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Submitted for the 'Critical Theory and Information Technology' stream of the Critical
Management Conference, Manchester 1999
Bruce Robinson & Helen Richardson
Information Systems Research Centre
University of Salford
Salford M5 4WT
Phone / fax: 0161 861 7160
Email: [email protected]
Mailing address: Bruce Robinson, 1 Cundiff Road, Manchester M21 8FS
Vygotsky's critical analysis of the disciplinary crisis of psychology in the 1920s is used as
the basis for an examination of the current state of the Information Systems discipline. After
demonstrating the existence of a crisis, we examine its roots in the social, political and
economic changes of the last 25 years, the nature of its subject matter and its philosophical
foundations. We conclude that the symptoms of the crisis will not be resolved and that the
'Critical School' must develop independently of the mainstream managerial Information
Systems discipline.
In 1926, the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote a long manuscript entitled 'The
Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology' (Vygotsky, 1997/1926 - hereafter HMCP), in
which he analysed what he saw as a crisis of the then 50 year old discipline of psychology.
This work was partly a critical analysis of the state of psychology and the schools within it,
partly a tract in the philosophy of science, part assertion of the role of dialectical method and
partly an attempt to lay a foundation for a distinctly Marxist science of psychology. Vygotsky
was concerned both with the status and development of psychology as a discipline and the
creation of a radical alternative to the then dominant trends in the discipline.
Sharing both these concerns, this paper attempts to apply Vygotsky's method and the
analytical tools in HMCP to the state of the information systems (IS1) discipline today. While
parallels between the two disciplines emerge from this analysis, there are also some basic
differences, which should only be expected in view of Vygotsky's emphasis that the subject
matter of a specific discipline must play a part in defining its structure, method and the
motive forces of its development. Despite this, applying Vygotsky's approach to IS is fruitful
both for analysing the nature of its crisis and for suggesting an alternative path for the IS
discipline to take, both by means of critique and synthesis.
The existence of a crisis in IS can be seen from a number of widely acknowledged symptoms,
which point not just to the growing pains typical of any new discipline but to more
fundamental causes. As in HMCP, these elements of the disciplinary crisis are examined by
means of the social, economic and political context within which the discipline has
developed; the subject matter which the discipline has to explain; and the general conditions
and laws of scientific knowledge (issues of method and technique). Analysis of these factors
suggest both that IS will continue to exist as a set of fragmented and antagonistic schools
which are unlikely to ever reach the status of a unified scientific discipline, such as medicine
or engineering, and that broader social change will be necessary to widen the range of viable
IS practices and ameliorate other symptoms of the crisis, particularly those associated with
IS's managerial orientation. The crisis is therefore likely to remain with us for the foreseeable
Vygotsky did not merely analyse the crisis of psychology. He also suggested ways in which it
might develop in a critical yet integrative direction. To misquote the title of this conference
stream, he suggested not merely that there were ways in which there could still be hope for a
strengthened relationship between psychology and critical theory, but indeed that such a
relationship provided the only hope, if not of resolving its crisis, of providing a coherent
alternative to it. For reasons of space, we cannot here deal with his proposals in detail. We
briefly suggest however, that, while the development of a 'Critical School' will not itself
resolve the crisis of the IS discipline, his proposal that psychology must develop its own
system that contains both critique and substance, that "we must create our own Das Kapital",
shows a way a forward for critical IS researchers in the new millennium.
Is there a crisis in the IS discipline comparable to that of psychology in the 1920s? At first
glance IS may appear to be a discipline whose time has come as its subject matter is so
central to contemporary society. Yet there continue to be fundamental questions about its
distinctiveness, coherence and viability. The persistence of these issues over the last 15 years
- in which IS has gone from being 'a doubtful science' (Bjørn Andersen, 1985), to being
'crucial, but confused' (Checkland & Holwell, 1998) or an 'emerging discipline' followed by a
question mark to indicate a lack of consensus that IS really is one (Stowell & Mingers, 1997)
- testifies to the existence of a fundamental crisis. A number of symptoms of this crisis, which
have been widely recognised, will now be examined in more detail with reference to
Vygotsky's analysis of a disciplinary crisis.
We use the capitalised form 'IS' to refer to the discipline of Information Systems rather than its subject matter.
2.1 The subject matter and structure of the IS discipline
The most fundamental rationale for the existence of an academic discipline must be that it
deals with a set of distinct and identifiable phenomena. Accordingly, Vygotsky's analysis of
psychology's crisis begins by considering the content and structure of the discipline. For
Vygotsky, "the unity of a science2 is guaranteed by unity of the viewpoint on the subject"
(HMCP, p.284). This unity does not exist at present in IS.
There are many disparate definitions of what an information system (or information itself) is,
which points to the widely acknowledged absence of an agreed theoretical basis for the
discipline. (Adam & Fitzgerald, 1996; Farhoomand, 1987). Further, it is difficult to establish
precise boundaries between IS and other adjoining disciplines with the result that there is no
generally accepted definition of the domain of IS. (Avison & Fitzgerald, 1991; Stowell &
Mingers, 1997)
Accordingly IS has been seen to lack the formal properties of a discipline, either because it is
immature and "pre-paradigmatic" (Culnan, 1987) (which implies that these problems will
pass with the further development of IS) or because it cannot adequately defend its right to
independent existence. As a result, a number of writers have devised new disciplines that
would subsume all or part of IS, leaving it either to wither away or with a narrower, but more
well defined scope. Nurminen (1997) has suggested that a broader discipline of 'informatics',
which subsumes IS's content, is a more appropriate grouping, particularly for those in the
Scandinavian tradition of IS. Kling (1999), on the other hand, has coined the new title of
'social and organisational informatics' for a hybrid where those areas of IS particularly
concerned with social and organisational aspects will be merged with other disciplines.
The confusion about the definition of IS is in part attributable to the structure of the
discipline. In the psychology of the 20s, Vygotsky saw various antagonistic schools, each
dealing with different aspects of a single phenomenon, the human mind. Thus Freudianism
dealt with the unconscious mind, Pavlov's school with reflexes and so on, a problem being
that each school would expand its own particular role to lay claim to the territory of all the
others. (HMCP, pp.239-243) The structural problems of IS are different and more complex.
Within IS, the Board of the UKAIS (UKAIS, 1999) has distinguished ten different major
subfields, which are interrelated to varying degrees and cannot be directly identified with the
contending schools. They are:
Vygotsky's uses the term science in the sense of the German 'Wissenschaft' i.e. as a set of knowledge with a
well-defined structure and domain and basic principles of methodology.
Theoretical underpinnings of information systems;
Data, information and knowledge management;
Information in organisational decision making;
Integration of information systems with organisational strategy and development;
Information systems design;
Development, implementation and maintenance of information systems;
Information and communication technologies (ICT);
Management of information systems and services;
Organisational and social effects of ICT-based information systems;
Economic effects of ICT-based information systems.
That these subfields have coalesced into what is known as the IS discipline is partly a
question of historical accident and partly due to a very general shared focus on systems
increasingly based on IT. Their concerns are in many ways different and their development
has not been uniform. They relate to different external disciplines and have developed to a
varying degree independently of one another. This makes it difficult to generalise about a
single IS discipline.
2.2 'Diversity' in IS paradigms and research
The diversity or fragmentation of IS is not confined to its subject matter or structure, but can
also be found in the differing fundamental stances of IS researchers and their methods. The
divergent philosophical conceptions underlying IS research and practice have been
investigated in depth by Hirschheim, and Klein, Lyttinen, Walsham and others (Hirschheim
& Klein, 1989; Hirschheim, Klein, & Lyttinen, 1995; Walsham, 1993; Winder, Probert, &
Beeson, 1997). IS researchers often have differing research methods, conceptions of what
should be considered good research and basic assumptions and 'political' attitudes with which
they approach the phenomena they study. This has often been tied to IS's relative lack of a
cumulative research tradition, in which researchers start from a base of soundly established
and generally accepted knowledge and the discipline thus develops in a fairly linear manner.
National traditions also diverge, often because of the differing social and political
environments and educational structures in which they are immersed (Bansler, 1989). De
facto pluralism exists.
How this diversity is viewed depends on the writer's view of the sort of discipline IS is (or
should be) and whether a monolithic approach dominated by a single paradigm is either
possible or desirable. Thus this diversity is either welcomed (Robey, 1996), regretted and
seen as something that has to be controlled (Benbasat & Weber, 1996) or just seen as
inevitable (Banville & Landry, 1989) - our view. For our present purpose, it is enough to note
that it has been widely seen as contributing to the crisis of IS in that it both makes it more
difficult to define what IS is and to establish a generally accepted set of fundamental
principles, which could be used to market IS as a coherent scientific discipline.
2.3 Reference disciplines
Psychology became a science through a process of development away from and assimilation
of aspects of a number of reference disciplines ranging from philosophy and sociology
through to physiology. (Brennan, 1994; Manicas, 1987) For Vygotsky this was both a
problem and a challenge - the problem that of establishing a distinct identity for psychology
and the challenge that of establishing a 'general science', which could generalise and integrate
each of the specific, empirical disciplines involved in psychology.
IS has, if anything, an even more serious problem of reference disciplines. Davis (Davis,
1991) lists 9 major ones, Barki et al (Barki, Rivard, & Talbot, 1993) 16 and neither mention
philosophy! The major sub-divisions of IS mentioned above each tends to cluster around a
different set of reference disciplines. This accentuates the fragmented nature of IS.
One major resulting problem, noted by Vygotsky, is that in a period where a discipline does
not have a generally agreed foundation there is a tendency towards eclecticism, which leads,
at worst, to a 'pick and mix' approach of fundamentally incompatible theories. In HMCP,
Vygotsky speaks of this taking two forms: "direct usurpation" where the rising discipline lays
claim to the territory of others or of "a treaty between two allied countries in which both keep
their independence, but agree to act together proceeding from their common interests
(HMCP, pp.259-261)." His example is attempts to fuse Freudianism and Marxism. This
second form tends to be the form taken with IS as the discipline does not have the selfconfidence or 'one big idea' to conquer other areas, though this advocated by some authors
(Lee, 1999a; Stowell & Mingers, 1997). Rather the form is one of alliance in which IS is
usually the junior partner.
This often runs into the consequences outlined by Vygotsky where "the identity of the two
systems is declared by the simple formal-logical superposition of the characteristics" and
where "one often simply must close ones eyes to the contradictory facts, not pay attention to
vast areas... and introduce monstrous distortions in both the systems to be merged." (HMCP,
Jones (1997) has noted that IS researchers often appropriate ideas from areas of knowledge
with which they have only a superficial acquaintance and therefore often apply them
inappropriately. Alongside eclecticism, there appears a susceptibility to following fads and
fashions, recognised by many researchers themselves (Teng & Galletta, 1991), which will be
discussed later.
2.4 Weak institutionalisation
The institutionalisation of a discipline implies recognition that it has reached a certain stage
of maturity. IS has faced problems in achieving this recognition. Firstly, within academic
structures, IS has traditionally been studied in departments of management or computer
science and has only to a limited extent managed to become independent. Even where IS has
achieved this form of institutionalised recognition, researchers concerned with the same
subject matter may still be found scattered through departments dedicated to its reference
disciplines. Another related problem is that IS has not always won recognition from the
governmental institutions responsible for educational administration. Thus for British IS
researchers a major issue has been the failure to have IS recognised as a separate unit of
assessment in the Research Assessment Exercise that decides the allocation of state research
funds and instead the assignment of IS researchers to the management, computer science or
library and information science boards.
Despite the existence of professional organisations in the US and UK, IS has failed to create a
machinery of professionalisation whereby it can control admission to and practice of
whatever may emerge as its domain of expertise. For Adam and Fitzgerald (1996), this is a
key symptom of its crisis, though both the practicality and desirability of barriers to entry is
open to question.
2.5 The gap between theory and practice
It is widely acknowledged that, despite the use of research methods such as action research,
there is a major gap between IS theory and IS practice. This takes a number of forms.
The first is the gap between the perceived concerns of academics and practitioners, often
expressed by practitioners as an exasperation with the lack of relevance of 'ivory tower'
research to their own immediate concerns. This is partly the inevitable result of the analytical,
non-prescriptive nature of some IS research and partly because practitioners rarely have the
time or training to reflect on their own activity, being faced with more immediate concerns.
(See section 3.1) One symptom of this that has been widely commented on is the gap
between the formal prescriptions of IS methodologies and the way they are used in practice
(Fitzgerald, 1996; Westrup, 1993).
The second aspect of the gap between theory and practice comes from the tendency of
researchers to overgeneralise by extrapolating from limited material, which may therefore
lead to contradictions between the conclusions of research and the real world situation. One
example might be that a few classic cases where IT has successfully been used to improve
'competitive advantage' now appear in every IS textbook, so that IT is presented as the key to
competitive advantage. Yet in 1989, Rockart and Short (1989) could write that "For the past
two decades, the question of what impact IT will have on business organisations has
continued to puzzle academics and practitioners alike" and more recently Clemons and Row
(1994) could state that "There is little evidence that [information systems] have conferred
competitive advantage in any but a few instances."
In addition, many generally accepted assumptions of IS remain taken for granted, acquiring
the status of unchallengable fetishes, rather than themselves being adequately investigated.
(Newman, 1989) Preston (1991) suggests that this is because of the acontextual nature of
MIS and the failure to situate theories in action.
2.6 From symptoms to causes
In order to examine what lies behind these symptoms and, in particular, whether they merely
represent 'growing pains', which will disappear in the course of IS's further development, we
must look for "the objective necessity that underlies the development of the science" (HMCP,
p.241), for "the lawfulness of the clash of ideas and opinions that is taking place, which is
determined by the development of the science itself and by the nature of the reality it
studies..." These objective tendencies are "inherent in the historical tasks brought forward by
the development of the science and act behind the backs of the various investigators and
theorists with the force of a steel spring" (HMCP, p.257).
In other words, we must make the discipline itself the subject of our research, looking for the
roots of the crisis by examining what lies behind its tendencies of development. Vygotsky
suggests three aspects as necessary for this analysis (HMCP, p.241):
The first is the "general socio-cultural context of the era". For IS, it is necessary to analyse
the way in which it has developed under the dominance of the social, economic, intellectual
and technological changes of the last 25 years in order to see why the crisis exists and takes
the form it does.
The second is "the objective demands upon the scientific knowledge that follow from the
nature of the phenomena studied... the requirements of the objective reality that is studied by
the given science." Vygotsky sees each field of investigation as having certain characteristics
that flow from what it is studying and which in turn influence the development of different
Finally, Vygotsky looks at "the general conditions and laws of scientific knowledge", i.e. the
role of methodology, research techniques and the fundamental ontological and
epistemological stances underlying the development of the science. This flows from general
philosophical considerations but takes a particular form because of the nature of the
phenomena under consideration by a particular science.
The application of these lines of investigation to IS is highly suggestive of certain factors that
have traditionally not been considered in the literature on its development, in particular those
relating to its socio-cultural context.
Although IS can trace its origins to the 1950s, it emerged with the full trappings of a separate
discipline in the late 70s. This was contemporaneous with two major interrelated changes in
the workings of the advanced capitalist economies that have shaped its subsequent
development. The first, directly related to its subject matter, is the onset of a period of rapid
technological change, which still shows no sign of ending and is mainly based on the
application and development of microelectronics. The second was the end of the post-war
boom and the social and political consensus that accompanied it and the replacement of the
social, economic and political regimes that had been dominant since 1945.
Information systems have been central to these developments, both as enablers and products
of these changes. The form they have taken and the response of the IS discipline to them
have been major factors in the creation and maintenance of the crisis of IS.3
It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that with a few exceptions, little attention has been played to their role in
IS's development and crisis.
3.1 Economics: Innovation, information, competition and change
The period since the mid 70s has been one of rapid change and constant instability in the
advanced capitalist economies. Traditional industries such as manufacturing have been in
decline. Increased competition, globalisation and a shifting international division of labour,
and rapid changes in technology and techniques of production have led to the need for
flexibility and rapid and continuous restructuring and innovation. The increased importance
of speculative flows of capital has added a destabilising element to the world economy, while
also imposing similar free market policies on those countries that wish to avoid capital
outflows and pressure on their currency.
One consequence of sharper competition in a period of deep technological change has been to
force firms to adopt the most advanced technology in order to survive. As this technology is
itself changing, there is a constant rush to either be first or to catch up with whoever was first,
both at the level of the firm and of national economies. Information technology and systems
are central to this. While the growing share of hi-tech investment in the US can be traced
back to the 1940s, it markedly accelerated in the wake of the 1974-5 recession and had
reached 36% by 1985. (Schiller, 1988) It has been calculated that around 50% of capital
investment in the US is now in information and communication technologies. (Quoted in
Kling, 1999). With the widespread adoption of IT have come the shedding of previous
secure clerical jobs, the application of automation to intellectual labour and the reorganisation
of the labour process to ensure 'flexibility' in the face of shifting demands and the need for a
stream of new products.
At the same time, the need for innovation is not restricted to the process of production but is
also found in the products themselves. Obsolescence now occurs almost as quickly as
products reach the market - it is thought to take about three months for a PC to be replaced
by a newer model (Kenney, 1996) - and competition forces constant innovation. New
products often have a strong information content.
This changing form of capitalism - whether known as "hypercapitalism" (Graham, 1999) or
"information capitalism" (Morris-Suzuki, 1997 / 1986) - is highly dependent on information
and its objectification in software and other commodities (Kenney, 1997). It has been argued
that it is precisely this that gives a new dynamic to overcome the chronic tendencies towards
crisis through the commodification of previously non- or incompletely commodified forms,
leading to the "Pay-per society" (Mosco, 1988). This dependence is expressed in a number of
ways, for example:
information as a pre-requisite for a flexible response to rapid change;
information as commodity or component of commodities;
information as means of co-ordination of spatially distributed and complex processes of
the automation of the processes of information production and manipulation leading to
increases in productivity and a reduced requirement for human labour;
information as the most abstract form of capital itself in terms of speculative flows
increasingly without a real world referent (Graham, 1999).
This development is not smooth and without contradictions, some of which flow from the
peculiar nature of information as a commodity (e.g. the low costs and ease of reproduction)
and others of which are derived from the inevitability of cyclical crises in capitalism.
In managerial ideology, the uncertainty and volatility of this period are seen as inevitable and
potentially positive if embraced as a cudgel to make sure 'we' win the competitive battle
(Stanworth, 1998). Businesses should be 'thriving on chaos' (Peters, 1989) by adopting new
methods and by being constantly innovative. The search for stability becomes a negative
factor inhibiting creative development. "Don't automate, obliterate" (Hammer & Champy,
Thus there come a sequence of panaceas each of which promises to be 'the answer' but is
quickly replaced by others as its contradictions and inability to resolve the underlying
systemic contradictions of the process of capital accumulation become clear. For example,
quality circles, just-in-time production, 'empowerment' of employees, business process reengineering and total quality management each address parts of the problem facing managers
in asserting control over the labour process or ensuring profitability, but there is still no sign
that they fulfil the claims made for them. 50% of BPR projects have been considered failures
and even its early protagonists have abandoned it. (See Mumford, 1999)
The entire
restructuring process of the 1980s has failed to restore profitability in the US (Moseley,
In this context of rapid change, the organisational role of information systems has also shifted
to meet the changing possibilities permitted by new technology and the changing needs of
capital. Thus, there has been a shift from the automation of routine processes towards coordination of processes which have been physically distributed as a result of the new division
of labour (Greenbaum, 1998) and towards the creation of new markets and products through
the use of information systems. These developments have in turn led to the creation of new
academic subfields: CSCW and Strategic Information Systems.
As information systems and technology have been central to making them possible, these
shifts in the forms of capitalism have clearly been crucial in determining the direction of
information systems development and management. The speed of change and centrality of IT
/ IS means that the managers and developers of information systems face a constant stream of
demands for systems which are often of central importance for the survival of their
organisations. In addition, there is a demand for IS departments to justify their existence to
the higher reaches of organisations in terms of their contribution to their overall profitability
in the face of threats to outsource and doubts about the financial returns from investment in
Ever greater time constraints and more ambitious systems specifications have led to a
sequence of highly publicised failures, such as the Taurus system, the London Ambulance
Service, the SNCF reservation system and now a further string of public sector failures in the
UK (See e.g.Campbell, 1999; Mitev, 1996b), which in turn lead to public questioning as to
why IS developers cannot 'deliver the goods'.
Friedman (1989)describes the dynamics of this process:
"Computerization has progressed very quickly. Yet it has also been distinguished by
regular reports of problems and failures. These apparently contradictory statements
can be reconciled by an appreciation of how high expectations have been in this
field. Fired by dreams of the unimaginable, computer systems developers and their
clients have often attempted the improbable. Constraints have been important in this
field, not because people have been bound by what is considered possible, but
because inadequate attention has been paid to limitations... Failures have rarely held
computer developers back, because the gains perceived by those who have
ultimately footed the bill have been so great."
He also describes the 'problem of the tenses' where "planned techniques are described as
'implemented', techniques implemented in one or a few truly 'state-of-the-art' sites are
described as widespread.... [It] leads to mistaken impressions; that most places have adopted
new techniques or are about to do so, and that such techniques are universally appropriate."
(As noted in section 2.5, this problem also applies to IS research.)
Managerial requirements for quick solutions are often in conflict with the engineering
methods seen as desirable by academics and some developers and the methodologies seen as
necessary to discipline and control the IS development labour process are often incompletely
applied because of the more pressing necessities of 'getting the project out of the door'
(Fitzgerald, 1996; Westrup, 1993). This means that systems development often becomes
more improvised than methodical and is also partly responsible for the impatience of many
developers with the 'ivory tower' attitudes of academic approaches to IS development.
Thus attempts to control the IS development labour process are contradictory
Ramsay, & Panteli, 1998) and the 'software crisis' remains with us, sometimes described in
identical terms - of craft versus industrial production - to those used on its first appearance
thirty years ago. (Welke, 1994) As Greenbaum (1999) sharply puts it:
"In fact, the history of information system development in the last twenty-five years
has in many cases been a comedy of errors, in which technological design and
management dictates have made Chaplin's 'Modern Times' seem like middle of the
night reruns."
This is unlikely to change fundamentally even if software development does change its form,
becoming more a question of buying in commodity software rather than developing in-house
(Hanseth, 1991; Markus, 1999). Despite often having a semi-monopoly position, the
producers of commodified software face exactly the same pressures to innovate in order to
saturate the market by generating a constant stream of new products and to respond to a
supposed business demand. Innovation is also here a way of covering up the fallibility of
high-speed software production by using new releases to cure bugs, as anyone who uses
Microsoft operating systems will know.
This situation facing IS practitioners has naturally had its effects on the academic discipline
of IS, particularly as the majority of its participants accept the dominance of managerial
needs and wish to respond to them. This can be seen to be at least one of the causes of several
of the symptoms mentioned above. We have already mentioned the division between theory
and practice and the tendency to overgeneralisation from individual cases. There is also a link
to the tendency to follow fads and fashions, described by Cule and Grover (1994) in terms of
the challenges facing someone in the US just starting out in IS research:
These contradictions are not only to be found in the area of systems development. Kraft and Bansler (1994)
refer to "the most threatening problem facing US industry [being] the unreliable and sporadic nature of
intellectual and administrative value-adding activities."
"We tell him to be wary of fads and to examine sustainable concepts. But the
technology catalyst propelling our field moves so fast that he cannot find anything
sustainable.... too fast for us to hold it long enough in our grasp to study its impacts.
And so we capture transient concepts, fads and describe organisational case
experiences... Playing the game leads to a less than desirable outcome in that the
research will be conducted with rigor, but may not add significantly to usable
This phenomenon is not merely a product of technological change, but of the broader
economic changes we have outlined and the shifting nature of managerial responses to them.
IS remains dominated by managerial concerns, which serve to transmit the consequences of
an unstable and uncertain economy into the discipline. If managers are constantly set the task
of keeping up with their competitors, IS sets itself the task of keeping up with the managers.
The next section explains how these social pressures make themselves felt so directly in the
IS discipline.
3.2 Politics and society: The free market rules OK?
The new regime in economics was enabled by a change in the dominant political regime
away from the post-1945 welfare / corporatist consensus towards a free market economy with
a minimal public sector and limited state control, privatisation, deregulation and freer rein for
managerial power in the workplace and society as a whole. While the timing and extent of
this shift has varied between countries, it has come to be seen as an imperative both by
conservative and social democratic governments if their nations are to continue to compete in
the increasingly global economy.
The consequences of most importance for IS are the increased dominance of business needs
in all spheres of society and the weakening of those forces that had previously acted as a
constraint or a focus of opposition to them.
Firstly, the content and direction of education have come to be more and more dominated by
the needs of business, both as a result of government policy and the penetration of market
relations into those areas previously, in part at least, treated as public services. Archetypal
capitalist institutions such as IBM and the World Bank have recently demanded the even
more complete subordination of education to their requirements (Beckett, 1999; CAUT,
1998). Computer science and IS have faced particularly faced demands for supplies of
graduates with specific skills judged relevant to meeting shortages of trained labour and for
curricula that reflect this 'relevance' as defined by business and the labour market. The
introduction of IT into school education has also followed a similar rationale (Robins &
Webster, 1989). The commodification of knowledge plays an increasing role in defining the
direction of research. Public funding of higher education is increasingly dependent on the
'efficient' production of 'outputs' defined in quasi-market terms.
This provides the framework within which the IS community debates the relevance of its
research. Keen's (1991) call for relevance before rigour in IS research contained the question
"Relevance - to whom?" Benbasat and Zmud (1999) give a refreshingly brutal and frank
answer, which shows how the dominant ethos of education is instrumentally transmitted into
the concerns of IS researchers. The view of 'Business Week' that academic research is 'fuzzy,
irrelevant, pretentious' is, according to Benbasat and Zmud, that of "many of the stakeholders
collectively holding the largesse of business school faculty... IS research has a credibility gap
in the business community [evidenced by the cancelling of subscriptions to MIS Quarterly by
information managers]... IS professionals (including analysts, user representatives and IS
managers) as well as managers with an interest in IT deployment and utilisation [are] the
consumers of IS research that is relevant." The authors therefore advocate the creation of a
consensus that the needs of this constituency be better served by IS research, to be enforced
by self-denying ordinances on the part of researchers and shifts in the editorial policies of IS
It is symptomatic that Benbasat and Zmud do not consider those who have to deal with
information systems as part of their daily working lives to be worthy of inclusion amongst
those for whom IS research should be made relevant. This brings us to the second aspect of
the political changes of the last 25 years that have had an impact on the IS discipline: the
relative decline of the social space which might provide the basis for an alternative
conception of IS theory and practice to those dominated by managerial needs or the
functionalism of systems engineering.
Firstly, the general ideological climate has not been conducive to the development of radical
alternatives to the mainstream. Further there has been a decline in the strength of the trade
unions in the 80s and 90s and a trend to remove the corporatist structures to be found in the
industrial relations of most countries in the post-war period . These developments have
contributed to decline of the socio-technical school and made trade-union oriented forms of
systems development both less attractive and practical. The gradual extension of the basic
trends across countries with different industrial relations and legal traditions is also becoming
apparent as the competitive pressures and internationalisation of capital becomes more and
more generalised.
The decline in the membership of unions and their loss of general influence in society has
been particularly visible in the UK and US from the 80's as a result of unemployment,
government policy and the decline of their traditional manufacturing base. Falling union
density has also been a general trend in Europe in the 90s, with the exception of some
Scandinavian countries and Spain. Union membership has only recently risen slightly in the
US after a long period of decline. The industrial relations regimes of the post-war period, in
which some degree of union participation in the workplace and in tripartite policy-making
structures was accepted as a price for social peace, have been abandoned in many countries
and are under attack even in those countries like Germany where they are strongly
institutionally entrenched. Traditional multi-industry centralised bargaining structures have
been removed in Sweden and Denmark (Hyman, 1995).
Closely related to union decline has been a reassertion of managerial power in the workplace
and throughout society. While management is faced with a contradictory situation in needing
to ensure consent and initiative from at least those 'core' workers central to their business, the
growth of unemployment, casualisation and managerial power has led to a pervasive 'like it
or lump it' attitude towards their workforces, fashionable gestures towards 'empowerment'
The trade union oriented projects in IS development that occurred in Scandinavia and
Germany in the 70s and 80s have declined, alongside a shift among their protagonists "from
emancipation to professionalism... [and] from the political to the ethical systems developer"
(Bjerknes & Bratteteig, 1994). The Collective Resource Approach (Ehn & Kyng, 1987)
which had a trade union orientation, being replaced by a focus on "cooperative design"
(Kyng, 1994). Losing their critical edge, some researchers have moved closer to the sociotechnical systems approach which they themselves had previously criticised, (Iivari &
Lyytinen, 1999).
The reasons given by participants debating this decline have focussed on the viability of the
Collective Resource Approach in the current social climate. Bjerknes and Bratteteig (1994)
talk of
a shift from labour to knowledge and information as the critical resource for
managers, a climate for "organisational changes that is not a cooperative and harmonious as it
was in the 70s" and the weakening of the unions. Accordingly the CRA is more difficult now
and unions are no longer "the most strategic institutions through which democracy can be
achieved." Winner (1994) raises the issue of whether the CRA is doomed by the changed
relations of power in the global context and Kraft and Bansler (1994) question whether the
CRA can be transferred to societies with a low level of unionisation, such as the US, without
losing its emancipatory edge.
A further consequence of increasing managerial power has been that schools of IS practice
based on the assumption that consensual relations do exist or can be created in the workplace
have found problems in finding receptive environments in which to operate. Mumford's
(1999) critique of BPR from a socio-technical viewpoint makes these problems explicit.
"Support from the top for a democratically run company" is seen as crucial for "good
organisational design", while "weak, autocratic management, the "'I want it tomorrow'"
attitude and "rapid gains in productivity without concern for employee gains" are seen as
detrimental. As we have seen, all of Mumford's negative factors are rooted in the process of
current phase of capital accumulation (in particular, in sharper competition), and therefore to
urge humanistic values and a long term approach on "the macho manager who wants quickfix, short-term results" is essentially merely to assert the powerlessness of these visions seen
either as moral exhortations or appeals to long-term self interest. This is particularly the case
when the critic shares the fundamental assumptions of the criticised in terms of the
desirability of improved organisational efficiency, the need for restructuring and the
prerogatives of management. (Mitev, 1996a)
There are therefore simultaneously strong social pressures towards the homogenisation of IS
research under the domination of business and managerial concerns and a closing off of the
possibilities for alternative approaches5, which then become seen as the impossible dreaming
of academics. This contributes to the crisis of IS by, on the one hand, making IS follow at the
heels of management and, on the other, bolstering the theory-practice divide.
3.3 Ideology: The post-everything, information society
The economic and technical change we have outlined has also had its impact in the
ideological sphere. Talk of the 'information society' and 'post-industrialism' can be heard
Ironically, however, the new pervasiveness and accessibility of IT has opened possibilities for the selforganisation and communication of trade unionists and other groups traditionally disadvantaged in terms of
access to these resources. The use of the Internet is particularly important, having, for example, played a major
role in the organisation of worldwide action in support of the sacked Liverpool dockers. Trade unions are
increasingly making these facilities available to their members. This development has largely taken place
outside the workplace. IS researchers have however so far paid little attention to it, either in terms of analysis or
an active involvement in its development.
from governments, academe and media. Ideas that seek to show that the basis of social and
economic organisation has changed fundamentally from that of traditional capitalism have
become dominant. 'Post-industrialism', 'post-Fordism',
and 'post-modernism' have all
asserted that we now live in a new period, defined in terms of a counter-position to some
aspect of what went before. This is not in itself new - Beniger (1986) lists 75 such theories
of transformation published between 1950 and 1985. However, these theories have more
recently taken on two important new aspects.
Firstly since the 70s, these ideas have been increasingly premised on the centrality of
computer technology and information, reflecting the economic and technological shifts of this
period. The second change is the degree to which they have become part of the 'common
sense' of political and intellectual discourse, so that their correctness is often taken for
granted. For example, ideas of the 'information society' and 'knowledge economy' lie behind
the policies of both the Blair and Clinton governments and have formed the basis for
Japanese and European Union initiatives, all of which seek to find the magic key to success
under the new conditions6. Software and web entrepreneurs are seen as being at the cutting
edge of advance, exploring the 'new frontier' of the information society, whilst at the same
time accumulating fortunes as a result of the speculative convictions of the stock market
about the 'next big thing'.
Webster (Webster, 1999) comments:
"Professor [Daniel] Bell has won out: it is now quite orthodox to conjure, as a matter
of unarguable fact, his 'information society' as the knowledge-based, high tech and
service-centred world we allegedly inhabit."
These ideas have therefore naturally overflowed into IS, to the extent that they provide the
assumptions on which much IS research and practice operates, even though their
understanding of technology and information systems is less rich than that of many IS
researchers (Jones, 1991). They appeal to managers (Stanworth, 1998) and provide the
default assumptions in discussions of the macro-social context of information systems and of
the pressing imperatives underlying innovation. Terms such as 'knowledge work' and
'information-enabled' are accepted as unproblematic. IS practitioners and thinkers can feel
Perhaps we should here consider Vygotsky's comment on the behaviourist psychologist Watson: "He slips into
the viewpoint of the 'common man' understanding by this latter not the basic feature of human practice but the
common sense of the average American businessman" (HMCP, p. 286)
themselves to be the heralds and enablers of a new age, which is both inevitable and
The way in which these theories have come to dominate is reminiscent of Vygotsky's account
of how ideas like Freud's and Pavlov's began from a limited scientific insight but gradually
laid claim to the territory of adjacent disciplines and then became "inflated into a world view
like a frog that has swollen to the size of an ox." In our case, the idea of the information
society developed from the 'scientific fact' of the growing importance of information in
capitalism. But it too has grown to be all-encompassing: "Only having developed into a world
view or having become attached to it, does the particular idea change from a scientific fact
into a fact of social life again, i.e., it returns to the bosom from which it came. Only having
become part of social life again, does it reveal its social nature, which of course was present
all the time, but was hidden under the mask of the neutral scientific fact it
impersonated"(HMCP, pp. 242-3)
A number of writers have sought to describe this 'social nature' by questioning both the
accuracy and coherence of its fundamental assumptions and what are presented as its
indisputable conclusions. Webster (1995) has argued, not merely that there are many
different grounds given for our entry into the information society, but also that they are
vague, imprecise and cannot determine whether the information society has arrived or
not. We will point to a few issues, which are directly relevant to IS.
Firstly it has been questioned whether most of the new jobs created in recent years really
are 'knowledge work' which involves a high degree of skill in symbol processing and
manipulation, rather than low-grade forms of clerical work requiring little skill (as in the
ever more pervasive call centres replacing, for example, high street banks) or low paid
'McDonaldised' service jobs - both of which sectors are becoming increasingly
casualised (Henwood, 1995; Warhurst & Thompson, 1998).
Secondly, 'information society' theories have questioned for their technological
determinism and their assumption of a uni-directional relationship in which technology
determines society, but is itself the product of an unbuckable, objective process rather
than social shaping and choice. The theories offer utopia (or less often dystopia) to those
who equip themselves for and adapt themselves to the coming inevitable change.
Accordingly, they obscure the real social relations in these societies - a polarisation
between rich and poor, skilled and unskilled - by contributing to an 'information
fetishism', in which this reality appears as "the relation between bytes", and information
appears as to take on a dynamic of its own, outside human control, while in fact
concealing relations of appropriation and power. (Henwood, 1995)
The pervasiveness of this ideology can therefore be seen as another aspect of the closure
of the opportunities for critical theory and practice in IS. It provides many of the
assumptions with which those outside IS view it and also is implicit in much of the work
of the IS mainstream.
3.4 Conclusions
Examining the socio-economic context of the development of the IS discipline has been
highly suggestive. It points to the considerable impacts of the general shifts in capitalist
economics, politics and ideology on the crisis of IS and the mechanisms by which they are
transmitted into the discipline - through a combination control of the purse strings, the
demands placed on practitioners and academics by the centrality of information systems to
capitalist development, the feeling of powerlessness in the face of apparently irresistible
forces and a zeitgeist that reinforces all these elements.
Accordingly, this aspect of the crisis of IS is set to continue as there is little sign that these
forces will disappear - rather they are set to intensify. Further there is equally little sign that
the mainstream of IS will resist these pressures, seeking to maintain a managerial orientation.
The development of a critical alternative to this orientation will therefore both remain a
minority concern and the only way to counter a further exacerbation of the crisis.
Vygotsky's second determinant of the crisis of psychology was how the nature of the
phenomena studied was reflected in the development of the science that studied it. 'The
requirements of the objective reality that is studied' must define what is considered an
adequate theory of the domain, yet it may also lead it to develop in particular ways because of
the problems posed. (This is clearly related to why particular fields have different disciplinary
structures.) For Vygotsky, psychology had developed in the way it had by the mid 20s
because the human mind was both its object and its means of investigation, which led to a
dichotomy between introspective psychology and those schools modelling themselves on the
natural sciences. In IS, we argue that a similar shaping role has flowed from two fundamental
characteristics of information systems: firstly, the relationship between the technical and
social elements that distinguishes the discipline; and secondly, that information itself is
difficult to define rigorously.
In examining the history of IS, one of the central 'demands' emerging from the nature of
information systems as real world phenomena has been for an understanding of the
relationship between the 'social' and the 'technical'. This has been apparent on both sides of
the theory-practice divide, as it has become more and more clear in practice that it is
necessary to take both social and technical factors into account in order to implement
information systems adequately and to theoreticians that the dominant functionalist or
technocentric explanations of the impact and development of information do not have
sufficient power to explain or predict what happens.
This realisation is the product of a process, which has sprung from both the growth of a body
of experience in the development of information systems, the societal developments outlined
above and the growth of IS as a distinct discipline. The combination of the social and
technical has prevented IS dissolving into computer science, at the technical pole, or
sociology at the social pole (Lee, 1999a). However, it has also served as a basis for the
fragmentation of IS, in that which of these aspects dominates and how they are integrated
differs considerably between the various subfields and schools of IS. For example, there are
the rigidly systemic definition of the two sides in socio-technical systems theory; approaches
looking at technical impacts and the social shaping of technology; and the total dissolution of
the distinction in actor-network theory. The hard/soft distinction in ISD also reflects the same
tensions between those seeing information systems as fundamentally technical and those
emphasising necessarily human aspects.
In addition, there are widely differing conceptions of the nature of the social systems that
need to be taken into account as the context needed if IS research is to have explanatory
power. These range from theories for which technology must always be seen as 'local',
through theories that start from the local but follow the traces of implementation as far as
their implications lead, systems theories where context is based on a definition of the
boundaries of the system and its relationship to its environment, to primarily organisational
theories and finally to those for whom a macro-social analysis must be a pre-conditions of
understanding what is going on at lower levels.
The fragmentation of views on the nature of the social and the technical not just a historical
product of different pre-existing traditions being applied to the issues raised in IS, but reflects
the division of labour between academic subjects and in society as a whole, where the
technical is largely seen as an sphere autonomous from social considerations.
A second aspect of IS's subject matter that has contributed to the crisis is the elusiveness and
lack of agreement on the nature of information itself. Babbitt (1998) states that MIS "lacks a
consistent lens by which to study 'information' and 'knowledge'", linking this to the absence
of a generally agreed paradigmatic foundation for IS. In largely freeing itself from the precise
but misnamed information theory (Land, 1985), IS has at one end come up with textbook
definitions (e.g. 'information is structured data') which are not useful and at the same time
opened the door to philosophical debates, which are ultimately irreconcilable. Definitions of
information used in IS come from such widely differing sources as phenomenology,
information economics, 'information society' theories which view information as a resource,
formalised mathematical theories, library and information science and broader social theory.
(Babbitt, 1998; Boland, 1987; Schiller, 1988)
Ironically, the absence of a consensual definition of what information is has not prevented IS
from developing, perhaps because it has had enough other things to worry about, perhaps
because it is adequate for many purposes to think one 'knows what it is when you see it'.
However, this absence certainly suggests the foundations of the discipline are insufficiently
secure and provides another basis for the fragmentation of the field.
Neither of these divergences will be resolved by diktat or the eventual convincing of all IS
researchers that one particular approach is the best. Rather, they point to issues every IS
theorist must address and to reasons for the absence of a monolithic science of IS.
The third factor discussed by Vygotsky was 'the general conditions and laws of scientific
knowledge', under which a discipline can develop. He saw the methodology of a science as
fundamental to its viability and a methodological crisis as at the root of psychology's
problems. The methodology of IS research and its underlying philosophical assumptions have
become the subject of increasing discussion as the fragmentation of IS has become stronger
and the taken-for-granted assumptions of positivist 'normal science' in IS have come under
increasing criticism 7. The ontological and epistemological assumptions held by divergent
This debate is often presented as a debate around research methods (e.g. quantitative vs qualitative research).
This appears to cause confusion particularly when the pragmatic use of different methods is seen as a means to
overcome underlying and irreconcilable philosophical differences. However these two issues are, as Vygotsky
points out (HMCP, p.274) distinct and based around an ambiguity in the term 'method' to mean both "the
views within IS have been examined in detail. These have increasingly been presented as the
product of a
fundamental division between positivism and interpretivism, as the two
fundamental ways of researching and of understanding the world.
The more critical alternatives to both positivism and interpretivism are marginalised by this
choice, often presented as a dispute between hard science vs social construction or objectivity
vs subjectivity, as if positivism was the only methodological basis for science or
interpretivism the only way of taking account of the socially determined nature of human
subjects. Both positivism and interpretivism are open to a fundamental critique from what we
shall call a 'dialectical-critical' standpoint and the marginalisation of this critique means that
the positivist-interpretivist dichotomy contributes a philosophical aspect to the crisis of IS.
In HMCP, Vygotsky discusses at length why neither empiricism nor subjectivism (in the
forms of phenomenology and
introspective psychology) are appropriate as a scientific
method. While many of his observations relate directly to the particular problems posed in
psychology, a particularly difficult field of research, his general observations can be applied
directly to IS as they are at a high level of generalisation. Vygotsky's position is based on
dialectical method and his theory of the nature of human concept formation, which was later
to play a central role in his psychology. We shall now examine how Vygotsky's critique of
the dominant philosophical trends as found in psychology can be relevant as an explanation
of IS's crisis.
5.1 A Vygotskyan critique of empiricism
Positivism is based on an understanding of the status of scientific knowledge, which is
derived from empiricist philosophy. Its basic principles were summed up by Comte:
"The mind has given over the vain search for Absolute notions... and the causes of
phenomena, and applies itself to the study of their laws, that is, their invariable
relations of succession and resemblance. Reasoning and observation, duly
combined, are the means of this knowledge. What is now understood when we speak
of an explanation of facts is simply the establishment of a connection between single
phenomena and some general facts, the number of which continually diminishes
with the progress of science" (Quoted in Manicas, 1987, p.59).
technology of the experiment" and "the epistemological method, or methodology which determines the research
goal, the place of the science and its nature." Our concern here is with the latter.
Positivism therefore rejects an appeal to what is beyond experience, seeing principles derived
in other ways as metaphysical. Laws and explanations are derived from observed data, the
reliability of which is given by the use of scientific methods of observation and experiment
and the use of inductive and deductive logic. If these laws are followed, they will result in
value-free objective knowledge. Positivism is therefore premised on the existence of a
knowable world external to the observer.
While the fundamental principles of positivism have been shown to be untenable in the
philosophy of science (Manicas, 1987), they continue to be the foundation for the majority of
IS research as a result of their implicit acceptance in what Lee (1999b) calls "positivism-inpractice". The dominant positivist school applies these principles: in research, by the
definition and use of what can be considered to be scientific methods which enable us to
reach reliable and generalisable knowledge; in systems development, by the application of
scientific laws to ensure a successful result by following the 'one right way', as in
While for Vygotsky the division between idealism and materialism was the fundamental
divide in philosophy and he shared positivism's realism, the materialism he espoused was
based on a critique of empiricism and positivism. For Vygotsky, the foundation of positivism
in sense data and experience unmediated by the instruments (mental and technological) used
in acquiring it means that it cannot develop scientific knowledge for reasons anchored in the
nature of human concept formation and its relation to scientific facts.
" is a gross mistake to suppose that science can only study what is given in
immediate experience. How does the psychologist study the unconscious; the
historian and geologist, the past; the physicist-optician invisible beams and the
philologist - ancient languages? The study of traces, influences, the method of
interpretation and reconstruction, the method of critique and the finding of meaning
have been no less fruitful than the method of direct 'empirical' observation...
Scientific knowledge and immediate perception do not coincide at all... It is just a
matter of how to interpret these traces, by what method... It is therefore a question of
finding the right interpretation and not refraining from any interpretation" (HMCP,
pp. 271-2)
Instead "knowledge acquisition, viewed as the acquisition of knowledge about nature and not
as ideology, is a certain type of labour. And as with any labour, it is first of all a process
between man and nature, in which man himself confronts nature as a natural force.8" (HMCP,
p.244) And as with any labour, the use of particular instruments mediates the interaction
between man and nature, so that the thermometer, for example, can liberate humans from the
use of direct sensory perception of heat (HMCP, p.273) and the mind itself, viewed as such
an instrument, selects and isolates certain phenomena. "Our senses give us the world in the
excerpts, extracts that are important for us." (HMCP, p.274; for a detailed discussion of why
this is the case, see Robinson, 1997)
Not merely is it impossible to derive scientific knowledge directly from direct experience, but
scientific facts cannot come into being as a result of a value-free method of investigation as,
for Vygotsky, the use of words already presupposes a certain way of conceptualising the
"Even the most immediate, empirical, raw, singular natural scientific fact already
contains a first abstraction. The real and the scientific fact are distinct in that the
scientific fact is a real fact included into a certain system of knowledge... The
material of science is not raw, but logically elaborated, natural material, which has
been selected according to a certain feature. The fact itself of naming a fact by a
word means to frame this fact in a concept... it is an act toward understanding this
fact by including it into a category of phenomena which have been studied before.
Each word already is a theory." (HMCP, p.249)
Accordingly, Vygotsky claims that the same 'fact' inserted into different systems of
knowledge in reality function as if they were different 'facts' as their conceptual function is
different. (HMCP, p.238-9) To pose a question already implies an answer and experiments
check our prior conceptualisations rather than creating new knowledge (HMCP, pp.258 &
274). Vygotsky thus puts an large emphasis on adequate conceptualisation of the problem as
the methodological starting point for scientific knowledge, as it defines how the 'facts'
discovered as the result of empirical research fit into a totality. Such conceptualisation in turn
comes about through the processes of abstraction and generalisation from reality, so that there
is a dialectical relationship between empirically given fact and theory. (Robinson, 1997)
Vygotsky undermines all the basic principles of positivism, seeing empiricism as "the refusal
to select a certain philosophical principle, the refusal to clarify one's ultimate premises, to
become aware of one's own scientific nature." Rather, if consistent it leads to "the rejection of
In Marxism, labour is the means by which humans produce and thus reproduce themselves and, in doing so,
methodologically constructive principles in the creation of a system, to eclecticism; insofar as
it is inconsistent it leads to a hidden, uncritical vague methodology" (HMCP, p.298). There is
thus no consistent way in positivism to define 'the problem' that should be the object of the
scientific investigation or the hypotheses to be tested. Socially determined goals and cultural
biases are smuggled in through the back door and elements of relevant context factored out of
the analysis. Yet this definition of 'the problem' sets the basis on which subsequent research
takes place.
These elements have contributed to the crisis of IS in several ways. Problems are chosen
because they are fashionable, publishable, 'out there', or reflect broader social pressures and
priorities about what is important. There is a tendency to overgeneralise the results of
positivist research that is of limited scope, based on claims about the typical nature of the
sample or the instruments used, which should in the positivist paradigm guarantee the
generalisability of the findings. This method has also led to contradictory results in some
cases, which throw doubt on both the methods and the results.
5.2 A Vygotskyan critique of subjectivism
An interpretivist current has emerged in IS, partly in response to the recognised failings of
positivism. A number of interpretivist theories exist (e.g. phenomenology, hermeneutics,
ethnography). We shall take their common core as defined by Walsham (1993) as the basis
for our discussion:
"Interpretive methods of research start from the position that our knowledge of
reality is a social construction by human actors and that this applies equally to
researchers. Thus there is no objective reality which can be discovered by
researchers and replicated by others... Our theories are ways of making sense of the
world and shared meanings are a form of intersubjectivity rather than objectivity.
Interpretivism is therefore an epistemological position concerned with approaches to
the understanding of reality and asserting that all such knowledge is necessarily a
social construction and thus subjective."
Interpretivist researchers thus "attempt to understand phenomena through accessing the
meanings that participants assign to them" (Orlikowski & Baroudi, 1991).
This position draws on a long tradition in social science, but also reflects more recent trends.
In the face of their growing domination by industry and the military, there has been a
change both themselves and nature (understood in its broadest sense as the objectively given conditions of life).
growing scepticism about the claims of the natural sciences (and other areas of research
modelled on them) to be value-free, pointing to the social determination of what counts as
knowledge. Further, the emergence of post-modernism, with its relativism and rejection of
global knowledge claims, has also provided support for interpretivism.
In IS, a number of different interpretivist methods of research have been used. The Soft
Systems Methodology also explicitly places itself in the interpretivist tradition.
Epistemologically all these currents imply certain common threads in that they fundamentally
look on human sense-making as the defining aspect of knowledge acquisition, so that "there
is no single reality only different perceptions about it" (Hirschheim & Klein, 1989).
For reasons we shall examine, the corollary of this varies between interpretivist positions, the
most radically sceptical also adopting an subjective ontology, believing that subjectivity is all
that constitutes the world (Grint & Woolgar, 1992; Woolgar, 1989), and those who more
commonly assert that an external reality must exist, but is unknowable independently of
human sense-making (Jones & Walsham, 1992; Lewis, 1994). For reasons, partly commented
on by Vygotsky in his critique of subjective psychology, neither of these positions is
sustainable in the terms which it is posed.
Firstly, Woolgar's position, while logically consistent and drawing out the full implications of
social constructivism, has no firm ground to stand on but solipsism, the individual's
introspective awareness of their own existence. In other words, we arrive at introspective
psychology which Vygotsky criticises as a basis for knowledge of mind on the basis that it is
arbitrary (HMCP,p.324):
"What must we study : the act as such, as it is, or the act as it appears to me? As with
the analogous question about the objective existence of the world, the materialist
does not hesitate and says: the objective act as such. The idealist will say: my
perception. But then one and the same act will turn out to be different depending on
whether I am drunk or sober, whether I am a child or an adult, whether it is today or
yesterday, whether it is me or you."
This form of interpretivism sweeps away the very foundations of our existence (Dahlbom,
1992) and accordingly cannot be a consistent position by which one lives one's everyday life.
Social constructivism is also "carefully sanitised of any critical standpoint that might
contribute to debates about the political or environmental dimensions of technological
choice." (Winner, 1992) Woolgar squares the circle by admitting that this is all really an
academic game not to be entrusted to innocents (Woolgar, 1993).
This viewpoint is not much found amongst interpretivists in IS, though in milder and less
consistent forms it is less rare amongst sociologists of science and technology, who are
increasingly influential within IS. The second position as outlined by Walsham - or related
forms of weaker constructivism - is however. This approach faces three related problems: the
first with the nature of its knowledge claims; the second with its explanation of the
determinants of human subjectivity; and finally with its inability to go beyond the reflection
of reality in terms of meaning to see the world as a whole, with both subjective and objective
The first problem is the classic problem of relativism, its self-referential and paradoxical
nature, in which relativist researchers have to make claims that their understanding of the
world is better than others, yet have, in their own terms, no firm position from which to do so.
(Chua, 1986; Johnson, 1995) One way out of this is simply to renounce knowledge claims in
favour of other criteria for judging research. Thus Walsham states there are "no correct and
incorrect theories but there are interesting and less interesting ways to view the world."
(Walsham, 1993) This gives us little basis, however, for distinguishing social research from
the writing of fiction and robs it of any other social function, such as a critique of powerful
interests, a basis for practice or a way of understanding the world better.
The second way out is to implicitly return to some degree of privilege for a particular set of
meanings, either on the grounds that it is somehow 'typical' (perhaps, because it is
representative of social consensus), particularly deserving of support (perhaps, as the
subjectivity of an oppressed group) or a particularly convincing account, which may or may
not have been accessible to those directly involved in generating the set(s) of meanings being
examined. Each of these are more or less arbitrary choices within this philosophical
framework and each defeats the object of interpretivism. Furthermore, they make the choice
of any political or critical position possible, as they can be used to support any or no position
(Johnson, 1995).
The third alternative is that predicted by Vygotsky, in which interpretivists are forced to
implicitly or explicitly admit the objectivity of human knowledge. "Idealism is forced to find
its ground in materialism" (p309) by seeking to explain subjectivity and sense-making in
terms of its roots in objective and material forms of social existence. This is particularly
direct in terms of information systems as those systems themselves are materially embodied
and, while that does not uniquely determine the way they are seen or the forms of activity
they enable, it does constrain them (Probert, 1997).
Walsham (1993) thus looks at the "context" and "process" of information systems in a way
which is at the same time incomplete because of and in contradiction to his fundamental
interpretivist stance. "Context is concerned with the multi-level identification of the systems
and structures within which the information system is embedded... [A] set of contexts for an
information system are the various social structures, which are present in the minds of human
participants involved with the system... the information system, as a human artefact is drawn
on and used to create or reinforce meaning." (Our emphasis) Thus in order to satisfy
interpretivism, contexts are only present as meaning in the minds, even though they form
structures, in which the system is embedded. The structures have no explanatory power other
than in forming meaning, despite existing objectively and being called on in order to explain
how those meanings come about 9. That this is a partial explanation is recognised by
Walsham himself when he talks of a "synthesised perspective" on IS in organisations, which
includes information systems as "a facility that can be used in the control and coordination of
material and human resources" and discusses surveillance as a social form resulting from this.
Thus in presenting a good understanding of information systems in organisations, he must of
necessity become a bad interpretivist.
"Finding ground in materialism" therefore makes relativism contradictory, in that while
objectivity is used as an explanation for subjectivity, it simultaneously denies the possibility
of objectivity and its openness to human understanding. The resolution of this contradiction
must lead us away from a view of human sense-making as constitutive of the world and thus
from the view that the external world is unknowable apart from its reflections in the human
mind. Vygotsky comments (HMCP,p.325-6):
"...obviously, it is one thing to live, to experience and another to analyze... For
psychology as a field of knowledge there are two alternatives: either the way of
science in which case it must be able to explain, or the knowledge of fragmentary
visions, in which case it is impossible as science."
This last claim leads us to "the trap of all subjectivist (idealist) philosophy; the trap of needing to pose real
'worlds behind' the apparent world which somehow 'produce' or 'cause' consciousness to experience certain
things", but which are themselves unknowable (Probert, 1997).
Interpretivism is caught between its need to be able to analyse, explain and present its
findings as meaningful for the progress of knowledge in IS and its own core conceptions,
which leads it towards "fragmentary visions".
5.3 Beyond positivism versus interpretivism
If, as we have tried to show, neither positivism nor interpretivism provides a secure
philosophical foundation for IS research and practice, the polarisation of IS research between
these two poles is a contributory factor in its crisis (Howcroft & Fitzgerald, 1998) and
marginalises alternative positions. This polarisation cannot be sustained as the "either-or"
choice for the IS discipline, particularly for critical researchers as it provides no firm basis for
them to stand on.
Conceptualisations are necessary that both integrate and distinguish subjectivity and
objectivity. Vygotsky, following the Marxist tradition, argues that objectivity has to be the
original and dominating moment in this unity and that a theory of knowledge acquisition has
to be both social and dialectical. He began to provide such a theory within his own
developmental psychology (Vygotsky, 1978). Probert (Probert, 1997), following Adorno, has
suggested that this might be possible on the basis of "mediated objectivity" and "critical
subjectivity". We have argued elsewhere (Robinson, 1997) that the largely unrecognised
tradition within which Vygotsky stands - of Marxists concerned particularly with the nature
of human conceptualisation and mediated activity - has much to contribute both to a
philosophical foundation for IS and to an understanding of problems posed in IS, for
example, of the limitations of modelling (Robinson, 1998).
We have now finished our Vygotskyan tour of the IS landscape. It has led us down three
roads to understanding the crisis of IS: that of its social and economic environment; that of its
subject matter; and that of its philosophical basis. Each of these has helped us both to explain
the symptoms of the crisis and to examine aspects that are perhaps underestimated in the
literature on the problems of the IS discipline - particularly its social context. Though we
have not been able to demonstrate it here for reasons of space, we believe that his proposals
for how to resolve the crisis of psychology are also highly suggestive of a useful framework
for the development of IS that is both critical and integrative.
What future does our analysis imply for IS as a discipline and how should the Critical School
within the discipline react? The indications are that the crisis of IS will continue, with few of
the symptoms amenable to resolution, either quickly or at all. This flows from our analysis of
the causes. The social, economic and political conditions we have described, together with
the fast rate of technical change, are likely to persist. The subordination of the discipline to
managerial demands will also persist and probably intensify in the face of growing external
pressures. However, the theory-practice divide is likely also to remain as the pragmatic needs
systems development and management will continue to run counter to attempts at
systematisation and control. Attempts to impose uniformity of outlook amongst academics
will also fail because, if IS has few barriers to entry, it also has no barriers to exit, as it will
remain possible for academics to continue to ply their trade in one of the closely related
reference disciplines.
While IS may receive more institutional recognition, it will not overcome its deep-seated
divisions. Some of these divisions go to the core of what IS is and should be and will
therefore be accentuated rather than disappear as the crisis poses more and more direct
challenges to the future development of IS. Disagreements over the social and political stance
to be taken directly reflect real divisions in society, while other differences are the product of
fundamentally incompatible philosophical outlooks. Different forms of practice reflect these
fundamental divisions, whether implicitly or explicitly.
IS is therefore likely to remain a 'fragmented adhocracy' (Banville & Landry, 1989) in two
senses. Firstly, literally: fragmentation is a natural state for a discipline with widely divergent
outlooks and adhocracy results from having to respond to a rapidly changing environment
without an agreed framework for doing so. Secondly, more narrowly in terms of Banville and
Landry's analysis: IS will remain a set of loosely coupled fields of thought, with little
dependence on standard topics and methods of knowledge production and weak barriers to
Does the likely continuation of the current state of IS mean that, in the words of the title of
this stream, that there is no "hope for Information Technology and Critical Theory in the new
millennium"? We believe that given the continued domination of the IS mainstream by
managerialism, the main necessity is for the critical school is to 'cultivate its garden' and to
try and provide a coherent alternative to the managerial mainstream by "creat[ing] our own
Das Kapital". In doing this, the 'Critical School' faces both difficulties and possibilities.
The possibilities for an emancipatory practice in IS are dependent on the space for more
general oppositional and emancipatory practices in society as a whole. We have suggested
that this space has shrunk in the last 15 years. Ironically, however, the pervasiveness and
accessibility of IT suggests new practical roles for IS practice in defending "the rights of
those who are oppressed, weaker or alienated", as the ca ll for papers for this stream puts it.
These possibilities should be explored but not over-estimated. It is likely that any major
opening up of opportunities will be dependent on the broader social context. To believe that
the IS discipline can alone change the world so as to broaden the scope for the achievement
of human emancipation would be to fall either for a rather exaggerated idea of our own
importance or a rather limited idea of human emancipation.
However Critical IS has the advantage that it remains sceptical about taken-for-granted
assumptions and can explain things which remain incomprehensible to or remain hidden to
(or by) those dazzled by the glitz of the 'information age'. Yet at the same time, the Critical
school not surprisingly remains as fragmented as IS as a whole and there is equally no means
by which this fact of life can be easily overcome. There are grounds for hope, however, and
they also represent the best hope for the IS discipline as a whole.
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