Conference Paper

Critical Realism and ICT4D Research

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Abstract

There is little overt engagement with research paradigms in ICT4D research but what there is shows a dominance of positivism and interpretivism. In this paper we explore the value of a “third way” research paradigm: critical realism. We concisely review the main features of critical realism: its ontological realism combined with epistemological relativism; its iterative, pluralist and reflexive methodology; and its emancipatory values. Alongside the general value of explicit use of any research paradigm, we argue two particular types of value of critical realism for ICT4D research. First, generic values including exposure of context, a contingent causality that reflects real-world ICT4D experiences, legitimisation of different stakeholder views and reduction of research bias, and support for ICT4D’s interventionist approach and its goal of delivering international development. Second, specific value in addressing current trends in ICT4D research: the growing search for causal links between “ICT” and “D”, and the political and ethical turns in ICT4D that are spurring researchers to engage more with issues of power, rights and justice. We conclude that delivery of critical realism’s utility will require the ICT4D research community to take actions that enable this emergent research paradigm to flourish.

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... Explicitly stated interest of ICT4D research in critical realism is a relatively new phenomenon, rooted in the conformity of this paradigm to core theoretical and thematic aspects of the field. As discussed by Heeks and Wall (2017), in a discipline whose attention to paradigms is generally limited, such interest is functional to strengthening processes of theory-building, and the critical component of the paradigm mirrors the field's recent turn towards issues of ethics, power and justice (e.g. Dearden, 2013;Heeks & Renken, 2018;Taylor, 2017). ...
... Numerous papers have reviewed the key aspects of critical realism, framing them in the landscape of IS research (e.g. Henfridsson & Bygstad, 2013;Mingers, 2004;Smith, 2006;Wynn & Williams, 2012;Zachariadis, Scott, & Barrett, 2013) and more recently of ICT4D (Heeks & Ospina, 2018;Heeks & Wall, 2017). Here we provide a synopsis of the most important aspects of critical realism, conceptualising their connection with the generation of causal theory. ...
... To produce solid explanations, critical realism requires a plurality of data sources (Heeks & Wall, 2017), hence three related data sets have been used to answer our question. The first has been collected in 2011-2012, during an eight-month period of fieldwork on the computerisation of the PDS in the state of Kerala. ...
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The need for formulation of solid explanatory theories is heightened in information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) by the high incidence of failure, which involves substantial costs for the countries affected. A core argument of this paper is that a critical realist ontology offers intellectual tools that can ground the formulation of causal theory in ICT4D. The paper illustrates such potential through the case study of India's Unique Identity Project (Aadhaar), which Indian states are increasingly using within their anti‐poverty programmes. Following a critical realist retroductive methodology, the paper seeks to explain the incorporation of Aadhaar into India's main food security system, the Public Distribution System; an incorporation somewhat paradoxical given the mistrust often associated with biometric infrastructures in social protection. Critical realism allows construction of a theory of trust‐building in Aadhaar, based on mechanisms of institutionalisation (state governments framing Aadhaar as a core institutional means to receive benefits) and image formation (authorities systemically associating Aadhaar with an image of effective pro‐poor reform). Based on primary and secondary data collected over the course of six years, this paper contributes a theoretical explanation of an important phenomenon in Indian development, and illustrates how a critical realist philosophy is instrumental in building the type of causal theory that is needed in ICT4D.
... The adoption of CR allows this research study to iteratively describe the evolving cause and effect relationships using retroduction. The researcher could thus better reflect on the patterns of cause and effect as identified in SMEs in this study (Heeks & Wall, 2017). ...
... CR also enhances neutrality by ensuring that the research is bias free (Heeks & Wall, 2017). ...
Thesis
The tendency of SMEs to focus on their core business activities often results in them overlooking competences to maximise ICT usage which, in turn, leads to the escalation of costs and the diminishing of investment returns. This study, situated within a critical realist philosophy, seeks to explore and design a new ICT artefact for SMEs using the dynamic capabilities framework and mixed method approach. Dynamic capabilities (DCs) refer to an organisation’s ability to continuously renew internal resources towards ensuring business success and market competitiveness. The use of content analysis and retroduction enabled the initial qualitative study to analyse the interview responses gained from 16 SMEs situated in five of the most economically active states in Nigeria. The study then developed and evaluated the ICT artefact amongst 20 SMEs in similar contexts using the elaborated action design research method. The key findings revealed how SMEs in Nigeria use ICTs (in the real domain) to carry out their business processes (in the actual domain) using their DCs (in the empirical domain). The findings suggest that, despite the existence of government support for SMEs across Nigeria, these programmes are generally inaccessible using ICTs. This study identified a critical need for the creation and evaluation of a contextual ICT artefact (i.e. mobile app) suited to Nigeria and in probably other SMEs operating in similar low-income contexts. The evaluation results confirmed the usefulness of the artefact as a suitable tool which would assist SMEs in enhancing their DCs and thus maximise opportunities. This thesis presents a theoretical contribution to IS theory through the identification of absorptive, adaptive and innovative DCs which enhance the competences of SMEs to seize business opportunities. The other theoretical contribution to IS lies in using critical realism to reveal the causal powers of mobile apps and the events generated in SMEs. The findings also contribute to practice by outlining a way in which SME owners can effectively use ICTs to maximise their business capabilities. The thesis recommends that contextually designed ICTs should serve as the bedrock for policy development. Policy makers should continuously sensitise SME owners as to the benefits of ICTs by reinforcing ICT education and creating environments which enable ICT growth.
... This may be problematic in one context but is particularly likely to lead to problems when such narrow approaches are replicated in a different global South context. As Heeks and Wall (2017) point out, critical realism's triangulated approach forces consideration of multiple stakeholder perspectives and encourages consideration of multiple methodologies. It can therefore offer a wider analytical view that can expose ICT4D projects that have taken too-narrow or too-context-specific an approach. ...
... Based on our analyses so far using critical realism, we believe it has the ability to push research to go beyond labeling any particular project as a complete success or a failure based on any specific criteria. As Heeks and Wall (2017) suggest, critical realism can assist in comprehending and explaining multiplicities of outcomes (successes or failures) within ICT4D. We believe such inclusivity offered by critical realism can be used in developing a comparative framework for seemingly similar technology-driven initiatives across diverse communities, with the goal of achieving better understanding and efficient knowledge sharing. ...
... More broadly, critical research has been used in various ICT4D studies as well (De' et al., 2018;Poveda & Roberts, 2018;Singh et al., 2018). CR-based ICT4D research makes use of an "iterative, pluralist and reflexive methodology with emancipatory values" (Heeks & Wall, 2017). It forces an involvement with the ICT4D context based on what exists-local expertise, needs and adaptive capabilities-and how it evolved over time, rather than perceiving development as what is lacking (Njihia & Merali, 2013). ...
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Humanitarian medical organizations rely on information on and from the ground to evaluate their effectiveness and accountability. Related digitalization efforts within health information systems assume an instrumental rationality in the use of data. However, previous research identified a multitude of factors influencing actual information use for evidence‐based decision‐making for healthcare delivery. This case study, anchored by critical realism philosophy, unpacks these nuances against the backdrop of a globally operating organization (Médecins Sans Frontières). It aims to highlight the contextual conditions and structures that enact the contingent mechanisms at work in project monitoring within humanitarian health management information systems. By applying an affordance‐based causal analysis, three mechanisms are identified: first, an analytics service provides templated analysis modalities resulting in user–producer–provider relationships; second, the rationalization and synchronization of content and software artifacts gives rise to the standardization strategy of flexible generification; third, the study uncovers the potential for increased internal social discourse and advocacy through collaborative and mobile data analysis. This paper proposes that mechanism‐based explanations can be useful for theory‐building in information systems research as well as for providing insights to practitioners in the humanitarian health sector.
... Critical Realism (CR) is a meta-theoretical philosophy by Bhaskar [11] that illustrates the significance of distinguishing knowledge from existence. CR allowed this study to identify the social and economic structural patterns that influence SMEs, and subsequently design a contextual mobile app for Nigeria SMEs [12][13]. Specifically, the study sought to: design a mobile app artefact that allows SMEs in Nigeria to identify opportunity from a critical realist viewpoint. ...
Chapter
This paper reports on the design and evaluation of an app that was designed using the newly created elaborated action design research method and critical realism to overcome the social and economic structural challenges that SMEs in Nigeria face. The results show that even though the app took into account the full range of SME dynamic capabilities and proved valuable, SMEs remained dependent on the affordances of the existing global digital platforms. The findings point to the lock-in effect of 'freely' available digital platforms and that SMEs tend to default to their path dependency (and therefore the existing global digital platforms) rather than explore local digital innovations. The paper suggests that intentional efforts from powerful actors such as government might be necessary to overcome the path dependency and lock-in effect of 'freely' available global digital platforms. The paper identifies the extra efforts required to sustain local digital innovation in the face of well-resourced global digital platforms. The paper further reveals the utility of the new elaborated action design research method for designing for context. Six (6) design principles for designing for SMEs in resource-constrained contexts were also elicited.
... Thus, by drawing on critical realism philosophical assumptions, we argue that the studies reviewed so far have placed emphasis on the empirical events, without recourse to the real domain of what must have been the generative mechanisms. Besides, IS scholars (e.g., Avgerou 2013; Heeks and Wall 2017;McGrath 2013;Mingers et al. 2013) emphasized the need for mechanism-based explanation of why IS phenomenon occurs in a given context. Thus, further study can focus the critical realism approach in order to understand the socio technical structures, mechanisms and conditions that can gave rise to the intentional and malicious misuse of IS especially in a selected public sector context. ...
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In this paper, we present a systematic literature review on the insider criminal and malicious misuse of information systems (IS) in organizations. The objective of the paper is to understand the insider's motivations and preventive strategies for the criminal and malicious misuse of IS in organizations. This is to identify research gaps that can go a step further and guide future study by providing a research agenda. To do this, we leverage some databases that houses the "pertinent academic IS journals", and conference papers from 1990-2018 in order to capture studies in relation to our review objective. For analyzing and organizing the review findings, we adopted a concept-centric approach. Thus, based on the findings, we presented a model that describe the motivations and preventive strategies associated with the insider criminal and malicious misuse of IS in organizations. Following the model, a research gap was identified and suggestion for future study was recommended.
... The claim is that critical realist researchers can transcend interpretation and explain the situations they research (Easton, 2010). Based on the above discussion we suggest turning to critical realism as an appropriate philosophy for studying ICT4D and as a means to investigate the real connections between ICT and D (see also Heeks & Wall, 2017). ...
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Chapter
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According to a growing number of reports, conferences, academic papers and popular media sources, more and morepeople are living in an “information society”. Wikipedia, arguably an archetypal result of the informationsociety, defines this term as “a society where the creation, distribution, diffusion, use, integration and manipulation of information is a significant economic, political and cultural activity.” But what does an information society look like? Does it look, behave and respond the same way for everyone? Who is part of the information society and who is not? How does participation vary by gender, ability and literacy? How can information and communications technologies (ICTs) worsen existing inequities and further marginalize disadvantaged groups? As with any society, an information society is composed of individuals and groups occupying a shared territory – a virtual one, in this case – and is characterized by relationships, expectations, institutions and varying levels of influence and participation. This chapter examines two central questions that are closely linked: How can inequities of access to ICTs be redressedand how can access to ICTs potentially facilitate or inhibit social inclusion? It would be foolish to assume that just using ICTs alone could redress inequities that persist within and among these groups. There are myriad factors and complex dependencies underlying if, how and to what extent social exclusion is experienced. Similarly, the ways in which social inclusion can be made possible through the use of ICTs are equally complex, interdependent and non-linear in nature. © 2013 International Development Research Centre. All Right Reserved.
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Originally published in 1989, Reclaiming Reality still provides the most accessible introduction to the increasingly influential multi-disciplinary and international body of thought, known as critical realism. It is designed to "underlabour" both for the sciences, especially the human sciences, and for the projects of human emancipation which such sciences may come to inform; and provides an enlightening intervention in current debates about realism and relativism, positivism and poststucturalism, modernism and postmodernism, etc. Elaborating his critical realist perspective on society, nature, science and philosophy itself, Roy Bhaskar shows how this perspective can be used to undermine currently fashionable ideologies of the Right, and at the same time, to clear the ground for a reinvigorated Left. Reclaiming Reality contains powerful critiques of some of the most important schools of thought and thinkers of recent years-from Bachelard and Feyerabend to Rorty and Habermas; and it advances novel and convincing resolutions of many traditional philosophical problems. Now with a new introduction from Mervyn Hartwig, this book continues to provide a straightforward and stimulating introduction to current debates in philosophy and social theory for the interested lay reader and student alike. Reclaiming Reality will be of particular value not only for critical realists but for all those concerned with the revitalization of the socialist emancipatory project and the renaissance of the Marxist theoretical tradition. Roy Bhaskar is the originator of the philosophy of critical realism, and the author of many acclaimed and influential works including A Realist Theory of Science, The Possibility of Naturalism, Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation and Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom. He is an editor of the recently published Critical Realism: Essential Readings and is currently chair of the Centre for Critical Realism.
Article
This chapter offers a journey through the spectrum of epistemological and ontological perspectives in IS (IS), offering the necessary background to the researcher who has to explore diligently the research methods toolkit available and then make a choice. It does not attempt to solve any problems in existing paradigms or present any new ones, but systematically examines and clarifies the underlying set of ontological and epistemological assumptions that underpin every research activity. After a brief discussion on ontology and epistemology, the IS field and its underlying paradigms are discussed and what follow is an analysis of positivism, interpretivism, and a presentation of selected interpretive approaches. Hence, this chapter serves as a guide to be followed by researchers who would like to clarify and evaluate their views regarding epistemological and ontological assumptions, initiating a philosophical enquiry of their own. Consequently, it contributes in aiding the researcher in building a solid background upon which valid and rigorous research in the IS field should be anchored.
Article
The current literature on digital infrastructure offers powerful lenses for conceptualizing the increasingly interconnected information system collectives found in contemporary organizations. However, little attention has been paid to the generative mechanisms of digital infrastructure, that is, the causal powers that explain how and why such infrastructure evolves over time. This is unfortunate, since more knowledge about what drives digital infrastructures would be highly valuable for managers and IT professionals confronted by the complexity of managing them. To this end, this paper adopts a critical realist view for developing a configurational perspective of infrastructure evolution. Our theorizing draws on a multimethod research design comprising an in-depth case study and a case survey. The in-depth case study, conducted at a Scandinavian airline, distinguishes three key mechanisms of digital infrastructure evolution: adoption, innovation, and scaling. The case survey research of 41 cases of digital infrastructure then identifies and analyzes causal paths through which configurations of these mechanisms lead to successful evolution outcomes. The study reported in this paper contributes to the infrastructure literature in two ways. First, we identify three generative mechanisms of digital infrastructure and how they contingently lead to evolution outcomes. Second, we use these mechanisms as a basis for developing a configurational perspective that advances current knowledge about why some digital infrastructures evolve successfully while others do not. In addition, the paper demonstrates and discusses the efficacy of critical realism as a philosophical tradition for developing substantive contributions in the field of information systems.
Article
How can critical social scientists pursue critically engaged research? This question is addressed by examining how an action research intervention, informed by critical realism, was used to assist a business support agency (SUPPAG) to provide support to new migrant business owners. The article responds to calls for more engaged approaches to research, and more engagement with new migrants in different forms of employment. Key critical realist ideas (layered ontology, mechanisms, morphogenetic loops) shaped: the theoretical perspective; the approach to action research; the findings; and practice at SUPPAG. A key conclusion is that ‘engaged’ research is possible without compromising a commitment to critical scholarship.
Article
Theory testing within small-N research designs is problematic. Developments in the philosophy of social science have opened up new methodological possibilities through, among other things, a novel notion of contingent causality that allows for contextualized hypothesis generation, hypothesis testing and refinement, and generalization. This article contributes to the literature by providing an example of critical realist (one such new development in the philosophy of social science) theory development for a small-N comparative case study that includes hypothesis testing. The article begins with the key ontological assumptions of critical realism and its relation to theory and explanation. Then, the article presents an illustrative example of an e-government comparative case study, focusing on the concept of trust, which follows these ontological assumptions. The focus of the example is on the nature and process of theory and hypothesis development, rather than the actual testing that occurred. Essential to developing testable hypotheses is the generation of tightly linked middle-range and case-specific theories that provide propositions that can be tested and refined. The link provides a pathway to feed back the concrete empirical data to the higher level (more abstract) and generalizable middle-range theories.
Conference Paper
ccess to mobile broadband is becoming a necessity for communication, commerce, and also obtaining information about healthcare, employment and education. However, the global broadband digital divide continues to inhibit and limit access to mobile broadband services within and among nations. Key dimensions of this divide for individuals include knowledge, skills, affordability, and the technology to obtain vital online resources. This paper uses an IE perspective, an information ethics perspective, based the work of Floridi, which builds on previous ethics work by Rawls and Sen. From an IE perspective, we empirically examine the impact of economic, social and political dimensions of social justice (due to Rawls), individual capabilities (due to Sen), and governance principles on mobile broadband affordability in 108 countries. Key questions addressed are: (1) Do people have a right to access the Internet via broadband for services and information that are vital to their well-being? And (2) what factors enable and hinder people from being able to afford mobile broadband access in order to obtain such information? This cross-national study shows that specific forces of social justice – income inequality and a competitive mobile telecommunications ecosystem – and an individual capability – per capita income – together determine to what extent mobile broadband services are affordable. Furthermore, these results hold even when the cost of mobile broadband services in each country is normalized by the per capita gross national income.
Book
A realist approach to social science method, offering an alternative to both positivism and idealism, providing both the philosophical justifications and the implications for doing research in social science.
Chapter
It is argued that recent research in the information systems field has tended to either emphasise the structural/collective dimension or the agency/individual dimension, not both. Structuration theory is a more recent attempt to address both agency and structure, however there are a number of issues with the use of structuration theory in information systems research, not the least of which is its lack of recognition of the temporal and longitudinal nature of information systems development. A relatively new philosophy, critical realism, provides the potential for a new approach to social investigations in its provision of an ontology for the analytical separation of structure and agency. The philosophy is introduced and its implications for sociological investigation are discussed.
Article
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are widely known as tools for poverty reduction. However, before ICTs can be utilized as tools for development, one needs to assess the various development challenges facing a country and then analyse where and how ICTs could positively impact development in a sustainable way. As technology influences the way people relate toward each other, it is important to view ICTs from an ethical perspective. This research theoretically explores the key aspects of ethics that should be applied to ICT projects in rural communities. Understanding the key aspects of ethics related to ICTs would foster the adoption of ICTs in rural communities and ensure that the integration of such ICTs is compatible with existing development strategies in developing countries. Four existing frameworks on ethical practice are explored which serve as a foundation for a theoretical framework of ethical practice in ICT4D. The proposed framework highlights four ethical themes that should be considered in rural ICT4D initiatives. These themes include: collaboration and participation, socio-economic context, cost and benefits and underlying stakeholder interests. It is suggested that further research and practical application can inform the framework.
Article
Building on recent developments in mixed methods, we discuss the methodological implications of critical realism and explore how these can guide dynamic mixed-methods research design in information systems. Specifically, we examine the core ontological assumptions of CR in order to gain some perspective on key epistemological issues such as causation and validity, and illustrate how these shape our logic of inference in the research process through what is known as retroduction. We demonstrate the value of a CR-led mixed-methods research approach by drawing on a study that examines the impact of ICT adoption in the financial services sector. In doing so, we provide insight into the interplay between qualitative and quantitative methods and the particular value of applying mixed methods guided by CR methodological principles. Our positioning of demi-regularities within the process of retroduction contributes a distinctive development in this regard. We argue that such a research design enables us to better address issues of validity and the development of more robust meta-inferences.
Article
The issue of politics in information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) research is rarely debated, yet one of the key instrumental freedoms proposed by Sen [(1999). Development as freedom. New York: First Anchor Books] in his seminal book on development is political liberty for individuals. We argue that ICT4D initiatives are predominantly informed by a modernist philosophy, which in their effort to bring some material progress risk granting technological tools a major role. This view assumes that ICT4D users are merely passive recipients of the benefits of technology. Moreover, it implies that development can only be brought by those in a more developed, powerful position. This in itself is a political viewpoint, and thus politics is embedded in the design of ICT4D projects. Building on Sen's (1999) capability framework, we discuss how far ICT4D projects are able to assist political liberty of the alleged beneficiaries, given that political liberties are constrained by wider institutional factors. We conclude by making a call for researchers to more critically examine the structure and intention of ICT4D projects.Annika Andersson is the accepting Guest Editor for this article.
Article
This study uses social movement concepts to explain the success and failure of actors in a network of relationships trying to influence policies on environmental issues in a small city. Results show that strategies to take action and mobilize others in a network of interorganizational relationships can vary depending on the social context, which consists of the political opportunity structure defined by government regulators, whether the actor faces opposition, and the actor's position in the network. Decisions to engage in strategies to try to influence government regulators directly, to use a broker to reach agreements with the opposition, or to form a coalition with actors in other organizations to influence government decision makers are affected by this social context. Results also show that even peripheral actors, usually assumed to be powerless in network studies, can influence policy if they use a direct-contact strategy and the political opportunity structure is favorable.
Article
This paper examines forty articles published in the journal Information Technologies & International Development between 2003 and 2010 in an effort to identify commonalities among projects that failed to meet some or all of their development objectives. We considered whether the selected papers articulated clear development objectives, and whether baseline data was used to inform project design. We then considered two factors associated with how development objectives are implemented: the development perspective (top-down vs. bottom-up), and the project focus (the technology vs. the community). Our goal was not to find fault with our colleagues or their work, rather to advance the debate about the effectiveness of ICTD initiatives at a particularly important point in the history of the discipline. We conclude that top-down, technology-centric, goal-diffuse approaches to ICTD contribute to unsatisfactory development results. Careful consideration of development objectives, perspective and focus is essential in all phases of an ICTD project, from design to deployment. Honest and comprehensive reporting of failure (and success) helps ICTD researchers and practitioners focus on best practices in meeting critical development needs.
Article
Research has investigated the main effect of training on information systems implementation success. However, empirical support for this model is inconsistent. We propose a contingent model in which the effect of training on IS implementation success ...
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Case study research is the most popular research method for researchers in industrial marketing. However despite a number of attempts the problem of satisfactorily justifying the use of case research remains. This paper proposes critical realism as a coherent, rigorous and novel philosophical position that not only substantiates case research as a research method but also provides helpful implications for both theoretical development and research process. The article describes the critical realist approach due to Sayer and develops a general application of a critical realist approach to case research. An example of its use in practice is presented using a case study of the development of a buyer–seller relationship after the installation of a new MIS system.