Grounded theory literature reviews

Another type of literature review is one done for a grounded theory research project. According to one approach, in grounded theory projects, the researcher tends to conduct empirical research before writing a literature review. However, this approach can be problematic if you are a postgraduate research student who is doing deadline-dependent research into a topic that is relatively new or unfamiliar to you. Most academics who do grounded theory research already have a well-developed understanding of the field and theory, which is why they may be more comfortable with leaving a literature review late into the process.

For research students doing grounded theory projects, many argue that it is both practical and important to research the theory early on in the project, to make sure that your project is not duplicating extant work, or go on an irrelevant tangent (Dunne, 2011, p. 116; McGhee, Marland & Atkinson, 2007, p. 340). Also, researching into academic literature takes a long time, so doing it from the start of your project will save you stress later on. So, for a grounded theory project it's useful to start writing your literature review early on.

When writing a grounded theory literature review, it's important to take note of how the literature influences your ideas, and to keep track of your original ideas. To maintain your grounded theory perspective, McGhee, Marland and Atkinson (2007, p. 340) argue that "Reflexivity is needed to prevent prior knowledge distorting the researcher's perceptions of the data." Unlike the traditional approach, where the literature review leads on to the research question, in a grounded theory approach the empirical research is used to reflect on the academic literature's values and limitations.

In this sense, then, the placement of the literature review may be different between traditional and grounded theory projects. Some grounded theory projects don't have a dedicated literature review chapter and instead reflect on the literature throughout the chapters. Others incorporate and reflect on literature throughout the chapters as well as in a substantial section or chapter towards the end of the document. Many follow more of a traditional approach with a literature review early on and reflection on the literature throughout the writing.

Whichever option you choose, discuss it early on with your supervisor. Although there are a variety of ways to structure a grounded theory project, it is frequently recommended that you place a literature review early on in the thesis, possibly in the introduction or first chapter. Having a literature review upfront helps your readers to understand how your research fits into the field. It also helps your readers to identify how your research questions relate to the academic literature.


References and resources about grounded theory research

  • Bryant, A., & Charmaz, K. (Eds.). (2010). The SAGE handbook of grounded theory. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.
  • Dunne, C. (2011). The place of the literature review in grounded theory research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 14(2), 111-124. doi:10.1080/13645579.2010.494930
  • Goulding, C. (2002). Grounded theory: A practical guide for management, business and market researchers. Sage Publications Ltd. Retrieved from ProQuest ebrary.
  • McGhee, G., Marland G.R., & Atkinson J. (2007). Grounded theory research: Literature reviewing and reflexivity. Journal of Advanced Nursing 60(3), 334-342. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2648.2007.04436.x
  • Williams, M., & Vogt, P. (Eds.). (2011). The SAGE handbook of innovation in social research methods. Los Angeles, California; London: Sage.
  • Wisker, G. (2008). The postgraduate research handbook: Succeed with your MA, MPhil, EdD and PhD (2nd ed.). Basingstoke, Hampshire, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.