Grounded theory and leadership research: A critical realist perspective

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Journal Article

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Citation only.

Kempster, S., & Parry, K. (2011). Grounded theory and leadership research: A critical realist perspective. The leadership quarterly, 22(1), 106-120.

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2011 HERDC submission. FoR code: 150310

© Copyright Elsevier, Inc., 2011. All rights reserved.




The methodology of grounded theory has great potential to contribute to our understanding of leadership within particular substantive contexts. However, our notions of good science might constrain these contributions. We argue that for grounded theorists a tension might exist between a desire to create a contextualised theory of leadership and a desire for scientifically justified issues of validity and generalizable theory. We also explore how the outcome of grounded theory research can create a dissonance between theories that resonate with the reality they are designed to explore, and the theories that resonate with a particular yet dominant ‘scientific’ approach in the field of leadership studies – the philosophy of science commonly known as positivism. We examine the opportunities provided by an alternative philosophy of science, that of critical realism. We explore how conducting grounded theory research informed by critical realism might strengthen researchers’ confidence to place emphasis on an understanding and explanation of contextualised leadership as a scientific goal, rather than the scientific goal of generalization through empirical replication. Two published accounts of grounded theory are critiqued candidly to help emphasise our arguments. We conclude by suggesting how critical realism can help shape and enhance grounded theory research into the phenomenon of leadership.

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This document has been peer reviewed.