Postmodernism, Interpretivism, and Formal Ontologies

Postmodernism, Interpretivism, and Formal Ontologies

Jan H. Kroeze (University of South Africa, South Africa)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0179-6.ch003


This chapter investigates the relationship between postmodernism, interpretivism, and formal ontologies, which are widely used in Information Systems (IS). Interpretivism has many postmodernist traits. It acknowledges that the world is diverse and that knowledge is contextual, ever-changing, and emergent. The acceptance of the idea of more than one reality and multiple understandings is part and parcel of postmodernism. Interpretivism is, therefore, characterized as a postmodern research philosophy. To demonstrate this philosophical premise more concretely, the creation of the logical structure of formal ontologies is sketched as an example of typical interpretivist and postmodernist activity in IS.
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Humanities aspects and approaches are present and embedded in various branches of information and communication technology (ICT). One outstanding example is the increase in research on and use of “ontologies” in Information Systems (IS). This chapter investigates interpretivism as a postmodern research philosophy, as well as the problematic association between the philosophical concept of ontology and the notion of formal ontologies as it is used and researched in IS. The chapter’s objective is to show that both formal ontologies and the interpretivist paradigm used to create them show very clear postmodernist traits.1

Although the term ontology has been borrowed by Information Systems from philosophy, it has been given a slightly different meaning. The concept has been pluralised, but the two uses of the word are still historically and logically related. The author believes that the shift – from singular to plural – was made possible by the postmodern era that we live in. Like reality, knowledge and understanding have become fluid. Software development, too, did not escape the philosophical shift from modernism to postmodernism. Indeed, one may also regard the creation of information systems ontologies in a positive way as the endeavour of academics to embrace the multifaceted nature of reality by representing subsets of it. On the other hand, the danger of formal ontologies is that, although they are meant to mirror and capture reality, ontology-based software could create hyperrealities that become more real than reality because it is typical of postmodernism that real life phenomena are replaced by representations.

This chapter is a purely conceptual study and no empirical methodologies are used (cf. Klein & Myers, 1999, p. 70 for a seminal paper using a purely conceptual approach). The central premise is that, although the singular and plural terms are used differently, they are still semantically related, and that postmodernism underpins the divergence in meaning. Using a qualitative approach, the chapter reflects on the intimate relationship between postmodernism, interpretivism, ICT, and formal ontologies.

After the concepts of postmodernism and interpretivism are defined and discussed, general postmodernist traits in IS and IS research are discussed. Formal ontologies are then explored as the epitome of postmodernism in this field. The chapter concludes with a critical discussion of the understanding and use of ontologies, highlighting some ironies and paradoxes, as well as dangers and opportunities.

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