influenced by his or her interests, experience and social situation. Furthermore, Strauss and Corbin’s promotion of induction as a mean to generate theories from the data relies on epistemological assumptions that could be challenged from an idealist or even postmodernist philosophical standpoint.

More precisely, the use of inductive reasoning in grounded theory could be seen as generalising the regularities being observed in the framework of a “constant comparison” of the data so that a theory would “emerge” from it. The use of this form of reasoning could be further illustrated by the data analysis experience presented in the first part of this essay. Indeed, the preliminary categorisation of the data, which formed the first part of this particular analysis process, also followed what could be considered an inductive approach. Regularities and relationships were searched between the different sources of data in order to create a rough taxonomy permitting a better understanding of the studied social phenomenon. However, the second part of the analysis involved the use of a pre-established theoretical framework (in this case, Bourdieu’s conceptual framework, as well as concepts borrowed from Discourse Analysis, or Social Constructionism) in order to make sense of the data by allowing the conceptualisation of certain observed phenomena in this theoretical framework. This particular strategy also allowed a certain reflexivity in the data analysis process, as the results of the analysis process were constantly put in the perspective of the researcher’s own position in the “social space”.

This adoption of a more deductive approach in the second part of the analysis strongly contrasts with Strauss and Corbin’s advocacy of an “all-inductive” strategy, which could be criticised on a number of points. First, although the use of inductive reasoning proved very successful in the natural sciences, the validity of its positivist application to the study of social phenomena can be contested for several reasons. First, one could consider the psychological problem of induction as identified by Hume (1739: Book 1, Part 3, Section 12): it is possible to argue that the expectation that an observation that has been repeated a number of times will occur again is more of a human psychological predisposition than a logically valid prediction based on a natural causal law. Furthermore, a very strong argument against the use of inductive reasoning, which could be traced back to Kant and, from a more sociological point of view, the idealist school of thought, is that it fails to address the fact that valid scientific knowledge could be seen as based on what are ultimately human sensations, shaped by the researcher’s own “mental constructs”. This idea of mental constructs, which could be seen as the concepts and ways of understanding the world through which one perceives one’s experience, is a strong argument for taking the researcher’s own culture and social location into consideration when studying the social world. This particular issue, central to the problem of social research, becomes even more apparent as we consider the second aspect of Strauss and Corbin’s argument.

Indeed, this issue is particularly well illustrated by the data analysis experience presented in Part 1: the fact that the researcher is in this case very close to the culture he is studying could make the application of grounded theory to the data collected in this context quite difficult, not to say impossible, as putting aside preconceived ideas and tacit knowledge about the object of study could be seen as particularly problematic for somebody studying a group of people of which he is an active part. This particular point further highlights the vital importance of reflexivity in the ethnographic process, and not only in the framework of data analysis but in the process as a whole, from the collection of the data to the presentation of the findings. In the example of the data analysis presented in part 1, one of the main strategies used to apprehend the data was to try and take the particular “social situation” of the researcher into account, and to gain a certain understanding of how the researcher’s own particular point of view could be influenced and shaped by his position in the social space. This constant reflexive process has been made possible by trying to identify the particular interests and personal trajectory of the researcher himself, in the framework of what could be called an auto-‘socioanalysis’ as advocated by Accardo (2006, p. 359).

As we have seen, although grounded theory could be seen as a rather useful tool in the social researcher’s arsenal, Strauss and Corbin’s view of the data analysis process could be challenged on a number of points, the most important one being that ruling out the effect of the researcher’s own culture and point of view on his or her interpretation of social phenomena is something very difficult to do in the context of Social Science. Indeed, as the research presented in part 1 illustrates, reflexivity seems to be the key to an understanding of the social world as close as possible to what could be called the objective social reality, although such a concept could itself be put into question.


Accardo, A. Introduction à une sociologie critique, lire Pierre Bourdieu, Agone, Marseille, 2006.

Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L. (1992) An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, Chicago University Press 1992.

Glaser, B. and Strauss, A. (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory, Chicago, Aldine, in Hammersley M. and Atkinson, P. (1995) Ethnography: Principles in Practice, London, Routledge, p. 31.

Griffiths, L. (1998) Humour as resistance to professional dominance in community mental health teams, in Taylor, S. (2002) Ethnographic Research: A Reader, London, Open University Press in association with Sage.

Hammersley M. and Atkinson, P. (2001) Ethnography: Principles in Practice,London, Routledge.

Hume, D. (1739) A Treatise of Human Nature.

Taylor, S. and Smith, M.J. (2008) D844 Study Guide, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 66-67.

Related posts:

  1. LinkedIn, Facebook and Social Identity Theory
  2. Ethnography: a short description of the roles available to researchers in the field
  3. Applying social scientific concepts to domain definition: a short overview
  4. Tweeting Bourdieu: Social software and social capital
  5. Software as Discourse
§140 · March 17, 2010 · Practice, Theory · Tags: , , , , , · [Print]

1 Comment to “An epistemological critique of Grounded Theory”

  1. [...] An epistemological critique of Grounded Theory | mixing social science and software design‘Because emer gence is the foun da tion of our approach to the ory build ing, a researcher can not enter an inves ti ga tion with a list of pre con ceived con cepts, a guid ing the o ret i cal frame work, or a well though out design’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1998, p. 34). [...]

Leave a Reply