Critical Realism

Critical Realism

Sven A. Carlsson (Lund University, Sweden)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-659-4.ch004
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Different strands of non-positivistic research approaches and theories, for example, constructivism, grounded theory, and structuration theory, have gained popularity in the information systems (IS) field. Although, they are managing to overcome some problems with positivism and structural theories they are not completely without problems. This chapter puts critical realism forward as an alternative philosophical underpinning for IS research. Critical realism starts from an ontology that identifies structures and mechanisms, through which events and discourses are generated, as being fundamental to the constitution of our natural and social reality. The chapter presents critical realism and how it can be used in IS research. Examples of how critical realism have been used and can be used in research aiming at generating new IS theory, IS evaluation research, and IS design science research are provided.
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Why Critical Realism?

In response to the cry for the use of post-approaches and post-theories in IS research, researchers have used, for example, research approaches like constructivism, qualitative and intensive approaches, and grounded theory as well as theories like Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory—for different IS-examples, see, Lee et al. (1997), Trauth (2001), Whitman and Woszczynski (2004), and Myers (2009).

We will not do an exhaustive review of different post-approaches and post-theories, but will point out limitations and weaknesses in: 1) one approach for generating theories, grounded theory, 2) one “theory” (description) of human action and social organization, structuration theory, and 3) the suggestions to integrate and combine different approaches in IS research, for example combining positivist and interpretive approaches. The choice of the examples is based on that grounded theory is increasingly used by IS-researchers and is a good example of a post-approach. Structuration theory is also gaining increased presence in the IS-literature and is a good example of a post-theory.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Positivism: Asserts that reality is the sum of sense impression. In large, equating social sciences with natural sciences. Primarily using deductive logic and quantitative research methods.

Retroduction: The central mode of inference (explanation) in critical realism research. Enables a researcher to investigate the potential causal mechanisms and the conditions under which certain outcomes will or will not be realised.

Critical Realism: Asserts that the study of the social world should be concerned with the identification of the structures and mechanisms through which events and discourses are generated.

Realism: A position acknowledging a reality independent of actors’ (incl. researchers’) thoughts and beliefs.

Context-Mechanism-Outcome Pattern: Realist evaluation researchers orient their thinking to context-mechanism-outcome (CMO) pattern configurations. A CMO configuration is a proposition stating what it is about an IS initiative which works for whom in what circumstances. A refined CMO configuration is the finding of IS evaluation research.

Constructivism (or Social Constructivism): Asserts that (social) actors socially construct reality.

Realist IS Evaluation: Evaluation (research) based on critical realism aiming at producing ever more detailed answers to the question of why an IS initiative works (better) for whom and in what circumstances (contexts).

Postmodernism: A position critical of realism and rejects the view of social sciences as a search for over-arching explanations of the social world. Has a preference for qualitative methods.

Empiricism: Asserts that only knowledge gained through experience and senses is acceptable in studies of reality.

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