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Research question

What is the difference between grounded theory and phenomenology?

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Grounded theory and phenomenology are the most common approaches to qualitative research used by nurses. Although there are differences between the two, they have much in common.

  • Both methods look at real life situations
  • Phenomenologists collate data from individuals and describe their experiences
  • Grounded theorists compare and analyse data from many sources
  • Neither method will suit all studies

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Both take an interpretivist approach in which the researcher seeks to explore real-life situations, and require a high degree of interaction between the researcher and the individual, groups or situations being examined; this usually takes the form of interviews and/or observations. Both grounded theorists and phenomenologists seek to collect and analyse data from participants’ perspectives and try to ensure their findings are not influenced by preconceived ideas. To achieve this they often involve participants in data analysis to increase the trustworthiness of the findings. In brief, grounded theorists and phenomenologists both seek to explore individuals’ experiences in the context of the worlds in which they live.

Because both approaches have so much in common it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between them. The distinction might not be important for those reading qualitative research, but it is for those undertaking it. A good starting point is to consider the philosophical and theoretical bases of the two methodologies and their influence on how research is undertaken.


Phenomenology emerged from philosophy, primarily influenced by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger; it aims to describe and explore experiences, which can only be done by collecting data from individuals who have lived through those experiences. Hence phenomenologists often refer to the “lived experience” and data is often limited to interviews, while findings are reported as a rich description of the experience drawing on characteristics identified during data analysis.

Grounded theory developed in sociology and was first described by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss as a qualitative methodological approach in which the aim was to generate a “grounded theory” to describe and explain the phenomenon under study. Unlike phenomenologists, grounded theorists seek to include all data sources that might contribute to theory development. Interviews are commonly used but they might also include observations, diaries, images, past literature and research. Using a technique described as ‘constant comparison’, they compare all the data collected with all other data look for contradictory cases, which might challenge the emerging theory but will ultimately strengthen it. This complex process of theoretical sampling, data collection and analysis can be extremely challenging.


Grounded theory and phenomenology have both evolved since they were first described. Glaser and Strauss collaborated on the early development of grounded theory but as it developed they separated, developed their own ideas and became critical of each other’s ideas. As a result there are now multiple approaches to grounded theory.

Opinions have also diverged on how phenomenology should be undertaken. Some favour a Husserlian approach, where the emphasis is on description; others favour a Heideggerian approach, where the emphasis is on analysis and attempting to explain what is happening in the phenomenon examined.

Some find this methodological evolution fascinating but for many more it adds to the confusion. Fortunately, few researchers need concern themselves with such matters and many good textbooks can aid methodological decision-making.

Both grounded theorists and phenomenologists seek to understand peoples’ lives. Sticking to a single approach usually gives researchers the tools to undertake their research. There are differences but this does not mean that one approach is right and one is wrong. Grounded theory and phenomenology are research tools and one will not be suited to all jobs. The list of further reading provides more detailed information on this subject.

Leslie Gelling is reader in nursing, Faculty of Health and Social Care, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge

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Further reading

Parahoo K (2006) Qualitative research. In: Parahoo K Nursing Research: Principles, process and issues. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Holloway I, Todres L (2010) Grounded theory. In: Gerrish K, Lacey A (eds) The Research Process in NursingOxford: Blackwell.

Todres L, Holloway I (2010) Phenomenological research. In: Gerrish K, Lacey A (eds) The Research Process in Nursing. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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