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What is Interpretive Research?

Geoff Walsham Lecture 1 of Course on Interpretive Research in IS - Oslo University

Contents of Lecture 1
Definitions of interpretive research Views of data, ontology, knowledge and theory/practice link Philosophical traditions Current status in the IS literature Can interpretive research be critical?

A Definition
(Orlikowski and Baroudi 1991)

Interpretive studies assume that people create and associate their own subjective and intersubjective meanings as they interact with the world around them. Interpretive researchers thus attempt to understand phenomena through accessing the meanings participants assign to them

A Second Definition
(Walsham 1993)

Interpretive methods of research start from the position that our knowledge of reality, including the domain of human action, is a social construction by human actors and that this applies equally to researchers. Thus there is no objective reality which can be discovered by researchers and replicated by others, in contrast to the assumptions of positivist science

Interpretive View of Data

(Geertz 1973)

What we call our data are really our own constructions of other peoples constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to

Interpretive Ontology
(Walsham 1995)

Internal realism: Reality-for-us is an intersubjective construction of the shared human cognitive apparatus
Subjective idealism: Each person constructs his or her own reality

Interpretive View of Knowledge

(Orlikowski and Baroudi 1991)

Social process is not captured in hypothetical deductions, covariances and degrees of freedom. Instead, understanding social process involves getting inside the world of those generating it

Theory and Practice

(Orlikowski and Baroudi 1991)

The interpretive research approach towards the relationship between theory and practice is that the researcher can never assume a value-neutral stance, and is always implicated in the phenomena being studied There is no direct access to reality unmediated by language and preconception

Some Philosophical Traditions Underpinning Interpretive Research

(Walsham 1995)

Phenomenology e.g. Zuboff 1988 Ethnomethodology e.g. Suchman 1987

Hermeneutics e.g. Boland and Day 1989

Current Status of Interpretive Research in IS Literature

Better represented now compared to Orlikowski and Baroudis (1991) data Some interpretive articles in top journals such as MIS Quarterly and Information Systems Research (although still a small minority) Information and Organization contains many interpretive studies Other IS journals publish interpretive studies: European Journal of IS; Scandinavian Journal of IS; Information Society; IT & People etc.

Critical IS Research
(Orlikowski and Baroudi 1991)

Critically evaluate and transform the social reality under investigation Everything possesses an unfulfilled potentiality, and people, by recognizing these possibilities, can act to change their material and social circumstances The role of the researcher is to bring to consciousness the restrictive conditions of the status quo

Interpretive Versus Critical

(Walsham 1993)

The research described in this book has elements of

both the interpretive and critical traditions and does not fit in one of these two categories theories, such as structuration theory, are indeed an attempt to dissolve the boundaries between such traditions, in emphasizing not only the importance of subjective meanings for the individual actor, but also the social structures which condition and enable such meanings and are constituted by them

My Current Position
Research can be both interpretive and critical. Stronger critical emphasis comes from: Motivation - what is wrong in the world rather than right Focus - on issues such as asymmetries of power relations Theory - with a critical edge e.g. Frankfurt school, Bourdieu, feminism, postcolonialism