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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Friday, January 22, 2010

how we know: epistemological foundations of information systems research

I just finished reading a pretty fabulous paper: Orlikowski, W.J. and Baroudi, J.J., 1991, Studying Information Technology in Organizations: Research Approaches and Assumptions, Information Systems Research, 2(1): 1-28. basically, they do a survey of 155 papers from 1983 – 1988, arguing that the large majority adhere to a positivist approach, a small minority follow an interpretive approach, and none adopt a critical approach. the reason this paper rocks so much is the cogent, clear, concise, summaries it provides of these three epistemological traditions, citing both strengths and weaknesses, complete with case examples of each. quick overview:

positivist – reality exists external to the researcher, and phenomena of interest accessible to through observation via sensory organs or measuring instruments; “the phenomenon of interest is single, tangible and fragmentable;” “he researcher and the object of inquiry are independent;” “nomothetic statements, i.e., law-like generalizations independent of time or context, are possible” (Orlikowski and Baroudi, p. 9); the goal is the discovery of general laws or universal principles.

interpretive – “reality, as well as our knowledge thereof, are social products and hence incapable of being understood independent of the social actors (including the researchers) that
construct and make sense of that reality;” assumptions and potential limitations clearly stated up front; “the aim of all interpretive research is to understand how members of a social group ... enact their particular realities and endow them with meaning” (ibid., p. 13); “the researcher in part creates the reality she is studying” (ibid., p. 15).

critical – “social reality is historically constituted;” rather than studying or explaining reality, “critical researcher attempts to critically evaluate and transform the social reality under investigation” (ibid., p. 19); a major component is exposing, and likely attempting to overturn, currently unseen or unvoiced assumptions and hidden contradictions; “interpretation of the social world is not enough. The material conditions of domination need also to be understood and critiqued” (ibid., p. 20); major focus on socio-economic class, labor relations, and the conflict therein.

another summary and comparison with other work can be found here. the article is quite insightful and chock full of demonstrative examples. I highly recommend you go read it.

furthermore, it was particularly useful for me, as I’ve recently been thinking through a lot of related issues, often via questions of legitimation of knowledge construction and enactment of disciplinary rigor. the paper did, as most good papers do, also help raise some further questions.

much of the paper describes how these epistemological stances apply to information systems research, arguing for their various applicability or inapplicability to social phenomena. for example, the positivist approach asserts that “organizations... have a structure and reality beyond the actions of their members” (ibid., p. 9), whereas an interpretive approach would assert that the organization’s structure exists because of its enactment by its members. I was left wondering, how do these various epistemologies apply to physical or natural sciences? there is some allusion to the growing idea in such sciences that positivism is something of a myth, but I think such treatment is beyond the scope here (potentially belonging in an STS paper). I wonder, how would interpretive particle physics or critical evolutionary biology look and feel? how would natural/physical sciences change if, rather than believing that they were discovering the true nature of reality, scientists instead believed that they were actively creating reality? would it simply be an acknowledgment of the social process involved in scientific investigation, or would there be deeper, more substantial changes?

in the discussion of the interpretive perspective, there is a distinction between the “weak” and the “strong” view. in the weak view, positivist and interpretive approaches are suited to understanding different phenomena in different ways and producing different types of knowledge. the two can complement one another. the strong view, on the other hand, rejects the very grounds on which positivist research is predicated and does not believe that it can produce valid knowledge. the notion that the two are different lenses through which to perceive different aspects of related phenomena I find appealing, but I can also see why, due to the rather different philosophical commitments involved in each, it might be difficult to reconcile findings from positivist and interpretive studies.

the critical approach emphasizes “totality, which implies that things can never be treated as isolated elements” (ibid., p. 19). phenomena being studied must be understood in terms of the social, historical, cultural, political, and other contexts that cause them to come to be. however, it seems that, ultimately, everything is related to everything else. how, then, does one practically scope a study? arguably, the point of totality is that context is not just context (i.e., with the text), its text, the thing being studied itself. taken seriously, totality seems to pose a major problem in terms of tractability.

I also noticed, as Orlikowski and Baroudi point out, that the critical approach focuses very heavily on socio-economic class, labor relations, capital, and markets, often at the expense of “other factors such as race and gender” (ibid., p. 23). this is clearly related to the problem of totality; not everything can be taken into account, your analytic focus must be somewhere. furthermore, it makes me wonder if “critical” is in some ways a politically correct, though thinly veiled, guise for “Marxist.”

Orlikowski and Baroudi’s major point is that none of these epistemological stances is perfect—each has its strengths and weaknesses, philosophical commitments and founding assumptions—and the job of the researcher is both to be aware of the impacts of choosing a particular stance, and to acknowledge the validity of alternative stances. I couldn’t concur more. especially coming from a highly interdisciplinary field, some of the major tensions I see arise from epistemologically-oriented issues, though they sometimes come in the form of methodological critiques.

however, I was also left wondering, must a researcher commit entirely to a given stance, with both its strengths and weaknesses? or is there the potential to hybridize these approaches, doing so with a conscious and reflective eye to knowledge production? for example, could you conduct a quantitative survey, informed by positivist methods, that takes into account an interpretive perspective and seeks to achieve critical destabilization of the current social order? similarly, could you build a computation system, using tools and techniques developed under a positivist paradigm, but deploy (and potentially evaluate) that system in a way that foregrounds users’ interpretation of the system and of their reality as experienced with and through the system, specifically focusing on using those experiences to critique the status quo for both users and designers of the system? yes, this is a bit of a silly hyperbole, but it’s meant to make an important point: why do we have to accept all the baggage of a single approach? can we not learn from analyses such as that of Orlikowski and Baroudi in order to advance our reflective knowledge production? perhaps obviously, I think the answer (in my part of the information science/studies world) is a tentative yes, but I’ll leave explication of why and how for another post.

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