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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 16, 2006
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Coding issues in grounded theory

Alireza Moghaddam
The University of Western Ontario
This paper discusses grounded theory as one of the qualitative research designs. It describes how grounded theory generates from data. Three phases of grounded theory - open coding, axial coding, and selective coding - are discussed, along with some of the issues which are the source of debate among grounded theorists, especially between its founders, Glaser and Strauss.


Grounded theory refers to theory developed inductively from data. It takes a case and results in a theory which fits one dataset. It explains the collected data through a middle-range theoretical framework (Charmaz, 2000). The grounded theory approach consists of a set of steps and processes which are the building blocks of a quality grounded theory. Grounded theory uses categories drawn from respondents and focuses on making implicit belief systems explicit.

Grounded theory

According to Strauss and Corbin (1990) a theory is a set of relationships that proposes a reasonable explanation of the phenomenon under study. Morse (1994) extends this explanation suggesting that a theory offers "the best comprehensive, coherent and simplest model for linking diverse and unrelated facts in a useful and pragmatic way" (p.25). It is a way of enlightening the clear, the implicit, the unrecognised and the unknown. Theorising is the process of creating alternative explanations until a 'best fit' which explains the data most simply is obtained. This involves asking questions of the data which will create links to established theory (Goulding, 1999). Indeed, a theory is "a set of well-developed categories (eg, themes, concepts) that are systematically interrelated through statements of relationship to form a theoretical framework that explains some relevant social, psychological, educational, nursing or other phenomenon" (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p.22).

Grounded theory was introduced by Glaser and Strauss in their 1967 book, The Discovery of Grounded Theory. The book was based on a justification for using qualitative research to build up theoretical analysis. As Goulding (1999) mentions, it was written in part as an objection against what the authors viewed as a rather passive acceptance that all the 'great' theories had been discovered and that the role of research lay in testing these theories through quantitative 'scientific' procedures.

What Glaser and Strauss suggested as grounded theory is actually a "systematic, qualitative process used to generate a theory that explains, at a broad conceptual level, a process, an action, or interaction about a substantive topic" (Creswell, 2002, p.439). It is a qualitative methodology which obtains its name from the practice of generating theory from research which is 'grounded' in data (Babchuk, 1997). It can be defined as a method for analysing data which is most commonly used on naturalistic field data but has also been used to analyse historical and documentary data (Star, 1998). The grounded theory approach uses a "systematic set of procedures to develop an inductively derived grounded theory about a phenomenon" (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, p.24). This methodology is a general method of comparative analysis to realise theory with four central criteria - work, relevance, fit, and modifiability (Creswell, 2002). It will answer the question of 'What was going on in an area?' by generating either a substantive or formal theory - theory related to a case and developed inductively from empirical data to reach an abstract level (Star, 1998). The strongest cases for the use of grounded theory are in studies of comparatively unexplored areas (Samik-Ibrahim, 2000). Grounded theory is used to generate a theory rather than use one 'off the shelf' to enlighten a procedure, action, or interaction, a step-by-step, systematic process to stay close to the data (Creswell, 2002).

Although Glaser's and Strauss's collaborative work led to the introduction of grounded theory, their later works show epistemological differences between them (Glaser, 1978, 1992; Strauss, 1987; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Glaser has a rigorous positive perspective towards qualitative analysis, while Strauss has a pragmatic epistemology into empirical inquiry through grounded theory. Whereas Glaser's standpoint tends to be more traditional positivism with emphasis on supposition of an objective and external reality as well as being a neutral observer, Strauss's work is based on the assumption of having an unbiased position in collecting data and applying a certain technical procedures by letting the participants have their own voice (Glaser, 1992; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). This viewpoint, as Charmaz explains, "moves into postpositivism" because it represents participants "as accurately as possible, discovering and acknowledging how respondents' view of reality conflict with their own" (2000, p.510). No matter what their philosophical perspectives are, they have an almost similar standpoint with respect to the main processes, including categorising and constant comparison to produce the theory grounded in data.

Rationale of grounded theory

According to Goede and Villiers (2003), grounded theory was developed to assist qualitative researchers to carry out 'good science'. Strauss and Corbin (1990) state that "well performed grounded theory meets all the requirements of 'good Science': significance, theory-observation, compatibility, generalisability, reproducibility, precision, rigor, and verification" (p.27).

The rationale of grounded theory studies is to investigate and recognise how complicated phenomena occur. Strauss and Corbin (1998) suggest the following goals for grounded theory.

  1. Build rather than test theory.
  2. Provide researchers with analytic tools for handling masses of raw data.
  3. Help the analysts to consider alternative meanings of phenomena.
  4. Be systematic and creative simultaneously.
  5. Identify, develop, and relate the concepts that are the building blocks of theory (p.13).
Grounded theory, contrary to theory acquired by logico-deductive methods, is theory grounded in data which have been systematically obtained through 'social' research and, as Goulding (1999) believes, the development of grounded theory was an effort to keep away from extremely abstract sociology and was a part of a significant development in qualitative analysis in the 1960s and 1970s.

Strauss and Corbin (1998) suggest the following assumptions on which grounded theory methodology is predicated.

  1. The need to go to the field to discover what is really going on.
  2. The relevance of theory to the development of a discipline.
  3. The complexity and variability of phenomena and of human action.
  4. The belief that persons are actors responding to problematic situations.
  5. The assumption that persons act on the basis of meaning.
  6. The understanding that meaning is defined and redefined through interaction.
  7. A sensitivity to the evolving and unfolding nature of events (process).
  8. An awareness of the interrelationships among conditions (structure), action (process), and consequences (pp.9-10).
Besides the aforementioned assumptions that Strauss and Corbin explain, Star (1998) believes that grounded theory is based on an empirical approach to data collection and analysis; a constant comparative approach to theory development; theoretical sampling rather than site or population driven; and developing a theory that works from substantive through to formal levels using constant comparison technique (p.221).

In order to start applying grounded theory methodology as a research design, grounded theorists need to examine whether or not it suits the area being studied and how it can help the research problem to be clarified. Therefore, identifying an overlooked area is the first thing to do.

Identifying an overlooked sphere

The process of generating a grounded theory begins with discovering an unnoticed area to investigate. Usually investigators apply grounded theory when the topic of interest has been relatively overlooked, or has been given merely superficial attention. Therefore, the researcher's mission is to build his or her own theory from the ground. However, most researchers will have their own disciplinary background which will provide a perspective from which to investigate the problem (Goulding, 1999).

Allan (2003) mentions that some people think of the grounded theory method as meaning fieldwork before a literature search. This is a misunderstanding of the original principle put forward by Glaser and Strauss (1967) who persuaded researchers to "use any material bearing in the area" (p.169). This remark can be found in the writings of other authors. Strauss and Corbin (1998) saw the literature as a foundation of professional knowledge and referred to it as literature sensitivity. A review of the pertinent literature reveals current thinking in the area. It should be mentioned though that this literature review should not bring about any hypotheses.

Applying grounded theory to the areas where an extensive, reliable and empirically based literature exists may cause some difficulties. Literature which already exists might prejudice or affect the perceptions of the researcher (Goulding, 1999). Also, there is a risk of entering the field with prior attitudes, whether aware of it or not, of testing such existing work rather than developing original insights about the area of study. To avoid this, it is suggested that the researcher go into the field at a very early stage and collect data. Unlike the case study which gains benefit from the existing development of theoretical propositions to guide data collection and analysis, grounded theory should have no pre-conceived ideas or hypothesis (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). In other words, there are conflicts in terms of collecting data and other procedures of grounded theory. Throughout the course of the research it is common to gather an extensive amount of data in various forms such as interview transcripts, field notes on observations, memos, diagrams and conceptual maps.

Interpreting the data through coding

When the data are collected, they should be analysed concurrently by looking for all possible interpretations. This involves employing particular coding procedures. At the heart of grounded theory analysis is the coding process (Babchuk, 1997). Coding consists of naming and categorising data. The nature of coding in grounded theory requires going back to the data for diverse pieces of information at different times (Brown, Stevenson, Troiano & Schneider, 2002). Coding is defined as the analytic process through which "data are fractured, conceptualised, and integrated to form theory" (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p.3). Its aim is to recognise, develop and relate the concepts that are the building blocks of theory.

Grounded theory coding is a kind of content analysis to find and conceptualise the core issues from within the huge pile of the data. Throughout the analysis of an interview, for example, the researcher will become conscious that the interviewee is using words and phrases that highlight an issue of importance or interest to the research. This is noted and described in a short phrase. This issue may be mentioned again in the same or similar words and is again noted. Allan (2003) describes this process as 'coding' and the short descriptor phrase is a code. According to him, coding should be performed with an open mind, without predetermined ideas. Predetermined ideas should not be forced on the data by looking for confirmation of previously established ideas.

In the course of coding, more than one code may come out from the same text. The data should be reviewed many times, looking and re-looking for emerging codes. Strauss and Corbin (1998) suggested coding by "microanalysis which consists of analysing data word-by-word" and "coding the meaning found in words or groups of words" (pp.65-68). However, the analysis technique of coding by microanalysis of the data, word by word and line by line, has two disadvantages. Firstly, it is very time consuming. If the data comes from interviews, the transcription of each interview contains a mass of data that has to be studied to locate the information relevant to the research topic. Secondly, it may lead to confusion at times. Dividing the data into individual words sometimes causes the analysis to become lost within the details of data. Therefore, it is useful to identify key points (rather than individual words) and let concepts emerge. The selection of points, in order to address research questions, is in line with qualitative coding analysis and is a protection against data overload (Allan, 2003).

Identifying and naming concepts

As Piantanida, Tananis and Crubs (2002) stress, concepts are the 'building blocks' of theory. In order to identify the concepts, the grounded theorist needs to "open up the text and expose the thoughts, ideas, and meanings contained therein" (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p.102). As Goede and Villiers (2003) explain, a concept should be viewed as an abstract illustration of an event, object, action or interaction that a researcher identifies as being considerable in the data. There are some debates on which procedures the grounded theorist should take in order to find the concepts. Glaser (2002a) believes that Strauss and Corbin force descriptions on the theory, irrespective of emergence, to locate its conditions, to contextualise it and to make it appear accurately pinned down, thereby losing its true abstraction and, hence, generalisability. According to Strauss and Corbin (1998) concepts are bound within the limits of time, place, people and so forth. According to them, grounded theory procedures force us to ask, for example, "What power is in this situation and under specified conditions? How is it manifested, by whom, when, where, how, with what consequences (and for whom or what)?" They believe that ignoring such a range of questions is to hinder the discovery of important features of power and to prevent developing further conceptualisation. They see knowledge linked loosely with time and place. On the other hand, Glaser (2002a) believes that "without the abstraction from time, place, and people, there can be no multivariate, integrated theory based on conceptual, hypothetical relationships" (p.8) and concepts are timeless in their applicability.

Personal thoughts may affect the process of coding and consequently the categories formed. Strauss and Corbin (1989) also believe that the interpretation of events by the researcher influences the naming of categories whereas Glaser (2002a) suggests that personal distance for accuracy is supposed to be an 'attitude' of the qualitative data analysis researcher. The grounded theory researcher, in contrast, does not need this attitude to get a description accurate, which is not his or her goal. The grounded theory method automatically puts him or her on a conceptual level, which goes beyond the descriptive data.

While naming concepts, grounded theory does not attempt to understand the world of the research participants as they construct it (Glaser, 1998). Grounded theory is not an enquiry that makes sense of and is true to the understanding of ordinary actors in the everyday world. According to Glaser (2002a) grounded theory discovers patterns that the participants do not understand or are not aware of. Grounded theory creates conceptual hypotheses that apply to any relevant time, place, and people with emergent fit and then is modified by constant comparison with new data as it explains what behaviour obtains in a substantive area. When concepts emerge they must be categorised in order to make relationship among them form theory. This process begins with open coding.

Open coding

Open coding is the process of breaking down the data into separate units of meaning (Goulding, 1999). It takes place at the beginning of a study. The main purposes of open coding are to conceptualise and label data. Open coding starts the process of categorising many individual phenomena. Separately categorised concepts are clustered around a related theme to structure more abstract categories (Brown, Stevenson, Troiano & Schneider, 2002).

At the stage of analysing the data and looking for codes, the coding is 'unfocused' and 'open'. During this process the data are analysed and the grounded theory researcher may recognise hundreds of codes which might have potential meaning and relevance (Goulding, 1999). In the course of open coding the grounded theorist engages in breaking down, analysing, comparing, labelling and categorising data. In open coding, incidents or events are labelled and assembled together through constant comparison to form categories and properties (Babchuk, 1997).

Coding might start with a full transcription of an interview, after which the text is analysed in an effort to recognise key words or phrases which connect the participant's description to the experience under study. This procedure, as Spiggle (1994) describes it, is associated with primary concept development which consists of "identifying a chunk or unit of data (a passage of text of any length) as belonging to, representing, or being an example of some more general phenomenon" (p.493). Besides open coding, it is vital to incorporate the use of memos. Memos are notes the researcher writes during the research process or immediately after data collection to elaborate on ideas about the data and the coded categories (Creswell, 2002) as a way of recording the impressions of the researcher and describing the situation. These are fundamental since they provide a bank of ideas which can be reviewed in order to draw the emerging theory. Memos facilitate reorienting the researcher at a later date (Goulding, 1999).

Coding allows for direction before becoming selective. It breaks down the data into analytical portions which can afterward be raised to a conceptual point. Questions that need to be continually addressed include the following.

Once categories are built in open coding, they are expanded in terms of their given properties and dimensions. Goede and Villiers (2003) define properties as characteristics that are common to all the concepts in the category. They are "characteristics of a category, the delineation of which defines and gives it meaning" (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p.101). On the other hand, dimensions show the position of a property along a continuum or range (Goede & Villiers, 2003). Properties and dimensions provide the richness to the abstract category.

In order to create new categories for possible inclusion in developing theory, Gerson (1991) suggests 'supplementation' as a complementary way. It can be situated between coding and theoretical sampling. Supplementation starts with an extant category, and systematically elaborates contrasting categories in order to provide the raw material for theoretical sampling, cross-cutting and making the theories richer. Supplementation is equivalent neither to testing hypotheses on the one hand, nor to constructing new categories via coding on the other. Indeed, it can be done without reference to particular data at all, focusing instead on the conceptual organisation and relationships of the developing theory. Keeping the theory in a state of permanent confrontation with data is the work of theoretical sampling, not of supplementation. While theoretical sampling tells us what to worry about, supplementation tells us the terms in which we should worry about it (Gerson, 1991).

Sampling and constant comparison

Since the theory should be kept in a state of permanent confrontation with data and given that grounded theory explores complex phenomena where often little understanding exists, the selection of participants is particularly critical. Intensity and maximum variation sampling are often used to select a broad range of information-rich participants (Brown, Stevenson, Troiano & Schneider, 2002). Sampling could not be planned in detail before the start of the field study. It is not determined to begin with, but is directed by the emerging theory (Goulding, 1999). It is not persons or organisations that are sampled but rather incidents and events. Although sampling during the beginning of the project is rather unfocused, it will become more focused as the project progresses (Goede & Villiers, 2003). Initially, the researcher considers the most obvious incidents and events. However, as concepts are identified and the theory starts to develop, further data may need to be incorporated in order to strengthen the findings. This is known as 'theoretical sampling' (Goulding, 1999). Sampling will only end when all the categories are saturated.

In grounded theory research, the inquirer engages in a process of gathering data, sorting it into categories, collecting additional information, and comparing the new information with merging categories. This process of slowly developing categories is called the 'constant comparative procedure' (Creswell, 2002). By comparing each concept in turn with all other concepts, further commonalities are found which form the even broader categories. Glaser and Strauss (1967) described this method of continually comparing concepts with each other as their constant comparative method (pp.115).

Constant comparative method is a fundamental feature of grounded theory. As the name implies, this involves comparing like with like to look for emerging patterns and themes. As Spiggle (1994) describes it, "[c]omparison explores differences and similarities across incidents within the data currently collected and provides guidelines for collecting additional data. Analysis explicitly compares each incident in the data with other incidents appearing to belong to the same category, exploring their similarities and differences" (p.493). To a degree, constant comparative process reveals the researcher's personal predilection, which may bias the data (Glaser, 2002b). Goulding (1999) also believes that as a result of constant comparison of subsequent data, codes are reduced and grouped into meaningful categories.

During this level of coding, theoretical saturation should be reached. This means that no new properties, dimensions, or relationships will emerge during analysis. Saturation is "the state in which the researcher makes the subjective determination that new data will not provide any new information or insights for the developing categories" (Creswell, 2002, p.450). Theoretical saturation is realised when

According to Goulding (1999) a theory is only considered valid if the researcher has reached the point of saturation. This involves staying in the field until no new evidence emerges from subsequent data. It is also based on the assumption that a full interrogation of the data has been conducted, and negative cases, where found, have been identified and accounted for.

What has been discussed so far is the first stage of grounded theory. Concepts are a progression from simply describing what is occurring in the data, which is an attribute of open coding, to explaining the relationship between and across incidents (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). This needs a different, more complicated, coding technique which is referred to as 'axial coding' and involves the process of abstraction onto a theoretical level.

Axial coding

It is possible to think of the coding process as a form of pyramid at the base of which is open coding. Through systematic analysis and constant comparison of data the next stage is to reduce the number of codes and to collect them together in a way that shows a relationship among them. This stage relates to axial coding and the creation of concepts. At the peak of the hierarchy are categories which as Goulding (1999) describes unite the concepts and reveal a 'gestaltian' theoretical explanation of the phenomenon under study.

Once a concept has been identified, its attributes may be explored in depth, and its characteristics dimensionalised in terms of their strength or weakness. Finally the data are subsumed into a core category which the researcher has to justify as the basis for the emergent theory. The core category is "the central phenomenon around which all the other categories are related" (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, p.116). A core category unites all the strands in order to provide an explanation of the behaviour under study (Goulding, 1999). It represents the description of hypothetical relationships between categories and subcategories (Babchuk, 1997). Axial coding is the appreciation of concepts in terms of their dynamic interrelationships. These should form the foundation for the creation of the theory. The focus of axial coding is to construct a model that details the specific conditions that give rise to a phenomenon's occurrence. Strauss and Corbin (1998) believe that the purpose of axial coding is to reassemble data that were fractured during open coding.

In axial coding, four analytical processes are occurring: (a) continually relating subcategories to a category, (b) comparing categories with the collected data, (c) expanding the density of the categories by detailing their properties and dimensions, and (d) exploring variations in the phenomena (Brown, Stevenson, Troiano & Schneider, 2002).

Choosing and situating a core category

Choosing a core category is of a critical importance. Strauss and Corbin (1998) give the following criteria for choosing a central category. After choosing one core category and positioning it at the centre of the process being explored, a grounded theorist relates other categories to it. These other categories are the "causal conditions, strategies, contextual conditions, and consequences" (Creswell, 2002, p.441). These categories are identified to illustrate the context (structure) and the process of a phenomenon (Goede & Villiers, 2003). Causal conditions refer to the factors that lead to the occurrence of the phenomenon, the subject under study, or the central idea. Strategies are the specific actions or interactions that result from the core phenomenon (Creswell, 2002). Contextual conditions are the "specific set of conditions (patterns of conditions) that intersect dimensionally at this time and place to create a set of circumstances or problems to which persons respond through actions/interactions" (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p.132). Consequences refer to the outcome of the phenomena as they are engaged through action and interaction (Brown, Stevenson, Troiano & Schneider, 2002). The causal conditions affect the core category, the core category and the contextual conditions affect the strategies, and the strategies affect the consequences.

Selective coding

The final stage of data analysis is selective coding. Selective coding can be described as the process by which categories are related to the core category ultimately becoming the basis for the grounded theory (Babchuk, 1997). Strauss and Corbin (1990) define selective coding as "the process of selecting the central or core category, systematically relating it to other categories, validating those relationships, and filling in categories that need further refinement and development" (p.116). Through selective coding the categories are integrated and developed into the theory. Creating relationships among the categories is an important step to developing theory. Selective coding is one means through which this is accomplished (Stamp, 1999). In this phase, in order to complete the grounded theory it is necessary to create a conditional and consequential matrix, an "analytic device to stimulate analysts thinking about the relationships between macro and micro conditions/consequences both to each other and to the process" (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p.181). This matrix helps to frame a 'story' which is a key aspect in formulating the grounded theory. The story must be told at a conceptual level, relating subsidiary categories to the core category. After putting categories into sequence, a researcher can begin to cover the wide array of consequences of various conditions, giving the story specificity. This mapping forms the basis of the theory (Brown, Stevenson, Troiano & Schneider, 2002).

With regard to the process of developing grounded theory, it may be argued that there are three basic stages that need to be addressed. The first deals with the collection and interpretation of the data and is mainly concerned with demonstrating how, why and from where early concepts and categories were derived. In accordance with the principles common to the method, any theory should be traceable back to the data (Goulding, 1999). Consequently, evidence needs to be provided as does the relationship between concepts, categories and this evidence.

The second stage is to 'abstract' the concepts and try to find theoretical meaning. At this stage the concepts should be adequately developed as to warrant an extensive re-evaluation of compatible literature in order to demonstrate the 'fit', relationship and, where applicable, the extension of that literature through the research findings.

The final stage should present the theory, bringing together the concepts and integrating them into categories which have explanatory power within the context of the research.

Debates on validating

Unlike quantitative methods where, for example, a copy of the questionnaire and statistical analysis can be inserted in the appendix for justification and evidence of findings, with qualitative research it is not possible to provide the full evidence in a manner that is as immediately accessible to the reader. Therefore, what is included in the work has to be selective, but still presented in such a way as to create a meaningful picture. It is important, therefore, to chart the process as it evolves, to use diagrams to illustrate the emergence of the theory, and to point to critical junctures and breakthroughs in terms of theoretical insights (Goulding, 1999).

It is not necessary to ask the participants to see if the theory covers their situation, as is usual in narrative research designs. According to Glaser (2002a), inviting participants to review the theory for whether or not it is their voice is wrong as a 'check' or 'test' on validity. They may or may not understand the theory, or even like the theory if they do understand it. Grounded theory is generated from much data, of which many participants may be empirically unaware. Indeed, grounded theory is not their voice; it is a generated abstraction from their doings and their meanings that are taken as data for the conceptual generation.

Grounded theory quality questions

In order to see if the generated grounded theory meets the methodological criteria, Strauss and Corbin (1998) suggest eight conceptual questions to assess a grounded theory.
  1. Are concepts generated?
  2. Are the concepts systematically related?
  3. Are there many conceptual linkages, and are the categories well developed? Do categories have conceptual density (richness of the description of a concept)?
  4. Is variation within the phenomena built into the theory (how differences are explored, described, and incorporated into the theory)?
  5. Are the conditions under which variation can be found built into the study and explained?
  6. Has process been taken into account?
  7. Do the theoretical findings seem significant, and to what extent?
  8. Does the theory stand the test of time and become part of the discussions and ideas exchanged among relevant social and professional groups? (pp.270-272)
Creswell (2002) proposes the following questions to consider while evaluating a grounded theory.


Finally, grounded theory has characteristics of its own which make it unique, although Strauss and Corbin (1990) consider that paying attention to processes is vital to quality grounded theory. As mentioned before, grounded theory is mostly based on the researchers' interpretations, even though grounded theory is generated from data which come from participants. The theory which is driven in this way answers process oriented questions, connecting the conditions that give rise to a certain complex, dynamic phenomenon. Traditional research designs usually rely on a literature review leading to the formation of a hypothesis. This hypothesis is then put to the test by experimentation in the real world. On the other hand, grounded theory investigates the actualities in the real world and analyses the data with no preconceived hypothesis (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), through the lenses of the researcher.


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Authors: Alireza Moghaddam is a doctoral candidate in Educational Studies and a graduate research assistant at the University of Western Ontario (UWO). He has a teaching experience in elementary schools, high schools, universities, and teachers colleges. His research interests include online education, digital divide, collaborative teaching, and manpower productivity in education. Email: ar_maqadam@yahoo.com

Please cite as: Moghaddam, A. (2006). Coding issues in grounded theory. Issues In Educational Research, 16(1), 52-66. http://www.iier.org.au/iier16/moghaddam.html

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