Difference Between Grounded Theory and Ethnography

Key Difference – Grounded Theory vs Ethnography

Although grounded theory and ethnography sometimes go together there is a difference between these two. First, let us define the two. Grounded theory can be defined as a research methodology. On the other hand, Ethnography can be defined as the study of various cultures and people. Ethnography is not merely a study it is also referred to as a methodology. However when it comes to the usage, there is a clear difference between these two methodologies. The key differences between grounded theory and ethnography are in terms of sampling, the field of study, usage, and even objectives. Through this article let us pay attention to these differences.

What is Grounded Theory?

Grounded theory can be understood as a research methodology. This was introduced and developed by Barney Glaser and Anslem Strauss. Unlike most research methodologies, grounded theory has some unique features that allow the researcher to be guided by the data from the research field. Usually, a researcher enters the field with a research problem, specific research questions, and also within a theoretical framework. However, in grounded theory, the researcher enters the field with an open mind. This allows him to be unbiased and also create an atmosphere where he can be guided by the data themselves. It is within this framework that theories emerge.

Once the data has been gathered the researcher can identify patterns, special directions, explanations, and important branches within the data corpus. However, it is not easy to identify these patterns. A researcher can obtain this skill also known as theoretical sensitivity through experience and extensive reading. After this stage, sometimes the researcher goes to the field again. He tries to gain information from a chosen sample. Once he feels that all the data have been gathered, and nothing new can be gained from the sample, it is called theoretical saturation. It is once this level has been reached that he moves on to a new sample.

Then the researcher creates codes for the data. Mainly, there are three types of coding. They are open coding (identification of data), axial coding (Finding patterns and relationships within the data) and selective coding (connecting data to the core elements). Once coding has been completed, he creates concepts, categories. It is within this framework that new theories are being formulated.

Difference Between Grounded Theory and Ethnography

Barney Glaser – Father of Grounded Theory

What is Ethnography?

Ethnography refers to the study of various cultures and people. The specialty of ethnography is that it attempts to comprehend the different cultures of the world from the perspective of the people who belong to it. It tries to analyze the subjective meaning that people provide to culture. Ethnography as a systematic study is intertwined with many other social sciences such as anthropology, sociology, and even history.

In ethnography, attention is paid to the various cultural elements of groups such as beliefs, behavior, values, certain practices, etc. The researcher attempts to unravel the symbolic meanings that are hidden behind these elements. This highlights that ethnography can be categorized as a field of study in which qualitative data is being produced. Ethnography is composed of various subfields. Some of these are feminist ethnography, realist ethnography, life history, critical ethnography, etc.

Grounded Theory vs Ethnography

What is the Difference Between Grounded Theory and Ethnography?

Definitions of Grounded Theory and Ethnography:

Grounded Theory: Grounded theory is a research methodology introduced and developed by Barney Glaser and Anslem Strauss.

Ethnography: Ethnography refers to the study of various cultures and people.

Characteristics of Grounded Theory and Ethnography:


Grounded Theory: the Grounded theory can be used for an array of research.

Ethnography: Ethnography is confined to culture.


Grounded Theory: GT does not consult literature that is directly related to the research problem. The researcher merely gains a broad understanding of the area of study.

Ethnography: In Ethnography attention is paid directly to literature in relation to the problem.


Grounded Theory: GT aims at generating theory.

Ethnography: In Ethnography, the focus is on understanding a particular community more than generating theories.


Grounded Theory: In grounded theory, theoretical sampling is used.

Ethnography: In ethnography, purposive sampling is used because it allows the researcher to gain more information.


Image Courtesy:

1. “Glasr75” by Thulesius at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia by Ronhjones. [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

2. 18th century Ethnography By J. Ratelband & J. Bouwer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons