Step 7: Theory (or put less grandly, ideas) always precede the choosing of cases

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Source: polderfoto Mourgefile

The positivist twist in Barney Glaser and Anselm Struass’s (1967) formulation of grounded theory was to insist on the theoretically sensitive researcher with no preconceptions. This was the working out of the implications of the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s tabula rasa; the researcher as a blank slate upon which the emergent characteristics of theory in research are written from the close observation and coding of interaction.

For realists this empiricism simply will not do. More recent versions of grounded theory (Corbin and Strauss, 2008) seek to modify theoretical sensitivity to include the agency of the social researcher. But grounded theorists remains agnostic about theory (Charmaz, 2006; Henwood and Pidgeon, 2003).

Agnosticism holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown. But, as I argued in the last step, for realists, while real entities are independent of our knowing them, we can know real phenomena pretty well through working out the relation between ideas and (often indirect) evidence.

Necessarily then, theories, ideas, presuppositions, call this intellectual work what you will, always precedes empirical work. Without theories we are blind, Michael Burawoy (2009) observes. Ideas are the expression of the social researcher’s agency in the research. They are the purposive work that precedes the purposeful choosing of cases in qualitative research.

Our aim through research is to refine theories of the middle range. These are not grand all-encompassing system theories. They are, instead, ‘special theories of greater or less scope, coupled with the historically-grounded hope that these will continue to be brought together into families of theories’ (Merton, 1968: 48). In other words, theories are fallible, the subject of revision, reinterpretation, and re-presentation.

As such we must start with ideas that we want to test. These ideas are the basis of the choices we make about who or what we want to do research with (the sample). In this model, research will be a process of constant accretion of direct and indirect evidence to test and refine ideas (Pawson, 2013). This can only happen, of course, if we start with ideas.

The ground-breaking work of grounded theory emphasises a process of theory building as active and dialogical (Byrne and Callaghan, 2013). But realist researchers reject Barney Glaser’s positivist twist to discovering emergent theories of the middle range. We bring prejudice, prejudgement, frames of reference, and concept to the purposive acts of purposefully choosing cases. This is a very different kind of emergence, which I consider through further investigation of ideas and their construction in the next step.

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