Grounded Theory of Asian American Activists for #BlackLivesMatter

Stacey Diane Arañez Litam, Christian D. Chan

A grounded theory study was employed to identify the conditions contributing to the core phenomenon of Asian American activists (N = 25) mobilizing toward thick solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in 2020. The findings indicate achieving a collective oppressed identity was necessary to mobilize in thick solidarity with the BLM movement and occurred because of causal conditions: (a) experiences of COVID-19–related anti-Asian discrimination, and (b) George Floyd’s murder. Non-action, performative or unhelpful action, and action toward thick solidarity were influenced by contextual factors: (a) alignment with personal and community values, (b) awareness and knowledge, and (c) perspectives of oppression. Mobilization was also influenced by intervening factors, which included affective responses, intergenerational conflict, conditioning of “privileges” afforded by White supremacy, and the presence of organized communities. Mental health professionals and social justice advocates can apply these findings to promote engagement in the community organizing efforts of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities with the BLM movement, denounce anti-Blackness, and uphold a culpability toward supporting the Black community.

Keywords: Asian American, solidarity, social justice, Black Lives Matter, grounded theory


Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012 reignited conversations about the underlying sentiments of White supremacy that remain deeply entrenched in American society (Khan-Cullors & Bandele, 2017; Taylor, 2016). Shortly thereafter, the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement was launched to address acts of police brutality on Black and Brown people and challenge the systemic oppression within the justice system (Lebron, 2017). Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the role of silence in perpetuating complicity resurfaced, and the familiar narratives and gut-wrenching images of non-Black police officers harming Black bodies once again found a place in the limelight (Chang, 2020; Elias et al., 2021). However, this time there was something noticeably different; one of the non-Black officers was Asian American.

Tou Thao’s role in sanctioning George Floyd’s murder illuminated the complex history of anti-Blackness within Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities; created momentum for conversations about race, discrimination, and oppression; and echoed earlier support for the BLM movement among AAPIs (J. Ho, 2021; Merseth, 2018; Tran et al., 2018). These discussions may have been traditionally avoided, given the narrative invoked by racial and colonial notions that diminishes critical consciousness about racial histories and relations in AAPI communities (Chang, 2020; David et al., 2019). Because of the structural conditions of White supremacy and colonialism, AAPI communities have been forced to adopt Whiteness as a pathway to success, minimize salient cultural values, and trivialize manifestations of anti-Blackness (J. Ho, 2021; Poon et al., 2016). Erasing critical consciousness among AAPI communities has served as an insidious attempt to maintain a racial hierarchy that neither supports AAPI visibility nor eradicates racial tensions (Chou & Feagin, 2016; David et al., 2019). The invisibility of AAPI history absolves the United States from long-standing histories of anti-Asian racial violence (Li & Nicholson, 2021) and endorses complacency of White supremacy (Museus, 2021; Poon et al., 2019). Although this contention exists, a greater number of AAPI voices have begun to mobilize in solidarity with the BLM movement and the Black community in recent years (Anand & Hsu, 2020; Lee et al., 2020; Merseth, 2018; Tran et al., 2018).

Despite a complex racialized history of White supremacists weaponizing communities of color against each other (Nicholson et al., 2020; Poon et al., 2016), AAPI individuals have a long-standing history of pursuing thick solidarity and activism with the Black community and supporting Black civil rights (J. Ho, 2021). These racial coalitions have been evidenced through the Third World Liberation Front Strikes and the tireless efforts of activists like Grace Lee Boggs, Yuri Kochiyama, and Richard Aoki (W. Liu, 2018; Sharma, 2018). Thick solidarity is achieved when racial differences are acknowledged while emphasizing the specificity, irreducibility, and incommensurability of racialized experiences (W. Liu, 2018). Although understanding the factors that influence AAPIs to mobilize with the Black community represents a critical step toward thick solidarity (Tran et al., 2018), previous studies investigating the phenomenon have been limited to quantitative methods (Merseth, 2018; Yoo et al., 2021) or focused solely on Southeast Asian American populations (Lee et al., 2020).

The following sections outline the histories of racialized oppression faced by Asian American and Black communities and provide a brief overview of the extant research linking Asian American solidarity with the BLM movement. A grounded theory that identifies the emergent process that contributed to Asian American activists mobilizing toward thick solidarity with the BLM movement in 2020 is additionally presented.

The Racialized Experiences of Asian Americans and Black Communities in America
Prior to engaging in a grounded theory, researchers must build upon preexisting processes, theories, and perspectives documented in extant research (Charmaz, 2017). Thus, one cannot explore the processes that contributed to Asian American activists mobilizing toward thick solidarity with the BLM movement in 2020 without first addressing the nuanced and racialized experiences of AAPI and Black communities in America. Tran et al. (2018) asserted that navigating an oppressive system embedded in White supremacy has forced communities of color to make historical adaptations that leave AAPI voices out of the BLM movement. The following section provides a brief description of the complexity in which AAPI and Black identities are juxtaposed and elaborates on the model minority myth, racial triangulation, and historical anti-Blackness in AAPI communities as processes that may complicate the process of achieving thick solidarity.

Racial Triangulation
According to Kim (1999), racial triangulation theory refers to a “field of racial positions” (p. 106) that was proposed to extend the conceptualization of racial discourse beyond the Black and White narrative. The field of racial positions is mapped onto two dimensions. The superior/inferior axis represents the process of relative valorization, whereby Whites valorize Asian Americans relative to Black Americans in ways that maintain White privilege and White supremacy (Kim, 1999). The second dimension, an insider/foreigner axis, refers to the process of civic ostracism, in which Whites position Asian Americans as foreign, unassimilable, and outsiders (Kim, 1999; Xu & Lee, 2013). Although Asian Americans may be afforded social and economic benefits due to their proximity to Whiteness, this social location functions as an incomplete portrayal that conceals inequities, treats Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners, and maintains the status of White supremacy over communities of color (Bonilla-Silva, 2004; Nicholson et al., 2020). As a result, members of Asian American communities may be racialized to be White-adjacent and create an illusion of success with a conditional set of privileges (Kim, 1999; Museus, 2021).

One example of racial triangulation is the model minority myth, which essentializes Asian Americans by portraying them as a monolithic group with universal educational and occupational success (Chou & Feagin, 2016; Yi et al., 2020). According to Poon et al. (2016), scholars must acknowledge the model minority myth’s history to challenge processes of racial triangulation and deficit thinking. The model minority myth creates barriers to social justice efforts and racial coalitions by pitting communities of color against one another (Chang, 2020), invalidating experiences of systemic oppression and discrimination (Nicholson et al., 2020; Pendakur & Pendakur, 2016), and maintaining “a global system of racial hierarchies and White supremacy” (Poon et al., 2016, p. 6). When contextualizing the model minority myth through the lens of critical race theory, Asian Americans may be conceptualized as a “middleman minority” (Poon et al., 2016, p. 5). Originally coined by Blalock (1967) and later expanded upon by Bonacich (1973), middleman minorities are foreigners who buffer the power struggles between two major groups in a host society. Similar to other historical middleman minority groups, the minority model myth exploits Asian Americans by granting economic privileges while denying political or social power (Poon et al., 2016). As a more egregious consequence, the model minority myth can lead communities of color to harbor feelings of resentment toward Asian American communities, especially Asian immigrants who may feel pressured to prove their loyalty to American values (J. Ho, 2021) and embrace the submissive, hardworking qualities espoused by the model minority myth (Poon et al., 2019).

The complex relationship between AAPI and Black communities becomes even more complex as communities of color, including Black Americans, continue to define the boundaries of inclusion about “who belongs in communities of Color” (Tran et al., 2018, p. 78). As a result, Asian Americans are rarely included in race dialogues; may not be identified as “of color” by other groups; and are forced to navigate their weaponized, conditional identities as racialized in some spaces and White-adjacent in others (C. D. Chan & Litam, 2021; Litam & Chan, 2021; Museus, 2021; Poon et al., 2016).

Understanding Anti-Blackness in Asian American Communities
The denigration of Black identities and the desire to be viewed as distinct from Black Americans are evidenced across the histories of several Asian American ethnic subgroups. For example, in the mid-20th century, access to U.S. citizenship was limited to free White persons and persons of African descent (Pavlenko, 2002). At the time, the system was not set up to accommodate Asian Americans or other racialized groups, as evidenced by the landmark cases of Takao Ozawa and Bhagat Singh Thind (Chou & Feagin, 2016; Haney López, 2006). After living in the United States for over 20 years and articulating his relationship to White racial groups because of his light skin, Takao Ozawa, a Japanese man, was judged to be a race other than those able to obtain citizenship and deemed ineligible for naturalization (S. Chan, 1991; Yamashita & Park, 1985). Bhagat Singh Thind, an Asian Indian man, attempted to align specifically with the use of “Caucasian” and White racial ideologies, but was also denied citizenship by the U.S. Supreme Court (Haney López, 2006). Following the United States v. Bagat Singh Thind ruling, nearly 50% of Asian Indian Americans had their U.S. citizenship revoked (Haney López, 2006). Despite attempts to prove their loyalty to Whiteness, both cases reified how Asian Americans are placed in a vexing situation that provides an illusion of privileges but excludes them from fully participating as U.S. citizens (Haney López, 2006; Nicholson et al., 2020). Both cases also exemplified early instances of Asian American individuals who were pressured by prevailing racial ideologies to eschew Blackness and assimilate into dominant norms of White supremacy.

Examples of anti-Black sentiments are deeply rooted in people of Filipino descent who may endorse colonial mentality, an internalized form of oppression characterized by a preference for Western attitudes and the denigration of Filipino culture following years of colonization by the United States (David & Okazaki, 2006a, 2006b). For example, internalized anti-Black sentiments in Filipino culture are evidenced by the systematic discrimination against the dark-skinned Ati people, who are indigenous to the Aklan region (Petrola et al., 2020). As a result of the mining, logging, and tourism industries, the Ati have been forced to relocate onto smaller plots of land, face physical violence, and are denied various human rights (Petrola et al., 2020). Other insidious anti-Black attitudes that permeate the Filipino worldview include White-centered beauty notions that venerate straight hair and light skin over textured locks and dark skin (Nadal, 2021; Rafael, 2000). Despite their documented toxic and dangerous consequences, skin whitening products in the Philippines are a billion-dollar industry (Mendoza, 2014). These examples relay cultural and economic implications that are predicated on histories of global imperialism and colonialism, which root out indigeneity in favor of Eurocentric values and White norms (Fanon, 1952). Examples of anti-Black sentiments in Filipino communities are a sample of the ways in which colonialist movements mapped anti-Blackness onto Filipino communities and culture by occupation of the land, terrorism, and brutality (David, 2013; Nadal, 2021).

History of anti-Black attitudes may also exist in Korean Americans following the 1992 Los Angeles riots. After White officers were exonerated in the beating of Rodney King and a Korean store owner fatally shot 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, tension erupted between the Black and Korean American communities due to the lack of accountability for the killing of a Black person. Media reports of widespread rioting, theft, injuries, and damage to businesses were attributed to poor race relations between African American and Korean communities and larger issues of systemic racism were disregarded (Oh, 2010; Sharma, 2018). Despite calls to law enforcement for help, Korean voices were overlooked by the police (Yoon, 1997), which potentially illustrates how the law enforcement system reacts in favor of White interests. Once again, White media highlighted the undercurrent of racial tension between ethnic and racial groups as noteworthy and masked preexisting racial coalitions between Black and Asian American communities. These news stories deterred Asian American and Black communities from looking outward and acknowledging the larger issues of ongoing police brutality and inequitable justice systems (F. Ho & Mullen, 2008).

Chinese Americans may harbor anti-Black notions following the conviction of Peter Liang, who fatally shot Akai Gurley in New York City (W. Liu, 2018). Although he was the first officer indicted for killing an unarmed and innocent Black man, Liang’s conviction resulted in conflict between Chinese American and Black American communities (R. Liu & Shange, 2018; W. Liu, 2018). Many individuals within Asian American communities argued for the fair sentencing and punishment of Liang (Tran et al., 2018), but others protested the charge and believed the courts used him as a scapegoat to detract from BLM activists who called for police reform (R. Liu & Shange, 2018; W. Liu, 2018).

Challenging Historical Anti-Blackness in Asian American Communities
Challenging anti-Blackness in Asian American communities underscores a cultural paradox. On one hand, Asian American individuals, especially East Asian subgroups, benefit from social and economic privileges because of their proximity to Whiteness and identities as non-Black minorities (Bonilla-Silva, 2018; Poon et al., 2016). Thus, some Asian American individuals endorse aspects of the model minority myth because of the privilege it affords (Kim, 1999), even at the expense of maintaining a racially triangulated identity (Bonilla-Silva, 2004; Poon et al., 2019; Yi et al., 2020). Anti-Blackness therefore moves beyond prejudicial attitudes against Blacks and encompasses a performance of Whiteness (W. Liu, 2018).

Movements initiated by younger Asian American generations that challenge anti-Black sentiments (e.g., #Asians4BlackLives) are gaining traction (Anand & Hsu, 2020; Lee et al., 2020) and can help Asian immigrants move beyond their own unacknowledged pain and racial trauma to appreciate the challenges of other marginalized communities (David et al., 2019; Tran et al., 2018). For example, Letters for Black Lives is a crowdsourcing project that empowers communities of color to have conversations about anti-Blackness with older generations (R. Liu & Shange, 2018) who may endorse anti-Black attitudes following injustices against Asian people (e.g., Peter Liang) or anti-Asian historical events (e.g., the LA riots). These letters help younger Asian American communities describe ambiguous and complex issues related to social justice, racism, and systemic oppression with their families and have been helpful in promoting support for the BLM movement (Arora & Stout, 2019).

Extant Research on Racial Coalitions

Extant research posits how experiences of ingroup discrimination cultivate increased empathy, positive attitudes, and a collective sense of community (Craig & Richeson, 2012; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). As rates of anti-Asian discrimination have substantially increased following the COVID-19 pandemic and negatively affected the psychological well-being of Asian American communities (C. D. Chan & Litam, 2021; Jeung & Nham, 2020; Litam, 2020; Litam & Oh, 2020, 2021; Litam et al., 2021), the Common Ingroup Identity Model (CIIM; Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000) may help explain the increasing number of Asian American voices in support of BLM. According to the CIIM, experiences of racial discrimination toward one’s own racial group may lead to a shared disadvantaged racial minority identity that engenders positive attitudes and feelings of closeness toward other racial minorities. Compared to White, male, high-status groups, racialized minorities (e.g., Asian Americans) may be more likely to experience feelings of solidarity and affiliation with other communities of color believed to share experiences of racial discrimination (Brewer, 2000; Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000).

Preliminary support for the CIIM may be evidenced by a quantitative study conducted by Merseth (2018). Using a nationally representative sample of data, Merseth determined AAPIs who supported BLM were more likely to perceive anti-Black discrimination in the United States and identify race-based linked fates. A recent ethnography that examined AAPI support for the BLM movement identified the importance of community-based educational spaces as paramount to engaging in antiracist work and cultivating cross-racial coalitions among Southeast Asian Americans (Lee et al., 2020). Lee and colleagues’ (2020) results illuminated the importance of educational institutions that provide the foundation and language needed to challenge anti-Blackness among Southeast Asian communities. Combined with these studies, a more recent investigation by Yoo et al. (2021) involved a quantitative measurement of racial groups and their support for the BLM movement. Although this crucial study revealed the implications of solidarity among several racial groups with the BLM movement, the Yoo et al. study only involved a convenience sample of college students and did not necessarily account for the nuances within participants’ social identities, their motivations for support, or historical and political contexts. In the context of increased anti-Asian racial discrimination in the wake of COVID-19, shared experiences of anti-Asian discrimination may result in “a common ground of solidarity that Asian Americans and African Americans can forge against White supremacy” (Anand & Hsu, 2020, p. 194).

Purpose of the Present Study
The centralization of police brutality on Black and Brown people has reignited conversations about systemic oppression and has illuminated the need for civil rights, racial equity, and the dismantling of White supremacy (Elias et al., 2021; R. Liu & Shange, 2018; W. Liu, 2018; Tran et al., 2018). Although AAPIs may face discrimination in the wake of COVID-19 in ways that may result in solidarity with the BLM movement (Chang, 2020; J. Ho, 2021), a qualitative study that underscores this process with diverse Asian American voices can further contextualize meaningful opportunities for racial coalitions. Given the historical presence of anti-Blackness in Asian American communities (W. Liu, 2018; Tran et al., 2018), generating an emergent process that outlines the path of Asian American activists mobilizing toward thick solidarity with the BLM movement is of paramount importance to continue bolstering efforts toward racial coalitions (Lee et al., 2020; Merseth, 2018). To address the paucity of literature, a grounded theory was conducted to examine the following research question: What is the process that mobilizes Asian American activists to pursue thick solidarity with the BLM movement in 2020?


Qualitative methods are appropriate when researchers seek to develop a complex or detailed understanding of an experience (Creswell & Poth, 2018). Specifically, grounded theory is a qualitative method used to generate a theory grounded in the data from participants who have experienced the process under inquiry and focuses on maximizing numerous perspectives constructed over phases of time (Charmaz, 2017). Given our desire to understand the process of action through which Asian American activists mobilize toward thick solidarity with the BLM movement, a grounded theory approach was deemed appropriate. To this end, the grounded theory focused on what participants experience and how the process of mobilizing in solidarity for BLM unfolds.

This study was implemented using a social constructionist paradigm to complement Charmaz’s (2014) constructivist grounded theory. Social constructionist researchers recognize the presence of multiple, processual, and constructed realities while acknowledging the role and importance of the researchers’ and participants’ positionality (Charmaz, 2014; Clarke, 2012). Social constructionism augments three overarching themes: (a) critiquing the neutrality of participants’ and researchers’ values by locating perspectives within social contexts (e.g., time, culture); (b) revealing language as a vehicle for shaping representation within particular communities; and (c) introducing different perspectives to unsettle social conditions and co-create new knowledge (K. J. Gergen, 2020; M. Gergen, 2020).

Procedure and Participants
Internal Review Board approval was obtained before beginning the study. Participants in this study were selected through the use of purposive and theoretical sampling (Timonen et al., 2018). The first and second authors, Stacey Diane Arañez Litam and Christian D. Chan, used purposive sampling to disseminate recruitment materials to key social media groups and community networks focused on AAPI community organizing. In the initial stages, Litam interviewed the first group of participants and ascertained their social identities. Next, theoretical sampling was employed. To introduce additional perspectives after the first group, Litam focused on soliciting more participants to expand the sample based on region, gender, and ethnic identities. Prospective participants could participate if they (a) self-identified as a member of the Asian American community and (b) identified as being engaged in ongoing support of the BLM movement. Prospective participants were recruited by posting on social media pages frequented by Asian American individuals actively involved in BLM activism. Prospective participants were asked to email Litam and were given more information describing the study’s purpose, design, and research questions. Eligible participants were informed that participation was voluntary, the research would not directly benefit them, and no compensation would be offered. A consent form was completed before participation occurred. Interviews were held on a HIPAA-compliant Zoom account.

This study consisted of interviews with 25 AAPI individuals who were actively engaged with the BLM movement. To protect confidentiality, participants were given pseudonyms. Participants reported a diversity of identities that increased the heterogeneity of the sample. Participants’ ages ranged from 25 to 73, and ethnic identities of participants included Filipino (n = 10), Korean (n = 5), Chinese (n = 2), Japanese (n = 1), Vietnamese (n = 1), Chamorro (n = 1), and multiracial (n = 5) descent. The gender identities of participants included women (n = 17), men (n = 5), and non-binary (n = 3). Most participants reported being a U.S. citizen and one participant identified as Canadian. Four participants identified as transracial adoptees.

Data Collection
Data collection occurred between June and July 2020. Semi-structured interviews lasted an average of 90 minutes. Participants responded to the following questions: (a) What are your experiences regarding how Asian Americans have historically supported, or are currently supporting, the Black Lives Matter movement? (b) Which contexts or situations have influenced your desire to support the Black Lives Matter movement? and (c) Which contributing factors influenced your development toward a social justice–oriented mindset? Follow-up questions developed organically. Participants provided consent for the interview to be recorded and were informed they could end the recording or the interview at any time. Only the audio file of the interview was saved, and the file was not uploaded to any cloud-based servers so as to promote participant confidentiality. Litam transcribed all interviews. Following the interview, participants completed two 15-minute member-check meetings—first to confirm the accuracy of researchers’ themes, and second to reflect on the final grounded theory.

Throughout the interview, Litam restated the major points after each response. Clarification was obtained through follow-up questions when participants described new concepts that had not been described by previous participants. Litam did not move onto the next question until each of the major points described by the participant were accurately identified and reflected. At the end of the interview, Litam summarized the conversation and restated the major points to confirm understanding of the participants’ statements. Follow-up questions, member checks, restatements, analytic memo writing, and constant comparative method were used to analyze the data.

Data Analysis
The data collection and analysis process reflected a concurrent process and a recursive process, which informed one another and led to the development of an emerging grounded theory (Charmaz, 2017). Throughout the data analysis process, concurrent analytic techniques of induction, deduction, and verification were used to develop an emergent theory (Charmaz, 2014). Litam immersed herself in the raw data by transcribing, reading, and listening to the audio transcripts. Transcription was completed within 24 hours of the interview, and member checks with participants to confirm themes were completed within 72 hours of the interview. New data were compared to existing data following the completion of each transcribed interview. Initial codes and analytic memos were used throughout the process to create an audit trail. Data were closely examined for disconfirming evidence, and two external auditors were used throughout the data analysis process to understand how our assumptions could influence the coding and findings.

Two external auditors were used between open and focused coding to confirm emergent findings, discuss the accuracy of emerging themes, and triangulate across perspectives (Saldaña, 2021). Both external auditors identified as members of the AAPI community and endorsed a strong commitment to AAPI concerns, research, and mental health. The second external auditor also carried in-depth training in qualitative methodologies. Data were coded with labels that categorized, summarized, or accounted for each piece of data (Charmaz, 2014; Saldaña, 2021) and analytic memos were used to help scrutinize the data (Miles et al., 2020). Each participant confirmed the accuracy of themes and reported feeling energized by the theory, a phenomenon known as catalytic validity (Guba & Lincoln, 1989).

We engaged in reflective commentary throughout the interview and data analysis process by using bracketing and ongoing evaluation. Peer scrutiny was employed by inviting three AAPI colleagues who were familiar with the phenomenon to offer feedback and fresh perspectives on the findings as they continued to emerge and become saturated. The first colleague identifies as a transnational Chinese woman and is an associate professor. The second colleague identifies as a Chinese woman who specializes in counseling AAPI communities. The third colleague identifies as a Filipino, Chinese, and Malaysian man and works as a counselor educator. Interviews were conducted until saturation occurred and fresh data no longer sparked new theoretical insights or properties of the generated grounded theory, its categories, or its concepts.

Researcher Reflexivity
A researcher’s social location, biases, theoretical lens, and epistemological beliefs must be established to increase the trustworthiness of results (Saldaña, 2021). Litam identifies as a foreign-born Filipina and Chinese American woman. She is a counselor educator, an assistant professor, and a licensed professional clinical counselor and a supervisor. She conducts research on topics related to human sexuality, human trafficking, trauma, race, diversity, and AAPI issues. Litam has overcome her own internalized colonial mentality as a Filipina American woman and endorses a strong commitment toward issues of social justice and racial equity. She is dedicated to engaging in work that dismantles the forces of White supremacy that oppress all racialized groups.

Chan is a queer person of color and a second-generation Asian American of Filipino, Chinese, and Malaysian heritage. As an assistant professor, he invests primarily in scholarship on intersectionality, social justice, activism, multiculturalism, career development, and communication of culture and socialization in couple, family, and group modalities. He actively works toward racial coalitions that interrogate structures of White supremacy and organizes intentional community initiatives for solidarity. Many of his perspectives, especially toward the inquiry at hand, attend to social structures and histories that underpin ideologies of White supremacy.

Grounded theory requires standards of quality and trustworthiness, including credibility, originality, resonance, and usefulness (Charmaz, 2014; Creswell & Poth, 2018). To promote trustworthiness, constant comparison was employed by using open codes, a codebook, and data to inform, analyze, and compare new data sources (Charmaz, 2014). Any new data were consistently checked and compared to the emerging theory. Member checks were completed twice by connecting with participants over Zoom for approximately 15 minutes each. We also used peer scrutiny with three AAPI colleagues and two AAPI external auditors to challenge assumptions and biases, triangulate findings, and engage in dialogue about clusters of meaning and themes as they emerged. These strategies were used to ensure the theory was data-driven rather than reflective of our own beliefs, values, and assumptions (Hays & Singh, 2012). Analytic memos were written after each round of coding, which elaborated emotions, thoughts, and personal reactions to the data. This information strengthened the tracking of the data and our influence as we shared the audit trail with both external auditors. Thus, multiple measures of trustworthiness were used to account for positionality that could influence the data and theory development.


We sought to examine the following research question: What is the process that mobilizes Asian American activists to pursue thick solidarity with the BLM movement in 2020? The results of the grounded theory analysis describe the process through which causal conditions, contextual factors, and intervening conditions affect actions and foster pathways to consequences following the core category of the phenomena of interest (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Grounded Theory Outlining AAPI Process of Mobilizing in Thick Solidarity With BLM in 2020


Causal Conditions
Based on perspectives from participants, two causal conditions led participants to mobilize toward solidarity for BLM in 2020.

George Floyd’s Murder
Exposure to George Floyd’s murder through social media and news outlets was the first causal condition. For each of the participants, this event represented the “breaking point,” “threshold,” “spark,” or “tipping point” that illuminated the need to “act,” “pursue justice,” “make change,” and “fight back.” As stated by Gemma, a Filipina woman in her mid-30s:

When George Floyd died . . . I just refused to be silent about what happened to him. I just kept thinking, well, what the hell have I been doing that it didn’t impact enough change [so] that this man could have lived? This man died because we have not done enough. He died calling out for his mom. What I could not handle was if I had been born with a particular fear, and I died that way. This man was born and lived knowing that he could be murdered by the police. And that’s how he died. I refuse that. And I am personally responsible that the narrative has not changed in this country. I am responsible and I hold my communities responsible. We have not done enough so that man could have lived.

Experiences of COVID-19–Related Anti-Asian Discrimination
The second causal condition was identified as experiences of COVID-19–related anti-Asian discrimination. This condition was characterized by witnessing or experiencing broad anti-Asian discrimination and exposure to “Trump’s Anti-Chinese,” “xenophobic,” and “racist messages.” Participants described how anti-Asian rhetoric touted by political leaders and experiences of anti-Asian discrimination served as “tinder” that “incited,” “enraged,” and “irritated” AAPIs in ways that “primed” them to act.

For each of the participants, witnessing and/or experiencing COVID-19–related racism was an event that led to action. Each of the 25 participants stated that exposure to anti-Asian discrimination cultivated empathy for Black Americans and illuminated how their shared experiences of racial discrimination “opened their eyes,” “woke them up,” or “pulled off the blindfold” of their racialized identity as Asian Americans. Yuri, a Chinese and Vietnamese woman in her early 30s, explained:

We have this fresh memory of discrimination in the back of our heads, and you know, it reaches a boiling point. You have the intersection of your own experiences and somebody else’s experiences and you start to connect the dots that we are not so different. And we are not so safe. We have more in common with Black lives than we do with White ones.

These sentiments were echoed by Hunter, a Korean man in his early 50s:

The pandemic created this anti-Asian reality. It really brought attention to the average Asian American [about] how much anti-Asian sentiment is still out there. You know, we all live in our little bubbles in life. And we don’t really see what’s going on. But I think, you know, seeing all these news stories about anti-Asian violence, whether we are members of the older generation reading our ethnic papers or just, you know, a member of the younger generation watching television, we see this stuff on the news and it has kind of served as the kindling to the fire to act and do more.

Evelyn, a Filipina woman in her early 40s, also described how exposure to anti-Asian rhetoric touted by political leaders primed her to act:

This particular president [Trump] is stoking the flames [and] it’s re-energizing a particular base of people who are emboldened to say and do things that are hate-centered, that are violent, that are wrong. And I think that it also touched on a particular powerlessness that Asian Americans have felt. And when you couple that within a global pandemic you are hyper aware of your mortality. You could die from this virus that’s going around, [and] we are all wearing masks. You couldn’t get more on edge, you know? We were primed to act. We were ready.

Josie, a multiracial woman in her mid-30s, explained:

Yes, we’re being harassed. We’re being called names. We’re experiencing another wave of xenophobia and racism, being told to go back to our countries, being told that we are not welcome here. I believe that Asians are saying, “Okay, yeah, we’re being threatened, but we’re not being held to the ground and choked out to the point that we’re being killed on TV.” I believe it’s awakened a lot of levels of pain and solidarity because you can’t imagine it. People can’t imagine that the world is this bad until someone’s last breaths are on TV. I think it mobilized people to become more involved because injustice does not have a place among any minority group. Injustice resonates with the Brown community, the Latinx community, the Asian community, and I believe it empowered us to move toward human empathy. Asians are realizing that if we don’t stand together, we stand alone, and nothing in this world will change.

Contextual Factors
Contextual factors were the individual traits and characteristics that affected the actions taken by participants to pursue mobilization in solidarity with BLM. Participants described three contextual factors: (a) alignment with personal and community values, (b) awareness and knowledge, and (c) perspectives of oppression.

Alignment With Personal and Community Values
The first contextual factor was defined as alignment with personal and community values. Notions of values alignment were identified in interviews when participants described how supporting the BLM movement was not a choice; rather, “protesting,” “supporting,” “fighting,” and “engaging in human rights activism” represented “values,” “moral imperatives,” and “needs.” Each of the participants described how mobilizing toward thick solidarity with the Black community reflected the direct consequence of one’s own set of values. Hunter shared the following: “Regardless of how it benefits the Asian American community, for me, it’s my sense of value. This is my own value system. I don’t feel comfortable having groups that are continuing to be oppressed.”

For some participants, notions of values alignment and the need to act had been socialized and were shared by their families of origin. José, a Filipino man in his early 30s, indicated:

I needed to act, there was no other choice. My parents taught me years ago how this whole [BLM] movement creates an obligation to speak up when injustice occurs. Our [Filipino] history has led us to learn that we always have been stronger when we all unite together because there is so much divisiveness in our society.

Evelyn described how values alignment represented a moral imperative:

For about 17 years, I have been an activist. I have always known at a very deep, personal, soul level, that issues of race are the knife on the throat of this country. This country has not resolved or has even come close to reconciling its history. And I don’t think that it [supporting BLM] was something that I decided. It wasn’t a neuron movement. It wasn’t a shift; it wasn’t something that physiologically or intellectually or cognitively shifted. It was like something else just shed, like a skin was pulled off me. It was just so plainly obvious that it was more than overdue for people to say something. We needed to act. There was no other option. It was just this plain, visceral refusal to be silent.

Participants described how alignment with personal and community values emerged because other Asian countries have been historically oppressed. Specifically, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and the Philippines were identified as countries that “silenced Asian voices” in ways that amplified participants’ desire to underscore their values in the United States. Byron, a Vietnamese and Chinese man in his late 30s, identified the following perspective on contextual factors:

I think it’s very important for us, as Asian Americans or even Asians across the world, to really be vocal on this [BLM movement]. Because, dude, America is a crazy place. It’s a beautiful country, but at the same time, the system is kind of jacked, right? And, you know, my parents being from Vietnam and really trying to get away from communists and stuff, I see what the Hong Kong people are going through right now. That to me is like a sign. Like, their battle is different from ours, but it’s still the same. We need to fight for what’s right.

Awareness and Knowledge
The second contextual factor was identified as awareness of one’s identity as a person of color and knowledge of how all communities of color are affected by systemic racism and White supremacy. Participants described how learning about Asian American history and the impact of racial triangulation, how AAPI liberation is directly tied to Black liberation, and the weaponization of the model minority myth were critical factors that contributed to their BLM activism. Rufio, a Filipino man in his late 20s, recalled the following memory:

Peter Liang, I think, was the first person that got convicted of anything. I clearly remember a street. On one side of it were Black protesters and on the other side were Asian American protesters. One side was saying, “Peter was innocent!” and the other side was like, “He deserves more of a sentence!” African American and Asian American protesters were pointing at each other when really they should have been looking outside [of] the situation and being like, the people in power set this game up so we didn’t look at them. They were making us look at each other, but we shouldn’t be looking at each other. We should be looking at them.

Participants identified the importance of achieving multiracial unity and described how the fates of communities of color are inextricably linked. Jay, a non-binary Filipinx person in their early 20s, asserted the following about multiracial unity:

When we center the most vulnerable or the most marginalized, then we are able to lift up everyone. And I think that’s why a lot of people are focusing on the term BIPOC and [are] like, trying to center Black people and Indigenous people, because Black people have been enslaved and Indigenous people [have] had so many atrocities committed to them on stolen land. Ultimately, we are all in this together and what we do for one affects us all.

Similarly, Dante, a transracially adopted Taiwanese man in his mid-20s, observed the political implications surrounding race relations in the United States:

Honestly, I think that four years of the Trump presidency is probably a big mobilizing factor. His policy towards China has been just straight-up racist on his best days and, you know, far worse on his bad days. And so one of the concerns that I had is like, he has no problem locking up kids and immigrants in detention centers. At what point is that going to start being directed at Asian people? If we don’t fight for other people of color, who’s going to fight for us when it is our turn?

Jubilee, a Chinese woman in her early 30s, described the recent AAPI support of BLM and emphasized the importance of cultivating awareness and knowledge with her community and family of origin:

I feel like this is the first time I’ve seen such solidarity from Asians to the Black community. It happened back in the 60s during the civil rights movement so like, we are not the first, but like, in my generation and in my lifetime, this is the first time I am seeing that from us as an Asian community. There are finally conversations coming up about anti-Blackness in Asian communities, you know? It has also allowed me and my brother to bring up these conversations and issues with our friends and parents. For the first time in our lives, we are having conversations about anti-Blackness and systemic racism, and they are not brushing it off. They [my friends and parents] actually take a pause and listen, and this was the first time seeing them do that. And that’s pretty cool. There’s still a long way to go, but there is definitely some change happening. I see it and I feel it around me.

Perspectives of Oppression
Participants conceptualized their experiences from two distinct perspectives of oppression that uniquely influenced the strategies used to mobilize in thick solidarity toward the BLM movement: (a) as a member of the AAPI community or (b) as a member of a greater community of minoritized groups. Participants who limited their perspective of oppression to the AAPI community tended to center Asian voices in support of the BLM movement (i.e., “Yellow Peril for BLM”). Participants in the first category tended to limit their focus to how supporting the BLM movement would benefit the Asian community. Byron explained how supporting the BLM movement better positions the greater Asian American community to engage in advocacy:

I think us mobilizing together and supporting the Black Lives movement would really help us out as a community. Not only as just Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino and all that, but literally, as one Asian community. I think we are learning from the Black Lives movement. Not only are we participating with them, but it’s almost like training wheels for our community to be like, we need to be louder about certain rights that we want or certain things that we want to talk about. The United States has created the perfect platform for us to express that, and we have not utilized that.

Conversely, participants who endorsed a wider perspective that recognized Asian Americans as members of one oppressed minoritized group centered the Black community and amplified Black voices. Participants in the second category were more likely to recognize how mobilizing in thick solidarity with the BLM movement would benefit the larger constellation of communities of color. June, a Korean, non-binary, transracially adopted person in their late 20s, highlighted this connection across social movements:

So many Asian people don’t want to post about anti-Asian oppression alongside Black Lives Matter. They are like, “Oh I don’t want to take away from the Black Lives Matter movement by posting about the racism that I experienced or by posting about immigration.” But I kind of see them as being connected because we all face the same oppressor. We are all dealing with White supremacy, so we need to realize all of our movements are interconnected. We need to be in solidarity with each other.

Mia, a Korean woman in her early 30s, similarly explained this relationship:

Just like how we wonder, How is discrimination affecting the greater Asian community?, I think you have to extend that exercise to, How is it affecting the Black community? Where is it [discrimination] starting from? Whose lives are affected? Instead of just being like, “These are the discrimination experiences I face in my life,” it becomes a bigger conversation about what our greater community of minorities faces.

Intervening Conditions
Intervening conditions represent the broad and general factors that influence strategies based upon action or inaction and may include time, space, culture, history, emotions, and institutions. In this study, Asian American participants described four intervening conditions that either facilitated or created barriers to mobilizing toward thick solidarity with the BLM movement. Intervening conditions were described as having a bidirectional nature with the contextual conditions and action strategies used by participants.

Affective Responses
Participants described how feelings of “fear,” “anger,” “helplessness,” “empathy,” and “compassion” intersected with George Floyd’s murder, experiences of COVID-19–related anti-Asian discrimination, alignment with personal and community values, awareness and knowledge, and perspectives of oppression. Nearly every participant identified how they had “struggled” with, “overcome,” or “witnessed” how Asian Americans become paralyzed by fears of “taking up space,” “being too privileged,” or “not sharing the same intensity of oppression as Black Americans.” June described how some AAPIs become too overwhelmed by their privilege to engage in activism:

I so often hear them [AAPIs] say, “I want to help, but I can’t do anything. I can’t, I can’t. I don’t feel it’s in my place because I’m not Black. I feel like my voice doesn’t matter in this situation because I don’t suffer in the way that they [Black Americans] do.” I’ve seen so many excuses about how their voices are too privileged to matter, and it’s not true.

Annie, a Vietnamese woman in her early 30s, explained how fear can limit action:

They [AAPIs] fear that if they stand with the Black community, they will be ousted, attacked, treated differently, and looked down upon. I’ve seen a lot of fears that family would disown them if they become more vocal about Black Lives Matter because the older generation is very stuck in their own mindset of teaching the younger generations, you know, “You keep your head down, you go to school, you make a life for yourself, you don’t make waves, because it will only ruin your life.” I’ve seen a lot of people say that they can’t be as vocal because they are only one person.

Intergenerational Conflict
Participants identified intergenerational conflict as the second intervening condition that influenced Asian American action or inaction. Each participant described how Asian Americans and Asian immigrants (especially older individuals) lacked social justice–oriented language and stressed the importance of assimilation, and how those influences affected the shifting realities between first-generation Asian Americans and subsequent generations in their support of the BLM movement. Conversely, Asian Americans who were willing to engage in discussions about racial discrimination and cultivate cross-racial relationships were more likely to mobilize toward thick solidarity with the BLM movement. Participants also described how older Asian Americans and Asian immigrants struggled to grasp the “cultural nuances” that contextualize the history of systemic oppression and police brutality on Black and Brown individuals in America. The cultural barriers for many older Asian immigrants were described by Lin, a transracially adopted Korean woman in her early 30s:

The social justice language that we use when it comes to Black Lives Matter is difficult enough for a White person who is unfamiliar with this terminology. [It’s hard] to try and communicate that across generational lines, especially because a lot of us don’t have the strength in language skills to be able to translate. From what I’ve observed in my parents, they’ve kind of just kept their head down. They stressed assimilation very strongly for their children. It’s that old-school, “don’t rock the boat” mentality. Don’t give them a reason to look at us. Don’t give them a reason to hate us, you know? Don’t do anything to jeopardize this freedom that they worked so hard to achieve [and] that we’re so lucky to have.

Participants also described how first-generation Asian American and Asian immigrants were more likely to be “encapsulated,” “avoid other racial groups,” and “keep to themselves” in ways that prevented the cultivation of meaningful cross-racial relationships and kept them from challenging historical anti-Black sentiments. The importance of connecting with other communities of color to foster empathy and challenge historical anti-Blackness among Asian Americans and Asian immigrants was described by Ira, a multiracial woman in her early 70s:

I think that when older Asians are exposed in even a small way to the African American community, they can understand. But many Asian people stay within people of their own color, and they stay within their own ethnicity and they stay within their own groups. If you stay in your own community and you never see an African American person except [for] what you see on TV, it’s hard to see the similarities and realize that we are not so different.

To complement this notion, Jenny, a multiracial woman in her early 40s, discussed this perspective:

I feel like it’s really common for Asian immigrants not to connect with these situations [of discrimination] that are happening to them, either in individual instances or in bigger systems. They’re not tying them back to racism. I think that for so long, you know, immigrants were just trying to survive. First-generation folks were just trying to keep their head down, stay out of trouble, and survive, and they couldn’t get distracted by thinking about what else was happening around them.

Conditioning of “Privileges” Afforded by White Supremacy
The third intervening condition was coded when participants described how being Asian American represented “conditional,” “unsafe,” and “hyphenated” identities and when proximity to Whiteness elicited confusion about their role in activism. For some participants, the conditioning of “privileges” afforded by White supremacy contributed to action. As described by Evelyn, Whiteness elucidated a system of different racialized experiences:

I begin to wonder how powerful is Whiteness, you know? If I’m not the one being killed in the street, but I’m also experiencing racism, where do I fit into all of this? You begin to question how Asian Americans have been inserted into this narrative. And for me, you begin to wonder like, am I a pawn in this? What is my level of responsibility here? Is there a shared oppression? Yes. Are we all tethered the same way? No.

Participants who struggled to overcome the conditioning of privileges afforded by White supremacy were more likely to vacillate between action and inaction. Monica, a transracially adopted Korean woman in her early 30s, stated the following:

I do feel like for Asians, you’re in this really interesting space. I do actually think I have a lot of privilege. And with that, potentially, some responsibility as a person that essentially has a long-standing visa or passport into Whiteness. I know the language. I know how White people think and act. I feel like I can talk to White people about racism in a way that other people don’t necessarily have access to. But also, I experience racism and I’m also really tired.

Organized Communities
The presence of social media groups; local, regional, national, and international groups; participants’ own Asian American communities; and other communities with shared group identities (e.g., the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender [LGBT] community) were identified by participants as the fourth intervening condition. When organized communities were present, they either hindered or fostered mobilization. Participants who had communities that hindered mobilization described how their families and Asian American communities socialized them “not to rock the boat,” raised them to “keep their head down,” and discouraged “making waves.” Participants who lacked the presence of organized communities described feeling “burned out,” “alone,” and “unsupported.” As reported by Andi, a non-binary Korean person in their late 20s:

I have been fighting alone for years and it’s exhausting. I carry on because our activism is important, but it would be so nice to be able to meet up with other groups, share our experiences, and fill our validation cups, you know? It’s like, there is only so much I can do alone, and I don’t have the support I need to really keep going.

Participants described how communities fostered mobilization by providing the language, structure, resources, validation, and space necessary to begin talking about race and understanding the plight of other communities of color. Communities that fostered mobilization were most frequently described as college and university settings. Jackie, a Chinese and Japanese student in her mid-20s, described how her Asian American community on the university campus fosters action:

I just didn’t want to be by myself and protest alone. It feels good to learn more about why we are doing this and why it is important. Now, I felt like I have learned why it was so important that we as a group are able to rally behind the Black Lives Matter movement. I think community plays a huge part in supporting the BLM movement. It’s not just enough for us as individuals to be moving forward, it’s important that we have an Asian community presence in this battle.

The fostering role of communities in promoting thick solidarity was further described by Trichelle, a Chamorro woman in her late 50s:

I think the college and university experience has helped facilitate an understanding about race, generally, and experiences as Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders, secondarily. They facilitated an ability to see the connections, both the differences and the similarities of how racism has impacted AAPI communities but also how it is linked to the experiences of Black folks. The ability to have the language and to have some kind of infrastructure is critical to mobilize. Mobilization does not happen in the absence of some kind of organizational infrastructure.

To understand this larger process of action, participants in this study described non-action, performative action, or action toward thick solidarity. Participants additionally described how contextual factors, causal conditions, and intervening conditions interacted to influence the type of actions that occurred.

Non-action occurred when Asian American individuals were unable to challenge collectivistic notions of “not rocking the boat,” “not making waves,” and “not causing trouble.” Non-action was also more likely to occur when Asian Americans became overwhelmed by the economic and social privilege afforded to them because of their proximity to Whiteness. Upon considering the distinctness of Black oppression, participants described recognition of how Asian Americans may feel “unable,” “unsupported,” “guilty,” or “ineffective” to engage in action because of burnout; lack of community, validation, support, or resources; or feelings of “privilege guilt.” Participants also described how non-action may occur in older generations and Asian immigrants who may have internalized model minority traits, emphasized the importance of assimilation, remained encapsulated within the Asian American community, or lacked an understanding of systemic racism and social justice language.

Performative or Unhelpful Action
Performative or unhelpful action occurred when Asian American individuals either felt compelled to act to avoid being perceived as anti-Black or because supporting the BLM movement was “trending.” Unhelpful action occurred when Asian American individuals centered their issues in ways that disenfranchised Black issues or centered AAPI voices over Black voices (i.e., Asians4BlackLives). June described an example of how Asian American individuals may engage in performative action: “They’ll say one or two things online, and they’ll be like, ‛Oh, I did my part. I posted #BlackLivesMatter. Look at my profile picture. Look at my Instagram. Look, I posted a couple links for donations.’”

They also explained how centering AAPI voices constituted unhelpful action:

When someone posts “Yellow Peril Stands for Black Lives,” you’re actually overshadowing Black Lives Matter. Taking our title, our movement, and placing it in front of BLM says, “Hey, we’re here. We’re standing with you. Look at us.” That’s not acting in solidarity. It becomes one group saying, “I AM HERE. Here’s my voice for your voice.” We need to make our voices strong for theirs. We are the chorus and they are the lead singers.

Action Toward Thick Solidarity
Action toward thick solidarity occurred when Asian American individuals were able to support the BLM movement without centering AAPI issues or focusing on their own racial trauma histories. Demonstrating a willingness to learn how to be an ally and cultivating cultural humility were effective strategies in transcending action from performative or unhelpful to action toward thick solidarity. Sari, a Chinese and Lebanese woman in her early 30s, described the process of acting toward solidarity and the importance of communities that foster mobilization:

Solidarity to me is not a noun. It is a process that you continue to refine and reflect on and add or subtract things to, and it has a lot to do with your perspective and your approach. And I think a lot of solidarity with others comes from a genuine dedication to building your own community. I think a really important piece of solidarity is that introspection and community building with your own ingroup.

José explained how acting toward thick solidarity requires Asian Americans to follow the lead of Black activists. He tells the following story of how he explained allyship to a friend:

Remember two summers ago when you asked me to help you fix your deck, and I never knew how to work with power tools? The weekend before, I went on the internet and learned basic skills like how to hold a tool and how to be safe. And then when I went to your house, I wore a hard hat. I had everything ready, and I followed your lead and your leadership. That’s how you become an ally. You educate yourself. And when you go to situations you don’t center yourself. You follow the person who has the most experience.

Phenomenon, Consequences, and Core Category
Participants in the study described the process of feeling “primed” to act because of the combined causal conditions of George Floyd’s murder and experiences of COVID-19–related anti-Asian discrimination. Participants were able to mobilize because of the contextual factors of alignment with personal and community values, awareness and knowledge, and perspectives of oppression. The phenomenon of Asian American activists mobilizing in thick solidarity with the BLM movement were influenced by intervening conditions, which included affective responses, intergenerational conflict, conditioning of “privileges” afforded by White supremacy, and organized communities. Each of these conditions and factors interacted to influence non-action, performative or unhelpful action, and action toward thick solidarity.

Participants identified the consequences of pursuing thick solidarity with the Black community as resulting in pathways that facilitate three domains: (a) to promote intraracial and interracial healing, (b) to commit to personal and community values as well as human rights initiatives, and (c) to restructure policies and redistribute power. Within this study, “achieving a collective oppressed identity” occurred most frequently in participant narratives, experiences, and practices and was identified as absolutely critical for mobilization to occur. The core category of achieving a collective oppressed identity arose as a result of George Floyd’s murder, because of experiences of COVID-19–related anti-Asian discrimination, and in the light of awareness and knowledge.


A grounded theory analysis with 25 diverse individuals outlined an emergent process describing how contributing factors mobilized Asian American activists toward thick solidarity with the BLM movement in June and July 2020. Understanding and abstracting this theoretical process is important to embolden other Asian American individuals to engage in collective social action. Components of the emergent process are consistent with the CIIM (Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000) and supplement additional studies that explored AAPI support for the BLM movement (Lee et al., 2020; Merseth, 2018; Yoo et al., 2021). Specifically, the theoretical process that emerged from this study illuminates new findings that indicate how achieving a collective oppressed identity and contextualizing the historical relationship between the Asian American and Black communities are critical to empowering AAPI communities to form racial coalitions (Chang, 2020; J. Ho, 2021). For many participants, understanding this history and becoming more racially conscious propelled their motivations for achieving solidarity and dismantling the forces of White supremacy that oppress all racialized groups. This finding reveals numerous perspectives that value historical context and knowledge as a central factor for AAPI activism, especially in tandem with other communities of color (Museus, 2021; Nicholson et al., 2020).

Participants in the study identified how George Floyd’s murder and their experiences of anti-Asian discrimination resulted in an achieved collective oppressed identity that contributed to their mobilization toward thick solidarity with the BLM movement. This finding is consistent with extant research that hypothesized how ingroup discrimination may cultivate increased empathy, positive attitudes, and a collective sense of greater community (Craig & Richeson, 2012; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). The ways that causal conditions identified in this study led to a collective oppressed identity may further be explained through the lens of the CIIM model (Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000), which posits that experiences of racial discrimination can engender positive attitudes and feelings of closeness to other racial minorities. The findings of the study additionally complement earlier studies on AAPI support for BLM that identified race-based linked fate beliefs among Asian Americans as a predictor of BLM support (Merseth, 2018), and an ethnography that identified the importance of organized educational communities for Southeast Asian Americans engaging in activism (Lee et al., 2020). Another possibility may be that participants in the study achieved a dual identity. As explained by Gaertner and colleagues (1994), dual identity occurs when individuals perceive themselves as members of different ethnic or racial groups “playing on the same team” (p. 227)—in this case, to dismantle the forces of White supremacy that continue to oppress all communities of color. The findings from the present study further elaborate on processes that may outline how anti-Asian discrimination can create the impetus for mobilizing in thick solidarity with the Black community (Anand & Hsu, 2020; Li & Nicholson, 2021; R. Liu & Shange, 2018; W. Liu, 2018).

Implications From the Study
The findings from this study can be used by mental health professionals and counselor educators to engage in meaningful racial dialogues and foster interracial coalitions. Specifically, professional counselors can employ this grounded theory to help Asian Americans heal from their own racial and intergenerational trauma by supporting other communities of color. The process of action outlined in our study illuminates the importance of promoting awareness and knowledge about the history of Black and AAPI oppression (Chang, 2020; J. Ho, 2021), connecting AAPI individuals to supportive communities (C. D. Chan & Litam, 2021; Yi et al., 2020), and providing helpful resources (e.g., Letters for Black Lives) and strategies (e.g., exposure and connection with other communities of color) to navigate cultural barriers (Arora & Stout, 2019).

Mental health professionals and social justice advocates can apply these findings to promote engagement in community organizing efforts of AAPI communities with the BLM movement, denounce anti-Blackness, and uphold culpability in supporting the Black community. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, AAPI individuals may experience greater rates of racial discrimination and anti-Asian rhetoric in ways that negatively impact their well-being (C. D. Chan & Litam, 2021; Jeung & Nham, 2020; Litam, 2020; Litam & Oh, 2020, 2021; Litam et al., 2021). Mental health professionals can validate these experiences of oppression and help clients redirect affective experiences in ways that promote awareness and knowledge (David et al., 2019; Museus, 2021), challenge proximity to Whiteness (Poon et al., 2016; Yi et al., 2020), and cultivate meaningful action in racial solidarity movements (Chang, 2020; Litam, 2021; Yoo et al., 2021). Helping Asian American individuals find communities that foster action toward thick solidarity with BLM and exploring how affective experiences influence accountability may be helpful in garnering support. For example, mental health professionals can explore whether limited perspectives of oppression and assimilation strategies may result in inaction or performative action, especially in directly challenging Whiteness (Chang, 2020; Yoon et al., 2016) or intentionally taking accountability for harboring anti-Black sentiments (Museus, 2021). This consideration is especially crucial as AAPIs build long-term solidarity as a proactive approach to Black solidarity rather than a temporary measure. Finally, mental health professionals may encourage AAPI individuals to expand their perspectives to include dual identities as AAPI people and as members of a greater group of oppressed minoritized individuals to foster racial coalitions.

First, participants self-selected into the study with a strong working knowledge of their activist and AAPI identities. Readers must therefore be judicious about transferring these findings to AAPI individuals whose activist and/or racial identities may not be fully developed. Second, participants represented a small sample of a larger Asian American community that endorses varying views about activism, anti-Blackness, and other human rights issues. Notably, the sample only included one person with Pacific Islander heritage. Although the importance of thick solidarity continues to gain traction, readers must caution themselves against interpreting these perspectives as a monolithic viewpoint held by all AAPI individuals.

Recommendations for Future Research
The limitations of the study yield additional opportunities to build upon empirical research that illuminates racial coalitions, particularly among communities of color. With the findings of this study, it would be helpful to elucidate critical developmental points that shift AAPI communities into racial consciousness of White supremacy. This developmental point may be complex, given different histories of regions within the United States, migration histories, acculturation rates, and racial socialization within families. Similarly, White supremacy seeks to homogenize AAPI communities as a single racial group solely characterized by educational and economic success (Museus, 2021).

Built upon the premise of this study, it behooves researchers to address how anti-Blackness persists within AAPI communities (Yi et al., 2020; Yoo et al., 2021). Because only one participant had Pacific Islander heritage in the current study, researchers can further explore how Pacific Islanders may (a) endorse anti-Blackness, (b) experience the nexus of racism and colonialism, and (c) shape their commitments to solidarity with Black communities. Based on the themes underpinning the process toward thick solidarity in the study, it may be beneficial for researchers to consider the institutional conditions of their neighborhoods, communities, schools, and workplaces in promoting racial coalitions. Given that the study’s findings emphasized the importance of awareness and knowledge, it would be helpful to engage in qualitative research that further explores how educators in the P–16 system (i.e., preschool to college) map their curriculum of Asian history to include knowledge of racial coalitions, White supremacy, imperialism, and colonialism. Further research may also examine how counselor educators address the complex and racialized experiences of Asian American and Black communities within graduate coursework. Additionally, it is imperative to expand on research that illuminates Black organizers, activists, and communities in racial solidarity movements and Black-Asian racial coalitions.


The results of a grounded theory with diverse Asian American voices illuminated how causal conditions, contextual factors, intervening conditions, actions, and outcomes mobilized Asian Americans toward solidarity with the BLM movement in 2020. Understanding these conditions are of paramount importance to overcoming anti-Black notions embedded within AAPI ethnic subgroups and challenging systemic forms of racial oppression that impact all communities of color.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.


Anand, D., & Hsu, L. (2020). COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter: Examining anti-Asian racism and anti-Blackness in US education. International Journal of Multidisciplinary Perspectives in Higher Education, 5(1), 190–199.
Arora, M., & Stout, C. T. (2019). Letters for Black Lives: Co-ethnic mobilization and support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Political Research Quarterly, 72(2), 389–402.
Blalock, H. M., Jr. (1967). Toward a theory of minority-group relations. Wiley.
Bonacich, E. (1973). A theory of middleman minorities. American Sociological Review, 38(5), 583–594.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2004). From bi-racial to tri-racial: Towards a new system of racial stratification in the USA. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 27(6), 931–950.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2018). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in America (5th ed.). Rowman & Littlefield.
Brewer, M. B. (2000). Reducing prejudice through cross-categorization: Effects of multiple social identities. In S. Oskamp (Ed.), Reducing prejudice and discrimination (pp. 165–183). Erlbaum.
Chan, C. D., & Litam, S. D. A. (2021). Mental health equity of Filipino communities in COVID-19: A framework for practice and advocacy. The Professional Counselor, 11(1), 73–85.
Chan, S. (1991). Asian Americans: An interpretive history. Twayne.
Chang, B. (2020). From ‘illmatic’ to ‘kung flu’: Black and Asian solidarity, activism, and pedagogies in the COVID-19 era. Postdigital Science and Education, 2(3), 741–756.
Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory (2nd ed.). SAGE.
Charmaz, K. (2017). Special invited paper: Continuities, contradictions, and critical inquiry in grounded theory. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 16(1), 1–8.
Chou, R. S., & Feagin, J. R. (2016). The myth of the model minority: Asian Americans facing racism. Routledge.
Clarke, A. E. (2012). Feminism, grounded theory, and situational analysis revisited. In S. N. Hesse-Biber (Ed.), Handbook of feminist research: Theory and praxis (2nd ed., pp. 388–412). SAGE.
Craig, M. A., & Richeson, J. A. (2012). Coalition or derogation? How perceived discrimination influences intraminority intergroup relations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(4), 759–777.
Creswell, J. W., & Poth, C. N. (2018). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches (4th ed.). SAGE.
David, E. J. R. (2013). Brown skin, White minds: Filipino-/American postcolonial psychology. Information Age Publishing.
David, E. J. R., & Okazaki, S. (2006a). Colonial mentality: A review and recommendation for Filipino American psychology. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 12(1), 1–16.
David, E. J. R., & Okazaki, S. (2006b). The Colonial Mentality Scale (CMS) for Filipino Americans: Scale construction and psychological implications. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53(2), 241–252.
David, E. J. R., Schroeder, T. M., & Fernandez, J. (2019). Internalized racism: A systematic review of the psychological literature on racism’s most insidious consequence. Journal of Social Issues, 75(4), 1057–1086.
Elias, A., Ben, J., Mansouri, F., & Paradies, Y. (2021). Racism and nationalism during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 44(5), 783–793.
Fanon, F. (1952). Black skin, White masks. Grove Press.
Gaertner, S. L., & Dovidio, J. F. (2000). Reducing intergroup bias: The common ingroup identity model. Psychology Press.
Gaertner, S. L., Rust, M. C., Dovidio, J. F., Bachman, B. A., & Anastasio, P. A. (1994). The contact hypothesis: The role of a common ingroup identity on reducing intergroup bias. Small Group Research, 25(2), 224–249.
Gergen, K. J. (2020). Constructionist theory and the blossoming of practice. In S. McNamee, M. M. Gergen, C. Camargo-Borges, & E. F. Rasera (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of social constructionist practice (pp. 3–14). SAGE.
Gergen, M. (2020). Practices of inquiry: Invitation to innovation. In S. McNamee, M. M. Gergen, C. Camargo-Borges, & E. F. Rasera (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of social constructionist practice (pp. 17–23). SAGE.
Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1989). Fourth generation evaluation. SAGE.
Haney López, I. (2006). White by law: The legal construction of race (10th ed.). New York University Press.
Hays, D. G., & Singh, A. A. (2012). Qualitative inquiry in clinical and educational settings. Guilford.
Ho, F., & Mullen, B. V. (Eds.). (2008). Afro Asian: Revolutionary political and cultural connections between African Americans and Asian Americans. Duke University Press.
Ho, J. (2021). Anti-Asian racism, Black Lives Matter, and COVID-19. Japan Forum, 33(1), 148–159.
Jeung, R., & Nham, K. (2020). Incidents of coronavirus-related discrimination. Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council.
Khan-Cullors, P., & Bandele, A. (2017). When they call you a terrorist: A Black Lives Matter memoir. St. Martin’s Publishing Company.
Kim, C. J. (1999). The racial triangulation of Asian Americans. Politics Society, 27(1), 105–138.
Lebron, C. J. (2017). The making of Black Lives Matter: A brief history of an idea. Oxford University Press.
Lee, S. J., Xiong, C. P., Pheng, L. M., & Vang, M. N. (2020). “Asians for Black Lives, not Asians for Asians”: Building Southeast Asian American and Black solidarity. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 51(4), 405–421.
Li, Y., & Nicholson, H. L., Jr. (2021). When “model minorities” become “yellow peril”—Othering and the racialization of Asian Americans in the COVID-19 pandemic. Sociology Compass, 15(2), 1–13.
Litam, S. D. A. (2020). “Take your Kung-Flu back to Wuhan”: Counseling Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders with race-based trauma related to COVID-19. The Professional Counselor, 10(2), 144–156.
Litam, S. D. A. (2021). Rocking the boat: A call for Asian American and Pacific Islander counselors to make waves. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 43(3), 273–276.
Litam, S. D. A., & Chan, C. D. (2021). Breaking the bamboo ceiling: Practical strategies for Asian American and Pacific Islander counselor educators. Counselor Education and Supervision, 60(3), 174–189.
Litam, S. D. A., & Oh, S. (2020). Ethnic identity and coping strategies as moderators of COVID-19 racial discrimination experiences among Chinese Americans. Counseling Outcome Research and Evaluation.
Litam, S. D. A., & Oh, S. (2021). Effects of COVID-19 racial discrimination on depression and life satisfaction among young, middle, and older Chinese Americans. Adultspan Journal, 20(2), 70–84.
Litam, S. D. A., Oh, S., & Chang, C. (2021). Resilience and coping as moderators of stress-related growth in Asians and AAPI during COVID-19. The Professional Counselor, 11(2), 248–266.
Liu, R., & Shange, S. (2018). Toward thick solidarity: Theorizing empathy in social justice movements. Radical History Review, 131, 189–198.
Liu, W. (2018). Complicity and resistance: Asian American body politics in Black Lives Matter. Journal of Asian American Studies, 21(3), 421–451.
Mendoza, R. L. (2014). The skin whitening industry in the Philippines. Journal of Public Health Policy, 35, 219–238.
Merseth, J. L. (2018). Race-ing solidarity: Asian Americans and support for Black Lives Matter. Politics, Groups, and Identities, 6(3), 337–356.
Miles, M. B., Huberman, A. M., & Saldaña, J. (2020). Qualitative data analysis: A methods sourcebook (4th ed.). SAGE.
Museus, S. D. (2021). The centrality of critical agency: How Asian American college students develop commitments to social justice. Teachers College Record, 123(1), 1–38.
Nadal, K. L. (2021). Filipino American psychology: A handbook of theory, research, and clinical practice (2nd ed.). Wiley.
Nicholson, H. L., Jr., Carter, J. S., & Restar, A. (2020). Strength in numbers: Perceptions of political commonality with African Americans among Asians and Asian Americans in the United States. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 6(1), 107–122.
Oh, A. E. (2010). An issue of time and place: The truth behind Korean Americans’ connection to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Asian American Policy Review, 19, 39–48.
Pavlenko, A. (2002). ‘We have room for but one language here’: Language and national identity in the US at the turn of the 20th century. Multilingua, 21(2–3), 163–196.
Pendakur, S. L., & Pendakur, V. (2016). Beyond boba tea and samosas: A call for Asian American race consciousness. In S. D. Museus, A. Agbayani, & D. M. Ching (Eds.), Focusing on the underserved: Immigrant, refugee, and Indigenous Asian American and Pacific Islanders in higher education (pp. 55–72). Information Age Publishing.
Petrola, J. P., Ledesma, J., Venturillo, C. P., Del Rosario, K. E., & Isidro, R. (2020). The will to self-determination: Understanding the life of Ati people in Aklan, Philippines. Journal of Critical Reviews, 7(11), 218–222.
Poon, O. A., Segoshi, M. S., Tang, L., Surla, K. L., Nguyen, C., & Squire, D. D. (2019). Asian Americans, affirmative action, and the political economy of racism: A multidimensional model of raceclass frames. Harvard Educational Review, 89(2), 201–226.
Poon, O., Squire, D., Kodama, C., Byrd, A., Chan, J., Manzano, L., Furr, S., & Bishundat, D. (2016). A critical review of the model minority myth in selected literature on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in higher education. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 469–502.
Rafael, V. L. (2000). White love and other events in Filipino history. Duke University Press.
Saldaña, J. (2021). The coding manual for qualitative researchers (4th ed.). SAGE.
Sharma, N. (2018). The racial studies project: Asian American studies and the Black Lives Matter campus. In C. J. Schlund-Vials (Ed.), Flashpoints for Asian American studies (pp. 48–65). Fordham University Press.
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–47). Brooks Cole.
Taylor, K.-Y. (2016). From #BlackLivesMatter to Black liberation. Haymarket Books.
Timonen, V., Foley, G., & Conlon, C. (2018). Challenges when using grounded theory: A pragmatic introduction to doing GT research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 17(1), 1–10.
Tran, N., Nakamura, N., Kim, G. S., Khera, G. S., & AhnAllen, J. M. (2018). #APIsforBlackLives: Unpacking the interracial discourse on the Asian American Pacific Islander and Black communities. Community Psychology in Global Perspective, 4(2), 73–84.
Xu, J., & Lee, J. C. (2013). The marginalized “model” minority: An empirical examination of the racial triangulation of Asian Americans. Social Forces, 91(4), 1363–1397.
Yamashita, R. C., & Park, P. (1985). The politics of race: The open door, Ozawa and the case of the Japanese in America. Review of Radical Political Economics, 17(3), 135–156.
Yi, V., Mac, J., Na, V. S., Venturanza, R. J., Museus, S. D., Buenavista, T. L., & Pendakur, S. L. (2020). Toward an anti-imperialistic critical race analysis of the model minority myth. Review of Educational Research, 90(4), 542–579.
Yoo, H. C., Atkin, A. L., Seaton, E. K., Gabriel, A. K., & Parks, S. J. (2021). Development of a support for Black Lives Matter measure among racially–ethnically diverse college students. American Journal of Community Psychology, 68(1–2), 100–113.
Yoon, I.-J. (1997). On my own: Korean businesses and race relations in America. University of Chicago Press.

Stacey Diane Arañez Litam, PhD, NCC, CCMHC, LPCC-S, is an assistant professor at Cleveland State University. Christian D. Chan, PhD, NCC, is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Correspondence may be addressed to Stacey Litam, 2121 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, OH 44115,

Research Identity Development of Counselor Education Doctoral Students: A Grounded Theory

Dodie Limberg, Therese Newton, Kimberly Nelson, Casey A. Barrio Minton, John T. Super, Jonathan Ohrt


We present a grounded theory based on interviews with 11 counselor education doctoral students (CEDS) regarding their research identity development. Findings reflect the process-oriented nature of research identity development and the influence of program design, research content knowledge, experiential learning, and self-efficacy on this process. Based on our findings, we emphasize the importance of mentorship and faculty conducting their own research as a way to model the research process. Additionally, our theory points to the need for increased funding for CEDS in order for them to be immersed in the experiential learning process and research courses being tailored to include topics specific to counselor education.

Keywords: grounded theory, research identity development, counselor education doctoral students, mentoring, experiential


     Counselor educators’ professional identity consists of five primary roles: counseling, teaching, supervision, research, and leadership and advocacy (Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs [CACREP], 2015). Counselor education doctoral programs are tasked with fostering an understanding of these roles in future counselor educators (CACREP, 2015). Transitions into the counselor educator role have been described as life-altering and associated with increased levels of stress, self-doubt, and uncertainty (Carlson et al., 2006; Dollarhide et al., 2013; Hughes & Kleist, 2005; Protivnak & Foss, 2009); however, little is known about specific processes and activities that assist programs to intentionally cultivate transitions into these identities.

Although distribution of faculty roles varies depending on the type of position and institution, most academic positions require some level of research or scholarly engagement. Still, only 20% of counselor educators are responsible for producing the majority of publications within counseling journals, and 19% of counselor educators have not published in the last 6 years (Lambie et al., 2014). Borders and colleagues (2014) found that the majority of application-based research courses in counselor education doctoral programs (e.g., qualitative methodology, quantitative methodology, sampling procedures) were taught by non-counseling faculty members, while counseling faculty members were more likely to teach conceptual or theoretical research courses. Further, participants reported that non-counseling faculty led application-based courses because there were no counseling faculty members who were well qualified to instruct such courses (Borders et al., 2014).

To assist counselor education doctoral students’ (CEDS) transition into the role of emerging scholar, Carlson et al. (2006) recommended that CEDS become active in scholarship as a supplement to required research coursework. Additionally, departmental culture, mentorship, and advisement have been shown to reduce rates of attrition and increase feelings of competency and confidence in CEDS (Carlson et al., 2006; Dollarhide et al., 2013; Protivnak & Foss, 2009). However, Borders et al. (2014) found that faculty from 38 different CACREP-accredited programs reported that just over half of the CEDS from these programs became engaged in research during their first year, with nearly 8% not becoming involved in research activity until their third year. Although these experiences assist CEDS to develop as doctoral students, it is unclear which of these activities are instrumental in cultivating a sound research identity (RI) of CEDS. Understanding how RI is cultivated throughout doctoral programs may provide ways to enhance research within the counseling profession. Understanding this developmental process will inform methods for improving how counselor educators prepare CEDS for their professional roles.

Research Identity
     Research identity is an ambiguous term within the counseling literature, with definitions that broadly conceptualize the construct in terms of beliefs, attitudes, and efficacy related to scholarly research, along with a conceptualization of one’s own overall professional identity (Jorgensen & Duncan, 2015; Lamar & Helm, 2017; Ponterotto & Grieger, 1999; Reisetter et al., 2011). Ponterotto and Grieger (1999) described RI as how one views oneself as a scholar or researcher, noting that research worldview (i.e., the lens through which they view, approach, and manage the process of research) impacts how individuals conceptualize, conduct, and interpret results. This perception and interpretation of research as important to RI is critical to consider, as it is common practice for CEDS to enter doctoral studies with limited research experience. Additionally, many CEDS enter into training with a strong clinical identity (Dollarhide et al., 2013), but coupled with the void of research experience or exposure, CEDS may perceive research as disconnected and separate from counseling practice (Murray, 2009). Furthermore, universities vary in the support (e.g., graduate assistant, start-up funds, course release, internal grants) they provide faculty to conduct research.

The process of cultivating a strong RI may be assisted through wedding science and practice (Gelso et al., 2013) and aligning research instruction with values and theories often used in counseling practice (Reisetter et al., 2011). More specifically, Reisetter and colleagues (2011) found that cultivation of a strong RI was aided when CEDS were able to use traditional counseling skills such as openness, reflexive thinking, and attention to cognitive and affective features while working alongside research “participants” rather than conducting studies on research “subjects.” Counseling research is sometimes considered a practice limited to doctoral training and faculty roles, perhaps perpetuating the perception that counseling research and practice are separate and distinct phenomena (Murray, 2009). Mobley and Wester (2007) found that only 30% of practicing clinicians reported reading and integrating research into their work; therefore, early introduction to research may also aid in diminishing the research–practice gap within the counseling profession. The cultivation of a strong RI may begin through exposure to research and scholarly activity at the master’s level (Gibson et al., 2010). More recently, early introduction to research activity and counseling literature at the master’s level is supported within the 2016 CACREP Standards (2015), specifically the infusion of current literature into counseling courses (Standard 2.E.) and training in research and program evaluation (Standard 2.F.8.). Therefore, we may see a shift in the research–practice gap based on these included standards in years to come.

Jorgensen and Duncan (2015) used grounded theory to better understand how RI develops within master’s-level counseling students (n = 12) and clinicians (n = 5). The manner in which participants viewed research, whether as separate from their counselor identity or as fluidly woven throughout, influenced the development of a strong RI. Further, participants’ views and beliefs about research were directly influenced by external factors such as training program expectations, messages received from faculty and supervisors, and academic course requirements. Beginning the process of RI development during master’s-level training may support more advanced RI development for those who pursue doctoral training.

Through photo elicitation and individual interviews, Lamar and Helm (2017) sought to gain a deeper understanding of CEDS’ RI experiences. Their findings highlighted several facets of the internal processes associated with RI development, including inconsistency in research self-efficacy, integration of RI into existing identities, and finding methods of contributing to the greater good through research. The role of external support during the doctoral program was also a contributing factor to RI development, with multiple participants noting the importance of family and friend support in addition to faculty support. Although this study highlighted many facets of RI development, much of the discussion focused on CEDS’ internal processes, rather than the role of specific experiences within their doctoral programs.

Research Training Environment
     Literature is emerging related to specific elements of counselor education doctoral programs that most effectively influence RI. Further, there is limited research examining individual characteristics of CEDS that may support the cultivation of a strong RI. One of the more extensively reviewed theories related to RI cultivation is the belief that the research training environment, specifically the program faculty, holds the most influence and power over the strength of a doctoral student’s RI (Gelso et al., 2013). Gelso et al. (2013) also hypothesized that the research training environment directly affects students’ research attitudes, self-efficacy, and eventual productivity. Additionally, Gelso et al. outlined factors in the research training environment that influence a strong RI, including (a) appropriate and positive faculty modeling of research behaviors and attitudes, (b) positive reinforcement of student scholarly activities, (c) the emphasis of research as a social and interpersonal activity, and (d) emphasizing all studies as imperfect and flawed. Emphasis on research as a social and interpersonal activity consistently received the most powerful support in cultivating RI. This element of the research training environment may speak to the positive influence of working on research teams or in mentor and advising relationships (Gelso et al., 2013).

To date, there are limited studies that have addressed the specific doctoral program experiences and personal characteristics of CEDS that may lead to a strong and enduring RI. The purpose of this study was to: (a) gain a better understanding of CEDS’ RI development process during their doctoral program, and (b) identify specific experiences that influenced CEDS’ development as researchers. The research questions guiding the investigation were: 1) How do CEDS understand RI? and 2) How do CEDS develop as researchers during their doctoral program?


     We used grounded theory design for our study because of the limited empirical data about how CEDS develop an RI. Grounded theory provides researchers with a framework to generate a theory from the context of a phenomenon and offers a process to develop a model to be used as a theoretical foundation (Charmaz, 2014; Corbin & Strauss, 2008). Prior to starting our investigation, we received IRB approval for this study.

Research Team and Positionality
     The core research team consisted of one Black female in the second year of her doctoral program, one White female in the first year of her doctoral program, and one White female in her third year as an assistant professor. A White male in his sixth year as an assistant professor participated as the internal auditor, and a White male in his third year as a clinical assistant professor participated as the external auditor. Both doctoral students had completed two courses that covered qualitative research design, and all three faculty members had experience utilizing grounded theory. Prior to beginning our work together, we discussed our beliefs and experiences related to RI development. All members of the research team were in training to be or were counselor educators and researchers, and we acknowledged this as part of our positionality. We all agreed that we value research as part of our roles as counselor educators, and we discussed our beliefs that the primary purpose of pursuing a doctoral degree is to gain skills as a researcher rather than an advanced counselor. We acknowledged the strengths that our varying levels of professional experiences provided to our work on this project, and we also recognized the power differential within the research team; thus, we added auditors to help ensure trustworthiness. All members of the core research team addressed their biases and judgments regarding participants’ experiences through bracketing and memoing to ensure that participants’ voices were heard with as much objectivity as possible (Hays & Wood, 2011). We recorded our biases and expectations in a meeting prior to data collection. Furthermore, we continued to discuss assumptions and biases in order to maintain awareness of the influence we may have on data analysis (Charmaz, 2014). Our assumptions included (a) the influence of length of time in a program, (b) the impact of mentoring, (c) how participants’ research interests would mirror their mentors’, (d) that beginning students may not be able to articulate or identify the difference between professional identity and RI, (e) that CEDS who want to pursue academia may identify more as researchers than in other roles (i.e., teaching, supervision), and (f) that coursework and previous experience would influence RI. Each step of the data analysis process provided us the opportunity to revisit our biases.

Participants and Procedure
     Individuals who were currently enrolled in CACREP-accredited counselor education and supervision doctoral programs were eligible for participation in the study. We used purposive sampling (Glesne, 2011) to strategically contact eight doctoral program liaisons at CACREP-accredited doctoral programs via email to identify potential participants. The programs were selected to represent all regions and all levels of Carnegie classification. The liaisons all agreed to forward an email that included the purpose of the study and criteria for participation. A total of 11 CEDS responded to the email, met selection criteria, and participated in the study. We determined that 11 participants was an adequate sample size considering data saturation was reached during the data analysis process (Creswell, 2007). Participants represented eight different CACREP-accredited doctoral programs across six states. At the time of the interviews, three participants were in the first year of their program, five were in their second year, and three were in their third year. To prevent identification of participants, we report demographic data in aggregate form. The sample included eight women and three men who ranged in age from 26–36 years (M = 30.2). Six participants self-identified as White (non-Hispanic), three as multiracial, one as Latinx, and one as another identity not specified. All participants held a master’s degree in counseling; they entered their doctoral programs with 0–5 years of post-master’s clinical experience (M = 1.9). Eight participants indicated a desire to pursue a faculty position, two indicated a desire to pursue academia while also continuing clinical work, and one did not indicate a planned career path. Of those who indicated post-doctoral plans, seven participants expected to pursue a faculty role within a research-focused institution and three indicated a preference for a teaching-focused institution. All participants had attended and presented at a state or national conference within the past 3 years, with the number of presentations ranging from three to 44 (M = 11.7). Nine participants had submitted manuscripts to peer-reviewed journals and had at least one manuscript published or in press. Finally, four participants had received grant funding.

Data Collection
     We collected data through a demographic questionnaire and semi-structured individual interviews. The demographic questionnaire consisted of nine questions focused on general demographic characteristics (i.e., gender, age, race, and education). Additionally, we asked questions focused on participants’ experiences as researchers (i.e., professional organization affiliations, service, conference presentations, publications, and grant experience). These questions were used to triangulate the data. The semi-structured interviews consisted of eight open-ended questions asked in sequential order to promote consistency across participants (Heppner et al., 2016) and we developed them from existing literature. Examples of questions included: 1) How would you describe your research identity? 2) Identify or talk about things that happened during your doctoral program that helped you think of yourself as a researcher, and 3) Can you talk about any experiences that have created doubts about adopting the identity of a researcher? The two doctoral students on the research team conducted the interviews via phone. Interviews lasted approximately 45–60 minutes and were audio recorded. After all interviews were conducted, a member of the research team transcribed the interviews.

Data Analysis and Trustworthiness
     We followed grounded theory data analysis procedures outlined by Corbin and Strauss (2008). Prior to data analysis, we recorded biases, read through all of the data, and discussed the coding process to ensure consistency. We followed three steps of coding: 1) open coding, 2) axial coding, and 3) selective coding. Our first step of data analysis was open coding. We read through the data several times and then started to create tentative labels for chunks of data that summarized what we were reading. We recorded examples of participants’ words and established properties of each code. We then coded line-by-line together using the first participant transcript in order to have opportunities to check in and share and compare our open codes. Then we individually coded the remainder of the participants and came back together as a group to discuss and memo. We developed a master list of 184 open codes.

Next, we moved from inductive to deductive analysis using axial coding to identify relationships among the open codes. We identified relationships among the open codes and grouped them into categories. Initially we created a list of 55 axial codes, but after examining the codes further, we made a team decision to collapse them to 19 axial codes that were represented as action-oriented tasks within our theory (see Table 1).

Last, we used selective coding to identify core variables that include all of the data. We found that two factors and four subfactors most accurately represent the data (see Figure 1). The auditor was involved in each step of coding and provided feedback throughout. To enhance trustworthiness and manage bias when collecting and analyzing the data, we applied several strategies: (a) we recorded memos about our ideas about the codes and their relationships (i.e., reflexivity; Morrow, 2005); (b) we used investigator triangulation (i.e., involving multiple investigators to analyze the data independently, then meeting together to discuss; Archibald, 2015); (c) we included an internal and external auditor to evaluate the data (Glesne, 2011; Hays & Wood, 2011); (d) we conducted member checking by sending participants their complete transcript and summary of the findings, including the visual (Creswell & Miller, 2000); and (e) we used multiple sources of data (i.e., survey questions on the demographic form; Creswell, 2007) to triangulate the data.


Table 1

List of Factors and Subfactors

Factor 1: Research Identity Formation as a Process

unable to articulate what research identity is

linking research identity to their research interests or connecting it to their professional experiences

associating research identity with various methodologies

identifying as a researcher

understanding what a research faculty member does

Factor 2: Value and Interest in Research

desiring to conduct research

aspiring to maintain a degree of research in their future role

making a connection between research and practice and contributing to the counseling field

Subfactor 1: Intentional Program Design

implementing an intentional curriculum

developing a research culture (present and limited)

active faculty mentoring and modeling of research

Subfactor 2: Research Content Knowledge

understanding research design

building awareness of the logistics of a research study

learning statistics

Subfactor 3: Research Experiential Learning

engaging in scholarly activities

conducting independent research

having a graduate research assistantship

Subfactor 4: Research Self-Efficacy

receiving external validation

receiving growth-oriented feedback (both negative and positive)


Figure 1

Model of CEDS’ Research Identity Development



Data analysis resulted in a grounded theory composed of two main factors that support the overall process of RI development among CEDS: (a) RI formation as a process and (b) value and interest in research. The first factor is the foundation of our theory because it describes RI development as an ongoing, formative process. The second main factor, value and interest in research, provides an interpersonal approach to RI development in which CEDS begin to embrace “researcher” as a part of who they are.

Our theory of CEDS’ RI development is represented visually in Figure 1. At each axis of the figure, the process of RI is represented longitudinally, and the value and interest in research increases during the process. The four subfactors (i.e., program design, content knowledge, experiential learning, and self-efficacy) contribute to each other but are also independent components that influence the process and the value and interest. Each subfactor is represented as an upward arrow, which supports the idea within our theory that each subfactor increases through the formation process. Each of these subfactors includes components that are specific action-oriented tasks (see Table 1). In order to make our findings relevant and clear, we have organized them by the two research questions that guided our study. To bring our findings to life, we describe the two major factors, four subfactors, and action-oriented tasks using direct quotes from the participants.

Research Question 1: How Do CEDS Describe RI?
     Two factors supported this research question: RI formation as a process and value and interest in research.

Factor 1: Research Identity Formation as a Process
     Within this factor we identified five action-oriented tasks: (a) being unable to articulate what research identity is, (b) linking research identity to their research interests or connecting it to their professional experiences, (c) associating research identity with various methodologies, (d) identifying as a researcher, and (e) understanding what a research faculty member does. Participants described RI as a formational process. Participant 10 explained, “I still see myself as a student. . . . I still feel like I have a lot to learn and I am in the process of learning, but I have a really good foundation from the practical experiences I have had [in my doctoral program].” When asked how they would describe RI, many were unable to articulate what RI is, asking for clarification or remarking on how they had not been asked to consider this before. Participants often linked RI to their research interests or professional experiences. For example, Participant 11 said, “in clinical practice, I centered around women and women issues. Feminism has come up as a product of other things being in my PhD program, so with my dissertation, my topic is focused on feminism.” Several participants associated RI with various methodologies, including Participant 7: “I would say you know in terms of research methodology and what not, I strongly align with quantitative research. I am a very quantitative-minded person.” Some described this formational process as the transition to identifying as a researcher:

I actually started a research program in my university, inviting or matching master’s students who were interested in certain research with different research projects that were available. So that was another way of me kind of taking on some of that mentorship role in terms of research. (Participant 9)

As their RI emerged, participants understood what research-oriented faculty members do:

Having faculty talk about their research and their process of research in my doc program has been extremely helpful. They talk about not only what they are working on but also the struggles of their process and so they don’t make it look glamorous all the time. (Participant 5)

Factor 2: Value and Interest in Research
     All participants talked about the value and increased interest in research as they went through their doctoral program. We identified three action-oriented tasks within this factor: (a) desiring to conduct research, (b) aspiring to maintain a degree of research in their future role, and (c) making a connection between research and practice and contributing to the counseling field. Participant 6 described, “Since I have been in the doctoral program, I have a bigger appreciation for the infinite nature of it (research).” Participants spoke about an increased desire to conduct research; for example, “research is one of the most exciting parts of being a doc student, being able to think of a new project and carrying out the steps and being able to almost discover new knowledge” (Participant 1). All participants aspired to maintain a degree of research in future professional roles after completion of their doctoral programs regardless of whether they obtained a faculty role at a teaching-focused or research-focused university. For example, Participant 4 stated: “Even if I go into a teaching university, I have intentions in continuing very strongly my research and keeping that up. I think it is very important and it is something that I like doing.” Additionally, participants started to make the connection between research and practice and contributing to the counseling profession:

I think research is extremely important because that is what clinicians refer to whenever they have questions about how to treat their clients, and so I definitely rely upon research to understand views in the field and I value it myself so that I am more well-rounded as an educator. (Participant 6)

Research Question 2: How Do CEDS Develop Their RI During Their Doctoral Program?
     The following four subfactors provided a description of how CEDS develop RI during their training: intentional program design, research content knowledge, research experiential learning, and research self-efficacy. Each subfactor contains action-oriented tasks.

Subfactor 1: Intentional Program Design
     Participants discussed the impact the design of their doctoral program had on their development as researchers. They talked about three action-oriented tasks: (a) implementing an intentional curriculum, (b) developing a research culture (present and limited), and (c) active faculty mentoring and modeling of research. Participants appreciated the intentional design of the curriculum. For example, Participant 5 described how research was highlighted across courses: “In everything that I have had to do in class, there is some form of needing to produce either a proposal or being a good consumer of research . . . it [the value of research] is very apparent in every course.” Additionally, participants talked about the presence or lack of a research culture. For example, Participant 2 described how “at any given time, I was working on two or three projects,” whereas Participant 7 noted that “gaining research experience is not equally or adequately provided to our doctoral students.” Some participants discussed being assigned a mentor, and others talked about cultivating an organic mentoring relationship through graduate assistantships or collaboration with faculty on topics of interest. However, all participants emphasized the importance of faculty mentoring:

I think definitely doing research with the faculty member has helped quite a bit, especially doing the analysis that I am doing right now with the chair of our program has really helped me see research in a new light, in a new way, and I have been grateful for that. (Participant 1)

The importance of modeling of research was described in terms of faculty actually conducting their own research. For example, Participant 11 described how her professor “was conducting a research study and I was helping her input data and write and analyze the data . . . that really helped me grapple with what research looks like and is it something that I can do.” Participant 10 noted how peers conducting research provided a model:

Having that peer experience (a cohort) of getting involved in research and knowing again that we don’t have to have all of the answers and we will figure it out and this is where we all are, that was also really helpful for me and developing more confidence in my ability to do this [research].

Subfactor 2: Research Content Knowledge
     All participants discussed the importance of building their research content knowledge. Research content knowledge consisted of three action-oriented tasks: (a) understanding research design, (b) building awareness of the logistics of a research study, and (c) learning statistics. Participant 1 described their experience of understanding research design: “I think one of the most important pieces of my research identity is to be well-rounded and [know] all of the techniques in research designs.” Participants also described developing an awareness of the logistics of research study, ranging from getting IRB approval to the challenges of data collection. For example, Participant 9 stated:

Seeing what goes into it and seeing the building blocks of the process and also really getting that chance to really think about the study beforehand and making sure you’re getting all of the stuff to protect your clients, to protecting confidentiality, those kind of things. So I think it is kind of understanding more about the research process and also again what goes into it and what makes the research better.

Participants also explained how learning statistics was important; however, a fear of statistics was a barrier to their learning and development. Participant 2 said, “I thought before I had to be a stats wiz to figure anything out, and I realize now that I just have to understand how to use my resources . . . I don’t have to be some stat wiz to actually do [quantitative research].”

Subfactor 3: Research Experiential Learning
     Research experiential learning describes actual hands-on experiences participants had related to research. Within our theory, three action-oriented tasks emerged from this subfactor: (a) engaging in scholarly activities, (b) conducting independent research, and (c) having a graduate research assistantship. Engaging in scholarly activities included conducting studies, writing for publication, presenting at conferences, and contributing to or writing a grant proposal. Participant 5 described the importance of being engaged in scholarly activities through their graduate assistantship:

I did have a research graduate assistantship where I worked under some faculty and that definitely exposed me to a higher level of research, and being exposed to that higher level of research allowed me to fine tune how I do research. So that was reassuring in some ways and educational.

Participants also described the importance of leading and conducting their own research via dissertation or other experiences during their doctoral program. For example, Participant 9 said:

Starting research projects that were not involving a faculty member I think has also impacted my work a lot, I learned a lot from that process, you know, having to submit [to] an IRB, having to structure the study and figure out what to do, and so again learning from mistakes, learning from experience, and building self-efficacy.

Subfactor 4: Research Self-Efficacy
     The subfactor of research self-efficacy related to the process of participants being confident in identifying themselves and their skills as researchers. We found two action-oriented tasks related to research self-efficacy: (a) receiving external validation and (b) receiving growth-oriented feedback (both negative and positive). Participant 3 described their experience of receiving external validation through sources outside of their doctoral program as helpful in building confidence as a researcher:

I have submitted and have been approved to present at conferences. That has boosted my confidence level to know that they know I am interested in something and I can talk about it . . . that has encouraged me to further pursue research.

Participant 8 explained how receiving growth-oriented feedback on their research supported their own RI development: “People stopped by [my conference presentation] and were interested in what research I was doing. It was cool to talk about it and get some feedback and hear what people think about the research I am doing.”


Previous researchers have found RI within counselor education to be an unclear term (Jorgensen & Duncan, 2015; Lamar & Helm, 2017). Although our participants struggled to define RI, our participants described RI as the process of identifying as a researcher, the experiences related to conducting research, and finding value and interest in research. Consistent with previous findings (e.g., Ponterotto & Grieger, 1999), we found that interest in and value of research is an important part of RI. Therefore, our qualitative approach provided us a way to operationally define CEDS’ RI as a formative process of identifying as a researcher that is influenced by the program design, level of research content knowledge, experiential learning of research, and research self-efficacy.

Our findings emphasize the importance of counselor education and supervision doctoral program design. Similar to previous researchers (e.g., Borders et al., 2019; Carlson et al., 2006; Dollarhide et al., 2013; Protivnak & Foss, 2009), we found that developing a culture of research that includes mentoring and modeling of research is vital to CEDS’ RI development. Lamar and Helm (2017) also noted the valuable role faculty mentorship and engagement in research activities, in addition to research content knowledge, has on CEDS’ RI development. Although Lamar and Helm noted that RI development may be enhanced through programmatic intentionality toward mentorship and curriculum design, they continually emphasized the importance of CEDS initiating mentoring relationships and taking accountability for their own RI development. We agree that individual initiative and accountability are valuable and important characteristics for CEDS to possess; however, we also acknowledge that student-driven initiation of such relationships may be challenging in program cultures that do not support RI or do not provide equitable access to mentoring and research opportunities.

Consistent with recommendations by Gelso et al. (2013) and Borders et al. (2014), building a strong foundation of research content knowledge (e.g., statistics, design) is an important component of CEDS’ RI development. Unlike Borders and colleagues, our participants did not discuss how who taught their statistics courses made a difference. Rather, participants discussed the value of experiential learning (i.e., participating on a research team), and conducting research on their own influenced how they built their content knowledge. This finding is similar to Carlson et al.’s (2006) and supports Borders et al.’s findings regarding the critical importance of early research involvement for CEDS.

Implications for Practice
     Our grounded theory provides a clear, action-oriented model that consists of multiple tasks that can be applied in counselor education doctoral programs. Given our findings regarding the importance of experiential learning, we acknowledge the importance for increased funding to ensure CEDS are able to focus on their studies and immerse themselves in research experiences. Additionally, design of doctoral programs is crucial to how CEDS develop as researchers. Findings highlight the importance of faculty members at all levels being actively involved in their own scholarship and providing students with opportunities to be a part of it. In addition, we recommend intentional attention to mentorship as an explicit program strategy for promoting a culture of research. Findings also support the importance of coursework for providing students with relevant research content knowledge they can use in research and scholarly activities (e.g., study proposal, conceptual manuscript, conference presentation). Additionally, we recommend offering a core of research courses that build upon one another to increase research content knowledge and experiential application. More specifically, this may include a research design course taught by counselor education faculty at the beginning of the program to orient students to the importance of research for practice; such a foundation may help ensure students are primed to apply skills learned in more technical courses. Finally, we suggest that RI development is a process that is never complete; therefore, counselor educators are encouraged to continue to participate in professional development opportunities that are research-focused (e.g., AARC, ACES Inform, Evidence-Based School Counseling Conference, AERA). More importantly, it should be the charge of these organizations to continue to offer high quality trainings on a variety of research designs and advanced statistics.

Implications for Future Research
     Replication or expansion of our study is warranted across settings and developmental levels. Specifically, it would be interesting to examine RI development of pre-tenured faculty and tenured faculty members to see if our model holds or what variations exist between these populations. Or it may be beneficial to assess the variance of RI based on the year a student is in the program (e.g., first year vs. third year). Additionally, further quantitative examination of relationships between each component of our theory would be valuable to understand the relationship between the constructs more thoroughly. Furthermore, pedagogical interventions, such as conducting a scholarship of teaching and learning focused on counselor education doctoral-level research courses, may be valuable in order to support their merit.

     Although we engaged in intentional practices to ensure trustworthiness throughout our study, there are limitations that should be considered. Specifically, all of the authors value and find research to be an important aspect of counselor education and participants self-selected to participate in the research study, which is common practice in most qualitative studies. However, self-selection may present bias in the findings because of the participants’ levels of interest in the topic of research. Additionally, participant selection was based on those who responded to the email and met the criteria; therefore, there was limited selection bias of the participants from the research team. Furthermore, participants were from a variety of programs and their year in their program (e.g., first year) varied; all the intricacies within each program cannot be accounted for and they may contribute to how the participants view research. Finally, the perceived hierarchy (i.e., faculty and students) on the research team may have contributed to the data analysis process by students adjusting their analysis based on faculty input.

     In summary, our study examined CEDS’ experiences that helped build RI during their doctoral program. We interviewed 11 CEDS who were from eight CACREP-accredited doctoral programs from six different states and varied in the year of their program. Our grounded theory reflects the process-oriented nature of RI development and the influence of program design, research content knowledge, experiential learning, and self-efficacy on this process. Based on our findings, we emphasize the importance of mentorship and faculty conducting their own research as ways to model the research process. Additionally, our theory points to the need for increased funding for CEDS in order for them to be immersed in the experiential learning process and research courses being tailored to include topics specific to counselor education and supervision.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.



Archibald, M. (2015). Investigator triangulation: A collaborative strategy with potential for mixed methods research. Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 10(3), 228–250.

Association for Assessment and Research in Counseling. (2019). About us.

Borders, L. D., Gonzalez, L. M., Umstead, L. K., & Wester, K. L. (2019). New counselor educators’ scholarly productivity: Supportive and discouraging environments. Counselor Education and Supervision, 58(4), 293–308.

Borders, L. D., Wester, K. L., Fickling, M. J., & Adamson, N. A. (2014). Research training in CACREP-accredited doctoral programs. Counselor Education and Supervision, 53, 145–160.

Carlson, L. A., Portman, T. A. A., & Bartlett, J. R. (2006). Self-management of career development: Intentionality for counselor educators in training. The Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development, 45(2), 126–137.

Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory (2nd ed.). SAGE.

Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (2008). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (3rd ed.). SAGE.

Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. (2015). 2016 CACREP standards.

Creswell, J. W. (2007). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches (2nd ed.). SAGE.

Creswell, J. W., & Miller, D. L. (2000). Determining validity in qualitative inquiry. Theory Into Practice, 39(3), 124–130.

Dollarhide, C. T., Gibson, D. M., & Moss, J. M. (2013). Professional identity development of counselor education doctoral students. Counselor Education and Supervision, 52(2), 137–150.

Gelso, C. J., Baumann, E. C., Chui, H. T., & Savela, A. E. (2013). The making of a scientist-psychotherapist: The research training environment and the psychotherapist. Psychotherapy, 50(2), 139–149.

Gibson, D. M., Dollarhide, C. T., & Moss, J. M. (2010). Professional identity development: A grounded theory of transformational tasks of new counselors. Counselor Education and Supervision, 50(1), 21–38.

Glesne, C. (2011). Becoming qualitative researchers: An introduction (4th ed.). Pearson.

Hays, D. G., & Wood, C. (2011). Infusing qualitative traditions in counseling research designs. Journal of Counseling & Development, 89(3), 288–295.

Heppner, P. P., Wampold, B. E., Owen, J., Thompson, M. N., & Wang, K. T. (2016). Research design in counseling (4th ed.). Cengage.

Hughes, F. R., & Kleist, D. M. (2005). First-semester experiences of counselor education doctoral students. Counselor Education and Supervision, 45(2), 97–108.

Jorgensen, M. F., & Duncan, K. (2015). A grounded theory of master’s-level counselor research identity. Counselor Education and Development, 54(1), 17–31.

Lamar, M. R., & Helm, H. M. (2017). Understanding the researcher identity development of counselor education and supervision doctoral students. Counselor Education and Supervision, 56(1), 2–18.

Lambie, G. W., Ascher, D. L., Sivo, S. A., & Hayes, B. G. (2014). Counselor education doctoral program faculty members’ refereed article publications. Journal of Counseling & Development, 92(3), 338–346.

Mobley, K., & Wester, K. L. (2007). Evidence-based practices: Building a bridge between researchers and practitioners. Association for Counselor Education and Supervision.

Morrow, S. L. (2005). Quality and trustworthiness in qualitative research in counseling psychology. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52(2), 250–260.

Murray, C. E. (2009). Diffusion of innovation theory: A bridge for the research-practice gap in
counseling. Journal of Counseling & Development, 87(1), 108–116.

Ponterotto, J. G., & Grieger, I. (1999). Merging qualitative and quantitative perspectives in a research identity. In M. Kopala & L. A. Suzuki (Eds.), Using qualitative methods in psychology (pp. 49–62). SAGE.

Protivnak, J. J., & Foss, L. L. (2009). An exploration of themes that influence the counselor education doctoral student experience. Counselor Education and Supervision, 48(4), 239–256.

Reisetter, M., Korcuska, J. S., Yexley, M., Bonds, D., Nikels, H., & McHenry, W. (2011). Counselor educators and qualitative research: Affirming a research identity. Counselor Education and Supervision, 44(1), 2–16.


Dodie Limberg, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of South Carolina. Therese Newton, NCC, is an assistant professor at Augusta University. Kimberly Nelson is an assistant professor at Fort Valley State University. Casey A. Barrio Minton, NCC, is a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. John T. Super, NCC, LMFT, is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Central Florida. Jonathan Ohrt is an associate professor at the University of South Carolina. Correspondence may be addressed to Dodie Limberg, 265 Wardlaw College Main St., Columbia, SC 29201,

Using Grounded Theory to Examine the Readiness of School Counselors to Serve Gang Members

Jennifer Barrow, Stanley B. Baker, Lance D. Fusarelli


The purpose of this grounded theory study was to understand and explain how training and work setting experiences influence readiness of professional school counselors for serving gang members in schools. A purposeful sample consisted of secondary school counselors (n = 5) and school leaders (n = 7) in a southeastern metropolitan school district. Blended themes from the counselors and leaders were: (a) professional development attitudes, (b) actual and potential roles when working with students in gangs, and (c) counselors’ collaborative role in discipline process. The Collaborative C.A.R.E. theory that emerged from the thematic analysis highlighted the absence of collaboration between school counselors and leaders. Specific findings identified reasons for the lack of collaboration and led to recommendations for practice and further research.


Keywords: gang members, school counselors, grounded theory, Collaborative C.A.R.E, discipline


On a daily basis, professional school counselors (PSCs) are expected to engage in a variety of functions in order to enhance the academic, career, personal, and social development of all students (American School Counselor Association [ASCA], 2012b, 2014). Serving all students can be very challenging given the disproportionate number of PSCs to students in the United States and the number of non-counseling functions often imposed on PSCs (Lambie & Williamson, 2004). ASCA (2012a) recommends a counselor-to-student ratio of 1:250. Despite this recommendation, findings have indicated that the accurate ratio is closer to 1:491 (ASCA, n.d.). Responding to the “serve all students” expectation can be even more challenging when attempting to serve gang members, who are considered members of marginalized populations that are excluded from the social, economic, cultural, and political mainstream (McCluskey, Baker, & McCluskey, 2005).


Research on the PSC’s role was conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and much of the research is generalized to include the role of the PSC (both perceived and actual) with little consideration for the contextual differences in jobs (e.g., elementary, middle, high school; Brott & Myers, 1999; Lambie & Williamson, 2004). A paucity of data exists in recent research examining the role of PSCs with specific groups of students based on cultural and environmental contexts, and their role since the introduction of the ASCA National Model. Gang members are students with norms related to language, rituals, and membership (Gibbs, 2000). The presence of gangs in schools reflects a need to examine the role of the PSC in serving this culturally marginalized population.


Gang members are often viewed as outsiders associated with “outlaw organizations” engaged in deviant behaviors (Gibbs, 2000, p. 73). On the other hand, from the inside, members find structure, ritual, and norms specific to their gang structure. This study was designed to attempt to fill these gaps by examining the role of the PSC with a contemporary, marginalized population.

According to the National Gang Intelligence Center (2011), there are approximately 1.4 million active gang members representing more than 33,000 gangs in the United States. This represents a 40% increase compared to data collected in 2009. The data support an assumption that there is an increasing presence of gangs in both rural and urban communities (Brinson, Kottler, & Fisher, 2004). Unfortunately, there are several negative outcomes associated with the presence of gang members in the schools, including harassment, vandalism, aggressive recruitment of new members, irregular attendance, decreased motivation to succeed in school, and criminal activities. Consequently, gang presence can adversely affect the school environment, lower levels of academic achievement, and negatively influence perceptions of safety (Brinson et al., 2004). In and of itself, gang membership is not a crime, and gang members who are enrolled in public schools are eligible for all of the services that other students are receiving, including those offered by PSCs (Kizer, 2012).


As gang membership increases nationally, the presence of gang members will continue to expand in the schools and surrounding communities (Coggeshall & Kingery, 2001; Kingery, Coggeshall, & Alford, 1998). A recent survey of 12- to 18-year-old students indicated that 18% stated there were gangs in their schools (Robers, Kemp, Truman, & Snyder, 2013). This phenomenon will increase the exposure of PSCs to gang activity (Gündüz, 2012; Skovholt & McCarthy, 1988). Because of their training, PSCs appear to be in a unique position conceptually to offer services to gang members and to the schools where gang members are present. Potential resources include individual and group counseling competencies; core curriculum programming knowledge and skills; availability for providing helpful consultations; and the overlying quest to enhance the academic, career, personal, and social development of all students (ASCA, 2012b, 2014).


The first author’s exposure to gangs increased in her role as a PSC. Perceived lack of training and preparation to work with gang members and an absence of professional literature on the role of PSCs with gangs motivated the first author to conduct a preliminary investigation. Participants in the pilot study were PSCs in a southeastern urban public school setting. The pilot study consisted of two phases of inquiry consistent with the grounded theory methodology. Grounded theory generates data based on “participant experiences” (Hays & Singh, 2012, p. 288).


The first phase of the pilot study was a focus group of PSC participants with data being transcribed by the researcher, hand-coded, and analyzed. The second phase consisted of individual interviews completed at the respective job sites of three practicing PSCs. The interviews and observations from the second phase provided further evidence, more variation, and a greater understanding of the role of the PSC working with students in gangs across elementary, middle, and high school settings.


The preliminary investigation suggested further research in the school counseling domain. The participating PSCs appeared to experience ambiguity and lack of decision-making authority related to working with students who are gang members. Decisions on professional development opportunities and the PSC’s role were influenced by school-based leaders, such as principals, whose views tended to focus on disciplinary issues rather than academic, career, personal, and social development with regard to gang members. Consequently, the pilot study revealed a need to further explore the PSC’s role in working with gang members based on perceived and ideal roles, their professional development needs, and the influence of their educational administrators and supervisors.


Although uniquely positioned to offer something of value, there are impediments to fulfilling that role. Developing and defining the role for PSCs continues to be a challenge for PSCs, their school leaders (SLs), and national professional organizations that offer recommended roles for PSCs (Foxx, Baker, & Gerler, 2017; Griffin & Farris, 2010; Shoffner & Williamson, 2000). Some SLs determine the tasks that define the role of their PSCs with little to no input from counselors (Zalaquett & Chatters, 2012). These decisions are not aligned with ASCA’s PSC role recommendations and indicate misunderstandings about how their counselors were trained and failure to collaborate on PSC role definitions (Kirchner & Setchfield, 2005). Collaboration between PSCs and SLs is essential in the development of comprehensive counseling programs designed to support the academic goals of the school (Armstrong, MacDonald, & Stillo, 2010; Foxx et al., 2017; Zalaquett & Chatters, 2012).


An additional challenge is a lack of professional development related to working with gang members after one’s graduate training program. Caldarella, Sharpnack, Loosli, and Merrell (1996) found that many PSCs do not feel adequately trained or equipped to deal with gang activity and gang members in their schools, and almost half of the sample had no training related to gangs. Relatedly, our preliminary investigation found PSCs were trained to recognize the presence of gangs yet knew very little about how to engage with gang members and offer their services. Believing that one is unprepared and not competent to deliver counseling services to gang members may cause feelings of helplessness, apathy, and little or no desire to serve them (Ibrahim, Helms, & Thompson, 1983). As a marginalized population, students in gangs compound the unique challenges PSCs face, including role ambiguity (Burnham & Jackson, 2000), constant changes in student and school characteristics and needs (Reising & Daniels, 1983), and disconnects between training and practice (Brott & Myers, 1999; Lambie & Williamson, 2004).


The purpose of the present grounded theory study was to further understand and explain how training, perceived roles, and work setting experiences (e.g., professional development, working with students in gangs) influenced the readiness of PSCs in a large urban school district to serve gang members. Given the challenges PSCs experience related to serving gang members, the following research questions were derived in order to attempt to explain a conceptual linkage via a grounded theory based on understanding perspectives of a sample of PSCs and SLs via the interplay of context, conditions, and the PSC’s role (Hays & Singh, 2012): How do PSCs and SLs describe perceived and actual roles of PSCs regarding services to gang members? How do PSCs and SLs describe previous training related to working with gang members? and How do PSCs and SLs describe circumstances that influence opportunities PSCs have for serving gang members?





A total of 12 participants were included in this study. Five participants were PSCs and seven were SLs. Of the PSCs, four were female and one was male; four were White and one was African American. All of the PSCs had master’s degrees and school counseling licenses. The mean age of the PSCs was 52 (SD = 8.57), and the mean years of counseling experience was 14.8 (SD = 7.69). All of the seven SLs were male. Six were White and one was African American. Four had master’s degrees in educational leadership, one had a bachelor’s degree in science, and two had doctoral degrees in education. Two of the seven SLs were based in the school district’s central office. The mean age of the SLs was 42 (SD = 7.23), and the average years of experience was 10.4 (SD = 3.26). Each participant is represented by a pseudonym in the findings.


Consistent with grounded theory, stratified purposeful sampling was used to identify PSCs and SLs serving at the same school to voluntarily participate (Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Hays & Singh, 2012). PSCs possessed state professional licenses in their fields and were employed in secondary school settings. Specific criteria for the SLs were that they be assistant principals, principals, or central office staff members. SLs possessed state professional licenses in their fields. An additional advantage of this approach was being able to triangulate data sources by acquiring data from different perspectives, including central school office members.



     Demographic questionnaire. Information related to age, ethnicity, education, and experience was collected from PSC and SL participants via a brief demographic questionnaire that asked identical questions.


     Interview questions for participants. Two sets of open-ended questions were developed for semi-structured individual interviews. Topical areas addressed in the current study included role perception, professional development, and barriers to serving students in gangs. The following questions were presented to the PSC participants: (a) What factors determine the role you play in your school? (b) Who is involved in determining your professional role? (c) In your opinion, what role do professional school counselors currently play in identifying gang presence and providing intervention in your school? (d) Tell me what role you think counselors may play in identifying and providing interventions for students currently involved in a gang or considering gang membership. (e) What role has the school or school district played in providing professional school counselors with training specific to gang activity in the schools? (f) During your graduate school training, were you provided any opportunities to learn about gangs in schools? (g) Since graduate school, have you been provided or sought out opportunities to learn about gangs in schools? (h) In your own words, describe your work with students in gangs. (i) What barriers exist impacting your effectiveness in working with students in gangs? (j) In what ways do you seek out information to inform your work as a professional school counselor? (k) How might the ASCA National Model support your efforts to prevent or intervene with students in gangs? and (i) Is there anything you care to add?


The following questions were presented to the SL participants: (a) What factors determine the role school counselors play in your school? (b) Who is involved in determining their professional role? (c) In your opinion, what role do professional school counselors currently play in identifying gang presence and providing intervention in your school? (d) Tell me what role you think counselors may play in identifying and providing interventions for students currently involved in a gang or considering gang membership. (e) What role has the school or school district played in providing professional school counselors and school faculty with training specific to gang activity in the schools? (f) During your graduate school training, were you provided any opportunities to learn about the role of the school counselor? (g) Since graduate school, has your perception of the role of the school counselor changed? How so? (h) In your own words, describe your work with students in gangs. (i) How might the ASCA National Model support your school’s efforts to prevent or intervene with students in gangs? and (j) Is there anything you care to add?


     Interviewer/Investigator. The first author was an insider who worked for the school district as a PSC. At the time of the study, she was working full-time and was a doctoral student in a counselor education program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. She was a 37-year-old White female with nine years of school counseling experience. She is a licensed school counselor, licensed professional counselor, and a National Certified Counselor (NCC). She had access to data that would not be available to an outsider. An advantage was her familiarity with the participants.


Subjectivity statement. On the one hand, the first author lacked personal gang awareness and was sensitive to the participants’ lack of knowledge (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). On the other hand, she had observed disruptive incidents created by gang members in her schools and was conflicted about how to deal with gang members as a professional. This led to a preliminary literature review that suggested ideas about how PSCs may serve gang members in their schools via both responsive services and core curriculum responses. The potential biases were role ambiguity and professional development. These biases were addressed during the data collection and analysis through the use of a journal to record immediate reactions to completed interviews.


Reflectivity during data collection is a valuable tool and is “considered essential to the research process” (Corbin & Strauss, 2008, p. 31). A journal housed field notes after each interview regarding participants’ body language, physical environment, and interviewer’s immediate thoughts and impressions. Journaling allowed for the constant comparison of data, looking for more data, and initial coding of collected data (Corbin & Strauss, 2008).



     Data collection. Established university research policies for the protection of human subjects and the research policies of the school district were followed in order to gain access to schools and participants. After receiving institutional review board approval from the first author’s affiliated university and the school district’s research department, data collection was completed via interviewing participants, journaling, and reviewing documents. The primary source of data was individual semi-structured interviews using an open-ended questions approach and an interview guide (Patton, 2002). Observations of the school setting, participants, and reflections of each interview were noted by the first author/researcher in her journal (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). In addition to journaling, policy manuals and public relations documents were accessed from the school district’s website for the triangulation process (Patton, 2002). The school district’s documents informed the researcher of existing procedures and policies and potential access to related training opportunities.


Participants were provided the interview questions in the moments immediately preceding the beginning of the interviews, giving them the opportunity to view questions and consider answers or emerging thoughts as needed. They were offered an opportunity to answer all questions. In order to enhance the analysis of the role of the PSC, interviews were conducted with SLs and PSCs working at the same schools. The interviews were conducted at the jobsites of the PSCs and SLs or at mutually agreeable locations. A digital voice recorder was used to record all interviews.


     Data analysis. The recorded interviews were played and reviewed immediately after face-to-face interviews, allowing for constant comparisons (Schwandt, 2001). Each individual audio-recorded interview was transcribed by a professional transcriptionist. Following transcription, the interviews were read twice by the first author before themes were highlighted and noted in the margins. Interview data were individually read for all PSCs with themes noted in the margins. Then, interview data were individually read for all SLs with themes noted in the journal. Finally, interview data were reviewed for each PSC and their corresponding SL with themes of each pairing noted by the researcher. Hand-coding was used to analyze data gathered from transcribed interviews with a focus on capturing essential concepts (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007). The process of hand-coding involved deriving codes and the emerging themes to be organized into discrete categories leading to theory development (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). In the first or open coding stage, large general conceptual domains were identified in the reflective journal. Then, the researcher searched for relationships among the domains during the axial coding stage. Finally, the selective coding stage involved: (a) explaining story lines, (b) relating subsidiary categories around the core categories by means of paradigms, (c) relating categories at the dimensional levels, (d) validating the relationships against the raw data, and (e) filling in the categories that may need further development (Corbin & Strauss, 2008).


Triangulation was used as a means to increase the trustworthiness in the present study (Creswell & Miller, 2000; Patton, 2002). Four data sources were used to inform theory development: interviews with PSCs, interviews with SLs, a reflective journal, and related school district documents (e.g., discipline policies, in-service training programs). Grounded theory is built upon the cyclical and constant analysis of data (Hays & Singh, 2012). The use of multiple data sources in this study enhanced the development of codes, categories, and theory, and strengthened the trustworthiness of the study’s findings (Merriam, 2002). The transcribed interviews were reviewed by the researcher to ensure that professional jargon was accurate. A reflective research journal was kept throughout the entire study. Each participant was offered an opportunity to member check the transcribed data (Creswell & Miller, 2000). In addition, an audit was conducted to attempt to reduce the potential for personal biases influencing the data analysis. The auditor was a White female with a doctorate in educational leadership and previous work experience as a PSC. The auditing process consisted of quality control: (a) assuring ethical concerns were addressed, including the use of pseudonyms to protect participants; (b) reviewing the data to insure the study proposed and conducted matched data reported; and (c) proofreading, including clarifying professional jargon. Data saturation was achieved after the eighth interview; however, to affirm category development, complete interview pairings, and ensure triangulation of data sources, the interviews continued through 12 participants. As stated in the introduction, the purpose of the present study was to construct a grounded theory based on the data.




Grounded theory study data analyses provide central categories that bring all of the codes together (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). The central thematic categories in the present study were: (a) professional development attitudes, (b) actual and potential roles when working with students in gangs, and (c) PSCs’ collaborative role in the discipline process. An integration of the three central categories caused a Collaborative C.A.R.E. theory to emerge. Collaboration was the category both present and notably absent in the stories of the PSCs and the SLs. The C.A.R.E. acronym emerged out of the categories that developed during the axial coding process. The categories revealed a lack, or the presence, of communication with community stakeholders. The data suggested a need for PSCs working in secondary school settings to advocate for policies, procedures, programming, and educational opportunities to clarify their role in providing responsive services for students in gangs. What follows are excerpts of the data in the voices of the participants presented via the three central themes.


Professional Development Attitudes

PSCs are increasingly overwhelmed by their day-to-day responsibilities, leading them often to not engage in professional development that may take them away from campus. In addition, the interview data revealed that PSCs were not engaging in professional development related to working with gang members because of a lack of interest in working with this population, a concern for personal safety, unclear counseling roles, and the cost of professional development.


Beth (PSC) noted in her time as a PSC that different initiatives drive the training offered in the local district. She recalled a “push” four or five years previously to identify the presence of gangs at her school, but since that training she noted, “It’s not an interest of mine” and she will look to other staff members to “handle that stuff.” Beth’s response demonstrated a lack of engagement as a result of a lack of interest.


As noted, Beth expected other staff members, primarily SLs, to address the needs of students in gangs. In contrast, Sasha’s (PSC) gang awareness training at the school level had occurred in other counties. She noted that the school district in the present study “maybe has had something,” but “I don’t think the school has provided anything.” She went on to say, “I don’t think I’ve done anything in this district.” Sasha added that possessing knowledge of gangs in schools is “just not the highest on the list of priorities.”


Sasha’s supervising SL, Joe, noted the training from the district is “probably limited, to be honest.” Joe stated as an SL: “I don’t receive training for gangs or gang-related activity. Most of what I know is either self-taught or stuff that we pick up along the way because we’re placed into that position as administrators.” Joe elaborated that much of what he had picked up was reactive: “Unfortunately it’s reactive, but that’s also predicated upon the levels that we deal with here, which is not very much . . . so some of that [training] is from our SRO [school resource officer].”


Beyond having experienced awareness training, the PSCs expressed repeated concerns about their lack of intervention tools. Sasha said she was in need of “strategies” to work with gangs. She asked, “Are you working on trying to get them out of a gang or are you working on how do you cope with being part of a gang?” She followed with an insight: “it’s . . . how it’s affecting them in the school and so, generally, it leads to academics and attendance and if there are discipline issues or . . . . But it still has to have the school slant to . . . work with them.” Judy (PSC) concurred that training had “been mostly awareness and information,” and a lack of urgency to learn more left her deficient in skills and techniques to intervene.


Although awareness training appeared to be somewhat useful, specific prevention and intervention strategies were lacking in any of the training in which PSCs had previously participated. Stacey (PSC) stated that the limited training she received had been “one or two instances” consisting of “signs or signals.” Sasha noted she had not been trained to intervene, and she believed part of the problem was the nature of gangs because they may be “generational, and I don’t think anybody really knows how exactly [to] intervene. ” When speaking about the role of training, Judy quite frankly stated, “If you’re going to provide . . . training, does that imply that I then own the problem . . . if you’re training me, you’re giving me the problem and how am I supposed to solve it?”


Actual and Potential Roles When Working With Students in Gangs

The perceived and actual role of working PSCs has been studied extensively. Recommendations for serving students representing specific populations may vary (e.g., different ethnic groups, various exceptional populations, sexual minorities). On the other hand, ASCA (2014) is explicit in its petitioning provision of services to all students to address long-term goals and “demonstrate personal safety skills” (p. 2). The findings in this study suggest a possible actual role and provide ideas for a potential role for serving gang members.


Beth’s SL, Stan, said, “I would say they [PSCs] don’t really have a specific role in identifying gang presence” and “it wouldn’t be something that I would put under their job description.” Beth also noted that interactions with students in gangs were limited to an awareness that students may be involved with a gang because any intervention or interaction was something “that the assistant principals work with.” Stan’s comments mirrored those of his PSC. He stated, “If it’s a discipline issue, then it [the student issue] would stick with the administration.” Stan’s PSCs would be involved if the student needed “more of a counseling-type component where the student needs assistance or is seeking help from . . . the school.”


Sasha said she worked with students in gangs, but their gang affiliation was “not what we’re working on.” Beth agreed: “The thing is . . . if a kid is coming to you with a specific problem, you help them with that specific problem whether he’s a gang member or not.” Beth stated her actual role as a PSC limited her ability to interact because in her opinion, “if a kid was deeply entrenched in a gang, we’re not going to be able to get them out of that gang.” Derek (SL) agreed that the degree of involvement complicates the intervention because “once they reach a certain point, it is going to be very difficult—I’m not going to say impossible—but it’s going to be very difficult to get [them] back.”


Because the immediate need for a student to seek a PSC’s assistance was rarely, if ever, gang-related, Beth noted her form of intervention was about helping the students obtain their diplomas. Beth went on to say, “If he is here and attempting to get an education, behaving himself and not fighting . . . then my role would be to help him get what he needs from the school system as long as he is playing by our rules.” Her view of services for gang members seemed focused primarily on academic counseling.


PSCs’ Collaborative Role in Discipline Processes

Jake (SL) identified collaboration as a function in the PSC’s role when working with students in gangs, although he noted that the level of collaboration would be limited by the degree of the student’s gang involvement and its impact on the school environment. Jake stated, “I don’t know that they play a role in identifying gang issues unless somebody comes to them with a situation.”


Stacey, a PSC at Jake’s school, concurred with his assessment when she noted, “We don’t do a lot in identifying the gang presence . . . administration and the resource officer tend to be the ones dealing with that.” Stacey went on to say that addressing students in gangs was handled by administrators, and there was no communication with the PSCs about those students that may be involved in gangs. Communications related to students in gangs among SLs, PSCs, and teachers did not exist at Stacey’s school. She explained, “I can’t remember anyone here ever talking about making that kind of referral.”


Like Stacey, Trevor (PSC) did not expect referrals related to gang membership coming to him from teachers. The PSC participants reported that those students violating school policy were referred to administrators. Most referrals for confirmed concerns related to gang members based on attire or language were directed to the administrative teams if they came to the counseling office first. As a counterpoint, Trevor’s SL, Frank, stated, “I can’t say I’ve ever met a counselor I would trust to even give me that type of information.” He went on to say, “So I’m not very trusting of that [information coming from PSCs] at this point. I don’t think they’re [PSCs] involved.”


The degree of collaboration in the actual role of PSCs was mentioned frequently. There seemed to be a lack of collaboration and shortage of referrals from SLs to PSCs, especially when the student gang members had committed infractions leading to disciplinary consequences. When SLs disciplined gang members, there often was no follow-up with PSCs. The SLs in this sample seemed not to view PSCs as contributors to their disciplinary and safety maintenance functions. Because of their focus on safety and discipline issues when thinking about gang members, it seemed not to occur to the SLs that PSCs could contribute to the academic, career, personal, and social development of gang members via their traditional professional functions.




Given the impact of the school calendar and its restricted timeline on data collection, it is possible the researcher was dependent upon acquiring participants from a limited population of busy professionals. Rather than relying on power analyses to determine the sample, qualitative researchers rely on evidence of data saturation, which may not have occurred in this study, to ensure sample sizes are sufficient. Further, qualitative researchers continue interviewing if repeated themes or codes are not present in the interviewing and follow emerging themes (Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Creswell & Miller, 2000; Marshall, Cardon, Poddar, & Fontenot, 2013). In the present study, the sample size was smaller than some sources recommend for grounded theory studies. Fortunately, obvious signs of saturation were noted after the eighth participant was interviewed.


Racial diversity was limited to one African American in each sub-sample. Gender diversity was not achieved in the SL sub-sample. Consequently, the voice of a female SL’s perspective was not present in this study because there were only five female site-based SLs in a district with 25 high schools. The lack of diversity might have impacted the lens by which they led or worked with marginalized populations. Meeting the age diversity selection criterion also was a challenge. The average age of the PSCs indicated that the views and experiences of younger professionals were understated. The extent of the participating PSCs’ exposure to the ASCA National Model (2012a) was not assessed in the demographic questionnaire. Consequently, recommendations promoted in the National Model such as serving all students; offering comprehensive school counseling programs; enhancing the academic, career, and personal/social development of students; and collaboration with stakeholders, may have been limited, therefore impacting their perceived and actual roles accordingly. Participants may have self-censored responses as a result of being interviewed by a school system colleague or by knowing that a colleague in their school with more power was also being interviewed. Utilizing a researcher without ties to the school district might have enhanced the responses. Having colleagues from the same school participate was an important component of the study, a limitation that had to be accepted in addition to the population and sample being limited to one school district.




The perceived and ideal role of PSCs has been extensively studied; however, a search of the professional literature demonstrated a paucity of research on the role of PSCs with specific, marginalized student populations (e.g., exceptional children, homeless), and the present study was designed to address the work of PSCs with one such group (i.e., students in gangs). The researcher attempted to understand the participants’ perspectives related to how participating PSCs and SLs described their actual roles, their previous training, and opportunities for further training with regard to serving gang members.


Consistent with previous research (Burnham & Jackson, 2000; Ibrahim et al., 1983; Lambie & Williamson, 2004), the findings revealed a perceived role for the PSCs’ work with students in gangs as academically focused and reactive. PSC participants noted not knowing what counseling strategies to employ in order to assist students in gangs, implying there is no ideal role for PSCs within that domain. A lack of engagement in professional development, concerns for personal safety, unclear or absent roles for working with students in gangs, and, notably, a limited role imposed by SLs, negatively impacted their potential for working with gang members constructively.


Insights Based on the Circumstances That Led to the Study

     As stated in the introduction, motivation to conduct the study was based on the first author’s limited previous professional experience with gang members, suggestions from a literature search, and results of a pilot study. The first author reported having observed the influence of disruptive gang members in her schools, leading to conflicted thoughts about how to serve them. Consistent with previous literature on role confusion (Burnham & Jackson, 2000; Lambie & Williamson, 2004), PSCs in the present study also seemed conflicted about serving student gang members, and SLs seemed to consider the role of PSCs from a limited perspective. The perspectives of the two sets of professionals were somewhat different because their respective broad professional goals differed. Although SLs were more likely to focus on maintaining order and ensuring safety for all students, PSCs were more likely to focus primarily on their own safety and secondarily on providing limited responsive services to gang members (Sindhi, 2013).


Consequently, when SLs considered the role of PSCs, their perspectives were narrowly focused on safety and disciplinary issues, and PSCs were not viewed as being expected or able to contribute to those goals. They were not prompted to consider the PSC’s role from a broader professional perspective, nor did they think of it (Cobb, 2014). It seemed as if most of the PSCs also responded from a safety perspective, feeling unprepared and unwilling to be involved in that kind of role, especially if it would involve discipline or attempting to get students to leave their gangs. Two PSCs (Sasha and Beth) mentioned providing limited responsive services if requested (i.e., personal issues and academic counseling) and if the students were behaving themselves. This finding also mirrored those of the pilot investigation that prompted this study.


Related contributions to the professional literature indicated dissonance about the perceived and actual roles of PSCs (Brott & Myers, 1999; Burnham & Jackson, 2000; Ibrahim et al., 1983; Lambie & Williamson, 2004). The findings in the present study were quite similar to those of Caldarella et al. (1996) almost two decades ago—that is, the PSCs did not feel adequately trained to work with gang members. And the attitudes expressed by the PSC participants in the findings mirrored the apathy about and disinterest in serving gang members reported by Ibrahim et al. (1983) over 30 years ago. Unfortunately, the findings highlighted apparently limited potential for PSCs to address the academic, career, personal, and social development needs of students in gangs in the targeted school district because of their current settings and frames of mind.


Implications for Professional School Counseling

     Limited range of counselor services. Implementation of the ASCA National Model (2012b)throughout the school system represented in the present study apparently had little influence on the role PSCs played in serving gang members. Considerable interview content from PSCs and SLs seemed focused on safety and discipline issues rather than on the academic, career, personal, and social development of student gang members. Mention of providing academic services came from two of the PSCs. Limiting counseling services to academics alone does not fit into the proactive, “serve all students” framework supported by ASCA (2012b). The perception that PSCs are solely academic counselors may cause them to feel boxed in professionally, therefore limiting their ability to advocate for counseling services for students in gangs and causing them to determine over the course of their professional careers that their role is fixed and rigidly academically focused (Lambie & Williamson, 2004).


     Insufficient training. Three of the PSCs reported lacking sufficient training as a barrier to their working with students in gangs. Four of the five PSCs had not received training related to working with students in gangs during their master’s degree programs. Two of the five reported attending workshops after graduate school, and the remaining three had not sought training. Training provided by the school district on gangs in schools was limited to enhancing awareness, and there was no coverage of counseling-based techniques designed to reach students in gangs. A significant obstacle to training was time away from work and the cost of attending training. Although obstacles to training were reported, there seemed to be an underlying sense of frustration about the training that had been offered. The training from the district and from professional conferences was designed to make school personnel aware of the presence of gangs in the schools. This perceived lack of training designed to intervene and engage in counseling services for students in gangs is consistent with Brott and Myers’ (1999) work noting the need for experiential learning to enhance professional autonomy. The participants reported not knowing what to do with students in gangs and wondering what the goals of the counseling relationships would be if students were involved with gangs. This limited response model appears to have negatively impacted the way that PSCs viewed gang members. Neither the PSCs nor the SLs wanted PSCs involved in a discipline-focused mode.


PSC collaboration and advocacy. The Collaborative C.A.R.E. grounded theory presented at the beginning of the findings section suggests that PSCs respond to the challenges presented above via collaborating with others in their educational communities to advocate for policies, procedures, programs, and educational opportunities designed to clarify their role in providing responsive services to students in gangs. Although PSCs will benefit from more informed policies and richer educational opportunities, they also have advocacy competencies acquired in their training programs that should be of value when serving all students, including gang members. It appears as if the best way to serve students in gangs is through targeted responsive services designed to remove barriers and promote equitable access to counseling services (Trusty & Brown, 2005). Fortunately, most PSCs will not have to work differently in order to work with students in gangs via these approaches. Therefore, it appears as if the major changes needed are attitudinal. Believing that students in gangs deserve their services and advocacy efforts and can be served through existing services and competencies is essential. Overcoming safety concerns seems to be a very important goal. Students in gangs are members of a unique cultural group and equally worthy of positive regard and empathy. Becoming familiar with the nuances of this culture also seems to be an important goal for PSCs.


PSCs are challenged to be able to approach counseling sessions with student gang members in the same way as any other student client. Sasha noted she had not been trained to intervene with gang members; however, she likely is capable of building empathic relationships and aiding in goal setting and future planning for all student clients. The challenge might be to accept gang members as they are and attempt to help them focus on something of value that they want to be in their future and attempt to help them achieve those goals.


Recommendations for Practice and Research

     Training preparation recommendations. The role of the PSC is continuously evolving via numerous influences, such as changing school policies and new initiatives at the local, state, and federal levels. Over their professional careers, PSCs may see a shift in the issues their students bring to the counseling relationship. For example, 15 years ago, PSCs were not dealing with cyberbullying. Cultural and economic shifts lead to changes in the issues students are forced to address, and changes in the lives of the students challenge PSCs to expand their expertise in order to be more effective practitioners. PSCs should be offered and encouraged to attend training based on a variety of issues impacting their work with 21st-century students, including enhancing the academic, career, personal, and social development of gang members.


As PSCs prepare to respond to evolving issues and shifting demographics, graduate training programs are challenged to provide instruction to prepare future PSCs for the realities of school settings and the diverse populations served. By no means can graduate training programs prepare graduate-level students for all of the nuances of practicing in a school; however, a careful review of the populations being served in 21st-century schools may guide the development of training modules designed to work with unique populations, including students in gangs. A training module of this type also can be developed and implemented in school districts in order to provide professional development for practicing PSCs.


     Research recommendations. The paucity of research related to students in gangs and school counseling provides rich opportunities for future studies that might include examining the professional development needs of PSCs, addressing personal safety concerns, and exploring the impact of school-based stakeholders on the self-efficacy of PSCs. Until PSCs feel secure in the role they were trained to fill, they may continue to accept the non-counseling roles often expected by SLs and experience low levels of self-efficacy in working with diverse populations, including students in gangs (Dahir, Burnham, & Stone, 2009).


     Responsive services address the immediate needs and concerns of students and incorporate both direct and indirect service modes (ASCA, 2012b). Further research involving responsive services may address the following questions: How is role development impacted by existing procedures and policies? How is the role of PSCs different in districts with procedures for addressing the needs of students in gangs versus districts lacking the same procedures? How effective are PSCs who collaborate with their communities when working with gang members?


Of all the research needs regarding students in gangs, knowledge acquired from the gang member’s perspective seems most needed. Without gang members as participants, the voice of students in gangs will continue to be silent. Studying students in gangs in order to understand how school staff can enhance their development may provide valuable information for both responsive and core curriculum services that can be provided by PSCs.




ASCA’s National Model (2012b) advocates for comprehensive school counseling programs designed to serve all students. Gang members are a unique student culture to be included within the “all students” framework and can benefit from school-based counseling services designed to enhance their academic, career, personal, and social development. Unfortunately, the findings in the present study revealed that there are impediments preventing PSCs from serving gang members. It seems as if the PSCs in the present study lacked role clarity in working with students in gangs, and there was a lack of intervention-based professional development. Not serving students in gangs led PSCs to believe they have nothing to offer those students through traditional counseling services, and this lack of efficacy may impact their role as advocates. Although this study was limited to one school district, the experiences and perceptions of PSCs and SLs in this study might not be unique. PSCs are uniquely trained and strategically located in school settings to provide valuable services to gang members that can help them feel accepted for who they are at the moment, while also helping them to focus on finding a meaningful pathway to their futures.



Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of interest

or funding contributions for the development

of this manuscript.





American School Counselor Association. (2012a). Position statement: The school counselor and comprehensive school
counseling programs
. Alexandria, VA: Author.

American School Counselor Association. (2012b). The ASCA National Model: A framework for school counseling
(3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Author.

American School Counselor Association. (2014). Mindsets and behaviors for student success: K-12 college- and
career-readiness standards for every student
. Alexandria, VA: Author.

American School Counselor Association. (n.d.). Student-to-school-counselor ratio 2015-2016. Retrieved
December 18, 2018, from

Armstrong, S. A., MacDonald, J. H., & Stillo, S. (2010). School counselors and principals: Different perceptions
of relationship, leadership, and training. Journal of School Counseling, 8(15), 27.

Bogdan, R. C., & Biklen, S. K. (2007). Qualitative research for education: An introduction to theory and methods (5th
ed.). New York: Allyn and Bacon.

Brinson, J. A., Kottler, J. A., & Fisher, T. A. (2004). Cross-cultural conflict resolution in the schools: Some
practical intervention strategies for counselors. Journal of Counseling & Development, 82, 294–301.

Brott, P. E., & Myers, J. E. (1999). Development of professional school counselor identity: A grounded theory.
Professional School Counseling, 2, 339–348.

Burnham, J. J., & Jackson, C. M. (2000). School counselor roles: Discrepancies between actual practice and
existing models. Professional School Counseling, 4, 41–49.

Caldarella, P., Sharpnack, J., Loosli, T., & Merrell, K. W. (1996). The spread of youth gangs into rural areas: A
survey of school counselors. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 15(4), 18–27.

Cobb, N. (2014). Climate, culture and collaboration: The key to creating safe and supportive schools.
Techniques: Connecting Education & Careers, 89(7), 14–19.

Coggeshall, M. B., & Kingery, P. M. (2001). Cross-survey analysis of school violence and disorder. Psychology in
the Schools
, 38(2), 107–116.

Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (2008). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded
(3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Creswell, J. W., & Miller, D. L. (2000). Determining validity in qualitative inquiry. Theory Into Practice, 39, 124–
130. doi:10.1207/s15430421tip3903_2

Dahir, C. A., Burnham, J. J., & Stone, C. (2009). Listen to the voices: School counselors and comprehensive
school counseling programs. Professional School Counseling, 12, 182–192.

Foxx, S. P., Baker, S. B., & Gerler, E. R., Jr. (2017). School counseling for the twenty-first century (6th ed.). New
York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Gibbs, J. T. (2000). Gangs as alternative transitional structures: Adaptations to racial and social marginality in
Los Angeles and London. Journal of Multicultural Social Work, 8(1/2), 71–99. doi:10.1300/J285v08n01_04

Griffin, D., & Farris, A. (2010). School counselors and collaboration: Finding resources through community
asset mapping. Professional School Counseling, 13, 248–256. doi:10.1177/2156759X1001300501

Gündüz, B. (2012). Self-efficacy and burnout in professional school counselors. Educational Sciences: Theory &
, 12, 1761–1767.

Hays, D. G., & Singh, A. A. (2012). Qualitative inquiry in clinical and educational settings. New York, NY: Guilford.

Ibrahim, F. A., Helms, B. J., & Thompson, D. L. (1983). Counselor role and function: An appraisal by consumers
and counselors. Personnel and Guidance Journal, 61, 597–601. doi:10.1111/j.2164-4918.1983.tb00004.X

Kingery, P. M., Coggeshall, M. B., & Alford, A. A. (1998). Violence at school: Recent evidence from four
national surveys. Psychology in the Schools, 35, 247–258.

Kirchner, G. L., & Setchfield, M. S. (2005). School counselors’ and school principals’ perceptions of the school
counselor’s role. Education, 126, 10–16.

Kizer, K. (2012). Behind the guise of gang membership: Ending the unjust criminalization. DePaul Journal for
Social Justice
, 5, 333–366.

Lambie, G. W., & Williamson, L. L. (2004). The challenge to change from guidance counseling to professional
school counseling: A historical proposition. Professional School Counseling, 8(2), 124–131.

Marshall, B., Cardon, P., Poddar, A., & Fontenot, R. (2013). Does sample size matter in qualitative research? A
review of qualitative interviews in IS research. Journal of Computer Information Systems, 54, 11–22.

McCluskey, K. W., Baker, P. A., & McCluskey, A. L. A. (2005). Creative problem solving with marginalized
populations: Reclaiming lost prizes through in-the-trenches interventions. Gifted Child Quarterly, 49,
330–341. doi:10.1177/001698620504900406}

Merriam, S. B. (2002). Assessing and evaluating qualitative research. In S. B. Merriam (Ed.), Qualitative research
in practice: Examples for discussion and analysis
(pp. 18–33). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

National Gang Intelligence Center. (2011). National gang threat assessment: Emerging trends. Retrieved from

Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Reising, G. N., & Daniels, M. H. (1983). A study of Hogan’s model of counselor development and supervision.
Journal of Counseling Psychology, 30, 235–244. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.30.2.235

Robers, S., Kemp, J., Truman, J., & Snyder, T. D. (2013). Indicators of school crime and safety: 2012 (NCES No.
2013-036/NCJ No. 241446). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department
of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

Schwandt, T. A. (2001). Dictionary of qualitative inquiry (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Shoffner, M. F., & Williamson, R. D. (2000). Engaging preservice school counselors and principals in dialogue
and collaboration. Counselor Education and Supervision, 40(2), 128–140.

Sindhi, S. A. (2013). Creating safe school environment: Role of school principals. Tibet Journal, 38(1–2), 77–89.

Skovholt, T. M., & McCarthy, P. R. (1988). Critical incidents: Catalysts for counselor development. Journal of
Counseling & Development
, 67, 69–72. doi:10.1002/j.1556-6676.1988.tb02016.X

Trusty, J., & Brown, D. (2005). Advocacy competencies for professional school counselors. Professional School
, 8, 259–265.

Zalaquett, C. P., & Chatters, S. J. (2012). Middle school principals’ perceptions of middle school counselors’
roles and functions. American Secondary Education, 40(2), 89–103.



Jennifer Barrow, NCC, is an assistant professor at North Carolina Central University. Stanley B. Baker is a professor at North Carolina State University. Lance D. Fusarelli is a professor at North Carolina State University. Correspondence can be addressed to Jennifer Barrow, 700 Cecil Street, Durham NC 27707,