In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Grounded Theory

  • Introduction
  • Grounded Theory and Social Work
  • Beginning-Level Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Founders of Grounded Theory
  • Dissemination of Grounded Theory
  • Classic Grounded Theory (Glaserian)
  • Constructivist Grounded Theory and Situational Analysis
  • Journals
  • Recent Grounded Theory Studies in Social Work

Social Work Grounded Theory
Julianne Oktay
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0325


Widely used in social work, grounded theory is one of the oldest and best-known qualitative research methods. Even so, it is often misunderstood. Created at a time when positivism reigned supreme, it has survived through several major paradigm shifts in the social sciences. The result is many models of grounded theory reflecting these different understandings of the nature of knowledge and knowing, with lively debates and controversies. This has resulted in conflicting advice that can be confusing for researchers and students new to the field. It is essential for those learning about grounded theory (or “grounded theory method”/GTM) to focus on the central tenants of the method, which are common to all of the grounded theory models. The most important of these is that the goal of grounded theory studies is to develop theories. In this respect, grounded theory differs from other qualitative methods in its goals and its methodology. In fact, all aspects of grounded theory methods, from problem identification to sampling to coding and analysis, are shaped by this goal. To develop these theories, grounded theory uses the following processes: theoretical sensitivity, constant comparison, theoretical sampling, and theoretical saturation. The theory is developed in the process of memo writing throughout the study. These components are used in an iterative process that includes both inductive and deductive logic. Like other qualitative methods, it begins with immersion in data and uses induction to develop concepts. Unlike other methods, grounded theory researchers use these concepts to begin theory development. They return to the real-world environment to a test the emerging theory, and then further develop and refine it. This is a deductive stage of theory development. This process, called “abductive,” continues until the theory has a good fit in the real-world environment. Although there are many different models of grounded theory, all of them have theory development as their primary goal. This bibliography includes sections on the value of grounded theory in social work, beginning-level textbooks in grounded theory, reference works, history of grounded theory, dissemination of grounded theory, classic grounded theory, constructivist grounded theory and situational analysis, and finally, grounded theory examples from social work literature and journals.

Grounded Theory and Social Work

As a scientifically based practice, the social work profession needs theories that are relevant to its practice. Unfortunately, many of the theories taught in social work education are abstract and difficult to apply directly to practice situations. Because grounded theory develops theories directly from practice situations, it has the potential to contribute to theoretically based practice in social work. In addition, grounded theory shares some common roots with social work, which likely explains part of the comfort social work practitioners and researchers feel with the method. Both grounded theory and social work developed in part from the ideas that grew out of the Sociology Department at the University of Chicago. Original thinkers such as John Dewey (pragmatism) and George Herbert Mead (symbolic interactionism) developed ideas that would later form the basis for many fields, including social work. Oktay 2012 notes that in Chicago at the beginning of the famous “Chicago school,” there was no separation between sociology the discipline and the social action work of Jane Addams and the Abbott sisters. Jane Addams taught in the Chicago Sociology Department and wrote for their journal (American Journal of Sociology). Mead and Dewey marched with Addams for workers’ rights, immigrants’ rights, and suffrage for women. According to Deegan 1990, both Mead and Dewey served on the board at Hull House. A primary advocate for the use of grounded theory in social work, Jane Gilgun attended the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (see Gilgun 1994; in addition, see Gilgun 2015 and Gilgun 2019, cited under Founders of Grounded Theory). Julianne S. Oktay has also advocated for the use of grounded theory in social work. Her interest grew out of the emphasis in the joint doctoral program at the University of Michigan on the importance of middle-range theories to guide social work practice. Also, her interest in the experience of illness led her to Anselm Strauss’s work on chronic illness in Strauss, et al. 1975. Oktay 2012 is a “pocket-guide” grounded theory published by Oxford University Press. Charmaz 2014, Oliver 2012, and Levitt 2021 argue that recent developments in social work, such as the reexamination of the cultural and social roots of research methodologies, the focus on marginalized populations, the adoption of a critical theoretical perspective, and, internationally, the recognition of the impact of colonialism on research have resulted in a rethinking of grounded theory’s origins, and they advocate for a shift to incorporation of critical and social justice lenses in grounded theory research.

  • Charmaz, K. 2014. Grounded theory in the 21st century: Applications for advancing social justice studies. In Grounded theory and situational analysis. Vol. 2. Edited by A. E. Clarke and K. Charmaz, 157–194. London: SAGE.

    In this chapter, Charmaz argues that the application of grounded theory methods has the potential to further social justice research. She points to the rapid growth in research that focuses on inequities in large social structures, focusing attention on issues of fairness, status, hierarchies, and power. She argues that researchers can study issues of race, class, gender, and disabilities using grounded theory methods.

  • Deegan, M. J. 1990. Jane Addams and the men of the Chicago school, 1892–1918. London: Routledge.

    Deegan provides extensive historical research showing how Jane Addams was deeply entwined with the men who built the Chicago school of sociology. This research shows how extensively Addams and her colleagues at Hull House helped to shape the fields of both sociology and social work.

  • Gilgun, J. F. 1994. Hand into glove: Grounded theory, deductive qualitative analysis and social work research and practice. In Qualitative methods in social work. Edited by Anne E. Fortune, William Reid, and Robert Miller. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    In this classic of the early qualitative methods literature in social work, Gilgun argues that social work practice and qualitative methods such as grounded theory have much in common, such as starting where the client is, nonhierarchical relationship between respondent and researcher, recording practices, interviewing techniques, etc.

  • Oktay, J. S. 2012. Introduction to grounded theory and its potential for social work. In Grounded theory. Edited by Julianne S. Oktay, 3–26. New York: Oxford.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199753697.003.0001

    In this introductory chapter, Oktay argues that grounded theory is especially valuable to social work because it produces theories that can be easily applied in social work practice situations. She also discusses the common roots of both social work and grounded theory in the work of Jane Addams, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead in Chicago in the early twentieth century. (See also Beginning-Level Textbooks.)

  • Oliver, C. 2012. Critical realist grounded theory: A new approach for social work research. British Journal of Social Work 42: 371–387.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/bcr064

    This article advocates for the use of a critical realist paradigm in social work research. As critical realism lacks a methodology for research, Oliver makes the case that grounded theory methods can easily be used within this paradigm. This model for grounded theory has potential for social work research.

  • Strauss, et al. 1975. Chronic illness and the quality of life. St. Louis: Mosby.

    This slim volume lays out an early grounded theory analysis for living with chronic illness. The framework provides an excellent introduction to the potential contribution of applying GTM to social work by focusing on the “work” patients and families engage in to live meaningful lives. At its time, it was revolutionary in its focus on the experience of the patients themselves and on the social and psychological components of the illness. Second edition published 1984.

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