What is Interpretive Research?

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 people’s
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 Baroudi’s (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
• 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