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An Introduction to Incommensurability, or, hang on a minute, that doesn't add up
In the previous session we looked at the possibility of 'mix and match' methodologies either through selecting a methodology according to the problem situation (contingency approach) or by combining different methodologies (blended approach). While it can be argued that, in practice, this is what tends to happen anyway, are these solutions as straightforward as they seem?
Incommensurability occurs when two things lack any criteria for comparison. The four philosophical positions outlined in this module represent four paradigms for thinking about systems development, which some argue are incommensurable. If this is the case, then there are no common criteria for comparison between the four positions and hence no systematic or objective that can be used to decide which to adopt. This last session in the module will examine the views for and against the incommensurability of paradigms.
The arguments for incommensurability are mostly based on the need for there to be some level of philosophical consistency in meaningful action. Here the argument is that one can not act on (or possibly even conceive of) something that one does not believe in. Without a certain level of level of philosophical consistency, system design activities would, at best, degenerate into a matter of individual taste and/or prejudice, and at worst, into chaos.
The arguments against incommensurability are mostly based on pragmatic considerations. While philosophical purists might argue that it is possible to find 'paradigmatic transcendence' (i.e. discover a meta-paradigm that transcends the differences between paradigms) most practitioners argue that shifts between paradigms, over time and within a project, provide sufficient consistency for incommensurability not to be an issue in practice.
- See any of the books from the SDM books section
- Chapter 27 in D. Avison and G Fitzgerald, Information Systems Development: Methodologies, Techniques and Tools (3rd Edition), McGraw-Hill Publishing, 2002
- T. Kuhn, The structure of scientific revolutions, (1st edition) Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1962
- Against Method-ism: exploring the limits of method. Introna, L.D. and Whitley, E.A. (1997) Information Technology and People, Vol. 10 No. 1, 1997, pp. 31-45.
This paper examines the assumptions that are made about the role of 'method' in information systems design and questions whether the desire to develop methodologies is itself based on unreliable assumptions.
- A theory of theories in information systems. Gregor, S. (2002) In S. Gregor and D. Hart (Eds.), Information Systems Foundations: Building the Theoretical Base. Australian National University, Canberra, pp 1-20.
This paper discusses what is meant by a theory in Information Systems. Five different types of theory are identified based on the notion of causality.
- Philosophical Smoke Signals: Theory and Practice in Information Systems Design. King, D. and Kimble. C. (2005) Proceedings of the 10th Annual Conference of the United Kingdom Academy of Information Systems, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
This paper also deals with theory and argues that by re-examining the practical consequences of theoretical arguments researchers in Information Systems may be able to form more rigorous theories of Information Systems.
- Multimethodology: Towards a Framework for Mixing Methodologies Mingers, J and Brocklesby, J. (1997) Omega, International Journal of Management Science Vol. 25, No. 5, pp. 489-509,
This paper looks at multimethodologies and outlines a number of different ways to combine methodologies. It also outlines some of the philosophical, cultural and cognitive issues that multimethodology raises.
- Mission Impossible? Pluralism and 'multi-paradigm' IS research. Jones, M.R. (2000) Information Systems Review 1(1), pp 217 - 232
Recent contributions to the debate in the Information Systems have suggested that multi-paradigmatic research is both possible and desirable. This paper argues that this view is unsustainable if we accept that paradigms must be philosophically self-consistent.
- The Paradigm Debate in Information Systems Research. Allen, D. and Ellis, D. (2000) Information Systems Review 1(1), pp 233 - 248
There is a call made by a number of Information Systems researchers for 'harmony and convergence' around a single paradigm because by doing this the field will become stronger. This paper argues that the field of Information Systems occupies a space between disciplines and calls for methodological pluralism.
The notes for this session are available as a presentation (in pdf format) - lecture notes for session 9
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