UR – Grounded Theory, Context, and Enactivism

COURSE: Understanding Research—UR

FORUM: Elaborating the logics of research approaches

TOPICS: Research, ontology, epistemology

Step 2 – Part 1

Keywords: context, grounded theory, enactivism

Link to blog

Link to forum


Throughout our program issues of context have been prominently presented and discussed. I realize that also plays a role in research. With regard to the two main research strategies, quantitative and qualitative, my current understanding of context is as follows. Researchers in both approaches claim giving context their full attention, however, in two very distinct and almost antithetic ways. In quantitative research the context is the “here and now” reality of the relevant research environment, where variables are measured according to an objectivist ontological perspective that views phenomena as external events “beyond our reach of influence.” (Bryman, p. 18) In qualitative research, instead, context seems to include a variety of factors that, according to constructivism, definitely influence the observed phenomena. This simplified distinction makes me think that whenever we talk about context, we may be referring to two very different concepts that would be better understood by using different words.

Clearly, the contextual scope in qualitative research is much broader than the selected, controlled environment in a quantitative design. In my view, it is exactly the context of a certain phenomenon that qualitative researchers are after. Therefore, the context (and related processes) of a given case scenario is not only the framework within which researchers develop their strategy for data collection and analysis; it is also the object of their investigation. Given the relevance of context in both research strategies, I find it strange that Bryman’s book does not include any relevant entry in either the glossary or the index.

An example of the importance of context in qualitative research is Grounded Theory (see Bryman, pag 541). Although I have not completed the readings, I believe that this particular kind of approach includes a broad context for the study of all interacting factors, actors and even observers. When considering these issues, I remembered our discussion in a previous course. Back then we were examining different approaches to experiential learning and the roles of observation and participation. Fenwick (2001) provided the following definition of context, which I find very relevant to my comments in this post. I believe that Fenwick’s definition helps understand how learning is influenced by our environment, but also how a qualitative education research needs to be mindful of a very broad and inclusive context:

Context involves the social relations and political-cultural dimensions of the community in which the individual is caught up, the nature of the task, the web of joint actions in which the individual’s choices and behaviors are enmeshed, the vocabulary and cultural beliefs through which the individual makes meaning of the whole situation, and the historical, temporal, and spatial location of the situation. (Fenwick, 2001, p. 20)

Going back to my previous mention of Grounded Theory, it seems to me that context defines the background against which identities play out, but it can also become indistinguishable from the actors. In a process of ongoing negotiation and reframing, context is simply a reality that is constantly transforming itself. Grounded Theory researchers persistently re-evaluate their findings, which reminds me a lot of the enactivist/ecological perspective as discussed in Fenwick (2001):

The enactivist perspective insists that learning cannot be understood except in terms of co-emergence: each participant’s understandings are entwined with those of other participants, and individual knowledge co-emerges with collective knowledge. Educational theory also must examine the subtle particularities of “context” created through the learning of complex systems, embedded in their constantly shifting interactional dynamics, and the relations among these particularities. Educators need to become alert to a “complexified awareness…of how one [individual] exists simultaneously in and across these levels, and of how part and whole co-emerge and co-specify one another.  (Davis and Sumara 1997, p. 120)

When it comes to education research, it seems to me that we – in our multiple roles of educators, researchers, and learners – would move between different degrees of participation and observation to gain a deeper understanding of the context, whether that be for our research or for our engagement in our professional practices.

Would it be correct to say that Grounded Theory follows an enactivist/ecological approach to the understanding of context e to the emergence of theory?


Bryman, A. (2008). Social Research methods (3rd ed). Oxford; Oxford university press

Fenwick, T. (2001) “Experiential Learning: A Theoretical Critique from Five Perspectives” Information Series No 385, ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career and Vocational Education now located at the Centre for Education & Training for Employment at Ohio State University, accessed on June 2, 2009 at http://www.uni-koeln.de/hf/konstrukt/didaktik/situierteslernen/fenwick1.pdf


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