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Grounded Theory, Feminist Theory, Critical Theory: Toward Theoretical Triangulation

Kushner, Kaysi Eastlick RN, PhD; Morrow, Raymond PhD, Professor

Advances in Nursing Science:
Critical & Postmodern Perspectives

Nursing and social science scholars have examined the compatibility between feminist and grounded theory traditions in scientific knowledge generation, concluding that they are complementary, yet not without certain tensions. This line of inquiry is extended to propose a critical feminist grounded theory methodology. The construction of symbolic interactionist, feminist, and critical feminist variants of grounded theory methodology is examined in terms of the presuppositions of each tradition and their interplay as a process of theoretical triangulation.

THE METHODOLOGICAL strategy of grounded theory has had an enduring impact in nursing research for more than 3 decades, in part because the early practitioners were medical sociologists, 1 and also because this approach has managed to accommodate itself to the remarkable variety of theoretical shifts that have accompanied the revitalization of qualitative research. 2 Although grounded theory originated as an interpretive, qualitative strategy, it is amenable to multimethod triangulation that combines qualitative and quantitative methods. This flexibility and open-endedness resulted in a productive eclecticism, but also in a degree of theoretical confusion. One influential response has been to embrace this theoretical proliferation in the name of an interpretative interactionism, that joins symbolic interactionism and grounded theory with other perspectives including Heidegger's phenomenology, hermeneutics, feminist theory, postmodern theory, and deconstruction. 3 Denzin's position is based on a purely descriptive, ideographic conception of analysis that rejects generalization and a concern with causality: “Its mode of expression is locked into first-order, primary, lived concepts of every life.” 3(p 25) In contrast, many scholars position their work within the confines of a classical combination of grounded theory and symbolic interactionism. We propose a third path that focuses on the interplay between grounded, feminist, and critical theories, as a strategy that provides a more comprehensive account of the relations between agency, structure, and critique.

The strength of the classic formulations of Strauss and Glaser 1 and subsequent elaborations lie in their grasp of the pragmatics of grounded theorizing and their ability to provide accessible methodological guidelines. They were pioneers of the “qualitative revolution” at “a critical point in social science history,” 4(p 509) but were criticized for the limited theoretical position of grounded theory. In response, users of grounded theory drew upon other theoretical perspectives (eg, feminism, political economy, postmodernism) to deal with the limitations, a process that Strauss welcomed. 5 The primary caution in such use of general theory and theoretical elaboration is insistence on a “back and forth interplay with data” 5(p 282) to ensure that theoretical interpretations are continuously grounded in, but not imposed on, the data. More recently, researchers have begun with other theoretical perspectives (such as feminist, Marxist), and then have engaged in grounded research.

The most frequent link has developed between feminist and grounded theories. Feminist grounded theories emerged in nursing literature as an established research methodology in the health and social sciences that is particularly suited to the practice focus of nursing knowledge development. 6 Scholars engaged with feminist grounded theory 6–8 have examined the compatibility between feminist and grounded theory traditions in scientific knowledge generation. They have persuasively concluded that the two traditions are congruent with each other, although not without epistemological, methodological, and normative tensions.

We seek to build on these examples by making a more systematic argument about how to link grounded and feminist theories with critical theory, focusing on the case of nursing. The plausibility of this proposal is evident from the discussions of the strategic importance of feminist and critical theory as frameworks for grounding nursing science. Feminist and critical theory perspectives are recognized as important to nursing knowledge development because of their emphasis on vulnerable populations, social analysis and critique, and emancipatory action to promote social justice in the context of women's issues. 9–11 Beyond its contribution to knowledge generation, critical theory—especially as found in the later work of Habermas—has provided a metatheoretical, empirical, and normative framework for grounding research in both nursing 12 and medical sociology, 13 but is criticized for its lack of gender perspective. A critical feminist perspective 14 is proposed as a view that encompasses a focus on gender as well as other sources of social and cultural inequity and an emphasis on transformative potential. These phenomena are of central concern to nursing as a practical discipline.

This line of inquiry is extended in this article to propose a critically interested grounded theory methodology that reflects an important synergy for knowledge generation. We propose that the uses of grounded theory be reframed in terms of a notion of theoretical triangulation that encourages internal dialogue within a given research design. We argue that there is the basis for a strong elective affinity between grounded theory, feminist theory, and critical theory. Our argument proceeds along 2 lines of discussion. On the one hand, we offer some specific theoretical justifications for the proposed affinities between these 3 perspectives, especially in the context of nursing research. On the other hand, we demonstrate that a number of users of grounded theory have moved in this direction in practice, without necessarily acknowledging the full implications.

In the first section we introduce some preliminary methodological distinctions in order to frame our general approach to inquiry and critical methodology. In the second section, we discuss the tradition of grounded theory, its links with symbolic interactionism, and its limitations as a stand-alone framework for research. The third section discusses a variant of feminist theory that is broadly compatible with grounded and critical theories. And the fourth section takes up a version of critical theory that is complementary to feminist theory and useful for the grounding of nursing research. A concluding discussion draws upon illustrations from research.

Author Information

From the Faculty of Nursing and Perinatal Research Centre, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta (Kushner)

The Department of Sociology, University of Alberta Edmonton, Alberta (Morrow).

Supported by a University of Alberta Faculty of Nursing, Internal Research Allocation grant and a National Health Research, Development Program PhD Fellowship.

Corresponding author: Kaysi Eastlick Kushner, RN, PhD, Faculty of Nursing and Perinatal Research Centre, University of Alberta, 700 UEC, 8303-112 Street, Edmonton, AB T6G 2T4 (e-mail:

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.