Approaches to methods tend to generate a lot of questions. I tried to anticipate many of these in FAQs in the epilogue of the book. Many of those questions were raised by colleagues who kindly read the manuscript in draft. I offer here some further FAQS and plan to augment this section of the website a couple of times per year.

I have organized these FAQs into several categories: theoretical/philosophical, technical/ methodological, miscellaneous, and critiques of situational analysis. Here as elsewhere, of course, the boundaries between categories are rather porous and leaky. I have  bolded each question so that you can skip about easily.

Jump to :
Theoretical/Philosophical Questions
Technical Methods  Questions
Miscellaneous Questions
Critiques of Situational Analyses



You have in part pushed grounded theory around the postmodern turn by using it along with situational analyses to study discourses. One could even say that the book pivots on this point. Why?

Yes it does pivot on this point. I wanted an interactionist method that would take up discourse beyond “talking heads”/“the knowing subject”---one that addresses broader situations as wholes and that takes into account that most situations include extant discourses. But my position is not that one should do discourse analysis rather than study interaction and ask people questions. All are requisite to understand social life as lived, experienced and discursively constructed. Narrative, visual and historical discourses are too much with us to ignore. I believe their analysis has not been undertaken in qualitative research as often as they should be. That is precisely why discourses are so thoroughly and carefully introduced here—to make analyzing them easier to do. Situational analysis also works particularly well as a mode of discourse analysis.

But I also want to take this opportunity to problematize the concept of discourse again. As discussed in Chapter 4, there are many meaning for this concept and likely infinite kinds of discourses. Some are at grand scales and travel widely with local variations and interpretations; others are more local, specific and highly situated. Some endure temporally for long periods and others change rapidly. These dimensions of a discourse are worth specifying---and they also affect how extensively a discourse may be consequential---may shape situations, constitute subjectivities, and make them worthy of analytic attention.

What poststructural theoretical engagements beyond Foucault provoked you to develop situational analysis?

Beyond Foucault (to whom I continually find myself returning), my other main theoretical engagement has been, like that with Foucault, with largely French scholars---actor-network theorists including Latour, Callon, Law, Akrich, Rabeharisoa and others (e.g., Law and Hassard, 1999). Known as ANT, this deeply empirical approach draws on semiotics as well as constructionism and upon Foucault as well (e.g., Kendall and Wickham, 1999). It has been a central approach used in science and technology studies where I have done most of my own work. I and other interactionists have been in ongoing dialogue with the ANT folks for the past two decades (e.g., Clarke and Star, 2003). As discussed in Chapter 2, I found their explicit use of the term nonhuman an exceptionally important innovation that I have adopted. This engagement remains highly provocative. I also have read and taught feminist theory for decades and more recently postcolonial theories and studies as well. Last, I should say that my husband is a Lacanian psychoanalyst, making dinner (and other) conversations routinely provocative of my taking discourses and other symbologies quite seriously!

How did you come to your own critique of grounded theory as not taking up difference adequately, a point to which you return again and again?

As a serious feminist who was teaching women’s studies when I entered the doctoral program in sociology at UCSF, I quickly found the refusal of grounded theory as developed and taught by both Glaser and Strauss to deal directly with identity politics a serious flaw. Both would say such concerns were analytically important only if and when found in the data. I thought that was absurd, especially since they did not then talk about how to design research that could and would make sure such issues did appear in the data. In fact, the Loflands (1971), from a different point of view, criticized grounded theory early on for not attending to data gathering techniques. Situational analysis speaks directly to such issues---to not merely allow analyses of power, difference, inequity, but also to provoke them (see also Schwalbe, 2000).

Quite specifically, I have sought to make silences speak through explicit project design and data gathering activities, including strong use of theoretical sampling, as well as the more obvious positional maps. Silences are complex strategies of power, very common analytically and they can be analyzed. Any and all “elephants in the room” need to be made to speak---to account for themselves (Zeruhavel, 2002). This is also where, for me, the moral accountability of the researcher is very important (see Patti Lather’s work here especially).

When and why did you come to reject the making of formal theory as an appropriate outcome for grounded theory research, including situational analysis?

Cleaning up my office after finishing the book I found a note I had written to myself in 1991 about the goals of research and issues of purity and theory. It seemed then and still seems to me that theoretical sensitivity and sampling---seeking out additional data sources to modify, reconsider and revise theory---are predicated on the impossibility of terminal formal theory. That is, the most we can do is theorize. This brings theory down off its ghastly Enlightenment pedestal of generalizability, universality and ahistoricity. I certainly have zero interest in prediction---which is to me the goal of formal theory. To me, theorizing is a tool for generating working understandings and need to be regularly revised, updated, tossed out and reinvented in the face of changes. That ism fairly often theorizing offers working understandings of particular situations. It is an activity we do and keep on doing---temporary and partial. This was definitely one of the enduring differences between myself and Anselm who remained devoted to developing formal theory (Strauss, 1995).

You began this book with much talk about multiplicity. Can you end with a statement of how situational analysis provokes multiplicity?

Yes. Situational analysis produces multiple maps of the “same” things(s)/the situation broadly conceived. The messy and ordered situational maps produce multiplicity through the relational analyses (specifying the nature of the relations between each of the elements and all the others) and through relational project maps. The social worlds/arenas maps produce multiplicity through looking at the situation “over the shoulder” of each of the social worlds in the arena. One can concretize this by constructing maps from the perspective of each/any of the social worlds/collective actors (see Figure 5.7). One can also examine differences within worlds. With care, because they are not themselves organized, one might also construct maps from the heterogeneous perspectives of implicated and silent actors. Last, through positional maps, multiplicity is produced at least three ways: through the same actors holding multiple simultaneous positions; through multiple positions on X in each situation; and last, through multiple ways of framing issues and axes. That is, we return, always, to how we as researchers are deeply implicated in the production of any and all knowledges---“situated knowledges” indeed! (Thank you Donna Haraway, 1991)

Isn’t there one more turn around the postmodern turn needed for situational analysis to be fully reflexive? It still retains the voice and perspective of the analyst/researcher/author.

Without getting lost in Foucault’s (1977) answer to the question, “What is an author?” (but still referring to that complicating discussion), I want to turn instead to pragmatism. Richard Rorty has asserted that ideas about “truth” and “accurate representation” are “nothing but compliments we pay to sentences that we find useful in dealing with the world” (in Ryerson, 2001). In my reading of the postmodern, there is no turning that can erase the situatedness of research and researchers. All we can offer is our best and most reflexive take to date in terms of understanding something---and, pragmatist that I am, hope that it is useful, does some worthwhile work in the world.

As scholars, we are also very active participants in constructing discourses as well as being constituted through them. We are parts of the knowledge production machinery that circles the globe which also constitutes inequalities in what counts as knowledge, whose knowledge can count, which knowledge can become canonic, and so on. There is A Geopolitics of Academic Writing (Canagarajah, 2002) that centralizes some and marginalizes others. We need to attend to this more seriously as our belated understandings of globalization reshape our understanding of the workings of global knowledge machines. There is no place to stand outside of discourse(s) including our own. 



How does situational analysis relate to grounded theory?

Let me make two points. First, the new approaches of situational analysis are intended as supplementing basic grounded theory analytic approaches, not replacing them. Most specifically, for coding of data, situational analysis relies completely on basic grounded theory procedures as laid out since 1967. This is precisely why I state that my book is an advanced text, not a basic primer. What is different is what happens after at least some basic coding. Then, the three kinds of situational maps and analyses can also be done. These maps can also be used with traditional “basic social process diagrams” from traditional grounded theory.

Second, without drifting too far into epistemology, in this book I have both asked and answered the question: “How is grounded theory grounded?” I have argued that in addition to its grounding in action---in basic social processes---another grounding exists that has been ignored. This second grounding is in the situation broadly conceived, using Strauss’s social worlds/arenas framework as the conceptual infrastructure to locate situations. To me this is carrying forward some aspects of the grounded theory method very seriously, and in ways that take Strauss’s own insistence on situated action more fully into account.

Perhaps the most common criticism of Strauss and Corbin’s ( 1990, 1998) Basics books is that they make doing grounded theory formulaic---add data and stir---in ways too much like qualitative analysis computer programs. Don’t you think situational analysis runs similar risks?

Of course! Any approach to qualitative (or quantitative) analysis can be used in a knee-jerk fashion. Grounded theory, global ethnography, institutional ethnography, phenomenology---one can find very analytically mundane, uninteresting and formulaic examples of each. Methods are not magical mystery tours that do analysis for you. The most important site of analysis remains the researcher.

My goal with situational analysis is to open up the analytic moment and provide grounded theorists with alternative ways of grasping the materials for analysis. I want researchers to be able to grasp the situation as a whole as well as the basic social processes and particular parts of the situation that seem most important or interesting. It is the combination of the groundedness of interpretation with the systematic handling of data that makes grounded theory and situational analyses robust approaches in qualitative research.

Yet any systematic handling of data particularly risks provoking formulaic usage—as well as inspiration. Situational analysis offers new ways of handling data systematically so that the analysis must address all the data rather than only segments that speak to particular themes. Of course these can be pursued obsessively and not provocatively. The memoing after the map-making is the site where the maps themselves can provoke researchers into going beyond themselves analytically, to enter new ways of thinking about the situation. I can only hope that looking at the situation writ large works against being formulaic.

A related concern is that researchers will stop analyzing prematurely and use the various maps as terminal analytic devices rather than as tools to provoke further analysis. This would be formulaic use of situational analysis---just following procedures. Situational analysis seeks “thick analysis” (Fosket, 2002: 40), parallel to Geertz (1973) “thick description.”  I do not mean that the maps never belong in final research products. They can be used in presentations and publications and do very important framing work, especially project-specific maps. But most of all the maps are ways to push oneself analytically.

I think I am beginning to understand your emphasis on the nonhuman, but I am not quite sure I get it. Could you say a bit more?

The difficulty probably has more to do with the word than the practice of attending to nonhuman materialities in research. Key questions are: What specific constraints, opportunities and resources do the nonhuman actors/actants bring to the situation of inquiry? What kinds of differences do they seem to make in the situation? How are the nonhuman elements constructed by other actors and social worlds? Nonhuman elements can be discourses, technologies, consumer goods, art, animals, vegetables, minerals. If you have found them in your situation of inquiry, they are likely more or less meaningful in that situation---worthy of analysis. They can, of course, be less meaningful—inconsequential and irrelevant. Or the nonhuman element can be sitting smack dab in the middle of the situation as the pivotal element through which symbolic discourses are constructed and material actions are taken---very worthy of major focus. How did it get there? Who/what keeps it there? What work is it doing for the other actors? For the discourse itself? My grasp of this, as discussed in Chapter 2, comes through science and technology studies where nonhuman elements of many kinds are routinely important.

Further, in a distinctively postmodern analytic move that decenters knowing subjects, if a nonhuman element in a situation is particularly important, one of the interesting approaches to studying it can be “Follow that element!” “Follow that cell!” “Follow that technology!” Nelly Oudshoorn’s (2003) book does just this: The Male Pill: A Biography of a Technology in the Making. Entering the situation of inquiry via/with/through the key nonhuman element can destabilize the taken-for-granted in interesting ways. Of course, we need to worry about ventriloquizing.



You are not the first of Strauss’s students to come up with a supplemental approach to grounded theory. Schatzman (1991) has argued for dimensional analysis. What is the difference between dimensional analysis and situational analysis?

These are two totally different ballgames. Lenny Schatzman (1991:309) is basically arguing for the elaboration of the dimensions or properties of what in my scheme would be called elements of the situation: “Dimensionality…calls for an inquiry into its parts, attributes, interconnections, context, processes and implications.” His is a move inward on elements (see also Kools, 1996). Some discussions of axial coding also discuss dimensions (e.g., Strauss, 1987:64-68; see also Soulliere, 2001). In sharp contrast, situational analyses focus on the constellation of elements as constituting a particular situation---temporal, spatial, etc. The goal is to explicitly situate the phenomenon of interest in its broader situation(s). Here the move is outward, towards specifying relations among elements.

Interestingly, both Lenny and I generated our approaches through teaching qualitative research at UCSF to doctoral sociology and nursing students undertaking their first research projects. He was my teacher and later my good colleague. Lenny was devoted to making analysis fun and was remarkably successful in helping students get over the mountain of anxiety and terror most of us experienced as neophytes to the far side where analysis makes you high. Some of the ways I have written toward reassuring here come from watching and experiencing him teach toward reassurance.



Why is another form of grounded theory needed at all? Isn’t this diluting grounded theory instead of enriching it?

I have several responses. First and foremost for me, the Straussian conditional matrix failed to adequately situate the phenomenon of interest. While I wholly endorse its conditionality (the relentless specifying of “under what conditions” does x happen), the specificities of the conditional elements were/are not enough. Situational analysis was developed and the book written to address this fundamental problem in grounded theory, and also to do so poststructurally---acknowledging, and incorporating insights of the postmodern turn.

Second, while grounded theory had been used with discursive materials, including using grounded theory to construct the categories for content analysis, this was rare. I seek to promote grounded theory and situational analysis of extant discourses, decentering the knowing subject as relentlessly as conditions have been specified. Third, I have been deeply disturbed by how few grounded theory studies take the situation into account. Many if not most do not even take up the conditional matrix with any degree of analytic seriousness. They do not specify where in the world they did the research or when in history it was done. The “unconditional present” suffices for them. Not for me. The time has come to be much more explicit in situating one’s research---temporally, geographically, etc. Not to do so today reeks of unacknowledged imperialism. It is quite challenging to adequately situate research and I think situational analysis can be particularly helpful here as more global aspects of situations would appear as elements in the situation and be analyzed as such.

Doesn’t situational analysis go too far? How much analysis is enough already?

I suppose that it is possible to analyze too much. However, as Anselm discussed vis-à-vis grounded theory, the problem I have confronted most is premature analytic termination---stopping too soon. The “soon” is often as soon as something at all interesting or perhaps merely satisfactory could be said. I have great sympathy here (if less patience the longer I teach) because I think the main reasons for stopping too soon are intellectual insecurity and anxiety. These are common “diagnoses” for neophyte researchers, but not uncommon among the more experienced. My pushing grounded theory around the postmodern turn through situational analysis, and suggesting analysis of extant discourses to boot may make doing research even harder for many (though much easier for some).

The overall project analysis should yield a number of possible stories worthy of telling and publication. These can be histories, historicizations, accounts of basic social processes, narrative and/or visual discourse analyses, arena maps, positional studies, and so on. The ultimate goal is to tell the most interesting and most important analytic stories. Sometimes these are the previously untold stories. In a large (dissertation or book) project, analysis has gone well when you begin to see the different stories you could tell, realize that you cannot tell them all, and start trying to decide which to tell. Then you get into which to tell now and which later…and which materials you want to collect and analyze for the postdoc/next project…

Analysis is not usually easy and I don’t know of anything that would make it “easier”---other than selling your intellectual soul to a computer program that promises to do it for you. But, like Glaser (1978), I can’t think of anything that makes me so high. For me, the messy and ordered situational maps are analytic anchors. Once I have them drafted, anxiety ebbs. It returns in waves, often in the middle of the night, but…as the French say, “C’est normale!”

Version of May 25, 2005


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