Position Paper for the 15th IRIS'92 on Research Methods

Is it Possible to Combine a Phenomenological and a Functionalistic Approach?

Jesper Simonsen
Computer Science Department
Roskilde University
P.O. Box 260, DK 4000 Roskilde

(Published in Bjerknes et al., (Eds.): Preceedings of the 15th IRIS, Information Systems Research seminar In Scandinavia, 9.-12. August, Larkollen, Norway, Department of Informatics, University of Oslo, pp. 75-82. )


The purpose of this position paper is to stimulate a debate concerning if and how it is possible to combine a phenomenological and a functionalistic approach within systems design - and how research could try to find answers to this question. A general philosophical view on the two approaches is briefly outlined and their relations to the design process is discussed. It is suggested that an effort should be to try to combine the two approaches and some of the problems that this effort must face is discussed.

1. Introduction

In this position paper I try to sketch out two philosophical approaches and their relations to systems design. However, I do not intent to initiate a philosophical discussion. Rather I would like to relate this philosophical discussion to systems design and - in particular - to research within systems design. I do experience that within systems design a phenomenological approach can put you in a dilemma where you e.g. could ask yourself: what does this have to do with computer support and information systems? I believe that the philosophical discussion contributes with some of the answers to this dilemma.

I would like to introduce this paper by reporting from my action research project within requirement analysis where I try to combine a phenomenological and a functionalistic approach. You are encouraged to read this position paper as a background discussion where the concrete relation to my own context will be presented at the IRIS'92 (in the working group with the topic "Research Methods").

2. Phenomenology and functionalism in a philosophical view

 My position is that within systems design[1] it is appropriate to interpret social structures in a linguistic sense, e.i. view social structures as mainly constituted and expressed through the spoken or written language. Of course social structures and human practice are constituted and expressed in many other ways too (e.g. in psychological or cultural ways), but the decisive way is through the language, e.g. through writing, speech, conversation, and discussion. The primary way to study social structures is consequently the study of the communication within the area of interest.

What is the consequences if social structures interpreted in a linguistic sense? One consequence is that social institutions do not exist as a material object. Consider e.g. the following two familiar examples of social institutions: marriage and the leadership of a computer science department. Both social institutions exists because of social conventions. You name a person in a specific way (wife, husband, head of department), talk in a specific way about him or her, and respect that others talk in a similar specific way. This is a way of behaviour - as our way of speaking is part of our acting. What is interesting is not the material existence (a ring on a finger, a piece of paper telling that you are the head of the department) but our interpretation of the way people act. If someone act in a way - say in front of his wife or the head of the department - which surprises me, I may ask him what the meaning is. It is this meaning which is interesting when I investigate whether they actually maintain the marriage, or the leadership of a computer science department, as an institution. Those meanings - or structures of meanings - that constantly are recreated by people who are acting, within the structure of meaning, that is the social institutions.

When social structures are viewed in this linguistic sense, social science becomes totally different from natural science: what counts for the social science is to describe those structures of meaning which constitute the social reality. This way to view the social science, phenomenology, was formulated in the sixties as a settlement against positivism[2].

Functionalism was (in the sixties and seventies) the classic paradigm of social science opposite phenomenology. Functionalism has by tradition been close to the ruling paradigm of the natural science. The traditional functionalistic position is that you in principle can study social structures as you study the nature: by isolating or demarcating structures into systems, in which causal relations is dominating, forming some kind of boundary to the environments of the system. You can describe the function, that the system has in proportion to its environments as well as the function of the coherences within the system. The point of the functionalism is that systems can be described as teleological or functional in a sense where they preserve themselves - they have a superior purpose. The superior principle of the system is its own maintenance, or survival, and events within the system can be described as having a function towards this principle.

The phenomenology was a settlement against positivism and not against functionalism as such. The phenomenological critique of the functionalism is concentrated to the description - or theory of systems. The critique is not that social structures is broken down into smaller pieces (e.g. systems, and systems within systems) but that the functionalism perceives the world through this conceptual framework - and that you always can interpret a social structure into this framework with a result limited to a special interpretation of reality.

Having a phenomenological approach one cannot have a conceptual framework "in front of you" when you enter a foreign culture. Phenomenology argues for an approach where you try to avoid preconceived opinions, prejudices, and a conceptual framework as a template or tool for ones interpretation. If social structures are perceived as structures of meaning and that this is the essence and substance of all social structures, then the object is to conceptualize these structures of meaning. Meanings only make sense in connection with other meanings in complete. One particular meaning is comprehensible because it is opposite, alike, and relative to other meanings. To comprehend this, one must get into the the structures of meaning and try to understand it "from within". As structures of meaning is constituted and expressed through communication one must try to get into this communication and examine (and/or participate in) the consent communication among the members of the culture. This meaning, which one is able to grasp in this way, one should try to give equivalent and adequate concepts. The concepts (forming a conceptual framework) can in this way be regarded as emerging from the communication in question: as a methodological rule one must then avoid preconceived opinions e.g. expressed through a "standard" conceptual framework. Of course one will always interpret a culture with a starting point in ones common sense, personal background, and experiences and ones understanding of the culture can only extend this starting point.

3. Phenomenology and functionalism in the design process

My position is that within systems design it is appropriate to interpret an organization as a structure of meanings which is maintained by the members of the organization by the way they communicate, behave, and interpret each others behaviour. This leads the focus to a hermeneutic approach. This also concerns the change of organizations - through the design and use of information systems: this change influences the structures of meaning, and the way the members of the organization is interpreting changes, behaviour, objects (e.g. information systems), etc. becomes the focus of the design process. This point of view on the design process is shared by e.g. (Boland, 1985; Kensing and Winograd, 1991; Suchman and Trigg, 1991; Wynn, 1991; Heath and Luff, 1991; Shapiro et al., 1991). One thing that I find remarkable among most of these researchers and authors is that there is quite a distance from their efforts in trying to understand organizations and work and to the resulting design of information system!

Concerning the design process it is essential to keep in mind that this is neither an anthropological nor an ethnographic study of foreign cultures with the primary aim of getting a thorough understanding of this culture. The objective of the design process is to suggest, describe and implement information systems to support the work in question: the process will lead to descriptions of possible information systems which by their very nature is descriptions of systems and functions. The design process must answer the question where to suggest relevant computer support (and where not to use computer support) and how this support should be. This means that the design process may start with an phenomenological approach, but after some time it must restrict its focus towards areas of work where computer support is believed to be relevant, and it should result in purely functionalistic systems descriptions (of information systems) - as the purpose is to design computer support.

An interesting functionalistic approach for this analysis of work within systems design - and within early phases as requirement analysis in particular - is the Work Analysis (Schmidt and Carstensen, 1990; Schmidt, 1990; Schmidt, 1988; Schmidt, 1986). This approach originates in an ESPRIT-project, FAOR (Functional Analysis of Office Requirements (Schmidt, 88)) and has further been developed by Kjeld Schmidt and Peter Carstensen (Schmidt and Carstensen, 90).

The Work Analysis suggests a distinction between 3 levels of analysis (Schmidt and Carstensen, 90, pp. 110ff):

The functionalistic approach in the Work Analysis has 2 main points compared to the phenomenological approach within the design process:
  1. The organizations within the design process is not a foreign culture but well-known private or public companies and it makes sense to view them as systems in a functionalistic sense. They all have a superior purpose concerning own maintenance, or survival, according to the demands and needs from their environments: market constrains and purposes stated by Acts of Parliament. If the organization cannot fulfil its purposes its resources will drain.
  2. Organizations try to reproduce themselves in functionalistic terms: groups within departments within board of directors, tasks, purposes, and functions within each other and in relation to the environments, etc. Members of the organizations want to interpret and communicate that the organization behaves and is controlled by these terms. Maybe this is a naive and idealized picture or description of reality, but the point is that e.g. the resulting description of a requirement analysis, which systematically uses these terms, will be familiar and support the decisions to be made in the design process.
To me the main point is the one stated in 2). The fact that organizations want to see and reflect themselves as functionalistic systems forces the designer to produce descriptions in these terms. This is the main point in a functionalistic approach like the Work Analysis: the descriptions must be expressed in functionalistic terms. The Work Analysis does not suggest an extensive use of the functionalistic conceptual framework as the only glasses to wear when entering an organization: in fact (Schmidt and Carstensen, 1990) suggest a rather phenomenological approach for the designer to "gather information"[3]. The approach suggests a careful but systematic interpretation that leads to descriptions, as reflected in the 3 levels of analysis, resulting in purely functionalistic and highly structured descriptions forming the requirement specification in the "last" level - the operational analysis.

The challenge in systems design is consequently to try to overcome the philosophical differencies between the phenomenological and functionalistic approaches and try to combine these approaches and develop and suggest appropriate methodologies, guidance, tools, and techniques, etc.

Diagram should be here

This challenge is a legitimate task. You need a functionalistic approach and systems thinking in order to construct appropriate things like information systems. When using those systems, they are interpreted into the structures of meaning, which are the users social and conscious reality. The systems cannot - and is not meant to - equate this reality: this reality is always greater than any system, no matter how large and complicated this system is. Designers must think of the users (and the members of the organization in general) as standing above, outside, or beside the information system. They create structures of meaning and interpret their world in ways which cannot be reduced to systems, but which must be comprehended in other categories. A system is only a system to the extend that it is thought of as a system by the people who use it.

4. Is it possible to combine a phenomenological and a functionalistic approach?

I suggest to combine a phenomenological and a functionalistic approach, and this is not only due to the reasons stated above: I am currently engaged in an action research project[4] which demonstrates an empirical example that a thorough phenomenological study (made parallel to the refinement of a design proposal) had decisive consequences for the design[5]. A similar result is reported from another action research project at a Danish radio station made by Andersen, Bødker, and Kensing[6].

Is it possible to combine a phenomenological and a functionalistic approach? Even though I suggest to try to do this, it is a question if - and to which extend - this is possible, and where and how the balance between two such radical different approaches should be.

One problem in combining the two approaches is that they involve different ways of thinking. In a functionalistic approach the aim is to make delimitations and abstractions to get to a description of a system which enables you to continue in a systematic way, i.e. to overcome aspects which could be (too) troublesome to cope with. In a phenomenological approach it is not possible to delimit structures of meaning. Meanings can only be comprehended from the "inside" in relation to other meanings, i.e. you have to form an idea of an entirety/a unified whole. This "entirety" cannot be delimitated - e.g. into "closed" systems.

Another aspect is the differences in the dealing with the process. While the phenomenological approach tend to focus on a "non-controlled" understanding of processes the functionalistic approach tend to focus on factors controlling the processes. In a phenomenological approach one uses qualitative methods in trying to get to a deep understanding. One is in principle constantly open to complexity which can be "dangerous" to a functionalistic approach as this can give difficulties in getting control over the process through systems descriptions. If e.g. a person gives a conflicting description in two different situations, it is important to the functionalistic approach to find a motive and explain this conflict in a way where the descriptions are made relative to each other, in order for the system to remain consistent. It would be a task for the functionalistic approach to explain this inconsistency (cause, effect, motive, etc.). Inconsistency is interesting for the phenomenological approach too, but it has to accept this to some degree, as it is not a dogma that the reality has to be consistent.

A third aspect is different attitude towards the members (e.g. the users) in the organization in question. While the phenomenological approach clearly has its focus on the people and their behaviour etc., the functionalistic approach tend to "forget" them as individuals or reduce them to somewhat rational, ideal, and anonymous colleagues performing functions. This is e.g. expressed in cases where information systems does not have the expected results. One often stated reason is that the users haven't internalized the system: they have to know the system better, then it would work more effective (and if not, the lucky gets transferred or retrained and the unlucky gets fired!).

5. Discussion

I have tried to outline the phenomenological and the functionalistic approach and its relation to the design process. I believe that it is vital to combine the functionalistic approach - as an inevitable approach to the design of information systems - with a phenomenological approach in order to get a better understanding of relevant needs and the most appropriate design of computer support.

If and how it is possible to combine these two approaches is a quite complicated question. I believe that it is both possible and necessary. The relevant question is accordingly how? I hope that this paper will bring up the discussion: how could research try to find answers to this question.


Large parts of this paper has only been possible for me to write due to fruitful and thorough discussions with professor Arne Thing Mortensen - Institute of Media, Educational Research, and Theory of Science, Roskilde University - which the lack of philosophical references unveils.


Boland, Richard: "Phenomenology: A Preferred Approach to Research on Information Systems" in Mumford, Enid, Rudi Hirschheim, Guy Fitzgeral, and Trevor Wood-Harper (eds.): Research Methods in Information Systems, Proceedings of the IFIP WG 8.2 Colloquium, Manchester Business School, 1-3 September, 1984. North-Holland, 1985.

Bødker, Keld, and Jesper Strandgaard Pedersen: "Workplace Cultures: Looking at Artifacts, Symbols, and Practices", in Joan Greenbaum and Morten Kyng (eds.): Design at Work: Cooperative Design of Computer Systems. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Chichester, UK, 1991, pp. 121-136.

Heath, Christian, and Paul Luff: "Collaborative Activity and Technological Design: Task Coordination in London Underground Control Rooms", in Proceedings of the Second European Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 24th-27th September 1991 Amsterdam, Holland. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, Holland, 1991. pp. 65-80.

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Suchman, Lucy A., and Randall H. Trigg: "Understanding Practice: Video as a Medium for Reflection and Design", in Joan Greenbaum and Morten Kyng (eds.): Design at Work: Cooperative Design of Computer Systems. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Chichester, UK, 1991, pp. 65-89.

Winch, Peter: The Idea of a Social Science, Routledge & Kegan Paul LtD., London, UK, 1958.

Wynn, Eleanor: "Taking Practice Seriously", in Joan Greenbaum and Morten Kyng (eds.): Design at Work: Cooperative Design of Computer Systems. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Chichester, UK, 1991, pp. 45-64.