Demystifying the Influential IS Legends of Positivism
Positivism has been used to establish a standard that Information Systems (IS) research must meet to be scientific. According to such positivistic beliefs in IS, scientific research should: 1) be generalizable, 2) focus on stable independent variables, 3) have certain ontological assumptions, and 4) use statistical or quantitative methods rather than qualitative methods. We argue that logical positivist philosophers required none of these. On the contrary, logical positivist philosophers regarded philosophizing in general and ontological considerations in particular as nonsense. Moreover, the positivists’ preferred empirical research method was not a survey, but rather a qualitative observation recorded by field notes. In addition, positivist philosophers required neither statistical nor nonstatistical generalizability. At least some positivist philosophers also acknowledged the study of singular cases as being scientific. Many research orientations (e.g., single-setting research, examination of change, qualitative research) that are deemed “unscientific” by positivism in IS seem to be “scientific” (in principle) according to logical positivism. In turn, generally speaking, what has been justified as scientific by positivism in IS (e.g., requirements of statistical or nonstatistical generalizability, surveys, independent variables, ontological views) were either not required by logical positivists or were regarded as nonsensical by logical positivists. Furthermore, given that positivism is sometimes associated (or confused) with logical empiricism in IS, we also briefly discuss logical empiricism. Finally, realizing that certain influential, taken-for-granted assumptions that underlie IS research are unwarranted could have ground-breaking implications for future IS research.
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