A Comparison of Phenomenology, Discourse Analysis, and Grounded Theory

Qualitative research methods make seminal contributions to health sciences. Qualitative research methods allow health sciences researchers to investigate questions of meaning, examine institutional and social practices, identify obstacles and facilitators to change, and explore reasons for success or failure of interventions. It has been a significant challenge for human science professionals when choosing types of research methods they should use to respect the uniqueness, complexity, and meanings of human lived experience. 

Methods of qualitative research seem to build and overlap each other. With that being said, “Choose Your Method: A Comparison of Phenomenology, Discourse Analysis, and Grounded Theory” by Helene Starks and Susan Brown Trinidad aims to compare three commonly used theories by health researchers. Here are the three methods:

  1. Phenomenology: philosophy based approach, emphasizes the description of lived experiences. 
  2. Discourse analysis: emphasizes human language and brings a socially critical lens to the study.
  3. Grounded theory: theory-building approach of basic social processes.

Data collection strategies for all three approaches can use a mix of observation, interviews, and close reading of existing texts.

I have always thought grounded theory and phenomenology are very similar; they both collect data, the objective is to elict the participant’s story and generally share a descriptive approach as well as continually refining and categorized data. But this paper drew a clear picture of how they are different. Phenomenology investigates lived experiences and interprets those experiences, whereas ground theory is open and extracts themes from data. Phenomenology collects data only from a few individuals (1 to 10) vs. grounded theory, where the researcher adds individuals until the sample reaches theoretical saturation, could be 10-60 or more. 

For discourse analysis, the sampling is also different. It depends on the study and what is required; it could be a single person or multiple people. The objective of interviews for discourse analysis is to capture the particpant’s language. Unlike phenomenology and grounded theory, this method does not assume the participant exactly means what they say. The researcher has to ask questions to clarify what the meaning of the participant’s words means. 

I know I am summarizing a lot, but this article is summing up what each method entails, not leaving much room for opinion. I feel I do like this paper because it’s helping me recall each theory and understand and appreciate it more than before. 

Coding is done for all three methods. For phenomenology, each statement is analyzed and categorized into meaning to represent the phenomenon. Coding for a discourse analysis involves identifying themes and roles through language. And lastly, coding for Grounded theory seems the hardest, where coding takes the most time, from open coding, axial coding, and selective coding. 

A study with 25 primary care physicians, explored their use of informed decision making for prostate cancer, was illustrated with the three above approaches. We can really see what each method contributed to this study. 

Phenomenology sheds light on how the physicians feel, feelings of angst, confusion, frustration, and resentment that they cannot meet their patients’ needs because of the lack of clear recommendations for prostate cancer screening. Discourse analysis shifts the attention to the physicians’ interactions with patients. In this case, PCP’s accounts of how they talk to their patients about prostate cancer shows what discourse is brought to the interactions as well as what other dialogue it triggers. 

Personally, I like the grounded theory approach for this study. Each method brought a unique perspective, but I like that grounded theory looks beyond the physician’s and patient’s outlook. It develops an actual theory that explains what leads to prostate cancer screening discussions and how and why physicians engage in these discussions. So it kinda does what phenomenology and discourse analysis does but also leaves room to formulate a theory. 

I am using grounded theory for my paper, which feel is a little harder than Phenemogly and Discourse analysis after reading this paper. But I am up for the challenge! 

Works Cited:

Starks, Helene and Trinidad, Susan Brown. “Choose Your Method: A Comparison of Phenomenology, Discourse Analysis, and Grounded Theory.” Qualitative Health Research (17):10 (December 2018).