Formal vs Substantive Theory?

I’m reading Glaser today and it strikes me that the extent of comparative analysis required to make the leap from a substantive, to a formal theory – is too great. That I won’t have time to go out and take these various cross sections, find relevant ‘different’ groups and continue my research with these. (See p82-90). The exhaustive nature of this type of theory making – makes it really seem like a lifetimes work – not a phd times work!

“Most sociologists unquestionably tend to avoid the formulation of formal theory; they stay principally at the substantive level. In addition to the inherently greater difficulties in working at high level abstractions, and in feeling confident in broader generalities…”-p92

Glaser goes on to describe how deeply one is anticipated to know ones field before being a ‘pro’ and that describes something that sounds a bit like imposter syndrome as a situation that means researchers may resist speculating with formal theory. For others it sounds like their is a distaste for “airy assertions that pass as sociological theory” (p93).

Glaser does however talk about how formal theories emerge from the process – for example in memo’s a researcher may begin to pull together ideas from her prior reading, life experience, earlier research… i.e. though not based on substantive data, the researcher is generating hypothess for categories and theories. These ideas – need then to be sort of ‘made’ substantive as the research continues – i.e. the theory emerges, then the research will then seek out groups in which this can be explored through comparative analysis. So it seems likely to me that these is a sort of too and fro between substantive and formal concepts at least – p90

Glaser seems to conclude that – yes it’s hard – but – if what you want is a formal theory – for a consultation or to make predictions – it’s better to develop a grounded formal theory than a logical-deductive one – as at least you can see how the data has informed the theory – even if there have been some conceptual leaps. He seems also to suggest that even if you dont have time to be exhaustive in the generation of the theory – that it can still be worthwhile to present it as a work in progress if the ideas are important / meaningful.

Barney G. Glaser & Anselm L. Strauss. 1967. The Discovery of Grounded Theory. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.