Difference Between Grounded Theory and Ethnography

Main Difference – Grounded Theory vs Ethnography

Grounded theory and ethnography are two qualitative research methodologies. Grounded theory, developed by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss, is a methodology that involves developing theory through the analysis of data. Ethnography is the systematic study of a culture or community. The main difference between grounded theory and ethnography is their purpose; grounded theory aims at developing theories whereas ethnography aims at exploring and understanding a particular culture or community.  

This article looks at,

1. What is Grounded Theory
     – Definition, Features, Focus, Data Collection
2. What is Ethnography
      – Definition, Features, Focus, Data Collection
3. What is the difference between Grounded Theory and EthnographyDifference Between Grounded Theory and Ethnography - Comparison Summary

What is Grounded Theory

Grounded theory is a research methodology in the social sciences which involves the construction of theory through the analysis of data. This methodology was developed by the two sociologists, Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss and involves the discovery of emerging patterns in data.

Grounded theory research doesn’t start with any pre-existing hypothesis, theory, or expectation of findings. It starts with a question or even a collection of qualitative data. When the researchers begin to evaluate and analyze this collected data, they will begin to notice repeated concepts and ideas, which will be then extracted and tagged with codes. As more data is collected and reviewed, more codes will emerge, and they can be grouped into concepts, which can then be further grouped into categories. These categories become the basis for theories in grounded theory method.

Thus, the aim of grounded theory method is not only to describe a phenomenon, but also to develop an appropriate theoretical framework to evaluate the same. This approach is quite different from other research approaches since the selection of a theoretical framework proceeds the data collection in most of these methods.

This method is used in many fields for the investigation of various topics. It helps to develop a theory that remains connected to the qualitative data that is being collected, which allows the researchers to refine and develop their ideas and intuitions about their findings. This is one of the main strengths of the grounded theory.

Difference Between Grounded Theory and Ethnography

Figure 1: Grounded Theory Process

What is Ethnography

Ethnography is the detailed and systematic study of people and cultures. A researcher who is involved in ethnography is known as an ethnographer. Ethnographers participate overtly or covertly in the daily lives of the people being studied; they watch what happens, listen to what’s being said and ask questions. They spend extensive time periods (weeks, months, or even years) in the setting or community that is being studied since understanding the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, which are related to a culture require long-term observations. The main purpose of ethnographic research is to explore and study culture from an insider’s point of view.

Ethnographic studies originally involved the study of a bounded or definable group of people such as a village in China or a particular Amazon tribe. Nevertheless, modern ethnographic studies also deal with various aspects of the contemporary social life.

The methods of data collection in ethnography involves interacting with members of the selected community, interviewing them, and analyzing related documents and artifacts. Interviews, observation, and analysis are thus the main methods of data collection.

Main Difference - Grounded Theory vs Ethnography

Figure 2: Ethnographers participate overtly or covertly in the daily lives of the people being studied.

Difference Between Grounded Theory and Ethnography


Grounded Theory: Grounded theory is a methodology that involves developing theory through the analysis of data.

Ethnography: Ethnography is the detailed and systematic study of people and cultures.


Grounded Theory: Grounded theory aims to develop theories in relation to the collected data.  

Ethnography: Ethnography aims to understand a particular culture or community.  

Review of Literature

Grounded Theory: Researchers don’t consult literature before analyzing data since it may influence their findings. 

Ethnography: Ethnographers can consult literature before starting the field work.


Grounded Theory: Theoretical sampling technique is used since it assists in developing theory.

Ethnography: Purposive sampling method is used since the study emphasizes on a particular aspect of culture.

1.Datt, Shrutti. “Differences and similarities in Grounded theory and Ethnography.” Knowledge Tank. N.p., 26 May 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
2.Brown. . PDF.
3.”What is Grounded Theory? | Grounded Theory Online.” Grounded Theory Online. Grounded Solutions Ltd., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
4.Borgatti, Steve. “Introduction to Grounded Theory.” Analytic Technologies. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Image Courtesy:
1.”Wmalinowski trobriand isles 1918″- Uncredited, likely Billy Hancock – London School of Economics Library Collections.(Public Domain) via

About the Author: Hasa

Hasa has a BA degree in English, French and Translation studies. She is currently reading for a Masters degree in English. Her areas of interests include literature, language, linguistics and also food.

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