Research Paradigm Influence on Grounded Theory Method

Research Paradigm Influence on Grounded Theory Method

Unlike quantitative research, theory does not have a distinct role  across the various qualitative methods. Hall, Griffiths, & McKenna  address the role of how different paradigms can influence the  application of a grounded theory method. While more frequently  associated with a grounded theory method, different paradigms can  influence the application of other qualitative methods. Yet in other  qualitative methods, a paradigm or preconception is avoided. In your  words, summarize how a researcher’s paradigm can influence the use of a  grounded theory method.

Advances in Developing Human Resources August 2002

The General Method of Theory-Building Research in Applied Disciplines

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Susan A. Lynham

The problem and the solution. One of the challenges of theory-building research in applied disciplines is making the logic used to build the theory explicit and accessible to the user of the developed theory. Although different methods of theory building advocate different theory-building research processes, there is an inherently generic nature to theory building. This chapter acts as a foundation for the journal by highlighting strat- egies commonly used in building theory and offers a generic, five-phase method of theory-building research.

I passionately believe in the need for and utility of good theory. As a result, one familiar statement that dumbfounds me is, “Well, that is all very well in theory, but it does not work like that in practice or in the real world.” State- ments of this nature are informed by a number of deeply held, and generally erroneous, assumptions about the nature and utility of theory. Some of these false assumptions include the following:

• that theory is disconnected and removed from practice, • that the process of theory construction happens in isolation of the real

world, • that those who engage in theory building or development are not the

same as those who engage in practice or in the real world, and • that usefulness and application are optional outcomes of theory.

What is the purpose of good theory other than to describe and explain how things actually work and, in so doing, to help us improve our actions in this world? Some will contend that theory is largely idealistic (Kaplan, 1964). How-

� Chapter 1


The outcomes of this chapter were informed and improved on through the generous and support- ive guidance, editing, and other helpful suggestions offered by a number of people. In particular, my sincere thanks to Dr. Richard A. Swanson, Dr. Yvonna S. Lincoln, Dr. David A. Erlandson, Dr. Jean Madsen, students in the fall 2001 and spring 2002 advanced human resource development theory course at the University of Minnesota, and participants in the 2002 Academy of Human Resource Development theory-building preconference.

Advances in Developing Human Resources Vol. 4, No. 3 August 2002 221-241 Copyright 2002 Sage Publications



ever, it can just as easily be argued that good theory in applied disciplines is about as realistic as it comes (Dubin, 1978; Kaplan, 1964; Lewin, 1951; Lynham, 2000b; Swanson, 1997; Van de Ven, 1989). Think about it: How many theories do you hold about the world around you and how that world works? How do these theories inform you of what things work, and do not work, in day- to-day actions? Every time we encounter a new issue, we first experience it, and then we try to observe and understand how that issue presents itself and works. Next, we begin to develop a system of ideas, informed from our experience and knowledge of the world and the issue, about how to address the issue. Then, we put those ideas to the test by applying them to the issue. If these ideas work, then the issue or problem gets satisfactorily addressed. If not, we go back to our own internal drawing boards and begin the process of problem-solution formulation and application all over again. In effect, what we are continuously doing is developing informed knowledge frameworks about how to act on things in our world, thereby formulating ways in which to understand and address issues and problems in the world around us (Alvesson & Deetz, 2000). These informed knowledge and experience frameworks that we apply to our world are simply personal theories-in-use (Argyris & Schon, 1974, 1996). Think about them as theories-in-practice. Each of our lives is informed by many theories-in-practice. They are put into practice or use precisely because they help us to understand, explain, anticipate, know, and act in the world in better and more informed ways, and to better ends and outcomes. Theories therefore have a very practical role in our everyday lives.

Sure, we can hold and develop grandiose and idealistic theories of how the world might be and work. Argyris and Schon (1996) called these idealis- tic, speculative conceptions of espoused theories. However, espoused and unconfirmed theories of the world and phenomena within the world are less of what we are interested in as applied theorists and cannot be classified as real theory. In an applied discipline such as human resource development (HRD), theory is required to be of practical value (Kaplan, 1964; Lynham, 2000b; Mott, 1996; Swanson, 1997, 1999; Van de Ven, 1989). By virtue of its application nature, good theory is of value precisely because it fulfills one primary purpose. That purpose is to explain the meaning, nature, and challenges of a phenomenon, often experienced but unexplained in the world in which we live, so that we may use that knowledge and understand- ing to act in more informed and effective ways (Campbell, 1990; Lewin, 1951; Strauss & Corbin, 1990; Van de Ven, 1989; Whetten, 1989).

Theory is described as “a coherent description, explanation and represen- tation of observed or experienced phenomena” (Gioia & Pitre, 1990, p. 587). Theory building is the ongoing process of producing, confirming, applying, and adapting theory (Lynham, 2000b). In a way, to live life successfully we are all obliged to engage in theory building, that is, in processes by which we observe, experience, think about, and understand and act in our worlds, and

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we do so continuously. However, these theories-in-practice are not always explicit and often occur in the form of implicit, unconscious knowledge on the part of the theorist. As such, these theories that we put into use in our daily lives are no more, or less, than personal theories-in-practice and are seldom made explicit by the holder and user of those theories. For example, how many times has a parent or trusted friend given you advice about what works and what does not, about what you should or should not do about something, but when questioned about what he or she actually knows and how it all works, you get the response: “I just know; trust me, I have had lots of experience with this.”

As the recipients of such personal theories-in-practice, we are faced with two choices. The first is one of a leap of faith—to apply the advice given and hope that it will have the same results for you as it did for the advisor. The second is the choice of inquiry and discovery—to develop our own explana- tions for the issue at hand and how to deal with it. If both are pursued on only a personal front, then it is unlikely that the wisdom of either will be transmit- ted to anyone else. And next time we are asked the same question by some- one facing a similar issue, our response is likely to mimic that of our original advisor: “I just know; trust me.” The point here is that an important function and characteristic of theory building is to make these explanations and understandings of how the world is and works explicit and, by so doing, to make transferable, informed knowledge for improved understanding and action in the world tacit rather than implicit.

Theory building can be described as “the purposeful process or recurring cycle by which coherent descriptions, explanations, and representations of observed or experienced phenomena are generated, verified, and refined” (Lynham, 2000b, p. 161). Good theory building should result in two kinds of knowledge: outcome knowledge, usually in the form of explanative and pre- dictive knowledge, and process knowledge, for example, in the form of increased understanding of how something works and what it means (Dubin, 1976). Good theory and theory building should also reflect two important qualities: rigor and relevance (Marsick, 1990a), or what are also termed validity and utility (Van de Ven, 1989). Theory building achieves these two desired knowledge outputs and empirical qualities by use of what Kaplan (1964) called “the logic-in-use” and the “reconstructed logic” (p. 8), that is, by following a logical cognitive style in the development and appli- cation of the theory and by explicitly reconstructing, or making explicit, that logic-in-use.

It is the purpose of this monograph to present multiple possible methods, or logics-in-use, for generating, confirming, and refining theory in HRD and other applied disciplines. It is intended that these explicit representations and descriptions of theory building will be useful to practitioners, research- ers, and educators in learning about, engaging in, and evaluating the traits




and outcomes of HRD and other applied theory-building endeavors. It is the aim of this first chapter to provide a contextual overview and reconstruction of the general logic-in-use embedded in the nature and challenges of the journey of theory building. Specifically, this chapter first presents some considerations common to theory-building inquiry in applied disciplines. Second, it describes theory building as a five-phase, general, and recursive process. Third, it briefly highlights why theory-building research is impor- tant to the HRD profession, together with some of the challenges associated with building applied theory. Finally, it offers concluding comments on some of the key points raised in the chapter.

General Considerations of Theory-Building Research

Before considering the generic methodological components of theory building, it might be helpful to highlight and discuss considerations general to theory-building research. The first is the notion of the multiple purposes of theory-building research methods. Second is a brief presentation and description of two commonly used strategies in theory building. And finally, consideration is given to the requirement of expertise in both knowledge of and experience with the phenomenon that is the focus of the theory-building endeavor.

The Multiple Purposes of Theory-Building Inquiry

Theory-building research is a method of scholarly inquiry (Gall, Borg, & Gall, 1996; Kaplan, 1964; Swanson, 1997). Just like any other form of schol- arly inquiry, theory building can involve varied and various logics-in-use and can be engaged in from multiple research paradigms (Kaplan, 1964). There is no one supreme method of theory building, and nor should there be (Gioia & Pitre, 1990; Kuhn, 1970; Lynham, 2000b; Marsick, 1990b; Swanson, 1997; Swanson, Lynham, Ruona, & Torraco, 2000; Thomas, 1997). Rather, the specific theory-building research method employed should be dictated by the nature of the theory building being engaged in, and not by the preferred inquiry methodology of the researcher-theorist or the practitioner-theorist. It is therefore less important that we support one spe- cific theory-building research method over another than that we view applied theory-building research as a necessary and helpful form of schol- arly inquiry in developing and expanding our understanding of and ability to explain, anticipate, and act on related phenomena, issues, and problems.

Like any form of inquiry, theory-building research is used for numerous purposes, and these intended purposes influence the nature and require-

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ments of the theory-building method employed. Habermas’s (Hultgren & Coomer, 1989) three-perspective classification of scholarly inquiry is infor- mative in considering the various purposes and nature of theory building in HRD. He highlighted three broad modes of inquiry in the social or human sciences, namely, empirical-analytical, interpretive, and critical science research. When applied to theory building, this framework can be used to provide a general, comparative overview of the contrasting empirical char- acteristics of three dominant modes of theory-building inquiry or research (McLean, 2001) (see Table 1).

As indicated earlier, and informed by Table 1, the question is not one of whether we should engage in multimethod theory-building research in HRD. Rather, it is one of when is theory-building research the most justifiable means to address the phenomena or problem, and therefore, what theory- building methods, or combinations thereof, are the most suited to the issue under inquiry?

Two Common Strategies Used in Theory Building

Because HRD is of an applied nature, theory-building methods must be capable of dealing with issues of application (Campbell, 1990; Dubin, 1976, 1978; Lynham, 1998, 2000b; Swanson, 1988, 1997, 2000; Torraco, 1994, 1997, 2000). This monograph highlights and discusses a number of research methods particularly well suited to and relevant for use in theory building in HRD and other applied disciplines. Beyond these applied methods of theory building, it is worth considering two strategies common to theory building (Reynolds, 1971). The first is one of a research-to-theory strategy, whereas the second is one of a theory-to-research strategy (Reynolds, 1971).

The research-to-theory strategy, also termed the research-then-theory strat- egy, is related to “deriving the laws of nature from a careful examination of all the available data” (Reynolds, 1971, p. 140). Francis Bacon referred to the out- come of this theory-building strategy as interpretations of nature (Reynolds, 1971). As described by Reynolds (1971), the essences of this research-to-theory strategy are as follows:

1. Select a phenomenon and list all the characteristics of the phenomenon, 2. measure all the characteristics of the phenomenon in a variety of situa-

tions (as many as possible), 3. analyze the resulting data carefully and determine if there are any sys-

tematic patterns among the data “worthy” of further attention, and 4. once significant patterns have been found in the data, formalization of

these patterns as theoretical statements constitutes the laws of nature (axioms, in Bacon’s terminology). (p. 140)




226 226 TABLE 1: The Contrasting Features of Empirical-Analytical, Interpretive, and Critical Science Approaches to Theory-Building


View of Area of Assumption Desired Theory-Building Human Interest About Empirical HRD-Related Inquiry and Application Knowledge Purpose Outcome

Empirical- • Work • Observational data are • To explain, predict, • Generalizable laws and analytical • Technical, that is, considered the foundation and control explanations of organi-

about practice affected of knowledge zational and human through newly developed • Generalizations character- behavior means to achieve ized by empiricism established ends

Interpretive • Interaction (language) • Constructed meanings of • To make sense of, • Common meanings and • Practical, that is, about stakeholders are considered understand, and clarifying interpretations

policy and practice the foundation of knowledge interpret of organizational and informed through human actions and interpretations of daily experiences events and contexts

Critical • Power (reason) • Constructed meanings of • To enlighten and • Underlying, hidden, or • Emancipatory, that is, stakeholders are considered emancipate through unreflected choices

about policy and practice the foundation of knowledge the process of surfaced to inform changed through critique • Critique of ideologies believed critique and reasoned human and and recovering self- to promote needed social identifying potential organizational choice reflection to unite theory change, which is open and and practice ongoing

Note: HRD = human resource development.



Also frequently referred to as the Baconian approach, this research-to-theory theory-building strategy requires, according to Reynolds (1971), two important conditions, namely, “a relatively small number of variables to measure during data collection” and “that there be a few significant patterns to be found in the data” (p. 140). The dominant ontology of this theory-building strategy is a quan- titative one. As a result, the corresponding assumptions about knowledge (epis- temology) that underlie and govern the research-to-theory strategy are also of a quantitative nature (for example, that the real world is objective and external to the researcher; that the truth is out there to be discovered through careful, methodical, and comprehensive inquiry by the researcher; and that the purpose of research is the discovery of universal, causal laws to enable causal explana- tion). Of a predominantly deductive nature, this research-to-theory strategy is thought to be well suited to the pure sciences, where the purpose of theory build- ing is to develop large, generalizable laws of nature that explain how phenomena in the natural, objective world within which we live can be expected to work and potentially be predicted and controlled.

The second strategy for building theory is that of theory to research, or what Reynolds (1971) called the “theory-then-research strategy” (p. 144). In this approach to theory building, theory is made explicit through the continuous, reiterative interaction between theory construction and empirical inquiry (Kaplan, 1964; Reynolds, 1971). Reynolds highlighted the essences of this theory-building strategy as follows:

1. Develop an explicit theory in either axiomatic or process description form;

2. select a statement generated by the theory for comparison with the results of empirical research;

3. design a research project to “test” the chosen statement’s correspon- dence with empirical research;

4. if the statement derived from the theory does not correspond with the research results, make appropriate changes in the theory or the research design and continue with the research; and

5. if the statement from the theory corresponds with the results of the research, select further statements for testing or attempt to determine the limitations of the theory. (p. 144)

This theory-to-research strategy was made popular by Karl Popper, in which “he suggests that scientific knowledge would advance most rapidly through the development of new ideas [conjectures] and attempts to falsify them with empir- ical research [refutations]” (Reynolds, 1971, p. 144). Often more inclusive of qualitative research, this strategy is informed by corresponding assumptions about the nature of scientific knowledge, for example, that there is no “real world” or “one truth” but rather that knowledge about human behavior is created in the minds of individuals, “that science is a process of inventing descriptions of phenomena” (Reynolds, 1971, p. 145), that there are multiple and divergent real- ities and therefore “truths,” and that the purpose of science is one of interpretive




discovery and explanation of the nature and meaning of phenomena in the world in which we live and experience life (Hultgren & Coomer, 1989). Of an interac- tive inductive-deductive nature, this theory-to-research strategy is well suited to the applied nature of the behavioral and human sciences (Lynham, 2000b; Reynolds, 1971).

The significance of these two theory-building strategies lies not in the need to choose one above the other. Rather, their value to the theorist is in the insight that they provide regarding the virtuous, systemic nature of the inter- action among three elements critical to applied theory building, namely, the development and accumulation of a system of coherent, disciplined, and rig- orous knowledge and explanation (theory); the conduct of focused and dis- ciplined scholarly inquiry and discovery (research); and the resulting informed and improved action that ensues from the application of the out- comes of the first two elements in practice (practice). The concept of a virtu- ous cycle (also noted by Egan in Chapter 3) is informed by systems theory and refers to a positive, reinforcing relationship of interdependence among the components of the system concerned (Kauffman, 1980; Senge, 1990; Von Bertalanffy, 1968). This growth cycle of theory-research-practice (see Figure 1) is fundamental to building rigorous and relevant applied theory (Dubin, 1978). The expertise required for successful applied theory build- ing must therefore relate to the virtuous nature of applied theory building and will be discussed more in the next section of this chapter.

Toward a General Theory- Building Research Method