Conversation Starter (Seminar 2) – Wietske van Osch

Conversation Starter – IM PhD Seminar 2 – Wietske van Osch

We can distinguish three overarching themes underlying the readings (articles) for this week’s seminar:

1) philosophical stances that are foundational to organizational research, in general, and IS research, in particular;

2) research methods adopted in organizational research in general, and IS research, in particular, as well as criteria for the evaluation of these methods;

3) theory building as well as the definition of what constitutes good theory

The first set of articles relate to the topic of research approaches, both the more abstract and foundational philosophical (epistemological and ontological) stances underlying organizational research as well as the more concrete methods applied in such research efforts. In several of these articles, the combination of foundational paradigms and/or research methods is advocated. Lee (1991) proposes the integration of positivist and interpretive approaches to organizational research by proposing three levels of understanding, which incorporate both an interpretive and positive level. Likewise Mingers (2001) suggests the integration of multiple paradigms, which are hold by some authors to be incommensurable, in order for a more holistic view of the multidimensional-namely material, personal, and social-world to emerge, in which one paradigm can illuminate the blind spots of another paradigm and vice versa. Mingers advocates a four-stage research process based on appreciation, analysis, assessment, and action.

Similar to Lee’s (1991) identification of different levels of understanding, which increase in level of abstraction and objectivity (moving from description to objectified theory), Pentland (1999), in his view of theory as narrative, distinguishes four levels of narrative structure, where the first level-text-represents a subjective, surface layer-and the third and fourth level-fabula and generative mechanism-represent a more abstract, deep layer.

Lee (1991):
Positivist approach – foundations:

1.       Rules of formal logic

2.       Rules of the Hypothetico-Deductive Logic

3.       Four requirements for the theoretical propositions to satisfy (falsifiability, logical consistency, relative explanatory power, survival)

Interpretive approach – foundations:

1.       Phenomenological Sociology

2.       Hermeneutics

3.       Ethnography

Integrating the two approaching – three levels of understanding:

1.       Understanding at the first level: observed human subjects (subjective)

2.       Understanding at the second level: interpretive (researcher’s reading of 1st level)

3.       Understanding at the third level: positivist; scientific theory

Pentland (1999): Levels of narrative structure:

1.       Text: surface level, the specific text of the story told; data-collection level

2.       Story: focalization; narrative voice/evaluative context enter the narrative structure  (introduces subjectivity)

3.       Fabula: specific set of events, actors, and their relationships; objective version/generative (theorizing: effort to identify an objective version of the fabula)

4.       Generative mechanisms: deepest level; abstract process; four motors of Van de Ven & Poole (life cycle, teleological, ecological, dialectical)

The articles of Pinsonneault & Kramer (1993), Hevner et al. (2004), Klein & Meyers (1999), and Schultze (2000) are all attempts to derive at a framework for evaluating and conducting a particular type of research, namely survey, design science, interpretive field studies, and confessional ethnographies respectively.

Pinsonneault & Kramer (1993) Hevner et al. (2004) Klein & Meyers (1999) Schultze (2000)
Survey Design science Interpretive field studies Confessional ethnographies
Research design (survey type, mix of research methods, unit(s) of analysis, respondents, research hypotheses, design for data analysis);

Sampling procedure (representativeness sample frame, representativeness sample, sample size);

Data collection (pretest of questionnaires, response rate, mix of data collection methods)

1.       the creation of an innovative, purposeful artifact

2.       for a specified problem domain

3.       thorough evaluation of the artifact (artifact is purposeful, must yield utility for the specified problem)

4.       artifact to be innovative

5.       artifact to be rigorously defined, formally represented, coherent and internally consistent

6.       search process whereby a problem space is constructed and a mechanism posed/enacted top find an effective solution

7.       results to be communicated effectively both to a technical and a managerial audience

1.       Fundamental principle of the hermeneutic circle

2.       Principle of contextualization

3.       Principle of interaction between the researchers and the subjects

4.       Principle of abstraction and generalization

5.       Principle of dialogical reasoning

6.       Principle of multiple interpretations

7.      Principle of suspicion

1.       Authenticity (demonstrate that the ethnographic researcher was indeed immersed in the field)

2.       Plausibility (present the findings as relevant to the common concerns of the audience)

3.       Criticality (move readers to reexamine their own taken-for-granted assumptions)

4.       Self-revealing writing

5.      Interfacing “actual” and confessional content

What the remaining two articles have in common with the previously discussed ones, are that these too relate to research approaches, however, they are not as much concerned with advocating multi-method research nor with constructing evaluative frameworks. Rather, Gergen & Thatchenkery (1996) explore the potentials of postmodernist thinking in organization science. A question that arises after reading the article is if the authors do not too easily link postmodernist thinking with the postmodern type of organizing? In my perspective the nature and meaning of the term ‘postmodern’ in these two usages is very different.

Last but not least, the article of Myers (1997) can be viewed as a summarizing article of qualitative research in information systems; its philosophical foundations (positivist, interpretive, critical), its research methods (action research, case study research, ethnography, and grounded theory), as well as its different modes of analysis (hermeneutics, semiotics, as well as narrative and metaphor)

The second set of articles relate to the topic of theory building, hence, primarily entail evaluation criteria for the development of theory as well as for judging what constitutes good theory. Whetten (1989), Van de Ven (1989), Eisenhardt (1989), and Bacharach (1989) all discuss building blocks and evaluation criteria for good theory.

Whetten/Van de Ven (1989) Eisenhardt (1989)
Building blocks of theory: Building theory from case study research:




1.       Initial definition of research question and research focus

2.       A priori specification of constructs that can help to shape the initial design of theory-building research

3.       Theory-building is begun as close as possible to the ideal of no theory under consideration and no hypotheses to test

4.       Selection of cases (population) à theoretical sampling (rather than statistical)

5.       Combine multiple data collection methods (triangulation) and craft protocols

6.       Joint collection, coding, and analysis of data

7.       Analyzing within-case data

8.       Searching for cross-case patterns

9.       Shaping hypotheses à compare theory and data constantly so as to sharpen constructs

10.    Comparison of the emergent concepts, theory, or hypotheses with the extant literature (conflicting literature)

11.    Reaching closure à when to stop adding cases and when to stop iterating between theory and data


When reading some of these articles I feel the authors are striving for perfection. A perfection of which I wonder if it is feasible, let alone, desirable? Scientists want to believe that science progresses through a thoroughly rational and regimented sequence of hypotheses formulation, experimentation, observation, and analysis, yet, the progression of science is equally dependent on such “irrational” phenomena as insights, hunches, and intuitions that do or do not “ring true” (Polanyi, 1966). So then as Weick (1995) argues-in response to the article from Sutton & Staw (1995) on what theory is not-theorizing consists of activities like abstracting, generalizing, relating, selecting, explaining, synthesizing, and idealizing, which intermittently spin out reference lists, data, lists of variables, diagrams, and hypotheses. Yet, although these in and off themselves are not theories, they may be as relevant to the progression of science as abstract, broad theories emerging from a inevitable trade-off between generalizability and accuracy.

Moreover, being solely occupied with the development of good theory, might not lead to any practical insights, i.e. to any progression of the information systems field, which is relevant from the perspective of IS practitioners and IS professionals. Benbasat & Zmud (1999) as well as Davenport & Markus (1999) address the rigor vs. relevance debate and discuss several dimensions of relevance as well as models of practical research, such as applied research, evaluation research, and policy research.

Dimensions of relevance:

Article’s Content Interesting
Article’s Style Accessible

Merging the topics of rigor and relevance is the final article on the list, namely the article by Gabriel (2002), in which he defines organizational theories as paragrammes: basic stocks of ideas, routines, images, and ingredients which may be selectively trawled, lifted, and adapted to the situation at hand. Similar to Czarniawska & Joerges (2005) concept of local translation-which refers to a process of interpreting as translating-Gabriel discusses how organizational theories are adapted to the needs of local actors, just like any other commodity in society. Paragrammatic users:

  1. improvise (adapt the general to the particular)
  2. combine (different elements from different theories and different theories itself)
  3. are careful about details, yet, constantly make use of creative substitution
  4. pay great attention to timing
  5. draw a distinction between winning recipes and recipes which call for creative experimentation and improvement; apply the former with consistency and experiment with the latter
  6. avoid waste; they preserve ideas, recipes and materials for future uses; try to recycle/retrieve
  7. rummage for resources, ideas, and materials in the belief that these may sometime come in handy
  8. engage in multi-tasking; able to pursue several objectives at once
  9. do not become obsessed with perfection, but look for good enough practical solutions; they maintain a practical interest

If Gabriel is right, even the most rigorous theory will still be adapted to the needs of individual managers and scholars, just like information systems are adapted to the needs of individual users.


Bacharach, S. (1989). Organizational theories: Some criteria for evaluation. Academy of Management Review, 14(4), 496-515.

Benbasat, I., & Zmud, R. W. (1999). Empirical research in information systems: The practice of relevance. MIS Quarterly, 23(1), 3-16.

Davenport, T., & Markus, M. L. (1999). Rigor vs. Relevance: Response to Benbasat and Zmud. MIS Quarterly, 23(1), 19-24.

Davis, M.S. (1971). That’s Interesting! Toward a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 1, 309-344. (

Eisenhardt, K.M. (1989). Building theories from case study research. Academy of Management Review, 14(4), 532-550.

Gabriel, Y. (2002). On paragrammatic uses of organizational theory – A provocation. Organization Studies, 23 (1), 133-151.

Gergen, K.J. & Thatchenkery, T.J. (1996). Organization Science as Social Construction: Postmodern Potentials. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 32(4), 356-377.

Hevner, A.R., March, S.T., Park, J. & Ram, S. (2004). Design Science in Information Systems Research. MIS Quarterly, 28(1), pp. pp. 75-105.

Klein, H.K. & Myers, M.D. (1999). A Set of Principles for Conducting and Evaluating Interpretive Field Studies in Information Systems. MIS Quarterly, 23(1), 67-94.

Lee, A.S. (1991) Integrating Positivist and Interpretive Approaches to Organizational Research. Organization Science, 2(4) 342-365.

Mingers, J. (2001). Combining IS Research Methods: Towards a Pluralist Methodology. Information Systems Research, 12(3), 240-259.

Myers, M.D. (1997). Qualitative Research in Information Systems. MIS Quarterly, 21(2), 241-242 and (try following the links)

Pentland, B.T. (1999). Building process theory with narrative: From description to explanation. Academy of Management Review, 24(4), 711-725.

Pinsonneault, A. & Kraemer, K.L. (1993). Survey research methodology in management information systems: An assessment. Journal of Management Information Systems, 10(2), 75-105.

Polanyi, M. (1966). The Tacit Dimension. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Schultze, U. (2000). A Confessional Account of an Ethnography about Knowledge Work. MIS Quarterly, 24(1), 3-41.

Sutton, R. I., & Staw, B. M. (1995). What theory is not. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40, 371-384.

Van De Ven, A. H. (1989). Nothing is quite so practical as a good theory. Academy of Management Review, 14(4), 486-489.

Weick, K. E. (1995). What theory is not, theorizing is. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40, 385-390.

Whetten, D. A. (1989). What constitutes a theoretical contribution? Academy of Management Review, 14(4), 490-495.

Comments are closed.