Academic journal article JITTA : Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application

Using Critical Realism to Explain Strategic Information Systems Planning

Academic journal article JITTA : Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application

Using Critical Realism to Explain Strategic Information Systems Planning

Article excerpt


This paper shows how the philosophy of social science known as Critical Realism (CR) can inform information systems (IS) research. CR is particularly helpful for IS research where natural science methods (e.g. controlled experiments) are difficult to apply such as in organizational settings, involving IS, where complex interactions occur and outcomes are not predictable. CR shows how an open systems ontology of social reality better explains the nature of causation in complex social interactions and accounts for the fact that outcomes are not predictable. A key advantage of CR is its adoption of an objective ontology (a reality independent of the researcher) while acknowledging the socially constructed nature of knowledge (a subjective epistemology) that can, nevertheless, be assessed for validity thus avoiding the problem of relativism. CR has been used in sociology, economics, organization and management studies, marketing studies, geography, and legal studies but not much in IS research. The second part of the paper illustrates the application of CR principles in an excerpt from case study research to explain the outcomes of the interaction between organizational context and management interventions to develop and implement strategic IS plans


Realist Ontology and Epistemology

Critical realism is a philosophy of social science that shares with positivism the belief that there is a reality, both natural and social, which is independent of human knowledge. However, against positivism but with the interpretive tradition, CR accepts a subjective epistemology or that knowledge is a product of the mind's interpretive activity and is also socially constructed. CR rejects however the assertion, of the strong social constructionist strand of interpretivism, that there is no independent means of establishing the validity of socially constructed knowledge claims. There can be different explanations about a given phenomenon but the adequacy of these explanations, in terms of explaining the causes of the phenomenon in question, can be assessed by reference to an independent reality. In other words CR accepts epistemic relativity, "all beliefs are socially produced" but not judgmental relativity "all beliefs (statements) are equally valid, in the sense that there can be no (rational) grounds for preferring one to another." (Bhaskar 1998a, p. 57) Hence relativism is avoided.

A central idea of CR is that natural and social reality should be understood as an open stratified system of objects with causal powers. In the first strata is the domain of experiences or the empirical. The second is the wider domain of actually occurring events and 'non-events' or the domain in which causation is actualized but not necessarily experienced or resulting in events. Finally encompassing both these domains is the domain of the real, which contains the objects, which are the source of causation in the world and hence the cause of events. On this understanding an object is real if it has causal power capable of producing effects. This stratified conception of reality is illustrated in Figure 1.

This defines the ontology of reality as an open stratified system of natural objects with causal powers (mechanisms), which under some conditions are actualized to produce events some of which are experienced in the domain of the empirical. Sayer (2000, p. 11-12) comments:

The real is whatever exists, be it natural or social, regardless of whether it is an empirical object for us, and ... the real is the realm of objects, ... Whether they be physical, like minerals, or social like bureaucracies, they have certain structures and causal powers, ... the actual refers to what happens if and when those powers are activated, to what they do and what eventuates when they do, such as when the bureaucracy's powers are activated and it engages in activities such as classifying and invoicing, or the previously idle person does some work. …

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