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

Re-Grounding Grounded Theory

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

Re-Grounding Grounded Theory

Article excerpt

So one day I was sitting in a meeting about the new global trade regime, NAFTA and GA 77 and the World Trade Organization. The more I listened, the more I began to simmer inside. "This is a huge new system people are inventing!'I said to myself. `They haven't the slightest idea how it will behave,' myself said back to me. (Meadows, 1997, stress added)


IS researchers are now far more likely to consider using qualitative approaches than may have been the case a few years ago. Publication outlets such as RITA, Information & Organization, and IFIP Working Group 8.2 have helped to establish a firm basis for non-quantitative IS research. One method that is gaining increasing popularity is the Grounded Theory Method originated by Glaser and Strauss. There are some profound problems with this approach; in particular the unproblematic conceptualization of data, and a level of methodological flexibility that can degenerate into methodological indifference and result in superficial and ambiguous conclusions.

This paper argues that the method is not indelibly stamped with these failings and inconsistencies; although they are indeed failings, despite the views of many users of the method If these faults are remedied, however, the method is particularly suited to IS research, particularly where it proceeds from an antipositivist orientation that sees truth as socially constructed and sustained, and where representation is viewed as a distributed, systems phenomenon.


Discussion of research philosophies and methods within IS has increasingly grappled with the choice between and relative merits of quantitative and qualitative approaches. In part this has come about as one aspect of the gradual conceptual dismantling of the positivist or scientistic hegemony. This has occurred as part of the agenda to increase the visibility of intrepretivist approaches; but it has also been part of the move to promote a more critical research orientation. Some versions of the critical programme seek to offer a more extensive and profound questioning of the entire scientistic1 enterprise, usually linked to the wider postmodernist perspective. This involves a comprehensive dismantling of scientism in any form, and in some variants denies any sort of privileged knowledge claim for science.

IS has had to accommodate to these various trends, and there are distinctions within the domain that parallel these wider philosophical differences. To an extent the divisions parallel those which distinguish different conceptions of the two words information and system. Some see the systems approach as an alternative to the scientific one; for others it is an orientation that enhances and complements the scientific approach both methodologically and epistemologically; but this is not the key division. The most profound demarcation concerns the ontological status of any system: To what extent it can be said to exist. In his recent summary of the systems approach, Ackoff (1999) uses the example of a car. There is the unmistakable sense in which the car exists, and so it might be supposed that it is similarly obvious that the car-as-system exists. But whereas the physical extent of the car is tangible and measureable, the same cannot be said for the car-as-system - for instance, does it include the driver? Does it include the road on which the car is standing or moving? Now consider the healthcare system another example used by Ackoff. Where does this begin and end? What does it include - and hence exclude? To what extent does it exist?

Some aspects of this ontological concern are raised by Flood in his recent work (1999), where he argues that there are two central issues for `systemic thinking'; boundary setting - `yielding a viewpoint that is both relevant and on a manageable scale' (p 70); and `who is to judge that any one viewpoint is relevant' (p 70 - stress in the original). A similar sentiment is offered by Meadows in the quote at the start of this paper. …

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