The Japanese Society of M-GTA

The Japanese Society of M-GTA (Modified Grounded Theory Approach) for Innovative Qualitative Research

Q&A on M-GTA


Q1: In what sense is the M-GTA a “modified version” of the original GTA?


In general, modifications include various meanings of various degrees. Here, I will explain the most basic idea of why we designate it as a modified “version”, rather than explaining from a technical viewpoint. In other words, I will explain the overall characteristics of the M-GTA as a qualitative research method.

The following is a text that I wrote for a flyer for the M-GTA Book Series published by Koubundou. I put this together in a short time; however, as I reread it, I found it quite useful for understanding the overall characteristics of the M-GTA. So I quote the text.

The Grounded Theory Approach (GTA) was proposed in the 1960s as a qualitative study approach to enable the generation of unique theories through coherent analysis grounded on data. Since then, the GTA was applied widely in numerous human service fields such as nursing, healthcare, social work, caregiving, school education, rehabilitation, and clinical psychology, amongst others. In recent years, amid the growing global interest in qualitative study approaches, the GTA has come to hold a position as a classic. On the other hand, it underwent its own ups and downs, especially with the dispute between the original proposers, Anselm Strauss and Barney Glaser in the early 1990s. It is best now to raise two core questions in order to understand the real possibilities of the GTA; “what is the GTA?” and “what is the actual process of its analysis?”
Even if it is a rough gemstone, all the possibilities reside in the original proposal. And then, what we have to do is to embody such possibilities concretely in today’s situation. Any research stance that places importance on the data with the aim of generating a theory, also poses a question about the purpose of that theory. Our fundamental recognition is that it is not for the benefit of the researchers, but rather that it is necessary as a working hypothesis to support human service practice. Practical application of research results is not a secondary purpose, but the primary purpose of the GTA. Given this perspective, the possibility of a new mutually stimulating relationship between researcher and practitioner emerges.
The process of polishing this rough gemstone naturally requires that we should overcome limits in the original proposal. The GTA was advocated by two sociologists who had contrastive research styles – Barney Glaser, whose style had an affinity with quantitative research approaches, and Anselm Strauss, who is famous for Symbolic Interactionism and who emphasized the interaction process of meaning generation. In a word, one can find in the GTA most of the major issues that should be considered for qualitative studies. Thus, any discussion of the GTA is a discussion of qualitative studies in general.
This series consists of monographs and a presentation of the Modified Grounded Theory Approach (M-GTA) – which was made by (1) directly accepting the possibilities of the original GTA, (2) making unique modifications in terms of research, theory, epistemology, and technique, and (3) improving it for greater practicability. Each of the monographs in this series demonstrates the M-GTA and presents a deep understanding of human nature in the different fields. The authors are all researcher-practitioners in their respective professional fields, and they have performed the most important characteristic of the M-GTA, i.e., the Researcher-At-Work.

What I want to emphasize here is that even if the original proposal be a rough gemstone, all the possibilities reside in it, and what we have to do is to embody such possibilities in today’s situation; and that the process of polishing a rough gemstone requires that we should overcome their limits. The rough gemstone, of course, means the original version of GTA, which is left incomplete.
In addition to the modifications in terms of the technical aspects for better usability, I also embodied the possibilities of the rough gemstone in the M-GTA.

Accordingly, the M-GTA succeeds in capturing the essence of the original Glaser-Strauss version and proposes its own improvements. It positions itself at a distance from other versions of the GTA: the Strauss-Corbin version, the Glaser version, or the recent attempts by Charmaz.

The M-GTA does not use the technique of slicing the data, a technique that is shared among all the GTAs mentioned above, including the original version. In this sense, one might insist that the M-GTA should not be categorized as a GTA. However, this is only a superficial, external point of view. The M-GTA was created through an examination of the possibilities of the original version, which we call the rough gemstone, while inheriting and developing many of its principal ideas, and therefore it definitely has its origin in the GTA. Also, we call it a modified “version” of the GTA, in deference to the creativity of Glaser and Strauss together, not either of them alone. A different designation may avoid confusion, but we do not do so for the above-mentioned reason.

As was already discussed in my previous books, the slicing of the data is not only a technique but it is a methodology, and thus it is inseparable from epistemology. This technique is based on simple objectivism. In this connection, Charmaz has inherited it as a technique while introducing the epistemology of Social Constructionism, which seems to us to be unstable and at odds internally.

Interpretation of the meaning of qualitative data is work performed by a researcher under a certain theme with a certain level of awareness of the issues, and it is impossible to look to objectivism for an account of its adequacy. Should we then shift our focus to the opposite pole to constructionism, and place emphasis on an understanding that includes the nature and process of the collaborative generation of meanings, and on sensitivity to the obvious? The M-GTA seeks a unique stance critical of the both of these viewpoints. In other words, the issue is how to simultaneously clear both Glaser’s consistent epistemological standpoint (objectivism) and the other epistemological standpoint (constructionism) that essentially constitutes Strauss’s stance and is becoming more distinct in recent years. The M-GTA takes the position that in qualitative studies, the limits of objectivism cannot be overcome through constructionism. In fact, this issue is already recognizable as a structural outline in the rough gemstone (original version), and at the same time it also constitutes one of the most important issues when we discuss qualitative studies today.

Studies based on objectivism aim to generate generalizable knowledge. On the other hand, constructionism defines knowledge, at the outset, as something that cannot be generalized, and deals with knowledge that is formed in the course of, so to speak, differential-like localization. Although the importance of constructionism goes without saying, a difficulty with it is that knowledge becomes closed. In contrast with both of these philosophies, the M-GTA intends to generate knowledge (grounded theory) that can be generalized within limited scope. This limited generalization requires a combination of the following condition settings: (1) a setting where the Researcher-At-Work generates the knowledge through the Analytically-Focused Person, and (2) a setting wherein the individuals apply the knowledge in actual settings through the viewpoints of the Analytically-Focused Person. This is an important point. Without rejecting either objectivism or constructionism, or without leaning too far towards either one – the M-GTA thus sets a framework that integrates both sides.

Understanding the reason why the M-GTA emphasizes actual practice, particularly practice in human service fields, will lead to the clarification of the strategic nature of the M-GTA. On one hand, it argues that research as a social activity should be for the practical application of research results with the purpose of ameliorating existing problems, while on the other hand, it undertakes the challenge of overcoming the acceleration of knowledge polarization,

(by Yasuhito Kinoshita)

Q2: The M-GTA analyses data with a focus on two viewpoints: the Analytical Theme, and the Analytically-Focused Person. Given the complexities and abundance of detail in qualitative data, what is the rationale and how is data actually analyzed?


Any approaches of qualitative research handle data, records or materials using one method or another. These “methods” can be collectively referred to as “coding”, although there may be objections against this from those who insist on limiting the use of the term to quantitative research, and from those who attach importance to the political nature (authority)of research, for their own respective reasons.
This issue can be handled effectively by dividing it into two basic viewpoints: “what is the GTA?” and “what is the actual process of its analysis?” These viewpoints, which were previously introduced in order to mitigate the confusion and difficulty in understanding the GTA, can also be applied to understand other qualitative research approaches.
In actual cases, you put the actual name of the method instead of “GTA”. For example, “what is ethnomethodology?” and “what is the actual process of its analysis?”; “what is the life story approach?” and “what is the actual process of its analysis?”; “what is the narrative approach?” and “what is the actual process of its analysis?; and the like.
Any qualitative approach involves some “methods” of different relative importance and explicitness. Paying attention to or extracting some specific part of the data, records or materials constitutes basic work for interpretation. Conventionally, qualitative research did not expend much effort with regard to “methods”; however, recent years have seen many studies aiming at their clarification.
In this regard, it is important to pay attention, in a critical manner, to the balance and the degree of unification between “what is” a certain approach and “what is the actual process of its analysis?” Learners tend to focus their interest on the “methods” in an attempt to acquire knowledge and skills quickly, but there are more important things to understand before jumping on.

Now, when we look at the GTA, “what it is” was quite clear from the beginning. Great hope and support were placed behind this aspect of things. However, in terms of “what is the actual process of its analysis?”, it was not readily comprehensible.
I skip the story behind this, which has already been explained (Kinoshita, 1999, 2003), but we have understood that the essential part of it lies in the technique of slicing of data. The confusion was found in seeing slicing the data as a technique without understanding its epistemological basis.
Speaking rather verbosely, this is the vagueness of both “What is the slicing of data?” and “How should we practice the slicing of data?”, and of the relationship between them. This is the delicate balance between Glaser and Strauss which existed from the beginning.

As a result of examining all kinds of things, I came to think that we would not be able to sufficiently develop the possibilities of the original GTA if it were based on the technique of slicing the data, and this technique would, on the contrary, spoil its real possibilities. Speaking straightforwardly, the examination of “what and how” raised further viewpoints of “by whom and for what”; both of which concepts carry even greater significance.
This is because the former is defined by the latter. It is not possible to speak about the former alone without discussing the latter. This can be said about any research in general, not alone the GTA. It is rather paradoxical that researchers are preoccupied with doing research but they tend not to ask reflectively about themselves.
Processional researchers, be they in quantitative or qualitative research, tend to take things as postulated. And graduate students also tend to skip this part, as they have their own research tasks for thesis or dissertations; no doubt such being more urgent for them, they rush to interpreting the meaning of qualitative data without adequate preparation and training in thinking of themselves as researchers. And to make matters worse, they think that the technique of slicing the data assures objectivity.

From this point, the M-GTA is constructed not to utilize the technique of slicing the data, but with the concept of the Researcher-At-Work (who conducts the research as a social activity, and for specific purpose).
Objectification of oneself as the “Researcher-At-Work” and conscious awareness of one’s own concerns and issues to as great an extent possible were set as important factors. These are naturally required in doing any research, and, at the same time, they help in carrying out interpretation of qualitative data effectively.
This is because the researchers don’t conceive of themselves as having an abstract existence as neutral scientists, but need to establish concrete questions based on significance and goals, and can verify their own standpoints as individuals in certain social contexts. Without relying on objectivity, analysis of qualitative data without arbitrary interpretation is certainly possible by drawing on and restructuring the way of thinking as presented in the M-GTA.

The viewpoint of the Researcher-At-Work functions as a set with the Analytically-Focused Person. The Analytically-Focused Person is a collective other who is defined by research proposals, serving as a standard for the selection of interview subjects, providing a frame of reference when interpreting the data, and establishing the scope of the generalizability of the analysis results.
The M-GTA has three types of persons which are methodologically integrated; the Researcher-At-Work, the Analytically-Focused Person and actual persons in cooperating and applying, and they are defined in the 3 phases of interactivity (Live Lecture M-GTA, Koubundou, 2007, pp.88-99). In other words, a researcher is “locked” into human relationships throughout the research process - data collection, analysis and practical application of the result - so that we observe research ethics and acquire generalizability in limited scope.

So if we decide not to slice the data, then this gives rise to the problem of how to handle the data. In order that the preconceptions of the analyzer do not enter into the picture, the method of slicing the data – where data is divided finely into sections and the meaning of each tranche is given consideration – begins with the process of fine slicing before the data is interpreted. This is cumbersome work, but logically it is necessary to begin with the work of finely slicing the data to the greatest extent possible.

If we decide not to use this method, then a certain new, innovative way of analysis needs to be developed. We ask ourselves what do we do about the very first point of contact with the data. This is a question we need. Subsequently the viewpoints of the Researcher-At-Work and the Analytical Theme are eventually introduced in the M-GTA.
As I have sought to emphasize at every opportunity, setting the Analytical Theme is an extremely important point, upon which the success or failure of the analysis depends. It is a research question carefully shaped and led by one’s own interests. At the same time, the Analytical Theme is set in such a way that it facilitates exploration of varied content in the data.
This may look simple but is actually not so. It is better to spend the time to develop an Analytical Theme properly, rather than simply coming up with one off the top of your head. During that process guidance and advice are very important, helping you become conscious of what you intend to make clear. That way you look at the data from the standpoints of the Analytical Theme and the Analytically-Focused Person, and proceed to concept generation with the Analytical Worksheet.
In order to select specific parts of the data, the guidance viewpoint is necessary, and the M-GTA utilizes the Analytical Theme and the Analytically-Focused Person.
Conversely, slicing the data is not only a technique but also a methodology, which lets you bypass the conscious work of selection and interpretation of the data. You firstly segmentalize and then make a start with an investigation of the meaning of those segmented parts by making codes. Thus, this work has to be meticulous from the very beginning, and thereafter you proceed by making comparisons of codes generated.
Although sharing a constant comparative method to carry out analysis, the major difference between M-GTA and other types of GTA lies in the manner in how the initial comparative materials are chosen. The M-GTA emphasizes the contextuality in the data, which the act of slicing data destroys, and the self-reflectivity in interpretations of data, an essential element of the Researcher-At-Work.
And so even though at first glance it may look likeas if you are doing similar things, such superficial similarities in the work do not actually mean that the significance and purpose of the work are also similar.

In brief, it’s best to be very precise during the initial analytical encounter with the data. Before dealing with the data, you should try to conceive of what it is you need to think about, what you are going to do, and why.

With the M-GTA, we look at the data from 2 aspects: the Analytical Theme and the Analytically-Focused Person. It cannot be overemphasized that concentration on these viewpoints is “must”.

Due to an abundance of detail in the data, even being conscious of only these two points, many different ideas can come to the fore, inspired by the content. These can be carefully recorded in a “theoretical memo”, but you need to concentrate foremost on the two points.
The reason why this approach works out is that even though you’ve narrowed things down to the two points, it’s not the case that you can never make any changes just because you’ve made that decision. The Analytical Theme is conceived of before data gathering begins, and can be looked at again after data gathering is completed, and indeed can further be adjusted as necessary after data analysis has begun.
It’s actually not unusual at the initial stage of analysis to examine the degree of fitness between the Analytical Theme and the data in general. It’s not that you sift through the data with reference to the Analytical Theme and the Analytically-Focused Person, but that you make use of an adjustment method where you change the Analytical Theme as necessary so that the theme will be open to the specific variability of the data.

In contrast to the fact that a careful examination must be conducted until the Analytical Theme has been finalized, there is no way to go astray in setting the Analytically-Focused Person, as this is a group of people defined by research design, i.e. criteria for interviewees. This will involve adjustment in the form of increasing or decreasing the focus in connection with the Analytical Theme, i.e. adding conditions and broadening the scope of the subjects, or removing conditions and tightening the scope.

Interestingly, making this kind of adjustment with regard to the Analytical Theme and the Analytically-Focused Person, can allow you to set a second Analytical Theme leading to a second paper to publish.

It is recommendable to add the word “process” in an Analytical Theme such as “Research on the Process of”. This is because an Analytical Theme ultimately attempts to capture a dynamic process. When using an Analytical Worksheet to generate concepts, you are always conscious of where and in what ways those concepts are likely to be related to the process being theorized as a grounded theory.
When analysis results look to be emerging quite quickly, then take it that your Analytical Theme has not been well enough thought out and look into it again. While the originality of your research is shaped by your results, it also actually has a strong connection with the Analytical Theme setting.
You might think this is all very tough, but the fact is that the more important something is, the less easy and less comfortably it is accomplished. There is no easy way. All research methods have a number of difficult aspects to master. However, steps do exist for overcoming them, and with the M-GTA the more carefully and reflectively you look into your Analytical Theme, the greater the extent to which you can assume an open approach when looking at your data.
This is because your attention will be drawn to various parts of the data. In the process of establishing your Analytical Theme, investigation will be added from many different points, and so you will make sure to be on the lookout for many things, and will be sensitive to content-richness of your data.
An open approach to your data does not simply entail having the right mental attitude, but is about making this kind of investigative work a part of you in an experiential sense.

(by Yasuhito Kinoshita)


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