Another way of talking about theme:Using grounded theory in the humanities James Kelley Mississippi State University – Meridian MLA 2013
A little backgroundMy first (near) use of grounded theory withoutever having heard the term:“Song, Story, or History: Resisting Claims of aCoded Message in the African American Spiritual‘Follow the Drinking Gourd.’” The Journal ofPopular Culture 41.2 (2008)
Multiple sourcesMultiple sources, including:• Two episodes on television series: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Treasure Hunters• Internet sites for and by educators at the K-12 level (including over 50 lesson plans)• Internet sites (and an educational video) by three government agencies: NASA, NSA, NPS• Published pieces in the academic and popular presses
Theoretical samplingMy method of collecting information resembled the“theoretical sampling” discussed in Barney Glaserand Anselm Strauss’ The Discovery of GroundedTheory: Strategies for Qualitative Research (1967).•The sampling was purposeful, not random orrigidly preplanned.•The number and types of groups were notdetermined until the research was completed.There was “an ongoing inclusion of groups.”
Approach to the informationMy method of making sense of the informationalso resembled their methods. According toGlaser and Strauss,•grounded theory requires the “hard study ofmuch data.”•grounded theory is the opposite of “logo-deductive theory.” It is “grounded in” and“emerges from” the data.
Recursive processCollecting, coding, and analyzing are donetogether as much as possible. They blur andintertwine continuously. One should notdisregard the “fresh analytical idea” that occursafter the process has begun. The “constantcomparison” of different groups highlightsmeaningful similarities and differences.When does the process end?
Example of To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird is the single most widelydiscussed novel at enotes.com. There arepresently:6,664 Q&A items for To Kill a Mockingbird2,848 Q&A items for Lord of the Flies1,440 Q&A items for 19841,340 Q&A items for The Scarlet Letter1,060 Q&A items for Frankenstein
Theme 1: Moral CharacterWhen talking to students about fictionalcharacters in Lee’s novel, particularly whentalking about Atticus Finch and Bob Ewell, theteachers frequently move from characteranalysis to explicit and implicit statements ofmorality. Describing the fictional characters inthe novel becomes a way of talking about moralcharacter in our world.
Theme 2: Life LessonsWhen talking to students about the experiencesand changes of the younger characters in thenovel, particularly when talking about Scout andJem Finch, the teachers frequently move in theiranswers toward explicit and implicit discussionsof identity development, intellectual and socialdevelopment, loss of innocence, growingawareness of hypocrisy and evil in the world,and other topics related to adolescence.
Theme 3: Text and ContextWhen talking to students about the novel’ssetting and publication date, the teachers touchbriefly on past and present organizations ofrace, class, and gender. The novel’s immediatesetting (the town of Maycomb, AL) oftenreceives detailed treatment in the teachers’answers, whereas discussions of socialstructures in the early 1930s and in the late1950s are often brief and undeveloped.
Bringing the themes togetherThe teachers’ tendency to focus on unchanging anduniversal truths, particularly the central idea of ayoung person learning to distinguish between goodand evil – coupled with the tendency to discuss thenovel without reference to the Jim Crow laws of theperiod in which the story is set and/or the earlyCivil Rights era during which the novel was firstpublished – transforms the complex novel To Kill aMockingbird into a simple and timeless moralitytale.
Sample teachers’ posts on the rose bushThe following two posts can be compared andcontrasted for the following:•Level of detail•Discussion of symbolism•Discussion of ambiguity•Use of direct quotations from the novel
One post on the rose bush“The rose bush is like Pearl. It grows in a location where itserves as a stark contrast against the prison. Pearl isbeautiful and grows in stark contrast to the fact that shewas created out of "sin." Pearl and her mother, HesterPryne, have been brought before the small counsel sothey can determine if Hester should be allowed to raisethe child, Pearl. They identify Hester as a sinful womanand do not want the child to be raised to follow in hermothers footsteps. When Pearl is asked where she camefrom, she tells them that she was plucked from the rosebush. Her wit is also thorn like.” Posted by mkcapen1Teacher Middle School on January 29, 2010 at 8:05 AM
A second post on the rose bush“The rose bush in this novel is another example of asymbol, just like the character of Hester Prynne,that defies easy interpretation and eschewsclassification. The narrator remains deliberatelyvague about how this important symbol can beinterpreted, but what I think your question refersto is one possible legend that is cited as a potentialexplanation for the existence of the rose bush atthe prison door, which is a rather incongruous placefor a such a beautiful flower to grow.
A second post on the rose bush, cont.“Note what the text tells us about this: “This rosebush, by astrange chance, has been kept alive in history; but whether ithad merely survived out of the stern old wilderness, so longafter the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originallyovershadowed it--or whether, as there is fair authority forbelieving, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the saintedAnn Hutchinson, as she entered the prison door--we shall nottake upon us to determine.” Thus we can see that one potentialstory that explains the existence of the rose bush is that itsprang up beneath the saint Ann Hutchinson as she entered theprison door, but the truth of this rumor is never given.” Postedby accessteacher Teacher High School - 10th Grade on July 28,2011 at 9:38 PM
To Kill a Mockingbird and The Scarlet LetterI now wonder where the differences lie in howteachers discuss these two novels:The individual teachers?The school grades?The texts themselves?I wonder if we are more likely to ascribe complexityto some texts (e.g. Hawthorne’s novels and shortstories) and less likely to do the same for others(e.g. Robert Frost’s poetry, To Kill a Mockingbird, orHarry Potter).
Celebration of flexibility and freedomThe Discovery of Grounded Theory is worthreading not only for its discussion of the methodbut also for its challenge to the still dominantmodel in social science research:•“the rigorous rules of verification” are “sostifling to the creative energies required fordiscovering theory” (7)•“escaping the shackles of existing theories” (38)
Literary StudiesI have used grounded theory to examinediscussions of specific literary works:•Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird•Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young GoodmanBrown” and The Scarlet Letter•Robert Frost’s poetry, concentrating on “TheRoad Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on aSnowy Evening”•J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter
Cultural StudiesI have also used grounded theory to examine non-literaryphenomena:•claims of a coded message in the song “Follow theDrinking Gourd”•how gamers talk about the physical appearance of themale characters that they are able to create andmanipulate within a popular online multiplayer game•choices for names of guilds by LGBT gamers in onlinegames•motivations and aesthetic concerns of people whocreate and/or consume “celebrity fake” pornography
ConclusionGlaser and Strauss had only the sociologist in mindas they wrote their book, stating that generatingsociological theory is something that “onlysociologists can do.”But their method, built around the “hard study ofmuch data” and intended to liberate “the creativeenergies required for discovering theory,” can helpany of us answer almost any question that beginswith the words “How do people…?”
SourceGlaser, Barney G. and Anselm L. Strauss. The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. Chicago: Aldine Publishing, 1967.