August 6, 2017

Study examines use of grounded theory in mixed methods research

A new publication from methodologist and assistant professor Timothy Guetterman offers a grant-writing “checklist” for researchers who employ grounded theory methods


Image of Assistant Professor Dr. Timothy Guetterman
Timothy Guetterman, Ph.D., lead author

Timothy Guetterman, Ph.D., methodologist and assistant professor in the department of family medicine, leads trainings in research methodology and mixed methods for researchers around the world. He has guest lectured and and consulted with researchers in Denmark, South Africa, Bahamas, South Korea, while his primary efforts are in leadership positions with two mixed methods training programs--the Michigan Mixed Methods Research and Scholarship Program (M3RSP), based in the U-M Department of Family Medicine and an NIH-funded program with partners from the University of Michigan department of family medicine, Johns Hopkins University, and Harvard

In addition to his leadership in research training, Guetterman has published numerous papers on research methods. In one of the latest publications, he led an investigation of the the use of grounded theory in mixed methods research, which blends qualitative and quantitative approaches. The paper  “Contemporary Approaches to Mixed Methods–Grounded Theory Research: A Field-Based Analysis,” was published June 1 in the Journal of Mixed Methods Research. The findings have bearing on how researchers are trained in qualitative and mixed methodologies. The research team also included Michelle Howell Smith and Wayne Babchuk, research assistant professors, and Jared Stevens, graduate assistant, all from the University of Nebraska, where Guetterman received his Ph.D.

The study analyzed 61 mixed methods research articles that discussed using grounded theory, which uses data—often involving special sampling techniques—to develop a theory.

An iterative and theory-based approach to research sampling 

One of the hallmarks of grounded theory is a technique called theoretical sampling, says co-author Howell Smith. Using this approach, researchers gather data concurrent with analyses and change their data collection protocols, such as interview questions, based on what they are finding.

“Using theoretical sampling, you learn things and take what you’ve learned and apply it as you get more data,” said Howell Smith. “You continue this iterative process until you hit theoretical saturation, which means you’ve sufficiently built your theoretical explanation.

“The end result of doing that rigorous collection and analysis is that a theory or framework has emerged from the data.”

However, the team discovered that many authors who use grounded theory in mixed methods designs are not developing theories.

Rather, the majority used grounded theory analysis to develop interventions, analyze open-ended survey data or explore secondary data. These studies often used convergent designs, in which quantitative and qualitative strands are conducted independent of each other

Developing a best practices checklist

Their findings led the team to recommend best practices for researchers using grounded theory. Among the suggestions:

  • Cite mixed methods and grounded theory literature
  • Describe reasons for using mixed methods and grounded theory
  • Specify methodological designs and approaches
  • Use strategies to validate grounded theory findings
  • Use standards to evaluate the quality of mixed methods and grounded theory findings

Implications for how we train researchers

The recommendations from this paper will strengthen the quality of qualitative and mixed methods. Findings will be incorporated into Guetterman’s training efforts. He noted, “We [in the Michigan Mixed Methods program] provide training and consultation on the most rigorous and systematic approaches to mixed methods research. This paper helps us to think about the possible ways to use mixed methods to solve complex problems, and it gives us a better understanding of what rigor means in mixed methods-grounded theory. The recommendations, for example, can be used as a checklist when writing grants employing the approach.”  

Guetterman added, “I would also say that we are always trying to provide training on the latest, most innovative mixed methods research. At U-M, we are among the scholars developing these innovations in mixed methods and are able to immediately incorporate them in our training and consultations.”

More information on the next Michigan Mixed Methods Training program workshop in November 2017. Registration is open online.

Article Citation: Guetterman TC, Babchuk WA, Howell Smith MC, et al. Contemporary Approaches to Mixed Methods–Grounded Theory Research: A Field-Based Analysis. Journal of Mixed Methods Research. Available online 1 June 2017. DOI: 10.1177/1558689817710877

Find the latest mixed methods research from the department of family medicine.