Hypothesis Based vs. Grounded Theory

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

I don’t have an academic background in theory. My undergraduate degree was in international business at a practice-oriented university where the only primary texts I was ever required to read were annual reports. Learning how to manipulate theory was and remains one of the reasons I chose CCT. But the application of theory, as any other tool, is continually evolving which makes mastering it that much more difficult.

Most of my classes, regardless of content, have taken what I would call a “hypothesis based” approach to theory: you start with one and try to explain some baffling phenomenon using it. And if there are externalities, well, then you try to figure out what doesn’t fit and why it doesn’t. I find this to be a fruitful approach; the fact that “evidence” might not completely adhere to a theory makes for additional interesting research. This method also implies legitimacy. Often, these theories were created by individuals who have taken the time to seriously examine our world. They are time and context tested. They are grand, elegant, and self-contained and therefore lend themselves to analyses with the same characteristics.

Lately, however, I am witnessing an increasing interest in grounded theory. Bear with my Wikipedia explanation of this, as I have never actually used this approach, not in any real way. In grounded theory, instead of beginning with a theoretical framework which is then applied to the studied phenomenon, one begins with data collections. This data is then analyzed using codes, concepts, and categories which lead to the formation of a theory. It is an iterative process which often involves many people. I see the advantages of this approach. It may not be as clean as the former, but it is emergent and collaborative. It seems to allow for more creativity, brainstorming, and ultimately, a truer process of the “creation of meaning”.

At this point I am impartial to either method. But as I think about my thesis and my potential future in academia, I wonder which approach I prefer. What are other advantages and disadvantages of each approach? Might it be that one lends itself more to certain disciplines that the other? Or are they so fundamentally different they create conflict in the way that we approach research?