What is theoretical sensitivity?

Theoretical sensitivity refers to our ability to examine our underlying assumptions of the area we’re researching, and the things we’ve read, absorbed and use in everyday thought. By enhancing our theoretical sensitivity we acknowledge that as researchers we are the sum of our knowledge and experiences and seeks to account for this knowledge and experiences throughout the research process. We also become conscious of what we don’t know.

Theoretical sensitivity is important to theory development because it facilitates insights into what is meaningful or significant; it helps us to recognise and extract from the data elements that have relevance for the emerging theory and to fully develop the properties and dimensions of categories and sub-categories.

Our theoretical sensitivity can be raised by memoing, the process of recording thoughts, feelings, decisions, ideas, processes and analytical insights as they emerge during the data collection, coding, analysis process, and during memoing itself. As we develop our theoretical sensitivity we become better equipped to answer the question “What is happening in the data?”.

Our theoretical sensitivity increases throughout a project and enhances our ability to understanding and defining phenomena in abstract terms and demonstrate abstraction relationships between phenomena, resulting in a more integrated and abstract grounded theory.


Birks, M., & Mills, J. (2015). Grounded theory: a practical guide (2nd Ed ed.). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Bryant, A., & Charmaz, K. (2007). The SAGE handbook of grounded theory. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Glaser, B. G. (1978). Theoretical sensitivity: advances in the methodology of grounded theory. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press.

Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: strategies for qualitative research. New York: Aldine.


When should you do your grounded theory literature review?

One of the most contentious and misunderstood aspects of grounded theory studies is the timing of the literature review. Some research methodologies, including certain qualitative research methodologies, use the literature to identify theoretical frameworks and employ these to direct and interpret study findings. Grounded theorists differ in their approach to literature reviews by actively seeking not to be influenced by preconceived ideas of an area and instead generate theory based on their study’s data. By delaying a formal literature review the grounded theorist seeks to prevent imposing existing theories or knowledge on data. Notwithstanding, the literature review should be tailored to the specific purpose at hand.

Ideally your literature search and review will be undertaken after the construction of a theoretical framework, though the demands of research panels, ethics committees and funding bodies often necessitate a preliminary review is completed before data gathering can commence. Acknowledging that no researcher is a blank slate, grounded theorists are encouraged to limit the impact of unavoidable excursions into the literature by undertaking a review to articulate existing knowledge and perceptions. In this way the grounded theorist can avoid contaminating their thinking or, later, constraining their analysis to a pre-existing framework. A preliminary review also enables the researcher to follow the traditional thesis or article format of presenting a literature review as an introduction; positioned here, the purpose of the review is to prepare the reader for what is to come as a prelude to the study process and findings.

A formal or comprehensive literature review is typically undertaken after data analysis has begun, often starting once your categories and the analytic relationship between them are forming. The purpose of reviewing the work of others at this stage is to enhance your theoretical sensitivity, and to identify and analyse the most significant works in relation to your developing theory. By delaying your formal literature review you’ll be positioned to undertake a focused review having developed a clearer understanding of what’s relevant to your theory. Your review will help strengthen your arguments and enable you to demonstrate how your work enriches and adds a new dimension to the subject area.

Staying true to the grounded theory process, remain alert and memo whether, when and to what extent earlier ideas and literature enter your research and subject them to rigorous scrutiny.


Birks, M., & Mills, J. (2015). Grounded theory: a practical guide (2nd Ed ed.). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Bryant, A., & Charmaz, K. (2007). The SAGE handbook of grounded theory. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Glaser, B. G. (1992). Basics of grounded theory: emergence vs forcing. California: Mill Valley.

Stern, P. N. (2007). On solid ground: essential properties for growing grounded theory. In A. Bryant & K. Charmaz (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of grounded theory (pp. 114-126). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.



Birks, M., & Mills, J. (2015). Grounded theory: a practical guide (2nd ed.). London: Sage.

An accessible user-friendly guide to grounded theory. Particularly suited to the novice Grounded Theorist, the book compares and contrasts the different interpretations of grounded theory and covers the whole research process from planning through to evaluation, dissemination and maximising impact.

Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory (2nd ed.). London: Sage.

Constructivist grounded theory in which theory is co-constructed.

Charmaz, K. (2015). Grounded theory. In: Smith, J.A. (2015) Qualitative psychology: a practical guide to research methods. London: Sage. Chapter 4.https://uk.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/78324_Pages_from_9781446298466_T_reprint.pdf

Sample chapter of this core psychology text, which formed the foundation of Kathy Charmaz’s Constructing Grounded Theory. This chapter provides insight into the history and theoretical background of grounded theory, formulating a research question and designing a grounded theory study, collecting data, data analysis, and writing up. Acknowledges that not all researchers who use grounded theory methods e.g. coding and memo making, conduct theoretical sampling or pursue extensive analysis of their categories. Instead most construct conceptual analysis of particular experience rather than creating substantive or formal theory.

Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.

Classical grounded theory in which theory is discovered.

Strauss, A. L., & Corbin, J. (2015). Basics of qualitative research: techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory. London: Sage. 2nd ed.

Step-by-step practical and technical advice for researchers in analysing and interpreting their collected data. A user of this blog has suggested that the 2nd edition is the most helpful in doing and writing a grounded theory.



Combining Approaches to Research

Johnson, L. (2014). Adapting and combining constructivist grounded theory and discourse analysis: a practice guide for research. International Journal of Multiple Research Approaches, 8(1), 110-116.

Provides a worked example of the process of using constructivist grounded theory and discourse analysis within a research project.

Ontology and Epistemology

Ralph, N., Birks, M., Chapman, Y. (2015). The methodological dynamism of grounded theory. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 1-6.

Accessible paper that illustrates the process of how new interpretations of grounded theory came to prominence. Noting how philosophical positioning defines how grounded theory methods are used, the authors advocate Grounded Theorists develop a strong ontological awareness, adopting an epistemological perspective appropriate to their data.

Weed, M. (2017). Capturing the essence of Grounded Theory: the importance of understanding commonalities and variants, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 9(1), 149-156.

Explores the implications of ontological and epistemological variants of Grounded Theory (Glaser – realist positivist; Strauss & Corbin – realist interpretivist; Charmaz – constructivist interpretivist) across eight core Grounded Theory elements: iterative approach; theoretical sampling; theoretical sensitivity; codes, memos and concepts; constant comparison; theoretical saturation; fit, work, relevance & modifiability; and substantive theory. Concludes by discussing the implications for claims of truth & constructions to knowledge in relation to realist versus constructivist ontologies.

Sample Size

Thomson, S. B. (2011). Sample size and grounded theory. Journal of Administration & Governance, 5(1), 45-52.

Thomson undertook a content analysis of 100 articles that employed grounded theory using interviews for a data collection. Thomson indicates an average sample size of 10-30 participants. Thomson acknowledges limitations in his study, not least the lack of scrutiny of what authors defined as a grounded theory study. Notwithstanding, a useful starting point: http://roam.macewan.ca/islandora/object/gm%3A1206

Sampling Techniques

Coyne, I. T. (1997). Sampling in qualitative research. Purposeful and theoretical sampling; merging or clear boundaries? Journal of Advanced Nursing, 26, 623-630.

Discussion Forums

Grounded Theory: Facebook

A public Facebook group established in June 2011 and hosted by Barry Gibson, Queens University of Belfast – https://www.facebook.com/groups/123133504438755/

Grounded Theory Australia: Facebook

A closed Facebook group. Based in Australia, membership is open to all nationalities, topics and type of Grounded Theory – https://www.facebook.com/groups/GTAustralia/

Grounded Theory Institute

Discussion list hosted by the Grounded Theory Institute, home of the Barney Glaser school of Grounded Theory. Free to access via a username and password – http://www.groundedtheory.com/ *** Inactive ***


A qualitative research discussion list with occasional postings on Grounded Theory. Free to access via a username and password – https://listserv.uga.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A0=QUALRS-L

Ethical Review of Grounded Theory Proposals

Most universities now require ethical review of research studies which involve human subjects; and even if your university does not require it, considering matters ethical can improve your study. Completing the forms required for ethical review however, can be confusing: forms designed to be appropriate for one research design may not be an exact match for another research design. Where the Grounded Theory research method is being used, it is often difficult for the applicant to work out how to answer the questions, and difficult for reviewers to assess the review application or proposal.

Dr. Odis Simmons of Fielding Graduate University, prepared some guidelines for reviewers at his university on how to assess a Grounded Theory Institutional Review Board (IRB) proposal.




  • 23 July 2019 – Qualitative Approaches: Finding the Right Fit, The Laurier Summer Institute of Research Methods, Ontario, Canada – http://lsirm.ca/course/qualitative-approaches-finding-right-fit
  • 25-26 July 2019 – Constructing Grounded Theory with Mixed Methods: Creative Ways to Produce an Explanatory Framework that Impacts Practice facilitated by Elizabeth Creamer, 16th Annual Qualitative Research Summer Intensive, North Carolina, United States of America – http://www.researchtalk.com/qrsi-2019/ (15% discount code til 17 June 2019 – twNewScholar15)
  • 9-11 August 2019, Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) Conference, New York City, USA – https://sssiorg.wordpress.com/conferences-and-events/


Contributions Welcome

The Grounded Theorist blog is a repository for resources for anyone interested in using Grounded Theory in their research.

Established in May 2017, the blog is in its early stages of development, with new resources added as my understanding and knowledge of grounded theory grows.

If you know of a resource that could usefully be added to the blog, or would like to write a post, get in touch with Maria at m.j.grant@2016.ljmu.ac.uk