Differences and similarities in Grounded theory and Ethnography

By on May 26, 2014

It is often observed that students get confused while selecting qualitative methodologies in order to answer the research questions. They also get confused when they have to make a choice between Grounded theory Methodology and Ethnographic methodology. This is so because students do not have a clear idea about the principles on the basis on which these methodologies are based. In this article, I will be discussing the key elements of Grounded Theory and Ethnography which will help them in selecting the right methodology for their research.

An overview of qualitative methodologies

According to Woodgate (2000), the goal of adopting qualitative research methods for particular research is to understand a particular phenomenon from the perspective of those who are experiencing the phenomenon. Boyd (2001) in his study precisely explained the goals of qualitative studies i.e. “instrumentation, illustration, sensitization and conceptualization”. In the instrumentation stage, data is collected as descriptive data by survey and experiments. This is followed by a collection of qualitative data by conducting interviews, field notes and observation in the instrumentation stage. In the sensitization stage, the researcher is able to gain deep insight through the data collected in the first two stages and this also helps the researcher in identifying appropriate interventions. In the last stage conceptualization of the phenomenon is achieved through the richness of theory which is supported by descriptive evidence of the study.

Although, there are many qualitative methodologies like grounded theory, case study, ethnography and participatory action I will be discussing two specific methodologies, grounded theory and ethnography. The reason behind choosing only these two is the difficulty of students in determining the similarities and differences between these two methodologies.

Goals of researchers while selecting a methodology

The principle goal for qualitative researchers is to conduct an in-depth study about the phenomenon which is occurring in context (Streubert and Carpenter, 1999). The broad scope for researchers who want to apply ethnographic researchers and grounded theorists is to understand events, behaviours and cultural meanings and interpret the experiences. While applying these methodologies researcher study the pattern of cultural beliefs, values and attitudes in the selected population. Despite the similarity between the two methodologies, there are some primary differences as well.

When the grounded theory is applied, the theorist aims to generate a theory that can explain the psychological phenomenon and also help him understand how social interaction is used by human beings to define reality. On the other hand for ethnographers, the primary goal is to provide a description of the cultural phenomenon in their study. The detailed description of these methodologies with their similarities and differences will be discussed in the subsequent sections.

Grounded theory

Application of Grounded Theory Methodology is a mid-range theory that focuses on the process and connects different stages of theory together (Chenitz, 1986). For example, if one needs to conduct a study to gain an understanding of the psychological experiences of patients suffering from a specific disease then grounded theory can be applied. Based on the data collected from secondary and primary research the researcher would be able to conclude the different emotional experiences; how the relationship dynamics change, with whom the does the participant is able to connect most. Based on the answers to these questions, theories can be developed.

In summary, we can say that the application of Grounded theory methodology helps the researcher in understanding the behaviour of the research participants regardless of their cultural background. So this process addresses the research questions with the primary aim of understanding the core process responsible for change rather than focusing on social groups.


The end product of any ethnographic study is dependent on what the researcher wants to investigate in their study. It is believed that there are three reasons for choosing an ethnographic study. Firstly, it helps the researcher to understand a particular phenomenon and describe alternative realities which were projected by the participants of the study in a particular culture. Secondly, while applying an ethnographic approach, the researcher is able to build a substantive grounded theory (Streubert & Carpenter, 1999) by describing and interpreting their observations related to a particular culture. Also, in addition to grounded theory, the researcher can develop a hypothesis based on empirical data of cultural description which can then be tested using quantitative research designs (Germain, 1986). Finally, for ethnographers, ethnographic studies are conducted to study the complex cultures i.e. it helps in studying the participant behaviour based on their culture (Edleman & Mandle, 2002).

Differences between Grounded theory and Ethnography

Firstly, as already discussed in the previous paragraphs, Ethnography differentiates itself from grounded theory because it entails understanding the participant behaviour with respect to a specific culture. For this reason, one can say that ethnographers focus on just one aspect i.e. culture rather than the whole context. In contrast, the researchers adopting grounded theory try to explain the core category on which the research is based and interweave it with the context of participant behaviour of that particular phenomenon.

The second difference between the two methods is when the literature should be reviewed i.e. before the data collection phase or after it. While in the case of grounded theory, the researcher doesn’t consult the literature before the fieldwork in order to avoid getting influenced by the literature. According to Glaser (1978), grounded theorists consult a lot of literature however, they are not directly related to the research topic. In contrast, ethnographers can consult the conceptual literature before conducting the study in which the problem to be studied is presented to get an idea about how a researcher can proceed further.

Thirdly, there is a difference between the two methods with respect to sample selection. While in the case of the grounded theory method theoretical sampling technique is adopted so that it helps in theory building (Glaser, 1978, 1992; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). When collecting data for grounded theory, theorist collects, codes and analyzes the data which then facilitates the emergence of theory. Since the ethnographers do not aim to generate theories (Charmaz & Mitchell, 2001), and are rather concerned with defining cultural meaning behind a particular concept, therefore, they give more emphasis to particular aspects of culture and apply purpose sampling (Miles and Huberman, 1994). Where the aim is to collect data from similar and contrasting cases in order to understand single case findings.

Finally, the fourth difference between the two methodologies is how one presents the results of their findings and the nature of the discussion of findings. While grounded theorists focus their final report on the discussion of conceptual analysis and substantive theory which they have built from the collected data (Charmaz & Mitchell, 2001; Speziale & Carpenter, 2007), in contrast, ethnographers use descriptive approaches like narratives to describe participants and their actions.

Similarities between Grounded Theory and Ethnography

Although, the two methodologies hold a number of differences; however, here we will also be discussing the similarities between the two methodologies. Firstly, in both methodologies, the researcher studies the phenomenon in its natural context and uses a holistic approach to study the phenomenon (Calvin, 2004). Secondly, in both the methodologies more than one data collected approach is adopted as it helps the researcher in providing multiple interpretations and also enhances the accuracy and credibility of the research study (Maggs-Rapport, 2000; Mariano, 2001). The third similarity between the two methodologies is that; the researcher presents the reports from the perspective of participants who has experienced the phenomenon in the natural setting. Excerpts from the interviews, stories of participants are added to the report which enhances the overall richness of the research findings.

In conclusion, it can be said that the selection of one of these two methodologies is dependent on the research questions of the study and the on the basis of similarities and differences discussed in this article.


  • Boyd, C. (2001). Philosophical foundations of qualitative research. In P. Munhall (Ed.), Nursing research: A qualitative perspective (pp. 65-90). Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett.
  • Calvin, A. O. (2004). Haemodialysis patients and end of life decisions: A theory of personal preservation. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 46, 558-566.
  • Charmaz, K., & Mitchell, R. G. (2001). Grounded theory in ethnography. In P. Atkinson, Coffey, S. Delamont, J. Lofland, & L. Lofland (Eds.), Handbook of ethnography (pp. 160-174). London, UK: Sage.
  • Chenitz, W. C. (1986). Getting started: The proposal for a grounded theory study. In W. C. Chenitz & J. M. Swanson (Eds.), From practice to grounded theory (pp. 39-47). Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Edleman, C. L., & Mandle, C. L. (2002). Health promotion throughout the lifespan. Toronto, ON: Mosby.
  • Germain, C. (1986). Ethnography: The method. In P. L. Munhall & C. J. Oiler (Eds.), A qualitative perspective (pp. 69-84). Norwalk, CT: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  • Glaser, B. (1978). Theoretical sensitivity: Advances in the methodology of grounded theory. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press.
  • Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory. Chicago, IL: Aldine.
  • Glaser, B. G. (1992). Basics of grounded theory analysis: Emergence vs. forcing. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press.
  • Maggs-Rapport, F. (2000). Combining methodological approaches in research: Ethnography and interpretive phenomenology. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 31, 219-225.
  • Marino, C. (2001). Case study: The method. In P. L. Munhall(Ed.) A qualitative perspective (3rd ed.) (pp.359-384). Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett
  • Miles, M., & Huberman, A. (1994). Qualitative Data Analysis. London: Sage.
  • Speziale, H. J. S., & Carpenter, D. R. (2007). Qualitative research: Advancing the humanistic imperative (4th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  • Streubert, H., & Carpenter, D. (1999). Qualitative research: Advancing the humanistic imperative (2nd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott.
  • Woodgate, R. (2000). Part I: An introduction to conducting qualitative research in children with cancer. Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing, 17(4), 192-206.