Critical Realism as an Underlying Philosophy for IS Research

Critical Realism as an Underlying Philosophy for IS Research

Philip J. Dobson (Edith Cowan University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch131
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Abstract

Many recent articles from within the information systems (IS) arena present an old-fashioned view of realism. For example, Iivari, Hirschheim, and Klein (1998) saw classical realism as seeing “data as describing objective facts, information systems as consisting of technological structures (‘hardware’), human beings as subject to causal laws (determinism), and organizations as relatively stable structures” (p. 172). Wilson (1999) saw the realist perspective as relying on “the availability of a set of formal constraints which have the characteristics of abstractness, generality, invariance across contexts.” Fitzgerald and Howcroft (1998) presented a realist ontology as one of the foundational elements of positivism in discussing the polarity between hard and soft approaches in IS. Realism is placed alongside positivist, objectivist, etic epistemologies and quantitative, confirmatory, deductive, laboratory-focussed and nomothetic methodologies. Such a traditional view of realism is perhaps justified within the IS arena, as it reflects the historical focus of its use, however, there now needs to be a greater recognition of the newer forms of realism—forms of realism that specifically address all of the positivist leanings emphasised by Fitzgerald and Howcroft (1998). A particular example of this newer form of realism is critical realism. This modern realist approach is primarily founded on the writings of the social sciences philosopher Bhaskar (1978, 1979, 1986, 1989, 1991). The usefulness of such an approach has recently been recognized in the IS arena by Dobson (2001) and Mingers (2002).
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Introduction

Many recent articles from within the information systems (IS) arena present an old-fashioned view of realism. For example, Iivari, Hirschheim, and Klein (1998) saw classical realism as seeing “data as describing objective facts, information systems as consisting of technological structures (‘hardware’), human beings as subject to causal laws (determinism), and organizations as relatively stable structures” (p. 172). Wilson (1999) saw the realist perspective as relying on “the availability of a set of formal constraints which have the characteristics of abstractness, generality, invariance across contexts.”

Fitzgerald and Howcroft (1998) presented a realist ontology as one of the foundational elements of positivism in discussing the polarity between hard and soft approaches in IS. Realism is placed alongside positivist, objectivist, etic epistemologies and quantitative, confirmatory, deductive, laboratory-focussed and nomothetic methodologies. Such a traditional view of realism is perhaps justified within the IS arena, as it reflects the historical focus of its use, however, there now needs to be a greater recognition of the newer forms of realism—forms of realism that specifically address all of the positivist leanings emphasised by Fitzgerald and Howcroft (1998). A particular example of this newer form of realism is critical realism. This modern realist approach is primarily founded on the writings of the social sciences philosopher Bhaskar (1978, 1979, 1986, 1989, 1991). The usefulness of such an approach has recently been recognized in the IS arena by Dobson (2001) and Mingers (2002).

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Background

Bhaskar’s brand of realism (referred to by Searle, 1995, as a form of external realism) argues that there exists a reality totally independent of our representations of it; the reality and the “representation of reality” operating in different domains—roughly a transitive epistemological dimension and an intransitive ontological dimension. For the realist, the most important driver for decisions on methodological approach will always be the intransitive dimension—the target being to unearth the real mechanisms and structures underlying perceived events. Critical realism acknowledges that observation is value laden, as Bhaskar pointed out in a recent interview:

…there is no conflict between seeing our scientific views as being about objectively given real worlds, and understanding our beliefs about them as subject to all kinds of historical and other determinations. (Norris, 1999)

The critical realist agrees that our knowledge of reality is a result of social conditioning and thus cannot be understood independently of the social actors involved in the knowledge derivation process. However, it takes issue with the belief that the reality is a product of this knowledge derivation process. The critical realist asserts that “real objects are subject to value laden observation”; the reality and the value-laden observation of reality operate in two different dimensions, one intransitive and relatively enduring and the other transitive and changing.

An important aspect of a critical realist approach is that it not only provides direction on the characteristics and behaviour of the underlying objects of enquiry, but it also provides direction as to how to examine these objects. The philosophy is presented as an underlabourer to social enquiry in that it can help with “clearing the ground a little...removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way of knowledge” (Locke, 1894, p. 14). This integral and important role for philosophy in the enquiry process can help to avoid many potentially false pathways and avenues.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Closed and Open Systems: A closed system is one restricted in such a way that laws have uniform effects. An open system is one that is not closed. Closed systems do not usually occur spontaneously in nature and generally require human intervention, such as in laboratory experiments (from www.raggedclaws.com/criticalrealism ).

Realism: The belief that there is a reality independent of our perceptions of it.

Epistemology: The study of knowledge or how we come to know.

Philosophy: “The critical examination of the grounds for fundamental beliefs and an analysis of the basic concepts employed in the expression of such beliefs” ( Encyclopaedia Britannica , p. 388, Micropedia , Vol. 9, 1985) or the “rational, methodical, and systematic consideration of those topics that are of greatest concern to man” ( Macropedia , Vol. 25, p. 742, 1985 edition).

Critical Realism: The careful or critical application of the scientific approach to the social sciences.

Ontology: The study of what exists.

Author’s Note: In philosophy, definitions become a basis for debate, they often reflect the area from which the author derives. Perhaps the following reflect realist origins.

Transitive and Intransitive Dimensions: The intransitive dimension in the philosophy of science corresponds roughly to ontology, and the transitive dimension corresponds roughly to epistemology. Intransitive objects exist and act independently of our knowledge of them (except when we use our knowledge to intervene (see www.raggedclaws.com/criticalrealism ).

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