Grounded theory, ethnography and phenomenology

Grounded theory, ethnography  and phenomenology


Within the field of marketing the positivism versus interpretivism debate is showing signs of slowing down, with a growing acceptance of the diverse range of methods of representing marketing phenomenon (Brown, 2003). 

The last two decades have seen a steady increase in the number of qualitative papers appearing in the premier journals, and while we may be a long way from reaching a full Kuhnian paradigm revolution, it is fair to say that qualitative research is no longer viewed as merely “speculative”, or “soft”, as was generally held to be the case by many in the past. 

However, that is not to say that some of the criticisms levied against qualitative research in marketing are not entirely without foundation. Just as there are many quantitative papers that fail to give full attention to design and statistical checks, there are many instances of papers claiming to be, for example grounded theory, that are based on purposive sampling and a handful of interviews which are then described, but lack theoretical sensitivity (Glaser, 1992). 

This has led to accusations that grounded theory is being used as an “anything goes” approach (Locke, 1996, p. 244). There are also “phenomenological” accounts which are free from any guiding philosophy and described in terms of content analysis and even statistics (see for example Masberg and Silverman’s (1996) phenomenological study of visitor experiences at heritage sites), and ethnographic descriptions which are based on snap-shot observations and limited participatory interaction (Goulding, 2002).

However, there is increasing acknowledgement, not only in academic circles, but also among marketing practitioners, of the need for the application of qualitative methodologies in their truest and most fundamental sense in order to gain valid insights, develop theory and aid effective decision making. 

This paper examines three qualitative methodologies, grounded theory, ethnography, and phenomenology, which have seen a steady growth in their application within marketing. It points to a number of studies that have applied the techniques and summarises the key procedures associated with each in order to differentiate between them and highlight their potential for future marketing research.

A grounded theory approach 

Although traditionally associated with sociology (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Glaser, 1978, 1992, 1998; Strauss and Corbin, 1990), nursing and health (Sandelowski, 1995; Morse, 1994), and organisational studies (Parry, 1998; Hunt and Ropo, 1995; Brown, 1994, 1995; Turner, 1981, 1988), grounded theory has, in recent years, started to enter the repertoire of marketing and consumer research (Goulding, 1998, 1999a, 2000a; Pettigrew, 2000). For instance, the “Odyssey” team (Belk et al., 1989) utilised aspects of grounded theory in their ground breaking analysis of the sacred and profane in consumer behaviour.

Contextualising grounded theory 

Essentially, grounded theory has its origins in symbolic interactionsim, a paradigm which holds that individuals engage in a world that requires reflexive interaction as averse to environmental response. Accordingly, behaviour is goal driven, evolving from social interaction that is highly symbolic in itself.

Grounded theory process 

According to the basic principles of grounded theory, once an area of research has been identified, the researcher should enter the field as soon as possible. Consequently the literature is not exhausted prior to the research, as in many studies, rather it is consulted as part of an iterative, inductive and interactional process of data collection, simultaneous analysis, and emergent interpretation.

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