Welcome to the AIS World 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
The originally accepted work was
Discovery in 1997 and is available in
the MISQ Discovery archive. This work has received a few awards: the
Value-Added Site award for sponsored by the Academy
of Management's Organizational Communication and Information
Systems Division and AIS World for 1996-1997; an
AISWorld Challenge Award from the Association for Information Systems in 2004; and the AIS Technology Challenge Award in 2013.
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 data, 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 we
study the managerial and organizational issues associated with innovations in
information and communications technology; hence the 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
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(Myers 2009).
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
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.
As well as the qualitative/quantitative distinction, there are other distinctions which are commonly made. For example, qualitative and quantitative research in information systems follow the social science model of research,
whereas design research or design science research follows the engineering model of research. The latter usually involves the design of an artefact, something that is not normally considered with the former. However, some kind of qualitative or quantitative research might be used to help design or evaluate the artefact.
Other distinctions involve research methods being 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
and Davis (1982), and
Luthans (1984). See also the section on
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)
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
and Lincoln (1994) suggest four underlying "paradigms"
for qualitative research: positivism, post-positivism,
critical theory, and constructivism.
Orlikowski and Baroudi (1991), following
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,
2002), interpretive (Walsham,
1993), or critical, just as action research can be
positivist (Clark, 1972),
and Chisholm, 1993) or critical (Carr
and Kemmis, 1986). These three philosophical
perspectives are discussed below.
Figure 1 - Underlying philosophical assumptions
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.
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).
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
Ngwenyama and Lee's (1997) and
Hirschheim and Klein's (1994) work. Myers and Klein (2011) suggest a set
of principles for the conduct of critical research.
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 - for more detail see Myers (2009).
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.
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
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
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
Relations, Vol. 46, No. 2, 1993, and
McTaggart, 1988). In information systems, however,
action research was for a long time largely ignored, apart
from one or two notable exceptions (e.g.
More recently, there seems to be increasing interest in
The term "case study" has multiple meanings. It can be
used to describe a unit of analysis (e.g. a case study of a
particular organisation) or to describe a research method.
The discussion here concerns the use of the case study as a
investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its
real-life context, especially when
the boundaries between phenomenon and context are
not clearly evident (Yin
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 (2002) 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.
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.
Ethnographers immerse themselves in the lives of the people
they study (Lewis 1985,
p. 380) and seek to place the phenomena studied in their
social and cultural context.
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. Recently, Baskerville and Myers have suggested design ethnography as a new way of combining ethnography with design science research (Baskerville and Myers, 2015).
Grounded theory is a research method that seeks to
develop theory that is grounded in data systematically
gathered and analyzed. According to
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).Urquhart, Lehmann and Myers (2010) suggest a set of guidelines for grounded theory studies in information systems.
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
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
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.
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
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
Palmer (1979), and
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.
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
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."
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
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
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 Kluwer.
Just as there are many different qualitative methods and
approaches to qualitative data analysis, so there are many
different writing styles and approaches. For a brief
overview of some of these styles as they relate to
Myers (1995) and
It is hard to over-emphasise the importance of good writing.
For writing up qualitative research in general, I highly
(1990) book. This book has many practical suggestions.
For example, Wolcott points out that many qualitative
researchers make the mistake of leaving the writing up until
the end i.e. until they have got ?the story? figured out.
However, Wolcott makes the point that ?writing is thinking?.
Writing actually helps a researcher to think straight and to
figure out what the story should be. The motto of every
qualitative researcher should be to start writing as soon as
A common problem for qualitative IS researchers is that
IS researchers are expected to publish their work in journal
articles. Generally speaking, journal articles are regarded
much more highly than books in business schools. However,
most types of qualitative research lead to the gathering of
a significant mass of data. It can be difficult for
qualitative researchers to write up their results within the
space constraints of a journal article. Another problem is
the expectation that singular findings will be presented in
each paper i.e. each journal article should have just one
main point. Often a qualitative doctoral thesis such as an
ethnographic study will have many points.
One solution is for qualitative researchers to treat each
paper as a part of the whole. That is, a qualitative
researcher has to devise a way to carve up the work in such
as way that parts of it can be published separately. Then
the issue becomes which part of the story is going to told
in one particular paper. A qualitative researcher has to
come to terms with the fact that it is impossible to tell
the "whole story" in any one paper, so he or she has to
accept that only one part of it can be told at any one time.
One advantage of such a strategy is that there is potential
for an ethnographer to publish many papers from just the one
period of fieldwork. Usually it is possible to tell the same
story but from different angles. For more suggestions about
writing and publishing, see Myers (2009).
References on Qualitative Research
The following are lists of references which relate or are relevant to qualitative research in information systems. Please note that these lists mostly focus on some of the earlier works in information systems or classic works in other fields - these lists are not intended to be definitive. I recommend you consult a bibliographic database such as Google Scholar, Scopus or the AIS e-library if you need a more comprehensive and up-to-date list of the literature. Also bear in mind that there is considerable overlap between the lists because some citations fit into multiple categories.
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. Although their discussion about the
differences between the various software packages is
somewhat dated, their categorisation of the different types
of packages and their guidelines for choosing a package are
still very useful. An updated edition is
supposed to be coming soon.
The following email messages provides a summary of the
responses to an AISWorld
posting in April 2000 regarding the
use of Qualitative Data Analysis (QDA) software.
The following are links to resources on the Internet
regarding software tools for qualitative researchers:
is the Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis Software
Data Analysis Software Resources
offers a few software products for qualitative data
analysis. One of these is the most widely used QDA software
product called NVivo
»The Ethnograph (v
4.0) is the second most widely used software for
qualitative data analysis in the world
»ATLAS/ti is a software
product for qualitative data analysis
»Qualrus is a
general-purpose qualitative analysis program which supports
text and multimedia sources
is a content analysis / qualitative analysis software
»Leximancer identifies key themes,
concepts and ideas from unstructured text
»TextAnalyst is a
system for semantic text analysis and navigation (released
»Annotape is a system
for recording, analysing and transcribing audio data for
qualitative data analysis software package enabling you to
code and retrieve, build theories, and conduct analyses of
»Social Science Software is
a site that lists many of the software tools for social science research. It is mostly in German but an English version is available.
»A list of QDA software is provided in a section of the Social Science Software site mentioned in the previous item.
»A list of transcription software is also provided at the same Social Science Software site mentioned above.
Teaching Qualitative Research
If you are involved with the teaching of qualitative
research in information systems, the following resources may
The following are calls for papers relating to
qualitative research in information systems:
»All of the IFIP Working Group 8.2 conferences welcome
qualitative research articles. Forthcoming conferences are
listed on the IFIP WG 8.2
The IFIP 8.2 conference in Dublin in December 2016 promises to be interesting. The topic is "Beyond Interpretivism? New Encounters with Technology and Organisation."
Checkout the website.
The following are previous calls for papers related to qualitative research in information systems.
Most of these have details of the final program and papers
accepted, some include PDF files of abstracts etc, and others are available in print and in various bibliographic databases.
You are most welcome to contribute links to qualitative
research material. Please contact the Section Editor by email
to see how you can help.
The complete citation for this work is as follows:
Myers, M. D. "Qualitative Research in Information
Systems," MIS Quarterly (21:2), June 1997, pp.
241-242. MISQ Discovery, archival version, June
http://www.misq.org/supplements/. Association for Information Systems (AISWorld) Section on Qualitative Research in Information Systems, updated version, last modified:
October 28, 2016
This living work was originally published in
MISQ Discovery on May 20, 1997. The originally accepted work
is available in the
Discovery Archive. This living version published as part of AISWorld is maintained by
Michael D. Myers.
Corrections, clarifications, and suggested modifications
should be directed to him at