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Using NVivo to Develop Theory from Case Studies

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Hello Everyone: This is a duplicate post I just placed in the "General Discusssion Area". As I am eager for advice and not familiar with the protocol of this site, I posted twice. Please accept my sincerest apologies if the following post is inappropriate for this topic area, and if so I will not repeat duplicate postings in the future. Having said that, I do need help:



I am totally new to this fantastic software product, so freely express my ignorance, with the caveat however that prior to coming back to academia to pursue a Doctorate in International Business, I worked in the IT field both in the US and Japan for 10+ years so am fairly adept at software usage in general, and issues like data normalization and project management in particular


Here is my situation: I am doing the Stanford, 3 extended essay approach to my dissertation. My 1st essay is the study of a failed joint venture between an American and Japanese mobile telephone carrier joint venture. From my professional background, I have some excellent senior executive level contacts.


The primary data I have collected include several extended (1.5 - 2hr) interviews (transcribed) with key executives in both companies. Secondary sources include industry white papers, annual reports, and news items from Internet news sources, Blogs, and some email based interviews.


After adding these items into an NVivo project, particularly the transcripts, I have been following the excellent NVIvo tutorials on how to Free Node, then Tree Node, etc. My impression (understanding) is that the goal is to try to get more abstract as one goes from Free Nodes to Tree Nodes, etc. Then use the attributes and query features to tease out themes from one's data.


But here is where I am getting lost: I understand the idea of coding, going from the specific to the more theoretical. What I want to know is how does one take it the next step further - specifically building Theory. This is the question my advisor and my committee are posing to me.


As I guide I have been reading Kathleen Eisenhardt's publications. She is A Qualitative managment Researcher at Stanford Business School, whose articles include "Better Stories, Better Constructs" and also a case study analysis of 4 high-tech firms in high velocity markets, in which she poses a series of propositions. She also makes references to Yin's 1984 book on case study design.


My advisor has told me to go into the data collection in an almost Zen-like "Grounded Theory" approach of not having any pre-determined theories in mind to explain the machinations of the case. To be frank, this has been a bit tough in that then I don't know what stream of literature I should be developing expertise in.


I posed these questions at a recent Doctoral Consortium, but since they were all Quantitative types they were at a loss to help. In point of fact, when I explained the intricacies/interesting points of the cases, I was rather vociferously chastised by being told that what I was describing was "phenomenon" but not "theory".


My fundamental question is: once one has done the coding, querying, etc. How do you choose which theory is applicable? What if there are more than one that could be appropriate?


As a complete novice in Qualitative Research, is this typical or atypical to have more than one theory used to explain the facts of the case? The other troubling matter I have is the perennial question being asked of me by my other dissertation committee members which is "How are you contributing/building on theory"? Is the reporting of the cases themselves and making a series of Propositions sufficient to satisfactorily answer this charge?


Well, I thank you all for having read my tale of woe. Any and all directions you can point me to, or even better some solid tips you can provide, would be most welcome and I would be extremely grateful. If they are any other nascent or seasoned scholars out there who have experienced a similar scenario, I would love to hear from you.


Gratefully yours, Mark

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Hi Mark


Welcome to the fuzzy world of qualitative research! I have every sympathy with your dilemma - I am nearly three years through my PhD and its only in the last six months or so that I have felt really comfortable with my methodology and how I'm tackling my data, despite having known from the outset what I wanted to collect and how - interviews with tourists about their destination experience while they were actually on holiday to find out how their experiences affect their perceptions of the destination and the word of mouth publicity they transmit.


In the end, I think everyone settles on a mix of methods of analysis and theory building that suits their research question and objectives. In my view, it is impossible to have the pure clean slate of the ideal grounded theory - we all tackle our research questions from the point of view of some knowledge/experience that has caused us to ask the question in the first place. Also, I'd suggest we also read the background literature to see where our research might fit, what gaps it might fill, how it might contribute - something we won't know for sure until we've reached the end of our own research journey, but at least its a guide. My preferred approach to this dilemma is that the background reading is a way of sensitizing oneself to the concepts that are out there in the general area, but doesn't mean you are setting out to test or prove a particular theory/hypothesis.


Yes, you probably are describing phenomenon at this stage - I'm struggling with this as I write up my data, and I'm coming from a phenomenological viewpoint anyway. I think we have to write through this stage to then be able to sit back and get the bigger picture. A phenomenogist approach is to move from description to themes to essences. If you are more of a constructivist, then maybe you move from description to themes to key characteristics. As I write my stuff out, I think I'm probably somewhere between the two!


There are major experts out there who can help more than I - try Lyn Richards' excellent Handling Qualitative Data, 2005, or Bill Gibbs Qualitative Data Analysis: Explorations with NVivo. For what it's worth, it seems to me that from the basic free coding to the tree coding its about identifying things which seem important, then finding the links between them to try to understand what is happening and explain it. How you make those links will depend on your methodological approach. I'm probably teaching a grandparent to suck eggs, but other sources I have found useful to see how others do it are the Journal of Research Practice , International Journal of Social Research Methodology - esp. articles by Gilbert - and The Qualitative Report Available at: http://www.nova.edu/sss/QR/


Hope some of this is helpful - good luck!



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Hi Mark,


So you are confused. Good! That’ll keep you motivated to learn more and more from your project; which is the whole point of doing a Doctorate. I can understand your problem since my background is engineering and I’m also working in a PhD on business studies which is purely qualitative. Just for the record, I’m exploring strategic change across levels of analysis due to technological innovation.


Those people at your Doctoral Consortium did have a point when they said that you were describing a “phenomenon” but not “theory”, in that respect -and so you have some defence when it happens again (and it will!)- I usually follow Mintzberg advice which goes roughly like this: “I’m in the research business to learn new things; not to test what I think I already know”.


I’ve found that, until you have fully understood the phenomenon you are looking at, you can not talk about theory. You have to know how it works, its mechanics, antecedents and consequences. While you are at it, you will also have a look at how other people have studied the same, or a similar, phenomenon. In time you’ll be able to pick up aspects of it that have attracted other people’s attention, and more importantly, aspects of it that seem not to have caught anybody’s attention; which hopefully will be your contribution to the field. Only then, you can start talking about theory and how well justified it is.


So my first advice is to be patient, and to try to locate your specific study within the cycle of theory building. A reference that I recently came across about that is Carlile & Christensen, 2005 (I hope the link works):




Cathy gave you a very interesting couple of references to look at, some of which I should look at myself –thanks Cathy!- So I’m just going to add two more:


Strauss & Corbin 1998, Basics of strategic research; to start looking into grounded theory. Read this first before the other tons of books and papers written on it.


Miles & Huberman 1994, Qualitative Data Analysis; for some practical advice on how to start making sense of the data.


Good luck, and keep asking; it’s the only way to get there.

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Hi Mark

This is such an important question, and a tricky one.

A very useful recent reference that I have found extremely helpful re: theory development is Kathy Charmaz's newish book on grounded theory -

Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory : a practical guide through qualitative analysis London: SAGE Publications.

In this book she explains in detail her view of what theory is and where it comes from. She also detailes her theory development process. Her research is very compelling, and her methodological writings are among the most helpful I've come across.

Good luck with it!


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Hey Mark,


Couldn’t resist adding a reply after seeing such important contributions from Cathy, Armendaf and Stacy.


All I want to add here, apart from a few more references, is only one general idea that can be questioned in the following way:


How does research happen?

What is the purpose of research?

What is theory?

What is qualitative analysis?

What is quantitative analysis?

What is the link between theory and real world?



sorry to get a bit philosophical and 'classic' with these questions but my objective is just to bring back the good old memories of the general ideas behind research/science/rigorous enquiry. My point is, you have as much freedom as your method allows you and as long as you are consistent with your initial questions and approaches for the conclusions there shouldn't be a problem.


it might be a very light conclusion, that's why I'm leaving the references so you can expand on what I’m saying: it depends on data emergence (what is coming out, a posteriori) or forcing the data (a priori, fitting your results to previous schemes), experimental design, use of theory, link with data, use of quantitative and qualitative approaches, etc.


Many attempts have taken place towards a unification of these problems and my take on it is that it will never cease to be a delicate matter; however it is important to pay respect to individual approaches or methods and know before criticising them. Grounded theory (Zen) can be excellent if used but not abused and the same goes for stats.


Anyway, sorry for the vagueness, here are the references (they shouldn't take more than a days work really):





Bergman, M. M., & Coxon, A. P. M. (2005). The Quality in Qualitative Methods. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum:, 6(2), 16.


Bryman, A. (2006). Integrating quantitative and qualitative research: how is it done? Qualitative Research, 6(1), 97-113.


Farias, L., & Montero, M. (2005). De la transcripción y otros aspectos artesanales de la

investigación cualitativa [On transcription and other aspects of the craft of qualitative research]. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 4(1), 14.


Fielding, N., & Schreier, M. (2001). Introduction: On the Compatibility between Qualitative and

Quantitative Research Methods. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum:, 2(1), 19.


Gergen, K. J. (2002). Beyond the Empiricist/Constructionist Divide in Social Psychology. Personality and social Psychology Review, 6(3), 188-191.


Glaser, B. G. (2002). Conceptualization: On Theory and Theorizing Using Grounded Theory. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 1(2), 31.


Kelle, U. (2005). "Emergence" vs. "Forcing" of Empirical Data? A Crucial Problem of

"Grounded Theory" Reconsidered. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum:Qualitative Social Research, 6(2), 17.


Morse, J. M., Barrett, M., Mayan, M., Olson, K., & Spiers, J. (2002). Verification Strategies for Establishing Reliability and Validity in

Qualitative Research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 1(2), 19.


Smalling, A. (2002). The Argumentative Quality of the Qualitative Research Report. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 1(3), 15.

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