Kathy Charmaz, 1939-2020: Developer of Constructivist Grounded Theory

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Kathy Charmaz

Sociologist Kathy Charmaz, whose experience as an occupational therapist led her to develop a new take on the qualitative research methodology known as grounded theory, died of cancer on July 27. A professor emerita at Northern California’s Sonoma State University, she was 80.

Grounded theory as a discrete methodology dates from the mid-1960s, when sociologists Barney G. Glaser and Anselm L. Strauss formalized it in their book Awareness of Dying, in which their ‘constant comparative method’ bridged a gap between pure theory and empirical data and made qualitative data itself more data-like and scientific. Charmaz began using what became known as grounded theory for her research on death[MT1]  in the early 1970s, but she was not yet an evangelist for her innovation, which she termed “constructivist” grounded theory. [MT2] 

“Grounded theory methodology had been under attack,” she explained to Reiner Keller in an excellent 2013 interview for the Forum: Qualitative Social Research. “The postmodern critique of qualitative research had weakened its legitimacy and narrative analysts criticized grounded theory methodology for fragmenting participants’ stories. Hence, grounded theory methodology was beginning to be seen as a dated methodology and some researchers advocated abandoning it.” While Charmaz agreed with some of the epistemological critiques, she thought some of its strategies – such as coding, memo writing, and theoretical sampling – remained excellent tools for her constructivist approach. “I saw no reason to discard these tools and every reason to shift the epistemological grounds on which researchers used them.”

Charmaz had concluded that much of what we consider “objectivity” is derived from inter-subjectivity or consensus (and hence the culture in which qualitative research is conducted will affect the results). “I assume that neither data nor theories are discovered either as given in the data or the analysis,” she would write[MT3]  later. “Rather, we are part of the world we study, the data we collect and the analyses we produce.”

“If a group of scientists agrees that a concept fits certain types of observations,” she told Keller, “there is subjectivity involved here that gets wiped out often. At the time, social constructionists, in the 1980s, were looking at the social construction of everything by other people, but not their own constructions of their analyses in a self-critical way. That’s the point when I chose ‘constructivist.’”

In additional to setting the stage for constructivist grounded theory, Charmaz was also a proponent of clearer academic writing, a role she pursued when she directed the Faculty Writing Program at Sonoma State. Over her lifetime, Charmaz wrote or co-wrote 14 books, many of them on qualitative methods.

Kathleen Marian Charmaz was born August 19, 1939 in Whitehall, Wisconsin. She would tell a student interviewer years later that as a child a tonsillectomy left her suffering from near-constant infections and bleeding. The experiences fostered an interest in health and rehabilitation that in turn saw her study to be an occupational therapist with a focus on physical disabilities. While her positions offered her plenty of autonomy, they didn’t pay well nor did they satisfy a newfound desire to teach occupational therapy. “I was very aware,” she told Keller, “that the philosophy of rehabilitation didn’t fit the lives of so many of the people that we treated. This was one of the main reasons I was going to go back to school” –to teach. “At that time, you could get a master’s degree in anything, and teach occupational therapy, so I thought sociology sounded very open—in fact it wasn’t. But it certainly gave me a broader view on social conditions and life.”

Sociology entranced her– even though her master’s adviser at San Francisco State University suggested that while she might get a solid degree, as a woman she might not ever get a solid job.

Nonetheless, she told Keller, “After getting the master’s degree, I decided to go on. There really weren’t jobs for teaching occupational therapy in the Bay Area and so I went on and I got into every program that I applied to, except University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). My two best male friends from my master’s program were admitted long before I was. I was the very last admission and chosen because a man wanted to go to rabbinical school to escape the draft.”

At UCSF, she studied under Strauss and Glaser, developing her knowledge of grounded theory even as she came to see its seams. As she related to Keller, her friend and colleague Lyn Lofland “was never enamored” with Strauss and Glaser’s book The Discovery of Grounded Theory and one result of Lofland’s skepticism was that Charmaz learned as much from her friend as from Strauss.

Charmaz completed her dissertation from UCSF in 1973, and accepted an assistant professorship at Sonoma State that fall. Initially, she was focused on teaching, not publishing, and while she was willing to write short bits about grounded theory (including one chapter that her putative co-authors would plagiarize (see the almost hidden apology on the bottom of the last page of this American Sociological Association newsletter from 1981) she wasn’t sold on the idea that an audience existed for her theory. (specify that it was beyond grounded theory)

Nonetheless, German sociologist Uta Gerhardt kept pestering Charmaz to publish, and in 1990, Charmaz’s paper on grounded theory in Social Sciences & Medicine established bona fides as a theorist to follow. Next, Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln asked her to write a chapter on objectivist and constructivist grounded theory methodology for the second edition of their best-selling Handbook of Qualitative Research. The handbook was published by SAGE (the parent of Social Science Space), and Charmaz would go on the write or co-write many books on grounded theory for SAGE, including, in 2006, the “field-changing” Constructing Grounded Theory. That book won a Critics’ Choice Award from the American Educational Studies Association and has, to date, been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Polish and Portuguese.

Charmaz also wrote extensively outside of methodology, and her 1991 book, Good Days, Bad Days: The Self in Chronic Illness and Time, won awards from the Pacific Sociological Association and the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction. 

It was after writing her first book, 1980’s The Social Reality of Death, that Charmaz expanded her appreciation of good academic writing. “I had been told I was a bad writer so many times,” she in turn told Keller. “I had already written my first book and one of my friends, who had an English major, said: ‘You’ve got to do something about your writing!’ … I wrote like social scientists do, with passive verbs, prepositional phrases after prepositional phrases. One can improve on that, so I did.” She decamped to the English department at Sonoma State, and asked for help. “I started working with this award-winning poet who held up my paper and said, ‘Ieeehhh—we are going to teach you to write like Erving Goffman—not like this!’” And so with help from the humanities, Charmaz improved her own writing, then repaid the favor in 1996 by heading Sonoma’s Faculty Writing Program.

Charmaz served as president of the Pacific Sociological Association (1999-2000), was president once (2009-10) and vice president twice of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction and vice president from 2004-06 of the sociology honorary society, Alpha Kappa Delta.  In 2001 she received the Feminist Mentors Award from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction and five years later received its George Herbert Mead Award for Lifetime Achievement. She also edited the society’s journal, Symbolic Interaction, from 1999-2003.

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