Summary: Doing interpretive research by Geoff Walsham(2006)
Babu Geevarathnam, Balaji Balasubramanian
National University of Singapore
Many information system (IS) journals nowadays publish According to the author, the justification of the approach to
interpretive studies. But new researchers do not have sufficient research work upon the completion of fieldwork, data analysis and
information on how an interpretive research should be carried out. application selection is scrutinized through the Golden-Biddle and
The author of this paper attempts to bridge this gap by providing Locke criteria (1993) of authenticity, plausibility and criticality.
the required information on how such work is to be carried out Alternatively a more comprehensive seven criteria approach
from inception to publication. This paper is based on the insight proposed by Klein and Myers (1999) can be used for evaluation.
and experiences gained by the author. It extends the paper - The author also states that the construction of the contribution
Interpretive case studies in IS research: nature and method should follow a broad framework of stating the aim of the
(Walsham, 1995). literature, audience for the literature and also the novelty of the
The core theme of this paper is organized in four important written work that is new to audience and the literature. The
sections. An overview of each section is discussed below. researcher should embark on structured layout written paper with
detailed outline including sections and sub-sections. Some brief
CARRYING OUT FIELDWORK material on each of the section and subsections should be written to
According to the author, fieldwork forms the fundamental basis outline their contents and how they will connect. It is important to
of an interpretive study. It is possible to carry out an effective keep the title sharp and focused. The abstract should summarize the
fieldwork for interpretive research by considering the style of whole paper with key conclusions. The introduction should briefly
involvement, gaining and maintaining access and the process of state the importance of the topic and researchers plan on developing
collecting data. the contribution. The paper should provide a coherent and
The style of involvement can from a broad spectrum ranging interesting story for the reader with plenty of quotes from
from ‘neutral observers’ to action researchers each with its own respondents. Also, it must focus on the claimed contributions in the
advantages and disadvantages. The choice of each option needs to discussion and conclusion section and provide a good upbeat
be weighed before embarking on a specific style of involvement ending.
Gaining and maintaining access is considered a key and vital
part of the interpretive research. Gaining access can be done by ETHICAL ISSUES AND TENSIONS
having good social skills. Maintaining access would require Having identified that very little is written in the IS literature on
develop good rapport field personnel, maintaining the interview ethical issues and tensions, the author discusses his practical
time, offer constructive feedback in the form of a presentation or experience in it and the approaches he used to overcome them. He
workshop. does this by discussing three specific domains of practice. They are
Interviews are the best form of accessing the interpretations of described below.
informants in the field. The researcher should put the interviewee
at ease and win their trust and confidence for obtaining truthful and Confidentiality and anonymity: There are two ethical issues
open feedback. The interview can be recorded or take the form of related to confidentiality. The first is that, while writing to sponsors
written notes with former providing scope for alternative forms of even if the researcher does not identify the person interviewed by
analysis while the latter being able capture the tacit and non-verbal name or specific position, there is a high possibility that the
elements of an interview which are critical aspects. sponsors make an informed guess as to whom the particular views
There exist similarities and differences when doing research at in the report may be attributed to. Secondly, when reporting in the
different countries. For the similarities, interviewees across the literature on the views of senior people, it is possible for the readers
world are normally willing to talk about themselves, their work and to do a detective work and make a good guess on who is being
life with reasonable openness and honestly provided that they discussed. The other issue discussed by the author is that of giving
perceive the researchers’ sincerity of interest and trust the actual name of the organization when reporting on it in the
researcher’s statements on confidentially. For the differences, the literature. The advantage of such disclosure includes the ability of
informant can do the necessary homework on the social cultural enabling readers to validate the empirical work based on their own
aspects and also collaborate with a local researcher to overcome the knowledge of the organization. But the disadvantage of disclosure
language barrier. is that it makes many relevant IS topics unresearchable
(Hirschheim and Lyytinen, 1994). The author also states that his
current position is based on his past paper (Walsham,1996) in
THEORY & DATA ANALYSIS which he argued that a compromise position of organizational
Theory can be used as an initial guide to design and data nondisclosure only when necessary for access or ethical reasons,
collection, as part of an iterative process of data collection and and even in those cases good contextual information should be
analysis, or as a final product of the research. IS Interpretive provided.
researchers can choose any of the theories like grounded theory,
actor-network theory, confession account or literatures on Working with the organization: During the carrying out of actual
standardization and localization based on their own experiences, fieldwork, there is a possibility of a gap between the expressed
background and interests. It is important that the authors justify purpose of the research in written or verbal form, and the broader
their choice based on relevance and field data. Theories chosen agenda of the field researcher. The author states that it is legitimate
should be good for a purpose and convincing to researcher himself for the researcher to say that they are researching on a different
as well as the readers. topic, even when they are focusing on something else. The author
Theories help in data analysis and also aids in the data collection explains this with power relations as an example. The other issue
process if it is envisaged that a particular theory is very applicable discussed here is that, how and whether to give ‘bad news’ to
in the context of research. There are qualitative analysis techniques organizational sponsors. According to the author it is better to give
through packages such as Nudist (a computerized analysis tool), but the information as a sweet pill rather than hiding it or breaking the
has its drawbacks and choice of themes still remains the news hard.
responsibility of the researcher.
Reporting in literature: While working on articles with
CONSTRUCTING & JUSTIFYING A CONTRIBUTION practitioners from organizations being researched or from
organizations providing funding for the research, it involves
compromises and ethical issues as the organizational participants
do not want their organization to be portrayed negatively in WALSHAM G (1996) Editorial: organizational secrecy: some
published works with their name on it. The other problem the proposals for a way forward. European Journal of Information
author cites is that of maintaining academic integrity by not Systems 4(4), 195–197.
showing all works to the sponsoring organizations. The author
believes that because of this a tension exists; where the research ORGANIZATION STRUCTURE OF THE PAPER
respondents would not only disagree with the author’s
interpretation, but may feel hurt by some of the critical comments.
CONCLUSION & OUR PERSONAL OBERVATIONS
The author of this paper has provided a comprehensive
methodology for conducting IS interpretive research, which
includes case studies, ethnographies and action research. The
overall approach for this methodology has been described in four
key sections namely, carrying out fieldwork; theory and data
analysis; constructing and justifying a contribution; and ethical
issues and tensions.
For each section, the author has clearly expressed his view points
and also the pros and cons of the various options. This paper can
hence act as a guideline for new researchers writing articles,
conference papers or PhD Thesis.
The author feels that it is morally important to offer advice, help
and constructive suggestions even if the researcher is a neutral
observer to the show. There is also emphasis on the point that
interpretive research does not equal qualitative research. Also, he
states that quantitative data from surveys or elsewhere are perfectly
valid inputs to supplement any interpretive study.
The research questions that this report addresses are: What are
the factors that are important for carrying out IS interpretive
research? How these factors are influenced and how they are
important for IS interpretive research? What are the advantage and
disadvantage of each influencing factor? Can a paper help a new
researcher in IS interpretive research area?
The author endeavors to answer the above questions with the
help of past literature, personal experiences, and discussions with
others. The key finding of this paper is the development of IS
interpretive research methodology. Hence, this paper can be
considered to be an attempt to arrive at 'how to do it' for IS
interpretive research. The other uniqueness about this paper is that
it discusses about factors like ethical issues and tensions. This
provides a better means of decision making for researchers in their
The research paper has certain drawbacks and lack of clarity.
1. The process of choosing an appropriate theory through the stages
of the research viz., field study, data capture, data analysis and
justification of the theory in the context
3. The process for choosing a research focus area is not addressed.
4. The role of theory in the ‘theory and data analysis section’ is
vague and not comprehendible.
4. The author does not elicit the social cultural barriers or issues
encountered during the field study or research.
GOLDEN-BIDDLE K and LOCKE K (1993) Appealing work: an
investigation of how ethnographic texts convince. Organization
Science 4(4), 595–616.
HIRSCHHEIM R and LYYTINEN K (1994) Editorial: banning
organizational secrecy can threaten research too. European Journal
of Information Systems 3(2), 83–84.
KLEIN HK and MYERS MD (1999) A set of principles for
conducting and evaluating interpretive field studies in information
systems. MIS Quarterly 23(1), 67–94.
WALSHAM G (1995) Interpretive case studies in IS research:
nature and method. European Journal of Information Systems 4(2),