A discussion of differences in preparation, performance and postreflections in participant observations within two grounded theory approaches

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Participant observation was developed through anthropology to derive data through ethnographic fieldwork 1 and has subsequently been used for collecting data about human behaviour in different kinds of qualitative studies and grounded theory 2. In ethnographic studies, the researchers’ position in observations may vary from being not involved (nonparticipation) to being highly involved (complete participation) 1. However, these distinctions are not made in grounded theory. In this study, we hypothesise that there can be additional differences in how participant observations are used in grounded theory as a data collecting method depending on the researchers’ methodological choice of grounded theory, since grounded theorists differ amongst themselves by having different methodological approaches, foundational assumptions and conceptual agendas 3.
We chose to investigate the differences between Barney Glaser's classic methodology and his student Kathy Charmaz’ next generation of social constructivist methodology and their use of participant observations as a data collecting method because of their different perspectives regarding positions in theory and research process 4. The process of conducting participant observation is described by Charmaz 2; however, Glasers’ theoretical work does not offer much advice on how to collect data, because he believes that the search for concepts is more important 5. This discussion paper is therefore built on the authors’ interpretation of Charmaz and Glasers’ methodological suggestions on how to commence participant observations.
Glaser and Charmaz have placed a massive contribution to science and the development and description of grounded theory methodology; hence, a thorough review of the methodological grounded theory literature limited to the books of Glaser 5 and the books of Charmaz 2 was performed by the first author. The content of each book was scrutinised to extract chapters and paragraphs explaining the grounded theorists’ descriptions and explanations of their grounded theory methodology by all authors. The final books were chosen for the comparison because of their in‐depth descriptions of grounded theory methodology from a classic and constructivist grounded theory point of view. Glaser's books ‘Theoretical Sensitivity’ 6 and ‘Doing grounded theory: Issues and Discussions’ 5 were selected, and Charmaz’ book ‘Constructing Grounded Theory’ 4 and her chapter entitled ‘Shifting the grounds: Constructivist grounded theory methods’ in the book ‘Developing grounded theory. The second generation’ 3 were selected.
The aim of this paper was to present a discussion of the differences in using participant observation as a data collection method by comparing the classic grounded theory methodology of Barney Glaser 5 with the constructivist grounded theory methodology by Kathy Charmaz 3. In the background section of this paper, the epistemological and ontological perspective of Glaser's classic grounded theory and Charmaz’ constructivist grounded theory are presented, respectively, as well as their overall methodological descriptions of using participant observations. The epistemology and ontology are viewed as the philosophical study of what entities exist or may be said to exist and the extent to which knowledge pertinent to any given subject or entity can be acquired, respectively 14. In the following section, we will compare the differences and similarities in Glaser and Charmaz’ methodology and their perspectives on selecting methodology and participant observations as a way to obtain data; on the researchers’ presence and focus during the performance of participant observations; and the researcher's postreflections and considerations on how to move forward and create theory from data obtained through participant observations and evaluate the quality of the theory. In the discussion, we revisit perspectives on the importance of being consistent to the methodology chosen.
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