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Qualitative Research in Information Systems

Section Editor: Michael D. Myers

Welcome to the section on Qualitative Research in Information Systems (IS). This section aims to provide qualitative researchers in IS - and those wanting to know how to do qualitative research - with useful information on the conduct, evaluation and publication of qualitative research.

This is the original archival version of this "living scholarship". It has been unchanged since the work was accepted on May 20, 1997 apart from minor editing changes to links etc. Readers are referred to the live, and recently updated version of the work.

Acknowledgments: I am very grateful to the members of my Advisory Board, Allen S. Lee and M. Lynne Markus, for their encouragement and advice.


[Introduction] [Overview of Qualitative Research] [Philosophical Perspectives] [Qualitative Research Methods] [Qualitative Techniques for Data Collection] [Modes of Analysis] [Citations on Qualitative Research] [Resources for Qualitative Researchers] [Software Tools for Qualitative Researchers] [Calls for Papers] [Page Administration] [ISWorld Net Navigation Map]


This section is dedicated to qualitative research in Information Systems (IS). Qualitative research involves the use of qualitative data, such as interviews, documents, and participant observation, to understand and explain social phenomena. Qualitative researchers can be found in many disciplines and fields, using a variety of approaches, methods and techniques. In Information Systems, there has been a general shift in IS research away from technological to managerial and organizational issues, hence an increasing interest in the application of qualitative research methods.

This section is organized as follows. After a general overview of qualitative research, philosophical perspectives which can inform qualitative research are discussed. This is followed by sections on qualitative research methods, qualitative research techniques, and modes of analyzing and interpreting qualitative data. This is then followed by a number of sub-sections that relate to qualitative research in general, i.e. citation lists, links to resources on the Internet for qualitative researchers, links to software tools and calls for papers.

The goal is to provide the IS community with useful information on qualitative research in IS (subject to copyright considerations) with as much material as possible provided -- through links -- by the original authors themselves.

Please send suggestions for improvement to the Section Editor at:


Overview of Qualitative Research

Research methods can be classified in various ways, however one of the most common distinctions is between qualitative and quantitative research methods.

Quantitative research methods were originally developed in the natural sciences to study natural phenomena. Examples of quantitative methods now well accepted in the social sciences include survey methods, laboratory experiments, formal methods (e.g. econometrics) and numerical methods such as mathematical modeling.

Qualitative research methods were developed in the social sciences to enable researchers to study social and cultural phenomena. Examples of qualitative methods are action research, case study research and ethnography. Qualitative data sources include observation and participant observation (fieldwork), interviews and questionnaires, documents and texts, and the researcher’s impressions and reactions.

The motivation for doing qualitative research, as opposed to quantitative research, comes from the observation that, if there is one thing which distinguishes humans from the natural world, it is our ability to talk! Qualitative research methods are designed to help researchers understand people and the social and cultural contexts within which they live. Kaplan and Maxwell (1994) argue that the goal of understanding a phenomenon from the point of view of the participants and its particular social and institutional context is largely lost when textual data are quantified.

Although most researchers do either quantitative or qualitative research work, some researchers have suggested combining one or more research methods in the one study (called triangulation). Good discussions of triangulation can be found in Ragin (1987), Gable (1994), Kaplan and Duchon (1988) and Lee (1991). An empirical example of the use of triangulation is Markus' (1994) paper on electronic mail.

As well as the qualitative/quantitative distinction, there are other distinctions which are commonly made. Research methods have variously been classified as objective versus subjective (Burrell and Morgan, 1979), as being concerned with the discovery of general laws (nomothetic) versus being concerned with the uniqueness of each particular situation (idiographic), as aimed at prediction and control versus aimed at explanation and understanding, as taking an outsider (etic) versus taking an insider (emic) perspective, and so on. Considerable controversy continues to surround the use of these terms, however, a discussion of these distinctions is beyond the scope of this section. For a fuller discussion see Luthans and Davis (1982), and Morey and Luthans (1984). See also the section on philosophical perspectives below.

General References on Qualitative Research
ICIS 1996 Panel on Survey Research


Philosophical Perspectives

All research (whether quantitative or qualitative) is based on some underlying assumptions about what constitutes 'valid' research and which research methods are appropriate. In order to conduct and/or evaluate qualitative research, it is therefore important to know what these (sometimes hidden) assumptions are.

For our purposes, the most pertinent philosophical assumptions are those which relate to the underlying epistemology which guides the research. Epistemology refers to the assumptions about knowledge and how it can be obtained (for a fuller discussion, see Hirschheim, 1992).

Guba and Lincoln (1994) suggest four underlying "paradigms" for qualitative research: positivism, post-positivism, critical theory, and constructivism. Orlikowski and Baroudi (1991), following Chua (1986), suggest three categories, based on the underlying research epistemology: positivist, interpretive and critical. This three-fold classification is the one that is adopted here. However it needs to be said that, while these three research epistemologies are philosophically distinct (as ideal types), in the practice of social research these distinctions are not always so clear cut (e.g. see Lee, 1989). There is considerable disagreement as to whether these research "paradigms" or underlying epistemologies are necessarily opposed or can be accommodated within the one study.

It should be clear from the above that the word 'qualitative' is not a synonym for 'interpretive' - qualitative research may or may not be interpretive, depending upon the underlying philosophical assumptions of the researcher. Qualitative research can be positivist, interpretive, or critical (see Figure 1). It follows from this that the choice of a specific qualitative research method (such as the case study method) is independent of the underlying philosophical position adopted. For example, case study research can be positivist (Yin, 1994), interpretive (Walsham, 1993), or critical, just as action research can be positivist (Clark, 1972), interpretive (Elden and Chisholm, 1993) or critical (Carr and Kemmis, 1986). These three philosophical perspectives are discussed below.


1. Positivist Research

Positivists generally assume that reality is objectively given and can be described by measurable properties which are independent of the observer (researcher) and his or her instruments. Positivist studies generally attempt to test theory, in an attempt to increase the predictive understanding of phenomena. In line with this Orlikowski and Baroudi (1991, p.5) classified IS research as positivist if there was evidence of formal propositions, quantifiable measures of variables, hypothesis testing, and the drawing of inferences about a phenomenon from the sample to a stated population.

Examples of a positivist approach to qualitative research include Yin's (1994) and Benbasat et al's (1987) work on case study research.

2. Interpretive Research

Interpretive researchers start out with the assumption that access to reality (given or socially constructed) is only through social constructions such as language, consciousness and shared meanings. The philosophical base of interpretive research is hermeneutics and phenomenology (Boland, 1985). Interpretive studies generally attempt to understand phenomena through the meanings that people assign to them and interpretive methods of research in IS are "aimed at producing an understanding of the context of the information system, and the process whereby the information system influences and is influenced by the context" (Walsham 1993, p. 4-5). Interpretive research does not predefine dependent and independent variables, but focuses on the full complexity of human sense making as the situation emerges (Kaplan and Maxwell, 1994).

Examples of an interpretive approach to qualitative research include Boland's (1991) and Walsham's (1993) work.

References on Interpretive Research

3. Critical Research

Critical researchers assume that social reality is historically constituted and that it is produced and reproduced by people. Although people can consciously act to change their social and economic circumstances, critical researchers recognize that their ability to do so is constrained by various forms of social, cultural and political domination. The main task of critical research is seen as being one of social critique, whereby the restrictive and alienating conditions of the status quo are brought to light. Critical research focuses on the oppositions, conflicts and contradictions in contemporary society, and seeks to be emancipatory i.e. it should help to eliminate the causes of alienation and domination.

One of the best known exponents of contemporary critical social theory is Jurgen Habermas, who is regarded by many as one of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century. Habermas was a member of the Frankfurt School, which included figures such as Adorno, Horkheimer, Lukacs, and Marcuse. Examples of a critical approach to qualitative research include Ngwenyama's (1991) and Hirschheim and Klein's (1994) work.

References on Critical Social Theory


Qualitative Research Methods

Just as there are various philosophical perspectives which can inform qualitative research, so there are various qualitative research methods. A research method is a strategy of inquiry which moves from the underlying philosophical assumptions to research design and data collection. The choice of research method influences the way in which the researcher collects data. Specific research methods also imply different skills, assumptions and research practices. The four research methods that will be discussed here are action research, case study research, ethnography and grounded theory.

1. Action Research

There are numerous definitions of action research, however one of the most widely cited is that of Rapoport’s, who defines action research in the following way:

Action research aims to contribute both to the practical concerns of people in an immediate problematic situation and to the goals of social science by joint collaboration within a mutually acceptable ethical framework (Rapoport, 1970, p. 499).

This definition draws attention to the collaborative aspect of action research and to possible ethical dilemmas which arise from its use. It also makes clear, as Clark (1972) emphasizes, that action research is concerned to enlarge the stock of knowledge of the social science community. It is this aspect of action research that distinguishes it from applied social science, where the goal is simply to apply social scientific knowledge but not to add to the body of knowledge.

Action research has been accepted as a valid research method in applied fields such as organization development and education (e.g. see the Special Issue on action research in Human Relations, Vol. 46, No. 2, 1993, and Kemmis and McTaggart, 1988). In information systems, however, action research has been mostly ignored, apart from one or two notable exceptions (e.g. Checkland, 1991).

A brief overview of action research is the article by Susman and Evered (1988), and in information systems the article by Baskerville and Wood-Harper (1996) is a good place to start.

References on Action Research

2. Case Study Research

Case study research is the most common qualitative method used in information systems (Orlikowski and Baroudi, 1991; Alavi and Carlson, 1992). Although there are numerous definitions, Yin (1994) defines the scope of a case study as follows:

"A case study is an empirical inquiry that:  
  • investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context, especially when
  • the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident" (Yin 1994, p. 13).

Clearly, the case study research method is particularly well-suited to IS research, since the object of our discipline is the study of information systems in organizations, and "interest has shifted to organizational rather than technical issues" (Benbasat et al. 1987).

Case study research can be positivist, interpretive, or critical, depending upon the underlying philosophical assumptions of the researcher (for a fuller discussion, see the section of Philosophical Perspectives above). Yin (1994) and Benbasat et al. (1987) are advocates of positivist case study research, whereas Walsham (1993) is an advocate of interpretive in-depth case study research.

References on Case Study Research

3. Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research comes from the discipline of social and cultural anthropology where an ethnographer is required to spend a significant amount of time in the field. The ethnographer "immerses himself in the life of people he studies" (Lewis 1985, p. 380) and seeks to place the phenomena studied in its social and cultural context.

After early ground-breaking work by Wynn (1979), Suchman (1987) and Zuboff (1988), ethnography has now become more widely used in the study of information systems in organizations, from the study of the development of information systems (Hughes et. al, 1992; Orlikowski, 1991; Preston, 1991) to the study of aspects of information technology management (Davies, 1991; Davies and Nielsen, 1992). Ethnography has also been discussed as a method whereby multiple perspectives can be incorporated in systems design (Holzblatt and Beyer, 1993) and as a general approach to the wide range of possible studies relating to the investigation of information systems (Pettigrew, 1985).

In the area of the design and evaluation of information systems, some very interesting work is taking place in a collaborative fashion between ethnographers on the one hand, and designers, IS professionals, computer scientists and engineers on the other. This collaborative work is especially strong in the UK and Europe and is growing in the US.

At ICIS 1995 in Amsterdam, the subject of Judging Qualitative Research In Information Systems: Criteria For Accepting And Rejecting Manuscripts was discussed in a panel session. The Panel Session was chaired by Allen S. Lee with Richard Baskerville, Jonathan Liebenau and Michael D. Myers as panelists.

The presentation on the subject of Judging Ethnographic Manuscripts is available.

References on Ethnographic Research

4. Grounded Theory

Grounded theory is a research method that seeks to develop theory that is grounded in data systematically gathered and analyzed. According to Martin and Turner (1986), grounded theory is "an inductive, theory discovery methodology that allows the researcher to develop a theoretical account of the general features of a topic while simultaneously grounding the account in empirical observations or data." The major difference between grounded theory and other methods is its specific approach to theory development - grounded theory suggests that there should be a continuous interplay between data collection and analysis.

Grounded theory approaches are becoming increasingly common in the IS research literature because the method is extremely useful in developing context-based, process-oriented descriptions and explanations of the phenomenon (see, for example, Orlikowski, 1993).

References on Grounded Theory
Wanda Orlikowski's MISQ Paper of the Year '93
The Illinois Research Group on Classification is a project applying grounded theory to the development and use of large scale classification systems.


Qualitative Techniques for Data Collection

Each of the research methods discussed above uses one or more techniques for collecting empirical data (many qualitative researchers prefer the term "empirical materials" to the word "data" since most qualitative data is non-numeric). These techniques range from interviews, observational techniques such as participant observation and fieldwork, through to archival research. Written data sources can include published and unpublished documents, company reports, memos, letters, reports, email messages, faxes, newspaper articles and so forth.
In anthropology and sociology it is a common practice to distinguish between primary and secondary sources of data. Generally speaking, primary sources are those data which are unpublished and which the researcher has gathered from the people or organization directly. Secondary sources refers to any materials (books, articles etc.) which have been previously published.
Typically, a case study researcher uses interviews and documentary materials first and foremost, without using participant observation. The distinguishing feature of ethnography, however, is that the researcher spends a significant amount of time in the field. The fieldwork notes and the experience of living there become an important addition to any other data gathering techniques that may be used.
Good discussions of qualitative techniques for data collection can be found in Denzin and Lincoln (1994), Miles and Huberman (1984), and Silverman (1993).

Modes of Analysis

Although a clear distinction between data gathering and data analysis is commonly made in quantitative research, such a distinction is problematic for many qualitative researchers. For example, from a hermeneutic perspective it is assumed that the researcher's presuppositions affect the gathering of the data - the questions posed to informants largely determine what you are going to find out. The analysis affects the data and the data affect the analysis in significant ways. Therefore it is perhaps more accurate to speak of "modes of analysis" rather than "data analysis" in qualitative research. These modes of analysis are different approaches to gathering, analyzing and interpreting qualitative data . The common thread is that all qualitative modes of analysis are concerned primarily with textual analysis (whether verbal or written).

Although there are many different modes of analysis in qualitative research, just three approaches or modes of analysis will be discussed here: hermeneutics, semiotics, and approaches which focus on narrative and metaphor. It could be argued that grounded theory is also a mode of analysis, but since grounded theory has been discussed earlier, that discussion will not be repeated here.

1. Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics can be treated as both an underlying philosophy and a specific mode of analysis (Bleicher, 1980). As a philosophical approach to human understanding, it provides the philosophical grounding for interpretivism (see the discussion on Philosophical Perspectives above). As a mode of analysis, it suggests a way of understanding textual data. The following discussion is concerned with using hermeneutics as a specific mode of analysis.

Hermeneutics is primarily concerned with the meaning of a text or text-analogue (an example of a text-analogue is an organization, which the researcher comes to understand through oral or written text). The basic question in hermeneutics is: what is the meaning of this text? (Radnitzky 1970, p. 20). Taylor says that

"Interpretation, in the sense relevant to hermeneutics, is an attempt to make clear, to make sense of an object of study. This object must, therefore, be a text, or a text-analogue, which in some way is confused, incomplete, cloudy, seemingly contradictory - in one way or another, unclear. The interpretation aims to bring to light an underlying coherence or sense" (Taylor 1976, p. 153).

The idea of a hermeneutic circle refers to the dialectic between the understanding of the text as a whole and the interpretation of its parts, in which descriptions are guided by anticipated explanations (Gadamer 1976, p. 117). It follows from this that we have an expectation of meaning from the context of what has gone before. The movement of understanding "is constantly from the whole to the part and back to the whole" (ibid, p. 117). As Gadamer explains, "It is a circular relationship. . . The anticipation of meaning in which the whole is envisaged becomes explicit understanding in that the parts, that are determined by the whole, themselves also determine this whole." Ricoeur suggests that "Interpretation . . . is the work of thought which consists in deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning, in unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning" (Ricoeur 1974, p. xiv).

There are different forms of hermeneutic analysis, from "pure" hermeneutics through to "critical" hermeneutics, however a discussion of these different forms is beyond the scope of this section. For a more in-depth discussion, see Bleicher (1980), Palmer (1979), and Thompson (1981).

If hermeneutic analysis is used in an information systems study, the object of the interpretive effort becomes one of attempting to make sense of the organization as a text-analogue. In an organization, people (e.g. different stakeholders) can have confused, incomplete, cloudy and contradictory views on many issues. The aim of the hermeneutic analysis becomes one of trying to make sense of the whole, and the relationship between people, the organization, and information technology.

Good examples of research articles in IS which explicitly use hermeneutics are those by Boland (1991), Lee (1994), and Myers (1994).

References on Interpretive Research

2. Semiotics

Like hermeneutics, semiotics can be treated as both an underlying philosophy and a specific mode of analysis. The following discussion concerns using semiotics as a mode of analysis.

Semiotics is primarily concerned with the meaning of signs and symbols in language. The essential idea is that words/signs can be assigned to primary conceptual categories, and these categories represent important aspects of the theory to be tested. The importance of an idea is revealed in the frequency with which it appears in the text.

One form of semiotics is "content analysis." Krippendorf (1980) defines content analysis as "a research technique for making replicable and valid references from data to their contexts." The researcher searches for structures and patterned regularities in the text and makes inferences on the basis of these regularities.

Another form of semiotics is "conversation analysis." In conversation analysis, it is assumed that the meanings are shaped in the context of the exchange (Wynn, 1979). The researcher immerses himself/herself in the situation to reveal the background of practices.

A third form of semiotics is "discourse analysis." Discourse analysis builds on both content analysis and conversation analysis but focuses on "language games." A language game refers to a well-defined unit of interaction consisting of a sequence of verbal moves in which turns of phrases, the use of metaphor and allegory all play an important part.

At ICIS 1996 in Cleveland, the subject of The Merits of Three Qualitative Research Methods was discussed in a panel session. The Panel Session was chaired by Michael D. Myers, with Heinz K. Klein, Duane Truex and Eleanor Wynn as panelists. The presentation by Duane Truex on the subject of Text-Based Analysis Techniques is available.

A brief introduction to the use of semiotics in information systems is the book by Liebenau (1990). Wynn's (1989) paper is a good example of the use of conversation analysis in information systems, while Klein and Truex's (1995) paper is a good example of the use of discourse analysis in IS.

References on Interpretive Research

3. Narrative and Metaphor

Narrative is defined by the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as a "tale, story, recital of facts, especially story told in the first person." There are many kinds of narrative, from oral narrative through to historical narrative. Metaphor is the application of a name or descriptive term or phrase to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable (e.g. a window in Windows 95).

Narrative and metaphor have long been key terms in literary discussion and analysis. In recent years there has been increasing recognition of the role they play in all types of thinking and social practice. Scholars in many disciplines have looked at areas such as metaphor and symbolism in indigenous cultures, oral narrative, narrative and metaphor in organizations, metaphor and medicine, metaphor and psychiatry etc.

In IS the focus has mostly been on understanding language, communication and meaning among systems developers and organizational members. In recent years narrative, metaphor and symbolic analysis has become a regular theme in the IFIP 8.2 Working Group conferences, the proceedings of which are now published by Chapman and Hall.

References on Narrative and Metaphor
Narrative Psychology is an excellent resource on narrative and related areas.


Citations on Qualitative Research

The following are links to various lists of citations which relate to qualitative research in IS. The lists are indicative only of what is available and are not intended to be definitive. There is also considerable overlap between the lists because some citations fit into multiple categories.
General References on Qualitative Research
References on Interpretive Research
References on Critical Social Theory
References on Action Research
References on Case Study Research
References on Ethnographic Research
References on Grounded Theory
References on Narrative and Metaphor


Resources for Qualitative Researchers

The following are links to resources on the Internet for qualitative researchers:
The Qualitative Report is an online journal dedicated to qualitative research and critical inquiry.
Qualitative Research Email Resources
Sage Publications is arguably the leading publisher of qualitative methodology texts
Narrative Psychology is an excellent resource on narrative and related areas.
Qualitative Research Resources on the Internet
Participatory Action Research Network
QualPage includes calls for papers, conferences, discussion forums, publishers etc.
Society for the Study of Symbolic Interactionism
Research Resources for the Social Sciences


Software Tools for Qualitative Researchers

The software "bible" for qualitative researchers is the book by Weitzman, E.A. and Miles, M.B. Computer Programs for Qualitative Data Analysis, Sage, Thousand Oaks, 1995.

The following are links to resources on the Internet regarding software tools for qualitative researchers:

CAQDAS is the Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis Software Networking Project
Qualitative Data Analysis Software Resources
QSR Home Page (NUD*IST) is a software product for the development, support and management of qualitative data analysis (QDA) projects (used in over 40 countries)
The Ethnograph (v 4.0) is the most widely used software for qualitative data analysis since 1985
ATLAS/ti is a software product for qualitative data analysis


Calls for Papers

The following are calls for papers/ conferences relating to qualitative research methods in information systems.

First International Workshop on Computational Semiotics, Paris, France, 26-27 May, 1997
IFIP Working Group 8.2 Working Conference on Information Systems and Qualitative Research, Philadelphia, USA, May 31 - June 3, 1997
MISQ Special Issue on Intensive Research


Most IS journals now accept qualitative research. The following journals tend to favor it:

Accounting, Management and Information Technologies
Mind, Culture and Activity
Information, Technology & People


Page Administration

This page is administered by the Section Editor Michael D. Myers. I am very grateful for the advice and continuing interest shown by my Advisory Board. The current members of the Advisory Board are Allen S. Lee and M. Lynne Markus.

You are most welcome to contribute links to qualitative research material. Additionally, I am soliciting short abstracts of items in the references pages (maximum 50 words). Please contact the Section Editor by email to see how you can help.


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This page is sponsored by the Department of Information Systems and Operations Management at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and is maintained by Michael D. Myers who can be reached at This page was last updated on February 24, 2004. Although we will attempt to keep this information accurate, we cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided.

Any feedback will be appreciated.

This work was published in MISQ Discovery on May 20, 1997. This is the original archival version. It is currently maintained by Michael D. Myers. Corrections, clarifications, and suggested modifications should be directed to him at Serious problems should be referred to the Editor-in-Chief.