Interpretivism and constructivism

Intrepretivism and constructivism are related approaches to research that are characteristic of particular philosophical world views. Schwandt (1994) describes these terms as sensitising concepts that steer researchers towards a particular outlook:

Proponents of these persuasions share the goal of understanding the complex world of lived experience from the point of view of those who live it. This goal is variously spoken of as an abiding concern for the life world, for the emic point of view, for understanding meaning, for grasping the actor’s definition of a situation, for Verstehen. The world of lived reality and situation-specific meanings that constitute the general object of investigation is thought to be constructed by social actors (p. 118).

Many of the ideas in these approaches stem from the German intellectual tradition of hermeneutics and the Verstehen tradition in sociology, from phenomenology, and from critiques of positivism in the social sciences. Interpretivists reject the notions of theory-neutral observations and the idea of universal laws as in science. Theory in this paradigm takes on a different perspective:

Knowledge consists of those constructions about which there is a relative consensus (or at least some movement towards consensus) among those competent (and in the case of more arcane material, trusted) to interpret the substance of the construction. Multiple ‘knowledges’ can coexist when equally competent (or trusted) interpreters disagree (Guba and Lincoln, 1994, p. 113).

The emergence of interpretivism in information system research is described by Walsham (1995). Walsham saw interpretivism as gaining ground at that point against a predominantly positivist research tradition in information systems. Klein and Myers (1999) consider that theory plays a crucial role in interpretive research in information systems. Theory is used as a ‘sensitising device’ to view the world in a certain way. Particular observations can be related to abstract categories and to ideas and concepts that apply to multiple situations, implying some generalisability. The types of theory that information systems researchers are likely to reference are social theories such as structuration theory or actor-network theory.

The interpretivist paradigm leads to a view of theory which is theory for understanding (Type III), theory that possibly does not have strong predictive power and is of limited generality.

The technological perspective

Information systems involve the use of information technology and so we would like theory that can deal with technologies. Recognition that theory might relate to technology is rather uncommon and it might even be that there is definite prejudice against it. This view may go back a long way. O’Hear (1989, p. 216) says the ancient Greeks tended to despise the merely mechanistic or banausic. Popper saw the worship of science and technology as instruments for control over nature as shallow and worrying because of our ignorance of the effects our interventions might have. Nevertheless, the development of science and the development of technology have gone on hand-in-hand. For example, the start of the scientific revolution ‘coincided’ with the (mid-16th century) development of the telescope and the microscope (Gribbin, 2002, xix)

The classic work that treats technology or artefact design as a special prescriptive type of theory is Herbert Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial (1996), first published in 1969. Simon (1996, p. xii) notes that in an earlier edition of his work he described a central problem that had occupied him for many years:

How could one construct an empirical theory?

I thought I began to see in the problem of artificiality an explanation of the difficulty that has been experienced in filling engineering and other professions with empirical and theoretical substance distinct from the substance of their supporting sciences. Engineering, medicine, business, architecture and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent – not with how things are but with how they might be – in short, with design.

Simon contrasts design science with natural science, which is concerned with knowledge about natural objects and phenomena. Design science must take account of natural science since an artefact is a meeting-place or interface between the inner environment of the artefact and the outer environment in which it performs, both of which operate in accordance with natural laws. Simon discussed design science in the contexts of economics, the psychology of cognition, and planning and engineering design, but not information systems. It has taken some time for Simon’s ideas to filter through to information systems and they are still not unequivocally accepted in this discipline.

Weber (1987), for example, recognised difficulties with design work in information systems. He saw the ‘lure of design and construction’ as a factor inhibiting the progress of information systems as a discipline and called for theory that gave information systems a paradigmatic base.

In 1992, Simon’s ideas were adopted and applied to consideration of information systems design theory by Walls et al. (1992). Recently the ideas of these authors have enjoyed some currency, as shown in the specification of a design theory for knowledge management systems by Markus, Majchrzak and Gasser (2002). The explication of information systems design theory by Walls et al. (1992) is probably the most complete and thorough to date. Since 1992, there have been varying and rather scattered approaches to the problem and articulation of design theory in information systems and allied fields. March and Smith (1995) and Hevner et al. (2004) followed Simon’s ideas closely, but with an important difference. They saw design science products as comprised of four types: constructs, models, methods, and implementations, but excluded theories. Jarvinen (2001) expresses similar views.

More recently, Iivari (2003) argued that determining the distinctive identity of information systems relies on the recognition that our knowledge and theory is concerned with the developing and building of information system artefacts.

Thus, these considerations provide a justification for a fifth type of theory of interest to information systems researchers: theory for design and action (Type V).