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Hermeneutic theory



Alternate name(s)

Theory of Interpretation, Hermeneutics

Main dependent construct(s)/factor(s)


Main independent construct(s)/factor(s)


Concise description of theory

Hermeneutic theory is a member of the social subjectivist paradigm where meaning is inter-subjectively created, in contrast to the empirical universe of assumed scientific realism (Berthon et al. 2002). Other approaches within this paradigm are social phenomenology and ethnography. As part of the interpretative research family, hermeneutics focuses on the significance that an aspect of reality takes on for the people under study. Hermeneutics focuses on defining shared linguistic meaning for a representation or symbol.

In order to reach shared understanding as proposed in hermeneutic theory, subjects must have access to shared linguistic and interpretative resources (Marshall et al. 2001). However, hermeneutic theory also posits that linguistic meaning is likely open to infinite interpretation and reinterpretation due to the interpretative ambiguity coming from presuppositions, to the conditions of usage different from authorial intention, and to the evolution of words (Marshall et al. 2001).

Due to its interpretive nature, hermeneutics cannot be approached using a pre-determined set of criteria that is applied in a mechanical fashion (Klein et al. 1999). However, a meta-principal, known as the hermeneutic circle, guides the hermeneutic approach where the process of understanding moves from parts of a whole to a global understanding of the whole and back to individual parts in an iterative manner (Klein et al. 1999). This meta-principal allows the development of a complex whole of shared meanings between subjects, or between researchers and their subjects (Klein et al. 1999).

Other co-existing principles that may help assure rigorous interpretive analysis involve: a) understanding the subject according to its social and historical context, b) assessing the historical social construction between the researcher and the subject, c) relating ideographic details to general theoretical concepts through abstraction and generalization, d) being sensitive to potential pre-conceptual theoretical contradictions between research design and actual findings, e) being aware of possible multiple interpretations among participants for a given sequence of events, and f) being conscious of potential biases or systematic distortions in the subject’s narratives (Klein et al. 1999).


Berthon, P., Pitt, L., Ewing, M., and Carr, C., L. "Potential research space in MIS: A framework for envisioning and evaluating research replication, extension, and generation," Information Systems Research (13:4) 2002, p 416.

Klein, H.K., and Myers, M.D. "A set of principles for conducting and evaluating interpretive field studies in information systems," MIS Quarterly (23:1) 1999, p 67.

Marshall, N., and Brady, T. "Knowledge management and the politics of knowledge: Illustrations from complex products and systems," European Journal of Information Systems (10:2) 2001, p 99.

Diagram/schematic of theory


Originating author(s)

Berger, P., and Luckman, T., Bernstein, R.J., Derrida, J., Gadamer, H.G., Heidegger, M., Palmer, R., Ricoeur, P.

Seminal articles

Berger, P., and Luckman, T. The social construction of reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge, Penguin Publishers, London, 1967.

Bernstein, R.J., Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, University of Pennsylvania Press, Pennsylvania, 1983.

Derrida, J. On Grammatology. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1976.

Gadamer H.-G. Philosophical Hermeneutics, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1976.

Heidegger M. Being and Time, SCM Press, London, 1962.

Palmer, R., Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1969.

Ricoeur, P. The conflict of interpretations : essays in hermeneutics, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1974.

Originating area


Level of analysis

All levels

IS articles that use the theory

Bhattacharjee, A. ""Interpretive" mobility, IS and computing," European Journal of Information Systems (13:3) 2004, p 167.

Boland, R.J.J. "Information System Use as a Hermeneutic Process," in: Information Systems Research: Contemporary Approaches and Emergent Traditions, H.-E. Nissen, H.K. Klein and R.A. Hirschheim (eds.), North-Holland, Amsterdam, 1991, pp. 439-464.

Chalmers, M. "Hermeneutics, information and representation," European Journal of Information Systems (13:3) 2004, p 210.

Davis, G.B., Lee, A.S., Nickles, K.R., Chatterjee, S., Hartung, R., and Wu, Y. "Diagnosis of an Information System Failure: A Framework and Interpretive Process," Information & Management (23:5) 1992, p 293.

Hirschheim, R., and Klein, H.K. "Realizing emancipatory principles in information systems development: The case for ETHICS," MIS Quarterly (18:1) 1994, p 83.

Klein, H.K., and Myers, M.D. "A set of principles for conducting and evaluating interpretive field studies in information systems," MIS Quarterly (23:1) 1999, p 67.

Klein, H.K., and Truex III, D.P. "Discourse Analysis: A Semiotic Approach to the Investigation of Organizational Emergence," in: The Semiotics of the Workplace, P.B. Andersen and B. Holmqvist (eds.), Walter De Gruyter, Berlin, 1995.

Lacity, M.C., and Janson, M.A. "Understanding qualitative data: A framework of text analysis methods," Journal of Management Information Systems (11:2) 1994, p 137.

Lee, A.S. "Electronic mail as a medium for rich communication: An empirical investigation using hermeneutic interpretation," MIS Quarterly (18:2) 1994, p 143.

Loizos, H., and Michael, B. "Organizational change as discourse: Communicative actions and deep structures in the context of information technology implementation," Academy of Management Journal (44:4) 2001, p 755.

Lynch, T., and Gregor, S. "User participation in decision support systems development: Influencing system outcomes," European Journal of Information Systems (13:4) 2004, p 286.

Marshall, N., and Brady, T. "Knowledge management and the politics of knowledge: Illustrations from complex products and systems," European Journal of Information Systems (10:2) 2001, p 99.

Mingers, J. "Combining IS research methods: Towards a pluralist methodology," Information Systems Research (12:3) 2001, p 240.

Myers, M. "A Disaster for Everyone to See: An Interpretive Analysis of a Failed IS Project," Accounting, Management and Information Technologies (4:4) 1997, pp 185-201.

Ngwenyama, O.K., and Lee, A.S. "Communication richness in electronic mail: Critical social theory and the contextuality of meaning," MIS Quarterly (21:2) 1997, p 145.

Panagiotidis, P., and Edwards, J.S. "Organisational learning--A critical systems thinking discipline," European Journal of Information Systems (10:3) 2001, p 135.

Perry, M.J. "(IS)4: is information systems interesting in itself?," European Journal of Information Systems (12:3) 2003, p 231.

Phillips, N., and Brown, J.L. "Analyzing communication in and around organizations: A critical hermeneutic approach," Academy of Management Journal (36:6) 1993, p 1547.

Sarker, S., and Lee, A. S. “Does the Use of Computer-based BPC Tools Contribute to Redesign Effectiveness? Insights from a Hermeneutic Study," IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management (IEEE-TEM), Vol. 53, No. 1, 2006, pp. 130-145.

Trauth, E.M., and Jessup, L.M. "Understanding computer-mediated discussions: Positivist and interpretive analyses of group support system use," MIS Quarterly (24:1) 2000, p 43.

Links from this theory to other theories

Social cognitive theory, Language action perspective, Phenomenology, Organizational learning, Communication Theory, Sensemaking, Social Learning Theory, Ethnomethodology

External links

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermeneutics, Wikipedia Encyclopedia Entry

http://www.bartleby.com/65/he/hermeneu.html, Columbia Encyclopedia Entry

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hermeneutics/, Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Entry

http://www.friesian.com/hermenut.htm, Entry in The Proceedings of the Friesian School, Fourth Series

Original Contributor(s)

Anthony Wong

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