Critical Realist Information Systems Research

Critical Realist Information Systems Research

Sven A. Carlsson (Lund University, Sweden)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch132
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The information systems (IS) field is dominated by positivistic research approaches and theories (Chen & Hirschheim, 2004). IS scholars have pointed out weaknesses in these approaches and theories and in response different strands of post-modern theories and constructivism have gained popularity— see, Lee, Liebenau, and DeGross (1997) and Trauth (2001). The approaches argued for include ethnography, constructivism, grounded theory, and theories like Giddens’ structuration theory and Latour’s actor-network theory. (We refer to these different research approaches and theories as “post-approaches” and “post-theories” when distinction is not required).
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Critical Realism In Is Research

CR has primarily been developed by Roy Bhaskar (1978, 1998) and can be seen as a specific form of realism. Good summaries of CR are available in Sayer (2000) and Archer et al. (1998) and key concepts and main developments are presented in Hartwig (2007). CR’s manifesto is to recognize the reality of the natural order and the events and discourses of the social world. It holds that:

… we will only be able to understand—and so change—the social world if we identify the structures at work that generate those events and discourses … These structures are not spontaneously apparent in the observable pattern of events; they can only be identified through the practical and theoretical work of the social sciences. (Bhaskar, 1989, p. 2)

Bhaskar (1978) outlines what he calls three domains: the real, the actual, and the empirical. The real domain consists of underlying structures and mechanisms, and relations; events and behavior; and experiences. The generative mechanisms, residing in the real domain, exist independently of but capable of producing patterns of events. Relations generate behaviors in the social world. The domain of the actual consists of these events and behaviors. Hence, the actual domain is the domain in which observed events or observed patterns of events occur. The domain of the empirical consists of what we experience; hence, it is the domain of experienced events. Bhaskar argues that:

Key Terms in this Chapter

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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.

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.

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).

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