Organizational Research Methods: Storytelling in Action

David M. Boje

Book being prepared for Routledge, due March 2018

To cite this document: Boje, David M. (2018) "Organizational Resarch Methods: Storytelling In Action", (March 15), URL = <>

What would John Dewey say about Grounded Theory? 

In this book (due March 2018) I propose a 4th wave GT, as an embodied ontology and a dialectic approach. We want to make an relational process ‘ontological turn’ to GT. I am an ontologist focused on the Fourth Whorl.

I believe he would say that it is not grounded in Nature or in the paradigm shift from Cartesian duality and Newtonian mechanistic physics, and that its manner of reflexivity separates theory from praxis. Dewey (1925, Experience & Nature) grounds pragmatism in material nature. Dewey (1929, Quest for Certainty) grounds pragmatism in what he calls a new Copernican Revolution that Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy brings to Cartesian dualism and to Newtonian mechanistic physics. Rorty (2010: 152) says, "Philosophers working after 'the linguistic turn' (no matter how it is defined) still have great deal to learn about experience and language from Peirce, James, Dewey, and Mead.”  “Dewey was constantly criticized, from the Platonist right, for being reductionistic and scientistic, inattentive to our needs for ‘objective values’ (Rorty, 2010: 166, The Rorty Reader).  Rorty points out that Dewey (1925 Experience and Nature) was critical of Plato being “a spectator of all times and eternity” (Rorty, 2010: 73). Rather, Dewey used pragmatist philosophy as an instrument for social change by focusing on what is observation in his naturalism.

Let me put our 4th wave challenge to GT in a wider context. I am writing a new book on Ontological Research Methods that I believe go beyond the first three waves of GT. I will introduce 10 exemplars of these 4th wave approaches to GT, then return to what would Dewey say about GT.




Their Major Challenge to Grounded Theory (GT)


DEWEY (American Pragmatism)

Dewey pragmatism would challenge all 3 GT waves are 'quest for certainty' that is locked in the 'sensorium' and is lacking double move of induction with deduction to be reflective method suited to quantum mechanics


SØREN BRIER (<-Peirce + Luhmann)

+ MULTIPLICITY Peirce's pragmatism would challenge ways 3rd wave GT purports to use abductive logic


GILLES DELEUZE (<-Nietzsche & Freud)

+/- MULTIPLICITY Deleuze would challenge lack of depth in 1st & 2nd wave GT, not going below surface denotation & signification effects, and 3rd wave's lack of rhizomotic multiplicity 'manifestation' exploration


MARTIN HEIDEGGER (<-Hegel & Nietzsche)

+ DIALECTIC Heidegger would challenge the positifivistic (ontic) confinement of 2nd & 3rd wave GT, how they miss ontologic Being-in-the-world disclosability


KAREN BARAD (<-Bruno Latour & Neils Bohr)

+ MULTIPLCITY Barad would challenge all 3 GT waves for not being posthumanist, not addressing intra-activity of materiality with discourse, and particularly 3rd wave GT for being stuck in linguistic turn of social constructivism


SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK (<-Hegel & Lacan)

- DIALECTIC Žižek would challenge all 3 waves of GT, and invoke Hegel and Lacan, pointing out how GT is stuck in sensory constructivism and denying the virtual reality of late capitalism


HENRI SAVALL (<-Hegel & Plato)

+ TRILECTIC Savall would challenge all 3 waves with trilectic approach to socially responsible capitalism in a scientific method, and demand GT do experimentation, specify hypotheses, and include not just qualitative, but quantiative & financial data to verify its theory


MARY PARKER FOLLETT (<-Hegel & Whitehead)

+ DIALECTIC Follett would challenge 1st & 2nd wave GT by taking an open system approach and use Hegelian dialectic to and address conflicts of management & labor, and unify differences in a democratic organization of teams


ROY BHASKAR (<-Hegel & Heidegger)

+ DIALECTIC Bhaskar would challenge all 3 GT waves by pointing out the inductive fallacy in 1st wave, the ontic fallacy in 2nd & 3rd waves, and move GT into a scalar & stratified open system dialectical ontology


DAVID BOJE, JENS LARSEN, LENA BRUUN (<-Plato, Ole Kirkeby, & Walter Benjamin)

+ DIALECTIC/ + MULTIPLICITY Boje, Larsen, & Bruun would challenge all 3 GT waves with a Benjamin (storytelling) and Kirkeby (protreptic) approach in dialectic challenge to 1st wave, and multiplicities challenge to 2nd and 3rd wave GT

I want to turn now to what are the key problems with Grounded Theory (GT) and how Dewey would likely address them.

What would Dewey say about GT?

Deweyan naturalism was shoved aside by the dogmatism of logical empiricism’s ‘quest for certainty’ as Dewey called it (which decades later, also infected 2nd and 3rd wave GT).

1st wave GT (1967-1993) commits 'inductive fallacy' by doing qualitative method to generate theory propositions out of practice that go untested and ignore historical context (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). It fails Karl Popper's critique of inductive logic for failing to do falsification or verification of inductive propositions. Glaser and Strauss (1967: pp. 2-3) say “the discovery of theory from data systematically obtained from social research” is an idea they picked up from Merton, for whom the meaning of ground is non-theoretical social practice, out of which theory can be generated.  1st wave GT adopted inductive logic mixed with “Descartes’ spectatorial account of knowledge”, and introspective psychology, resulting in an epistemology of sensemaking (Rorty, 2010: 74). Dewey rejected the sensorium of perception (i.e. sensemaking perception) as the final inductive methodological step. (Dewey, 1929 Quest for Certainty), puts his objection to what we now call Weickian sensemaking this way:
“In traditional empiricism the test is found in sensory impressions.  For objective idealism, reflective inquiry is valid only as it reproduces the work previously effected by constitutive thought.  The goal of human thinking is approximation to the reality already instituted by absolute reason.”  

Dewey (1910: 86) defines “Scientific induction” as “all the processes by which the observing and amassing of data are regulated with a view to facilitating the formation of explanatory conceptions and theories.” Dewey (1910: 99) makes this challenge to induction that it needs to continue into deduction:

“The isolation of deduction is seen, at the other end, isolation of wherever there is failure to clinch and test the results of the general reasoning processes by application to concrete cases. The final point of the deductive devices lies in their use in assimilating and comprehending individual cases.”

Dewey (1910: 88-89) cautions that even in doing the inductive method of infeence, there needs to be continued collection of like cases.
“So prominent, indeed, is this aspect of inductive method that it is frequently treated as the whole of induction. It is supposed that all inductive inference is based upon collecting and comparing a number of like cases. But in fact such comparison and collection is a secondary development within the process of securing a correct conclusion in some single case.

The fallacy of induction, is the black swan, you can keep collecting cases, assuming a generalization is valid (all swans are white), and then someone in Australia finds the black swan.

2nd wave GT (1994-2004) adds logical positivism fallacy reductionism. It applies existing theory frameworks, and then uses positivistic coding to fit in interview and observation content into abstract schemata, claiming it accomplishes deduction to cure the inductive fallacy. Strauss and Corbin (1994: 21) gave GT a hermeneutic facelift Theory and practice are said to build in a reciprocal relationship with one another. This ‘reciprocal theory/practice’ approach was short lived. 2nd wave GT attempted to shore up Cartesian spectatorial sensemaking and over-reliance on induction without deduction, with demonstrations of logical positivist content coding of subject’s accounts in an empirical metaphysics that abandoned the situational context and meaning of experience in search of generalized universalization and appeals to published authorities.  Suddaby (2006) argues that since its inception in 1967 (Glaser & Strauss), GT has taken a turn toward positivism. Ironically, Strauss and Corbin (1990) claim GT is a kind of pragmatism, rooted variously in Dewey, Mead, and Peirce, a way to “construct” theory from stories told by participants (Age, 2011: 1601, but in a way of theorizing (Locke, 2001, Suddaby 2006 calls, post-positivism). Again, the problem that Dewey (1910: 94 How we Think) would likely point out is that 2nd wave GT is ignoring the role of deduction n the elaboration of meaning:

"The control of the origin and development of hypotheses by deduction does not cease, however, with locating the problem. Ideas as they first present themselves are inchoate and incomplete. Deduction is their elaboration into fullness and completeness of meaning

3rd wave GT (2005-2017) tries to rescue 1st and 2nd whorls (still unfurling) with ‘social constructivism’ epistemology of perspectival relativism. Clark (2005), Charmaz (2008), and Mills et al. (2008: 27-8) prefer a social constructivist turn in GT, and accuse Strauss and Corbin (1990, 1998) of never addressing which paradigm (i.e. positivism, interpretivism, hermeneutics, etc.) underpins their thought. Annells (1996) noticed early on how GT’s postmodern (social constructivist) turn had begun to break with symbolic interactionism and other sociological theories.  3rd wave GT social constructivism became combined with an appeal to grounding induction in quotes for authorities. Dewey (1910: 25, What is Thinking) cautioned against over reliance on authority in developing theory: “I shall take notice of, and which keeps in ignorance or error more people than all the others together, is the giving up our assent to the common received opinions, either of our friends or party, neighborhood or country."  3rd Wave GT grounded inductive observations in published work of authorities, rather than pursue falsification.


Dewey (1910: 98-99 How we Think) points out the error in starting with deduction grounded in authority citations.

“Beginning with definitions, rules, general principles, classifications, and the like, is a common form of the first error. … the mistake is, logically, due to the attempt to introduce deductive considerations without first making acquaintance with the particular facts that create a need for the generalizing rational devices.”


My colleagues Rohny Saylors, Yue Cai-Hillon, Marita Svane and I have a piece in review (cross your fingers). There are three classic whorls of Grounded Theory (GT). Our thesis is the first three spiraling-whorls of GT are without ground, and without theory. We point out examples of articles that use the term grounded theory, but instead simply use case examples, try to fit data to existing theory, or ignore historical context. In doing so, we find that much of existing research that claims to use GT is without theoretically substantive ‘ground’ and thus lacks the substance needed to develop formal ‘theory’. The first three spiral-whorls of GT happening in our field, and sometimes what people say they are doing is not what they are doing in theory, method, or practice.

Grounded Theory Spiral in 4 whorls - © D. Boje 2017

            The first GT whorls are disembodied ‘ways of knowing’, not grounded in ‘Being-in-the-world’ spatially, temporally, and materially, the inseparability of ‘spacetimemattering’ in the field of Being.  In the first three whorls of GT, organization research has sacrificed the body, the living story of embodied existence in order to generate so-called ‘GT’ that is a positivistic ontology to objectify inductive inquiry. The marriage of positivism to first three GT whorls, results in a dualism between (inter) subjectivity and objectivity. 

            I submit that GT is disembodied organization research, too quick to construct inductive typologies into abstract category schemata, then added positivistic coding to the epistemic fallacy, and then added social constructivism fallacy, and these three whorls renderd storytelling inquiry too desevered from embodiment. To construct theory using inductive method and positivistic analytic coding procedures is the objectification of intersubjectivity. To enter social constructivism carries the linguistic turn of the spiral too far.



What is 4th wave Deweyan ontological method?

The reflexive praxis is the scientific reasoning of developing a working hypothesis to guide investigation, moving to “inductive discovery’ and testing conclusions by “deductive proof” (Dewey, 1910 How we Think: 81). It is what Dewey (1910: 79, How we Think) calls a “double movement” of induction and deduction:

"There is thus a double movement in all reflection: a movement from the given partial and confused data to a suggested comprehensive (or inclusive) entire situation; and back from this suggested whole—which as suggested is a meaning, an idea—to the particular facts, so as to connect these with one another and with additional facts to which the suggestion has directed attention. Roughly speaking, the first of these movements is inductive; the second deductive. A complete act of thought involves both—it involves, that is, a fruitful interaction of observed (or recollected) particular considerations and of inclusive and far-reaching (general) meanings” (Dewey, 1910: 79-80).

Deweyan 4th wave GT is ‘reflective thinking’ while continuing to do exploration and testing, “searching for new materials to corroborate or to refute the first suggestions that occur” (Dewey, 1910: 13):

“Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful” (Dewey, 1910: 13).

Dewey (1925 Experience and Nature) rejected Platonic and Hegelian dialectic historicism as well as turning away form the sensorium (sensemaking) approach to experience towards an ontological understanding of the human meaning of experience in nature, after the Copernican revolution in quantum physics. It’s all about the ontological meaning of Being. “Without meaning, things are nothing but blind stimuli or chance sources of pleasure and pain; and since meanings are not themselves tangible things, they must be anchored by attachment to some physical existence” (Dewey, 1910: 171 How we Think)

Dewey had renounced Platonic and Hegelian transcendental accounts of experience, as well as the sensorium of empiricist metaphysics. Rorty observes that Dewey (1929: 309, Quest for Certainty) parallels Heidegger’s (1962) criticism of metaphysics  (Rorty, 2010: 75 footnote #9).  Dewey’s (1925, Experience and Nature) own view of nature, was that psychology reduced the totality of experience to the sensorium (sensemaking). Dewey offers a bold positive program in rejecting dialectical method, to pursue the emergence of complex experience underrate in naturalistic ontology. “To say, as Dewey wants to, that to gain knowledge is to solve problems, one does not need to find ‘continuities’ between nervous systems and people, or between ‘experience’ and ‘nature’” (Rorty, 2010: 79).
Dewey wanted to be naturalistic and ontological, but not in the method dialectical materialism historicist. Dewey (1925: 258-259 Experience & Nature) sought to solve the mind-body problem “by avoiding both the crudity and paradox of materialism and the ‘unscientific’ theorizing offered by traditional dualisms” (Rorty, 2010: 80).

“Feelings make sense; as immediate meanings of events or objects, they are sensations, or more properly, sense. Without language, the qualities of organic action that are feelings are pains, pleasures, doors, noises, tones, only potentially and proleptically. With language, they are discriminated and identified. They re then ‘objectified’; that are immediate trait s of things. This ‘objectification’ is not a miraculous ejection from the organism or soul into external things, nor an illusory attribution of psychical entities to physical things. The qualities never were ‘in’ the organism; they always were qualities of interactions in which both extra-organic things and organisms partake” (Dewey 1925: 258-259 Experience & Nature).

Has Dewey solved the mind-body problem, “the relation between the empirical self and the material world” (Rorty, 2010: 80)? Dewey broke with Human empiricism, recognizing no experience is ever ‘raw’ ‘given in experience’ but was as Rorty (2010: 81) puts it, “sheer potentiality, ready to be transformed in a situation.” Rorty rejects this notion, in favor of the linguistic turn, to language providing concepts of Lockean sensulization in a spectator model of knowledge. But it is exactly the spectator model of knowledge that Dewey (1929 Quest for Certainty) rejects, along with the “ontology of the sensible manifold” (Rorty, 2010: 82). Rorty concludes, “Dewey’s mistake” was not being Hegelian (IBID.).

Does 4th wave GT have to be Hegelian dialectic or one of its subsequent variants (Follett, Žižek, Heidegger, Savall, or Bhaskar, see Boje, 2018, forthcoming, for now see  Could Dewey be developing a multiplicity theory of contingencies rooted in naturalism and quantum physics?
Dewey (1925: 1a Experience & Nature) says the “dialectical argument” doe s not offer answers to a “theory of experience in naturalistic terms.”
“There is a long story between the primitive forms of this division of objects of experience and the dialectical imputation to the divine of omnipotence, omniscience, eternity and infinity, in contrast with the attribution to man and experienced nature of finitude, weakness, limitation, struggle and change.  But in the make-up of human psychology the later history is implicit in the early crude division. One realm is the home of assured appropriation and possession; the other of striving, transiency and frustration” (Dewey, 1925: 55).

Dewey’s (1925: 154) rejection of dialectics is quite definite:

In sum, we find that much of existing research that claims to use GT is without ontologic substantive ‘ground’ in its method, and thus lacks the substance needed to develop formal ‘theory’.  Dewey’s pragmatic ontology of naturalism grounds experience in the double movement of induction with deduction that can be the basis of 4th wave GT. We find that much of existing research that claims to use GT is without ontologic substantive ‘ground’ in its method, and thus lacks the substance needed to develop formal ‘theory’.

‘Storytelling In Action’ is 4th whorl ontological and dialectical inquiry, in, around, and between organizations. It is ontological, the meaning of Being-in-the-world, in context, in situation. It is dialectic between institutional narratives, a person’s living story, and the body.  It is dynamic because there is always more than one story, always a counternarrative to every master or dominant narrative an organization tries to hide behind. ‘Storytelling in Action’ has dynamical processes that define and shape other organization processes. ‘Storytelling in Action’ interpenetrates across embodiment, sociomateriality, socioeconomics, to globality, because of multifractality and storytelling dialectics, all the way to world making.
Storytelling In Action image by Boje