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Constructivist grounded theory: Defined, explained, and illustrated

Last updated

12 April 2023

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Dovetail Editorial Team

Constructivist theory is a methodology used in qualitative research to gain an understanding of how people create meaning in their lives. Constructivist grounded theory is a particular type of constructivist theory that helps researchers generate and explore themes from data collected through such means as interviews and observations. 

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What is constructivist grounded theory?

Constructivist theory is an approach to learning that emphasizes the active role of learners in constructing their own knowledge. It asserts that people actively construct meaning from their experiences, rather than simply absorb or acquire information from the world around them. 

The main points of the theory of constructivism are:  

  1. Knowledge is constructed through interactions between individuals and their environment.

  2. Learning is a process of actively constructing one's own understanding of the world.

  3. Learners are motivated by their own interests and curiosity.

  4. Learners use problem-solving and critical thinking to construct new knowledge.

Constructivist grounded theory is the application of this approach to qualitative research. This type of research looks at how people interpret their experiences and perspectives, and uses these interpretations to develop a deeper understanding of the topic under study. 

To implement constructivist grounded theory, researchers must use a constructivist design that allows participants to be active in their learning process and interpret the data themselves. This involves the use of open-ended questions, reflective interviews, and other methods that allow for exploration of different perspectives. 

By using this constructivist approach, researchers can gain insight into how participants experience and interpret their world, which can be used to inform policy making, education, and other aspects of society.  

What is constructivist theory?

Constructivism is a philosophical perspective and an educational approach that asserts that knowledge is constructed by the learner. It suggests that learners actively build and construct their understanding through various social interactions with their environment. A constructivist definition refers to an epistemology – or theory of knowing – that emphasizes the role of experience in creating meaning and knowledge.

Constructivist grounded theory

Constructivist grounded theory is an analytical research methodology developed from constructivist approaches to qualitative research. Constructivist grounded theory is based on the belief that reality is socially constructed by individuals who interact with one another to create meaning. 

It involves engaging with participants in order to uncover their beliefs, values, and perspectives, which then become the basis of the research. This research is used to construct and refine theories about the social world. 

In qualitative research, constructivist grounded theory is a method for generating insights about human behavior. It involves analyzing data from observations, interviews, and other sources in order to develop theories about social phenomena. 

This research method focuses on understanding people's perspectives and experiences in order to gain a better understanding of the phenomenon being studied. Constructivist grounded theory can be used to inform policies, practices, and interventions related to topics such as education, healthcare, public policy, and social justice. 

Constructivist design

Constructivist design is a concept that refers to the use of constructivist principles in the design of learning environments and activities. Constructivist design is based on the idea that learning is an active process that requires learners to make meaning out of their experiences. 

The goal of constructivist design is to create learning experiences that allow students to discover and explore concepts rather than simply memorize facts. Constructivist design often includes activities such as inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, and reflective practice, instead of solely memorizing facts.  

The emergence of constructivist grounded theory

Constructivist grounded theory is a research method that focuses on generating new theories through inductive analysis of data gathered from participants. It was proposed by Kathy Charmaz and is a later version of the Grounded Theory developed by sociologists Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss. 

Glaser and Strauss developed the original grounded theory while researching terminally ill patients in the 1960s. This eventually led to two books: "The Discovery of Grounded Theory" and "Time for Dying." Constructivist grounded theory is an extension of this original grounded theory, with the researcher being a co-participant in the study. 

This constructivist approach to research involves creating theories from the perspectives of those involved in the study, as opposed to traditional methods in which the researcher maintains an observational role. Rather than just gathering data, the researcher is actively involved in engaging with the research subjects and uncovering new knowledge. 

This constructivist paradigm allows for a richer understanding of the topic being researched and can help to uncover perspectives that may have been overlooked by traditional research methods. 

By combining elements of constructivism, such as the inclusion of subjective experiences and perspectives, with the grounded theory method of analyzing data, researchers are able to gain deeper insights into the subject matter of their study. This is a key part of what sets constructivist grounded theory apart from other qualitative research methods.  

Principles of constructivist grounded theory

Knowledge is constructed

Everyone begins learning with some preexisting knowledge. Constructivist definition suggests that learners have a set of preconceived ideas and will actively construct meaning from new experiences.

Learning is a social activity

Group interactions are important to creating understanding. Constructivist approach focuses on the social construction of knowledge and understanding in the context of dialogue and collaboration.

Learning is an active process

Learning requires a sensory response. Constructivist paradigm emphasizes that learning should be interactive and involve learners in direct experience with their environment.  

Learning is contextual

Learning occurs in the situation within the context of an individual’s life. This means that learning should be embedded in our real-world contexts to provide meaningful engagement.

People learn to learn as they learn

People get better at selecting and organizing information. Constructivist grounded theory suggests that learners need to learn how to learn and become better at recognizing patterns in information and developing strategies for problem-solving.

Learning exists in the mind

Learning requires active engagement and reflection. Constructivist design emphasizes the role of reflection, questioning, and critical thinking in the learning process.

Knowledge is personal:

Knowledge is based on each individual's own perspective and experiences. This means that learning should be personalized to cater to different interests and learning styles.

Motivation is key to learning: 

Making connections is essential for learning. Constructivism theory suggests that learners need to be motivated to engage in the learning process in order to make meaningful connections between ideas.

Types of constructivism

Constructivism is a theory of learning that states that knowledge is constructed through interaction and experience with the environment. There are a variety of constructivist approaches, with the most prominent theorists being Jean Piaget, John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, and Jerome Bruner. 

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget, considered the founder of constructivism, proposed that knowledge is not something that can emerge from a single experience. Rather, cognitive mental growth is achieved by integrating simpler concepts of knowledge into higher-level concepts. This theory is known as cognitive constructivism.

John Dewey

John Dewey's cognitive constructivism teaches that education should be student-centered rather than subject-centered. His method of 'directed living' promotes critical thinking and problem-solving skills to be applied in a variety of contexts. 

Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky was a prominent social constructivist theorist, believing that social interaction within the learning process and the influence of culture on developing cognitive ability are paramount. Vygotsky believed in the importance of scaffolding, or providing support to students as they learn. 

Jerome Bruner

Jerome Bruner's constructivist learning theory is based on the belief that social interaction is at the heart of education. He suggested that education should involve tasks that are stimulating and relevant to students' lives. Bruner also advocated for teaching through discovery, encouraging students to uncover information through exploration and experimentation. 

Constructivism is an approach to learning and teaching that has been adapted over time by several prominent theorists. The different constructivist theories offer varying approaches to understanding how we learn and how to best support our students as they learn.   

The process of constructivist grounded theory

Gathering data 

Gathering data is the first step in the process of constructivist grounded theory. In this step, the researcher collects data from interviews, observations, and documents. 

For example, a researcher studying how parents' beliefs about gender shape their children's behavior might interview parents from different cultural backgrounds to collect data. 

Qualitative coding: 

Qualitative coding involves making sense of the data and labeling it. It is an iterative process in which the researcher interprets the data, labels it, and then looks for patterns. 

For example, a researcher studying teachers' views on the use of technology in the classroom may code the interviews by identifying themes such as 'accessibility,' 'convenience,' and 'efficiency.'

Analytical memo writing

This is a way to compare data and explore more ideas. Through memo writing, the researcher can analyze the data, identify relationships between different ideas, generate new insights, and create hypotheses. 

For example, a researcher studying the effects of social media on student engagement might write memos to explore connections between the students' self-efficacy and the amount of time they spend on social media.

Theoretical sampling

Theoretical sampling helps the researcher identify relationships between data, identify gaps, and gain more insight. This method involves selecting specific cases to study in more detail based on their potential to add new information. 

For example, a researcher studying how students experience bullying in school may decide to focus on a specific group of students with disabilities to understand how their experiences are different from those of other students.

Re-constructing theory and writing the draft 

Once all the data has been collected and analyzed, it is time to reconstruct theory, making connections between the data and developing hypotheses about why certain phenomena occur. The researcher then writes a draft of their findings to present their theories. 

For example, a researcher studying the impact of climate change on communities might develop a theory that links changes in weather patterns to changes in people's attitudes toward environmental protection.

Examples of constructivist grounded theory

Constructivist grounded theory is a qualitative research approach that helps researchers to uncover new understandings of the world. In this process, participants are actively involved in constructing their own understanding through a constructivist definition or approach. 

This approach seeks to understand the "why" behind a participant's behavior through exploring their social and cultural perspectives. 

To illustrate the constructivist grounded theory process, suppose you were conducting research on the impact of peer pressure on teen drinking. You have selected 10 high school students for your study. During your initial interview, you use a constructivist paradigm to gain insight into their individual experiences with peer pressure related to alcohol consumption.  

In this example, you are using a constructivist design to help participants explore their own personal experiences, values, and beliefs. As each student responds, you focus on their unique story and view, probing further into the underlying motivations and emotions that shape their thoughts and behaviors. By doing this, you are able to gain insight into how each student understands and approaches this issue.

This kind of constructivist grounded theory approach allows participants to share their individual stories, explore their values, and develop a greater understanding of the problem. It also helps researchers to gain insight into the cultural, social, and personal aspects of the issue that would not be revealed through a more traditional survey-style research method.  

By applying constructivist grounded theory in real life, researchers can gain deeper insights into the phenomena they are studying, helping them to better inform their findings.  

Disadvantages of constructivist grounded theory

This approach has been found to be highly beneficial in certain situations to explore complex topics, encouraging creativity and allowing participants to make sense of their own experiences. Despite its many benefits, there is some criticism that constructivist grounded theory often lacks structure and is not always suitable for every situation. 

Additionally, while the constructivist definition implies that reality is constantly changing and meaning is subjective, this lack of clarity or structure can be off-putting for some learners. Thus, when planning an educational program or research project, it is important to assess the situation and decide if a constructivist approach, design, or paradigm would be beneficial.  

Overall, constructivist grounded theory provides an effective way to explore complex topics, encourage creativity, and allow participants to make sense of their own experiences. However, it is important to carefully consider whether this method is appropriate for a given situation, in order to ensure the best possible outcome.

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