Doing interpretive research (Walsham, 2006) – Summary
Many information systems (IS) journals are publishing interpretive studies. But researchers do not have
enough information on how an interpretive research should be carried out and published. This paper
provides the information required on how such work is to be carried out from inception to publication
based on the insight gained by the author in last decade. It extends the IS case study research (Walsham,
1995) by including ethnographies and action research.
The theme of the paper is organized within four important sections which provide information on how an
IS interpretive research is to be carried out. The sections are: carrying out fieldwork; theory and data
analysis; constructing and justifying a contribution; and ethical issues and tensions.
Carrying out fieldwork
As setting up and carrying out of fieldwork is the fundamental basis of any interpretive study, the author
attempts to conquer it by considering following sub factor - choosing a style of involvement; gaining and
maintaining access; collecting field data; and working in different countries.
Choosing a style of involvement
The author views “involvement” as a spectrum where the involvement of the researcher changes often over
time. At one end of the spectrum are the ‘neutral observers’ who are considered by the people in the field
situation to be not aligned with the organization. The other end are the ‘action researchers’ who try
consciously and explicitly to change things in the way that they feel best.
According to the author, the advantage of close involvement (action research) includes in-depth access to
people, issues, and data. Baskerville and Myers (2004) provide more insight on this.
The disadvantage includes the overall time spent and opportunity costs that is incurred by the researcher.
The people in the field situation may be less open and honest in case they perceive the researcher to have a
vested interest. Also, there is a possibility that the researcher becomes socialized to the views of the people
in the field and loses the benefit of a fresh outlook on the situation.
Hence the author recommends that the advantages and disadvantages are weighed to make a choice of level
and style of involvement.
Gaining and maintaining access
Gaining access can be done by having good social skills, willingness to accept ‘no’ for an answer and
persistence to try elsewhere (it is possible to obtain access by approaching the research from different
angles). Apart from these – chance, luck and serendipity plays a vital role. Hence, here the author also
argues that even if the researcher has access to limited set of organizations, it does not remove the
possibility of generalizability.
Maintaining access can be done by having good social skills, being liked and respected by the field
personnel. It includes fixing suitable interview time and not overstaying an interview.
Also, since organizations will normally respond well to the offer and delivery of various forms of feedback,
the author recommends that interpretive IS researchers should offer feedback of some sort if they are asked
to do so, even if they are adopting the role of neutral observers. The preferred feedback can be a
presentation or workshop where two way communications can take place, rather than a report which can be
at times be controversial.
Collecting field data
Interviews are key way of accessing the interpretations of informants in the field. The researcher needs to
ensure that the interviewee is relaxed and assured about the confidentiality of the critical information’s
shared before an interview starts. This can be done by the researcher talking to the interviewee.
Tape recording of interviews is on method collecting transcripts. The advantage is a truer record of what
was said compared with the taking of notes during the interview, no matter how extensive. It is possible to
return to the transcript later for alternative forms of analysis, and it is useful for picking out direct quotes
when writing up. It frees the researcher to concentrate on engaging with the interviewee.
Working in different countries