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Chitu Okoli

Posted on Nov 27, 2012 in Research summaries

Wolfswinkel, Furtmueller and Wilderom 2013: Using grounded theory as a method for rigorously reviewing literature

Wolfswinkel, Joost F, Elfi Furtmueller and Celeste P M Wilderom. 2013. Using grounded theory as a method for rigorously reviewing literature. European Journal of Information Systems (2013) 22, 45–55. doi:10.1057/ejis.2011.51; published online 29 November 2011.


  • Rationale: This paper is part of the recent cottage industry of literature review guides in information systems research. (I don't use "cottage industry" disparagingly—I myself am very much involved in this stream or research).
  • Objectives: Wolfswinkel et al. presented a literature review methodology focused on grounded theory as a synthesis technique.
  • Theoretical background: Wolfswinkel et al. adopted a grounded theory approach which develops theory inductively, letting the theory emerge from existing literature rather than approaching the literature review a priori with a theory in mind.
  • Key questions: "The goal of this Research paper is to show how to use Grounded Theory to rigorously do a literature review that produces new insights and conceptualizations" (p. 46).
  • Methodology: Wolfswinkel et al. present five steps for their Grounded Theory Literature Review Method: 1) Define the criteria (what I call "practical screen"); 2) Search; 3) Select (which I normally consider a part of the literature search stage); 4) Analyze (synthesis); and 5) Present. Steps 1, 2 and 3 are fairly stock material covered in other guides. What is novel in this paper is mainly in step 4, and to a lesser extent step 5. They describe the Analysis in terms of grounded theory's open, axial and selective coding
  • Key contribution to knowledge: Without a doubt, the grounded theory approach described in the Analysis section is this paper's most valuable contribution. I have more comments below on this.
  • Key implications: As the authors argue, grounded theory can prove to be a literature review synthesis approach that siphons valuable new insights that are not otherwise obvious from the literature base.
  • Comments: This paper is a rare and very valuable research contribution. On one hand, I found steps 1,2 and 3 rather bland, since I am very familiar with the literature review procedure, and these steps are covered extensively in much more detail in other sources. On the other hand, the too-brief (2.5 pages) section on Analysis using grounded theory is an invaluable gem that I have been unable to find elsewhere. In fact, I discovered this paper after fruitlessly searching for any other clear description of the mechanics of grounded theory synthesis for literature reviews. If I had been a reviewer for this paper, I would have asked them to completely cut out steps 1, 2 and 3, and use all their available space to expand step 5 in more detail. As it is, it gives a good idea of what they are talking about, but 2.5 pages seems too short to really be something that I could take and put into practice directly. I really hope the authors might publish more details on their methodology in other outlets that are less stringent with page lengths; this could really help other researchers like myself.

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