Critical realism and social informatics

Well this is an interesting trend. Until PJ Wall told me about it a couple of weeks ago, I was completely unaware that critical realism has provoked such interest within social informatics – in fact I was unaware of this entire field until relatively recently and I’m rather taken with it. Witness this recent special issue of Management Information Systems Quarterly:

There has been growing interest in a range of disciplines (Ackroyd and Fleetwood 2000; Danermark et al. 2002; Fleetwood 1999; Fleetwood and Ackroyd 2004), not least information systems (Dobson 2001; Longshore Smith 2006; Mingers 2004b; Mutch 2010b; Volkoff et al. 2007; Wynn and Williams 2012) in ideas derived from the philosophical tradition of critical realism. Critical realism offers exciting prospects in shifting attention toward the real problems that we face and their underlying causes, and away from a focus on data and methods of analysis. As such, it offers a robustframework for the use of a variety of methods in order to gain a better understanding of the meaning and significance of information systems in the contemporary world


One way in which we can contribute to this debate is by testing the strength of such claims, which rest on a limited engagement with the detail of organizational research. One of the interesting tensions is that Archer’s argument for the centrality of reflexivity in contemporary conditions tends to downplay both routine action and tacit forms of knowing, whereas a considerable volume of work on organizations and IS stresses the centrality of both (Mutch 2010a). Archer’s claims might cause us to reassess these positions. It also might suggest the need for more focus on how the systems we study have changed the ways in which actors within organizations use information. This is chal- lenging, because it falls at the intersection of a number of disciplinary domains. It also suggests that more of our work ought to be on the use of systems over time, as opposed to looking at how systems are implemented. Although we recognize the problems associated with enterprise systems, it remains the case that they, however imperfectly, are central to the activities of multinational organizations and, one assumes, to the way in which those who work in them use the information they supply to carry out their work. Whether such systems shift the mode of reflexivity that is deployed, perhaps by demanding a more systemic and abstract form of reasoning, and whether such shifts are widespread, are important questions that could, in turn feed into these debates at the level of social theory.

There are some provisional plans being formulated at present for a Critical Realism & Social Informatics event at the Centre for Social Ontology next year. Get in touch if this would be of interest!

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