Sunday, March 19, 2006

farewell to constructivism

I recently read a provocative paper, “Farewell to constructivism: technology and context-embedded action,” by Jannis Kallinikos, an organization theorist at LSE. It is an analysis of relations between human agency and modern technology and a smart rap on the methodological knuckles for many of us.

Kallinikos argued that situated studies of local activity misapprehend contemporary technologies such as nuclear power, the automobile, and large information systems. These systems do not yield to local manipulation; they are neither negotiable nor configurable in meaningful ways. Kallinikos spoke of “ethnographic positivism” -- the tendency to dwell on the details (which are abundant and fascinating), missing the bigger picture beyond “the horizon of the present,” and missing the “mediation of history and culture.” Ethnography as it is practiced locates the immediately observable but does not usually involve a larger cultural-historical framing. Kallinikos dings actor-network theory for eliminating history and culture as well as constructivist mainstays like Orlikowski, Heath, and Luff. Their dedication to the details seems to Kallinikos a failure of “theoretical imagination.” Although constructivism need not have ended up this way, says Kallinikos, it has.

Kallinikos seems to suggest we have a figure-ground reversal problem. While is important to understand the interpretation and sense making people bring to bear in using contemporary technologies, such understanding must be “attributed its right proportions.” We have focused down on the local details while missing the enormous power technologies (in the hands of modern organizations) have to constrict our activity, to “enframe” our situations, to virtually eliminate huge swaths of our personalities as we conform to the rules of the game established by the organizations/technologies. Even organizations themselves end up conforming to technologies which are designed in the abstract, not in response to local conditions. “Most of the time, the experience of single local contexts are transformed and transcribed onto the standardized categories and procedures underlying the technological system.”

Kallinikos offered the example of ERP systems--Enterprise Resource Planning--as empirical support for his argument. In ERP, the only adaptable bits are the number of modules an organization chooses to use, and number and length of processes monitored. Kallinikos noted that the rhetoric of ERP is that it is totally configurable for any organization. But ERP reflects “an implicit understanding of organizations as procedural machines.” This understanding cannot be attained by studying a particular instance of ERP in practice in a local setting -- hence ethnographic positivism. It requires a historical analysis. Kallinikos also noted that the management literature does not see ERP as restrictive -- that literature is concerned with how to successfully embed such systems into organizations. Kallinikos thus subtly raised issues regarding the politics of disciplinary accountabilities through this example.

If there is a flaw in the article it is that Kallinikos did not address one of the most important contemporary techologies -- the Internet. The Internet seems to defy his characterization of contemporary technology as constricting, as limiting. But if we agree with Kallinikos that the trend is to confine, to enframe with technology, then we can predict that the communication and self-expression afforded by the Internet-- everything the ERPs of the world suppress -- will result in suppression of the Internet itself. We see signs of this already in censorship in certain countries, in attempts to control how people use the Internet, such as limits on time spent playing games like World of Warcraft and Lineage II imposed by the Chinese government. Of course that Kallinikos did not analyze the Internet isn’t a real criticism of the paper because there’s only so much a writer can do in the space of a single book chapter. But I’d be interested in his opinion on the matter.

As an anthropologist probably quite guilty of ethnographic positivism, I found this article very useful. I have been drawn to activity theory because from its origin it recognized the importance of culture and history -- it is the cultural-historical school of psychology. However, beyond formative experiments, activity theory has done little to elucidate how we should approach culture and history. This is slowly changing as activity theorists address organizational issues. I have been working on a paper on this topic which I will make available when it is in reasonable shape.

The Kallinikos paper is written with elegance and humility. Like Mumford and Ellul who were awed (in the old fashioned sense of the word) by contemporary technology, Kallinikos is beyond bombast. He has a clear message that he does not wish to hide with academic obscurantism. And despite his chiding, he manages to make those of us who need to be chided sit up and take notice.

7 Comments:

Blogger museumfreak said...

I've been meaning to actually read this article with more concentration and post a reply at length, but since it seems like that may not happen anytime soon:

1) you may be interested to know that in my heavily-MIS oriented informatics program we DO question things like ERP systems and talk about the importance of anything implemented fitting in existing organizational culture, but I think we're kind of an unusual MIS program because of the fact that we're granting an MSPH, which is not a management or engineering oriented degree.

2) I'm really interested in this "figure-ground reversal problem" of which you speak because it's been showing up as a major issue for me in my own work, especially given where I'm situated institutionally. It's really tough for me to integrate my perspectives on wanting things to be very data oriented (qualitative or quantitative) and my beliefs that there are certain fundamental inequalities in the world. I was using the "certain things we can't talk about" Wittgensteinian argument for a while, but I'm not sure that's really good.

Every time I use Foucault in my work or Donna Haraway or someone similar, I find that constructs like biopower and surveillance and machine society and Haraway's ambiguity can overwhelm things that I thought of as foundational to my work. They actually end up as anthropomorphized in some cases, having their own agency. And that just doesn't play well with the whole agency and practice theory framework. This is why I say I don't do cultural studies, because I get afraid when that kind of mess happens in my work, and I don't feel like I'm being properly accountable for the results. But everything that I've ever experienced with the medical system in my life points to the conclusion that biopower is the way it is, but that's not something I could arrive at from ethnographic work. I think I may need to go back and read Emily Martin more carefully, because she's someone who does manage to deal with these larger concepts.

What are your thoughts on the issue? Do you find yourself worrying about this at all?

12:26 AM  
Blogger Bonnie said...

I don't think grounded theory can do everything. Larger concepts like biopower are important.

However such concepts need to be carefully defined and delimited. With writers such as Haraway, things can get dicey because she's a poet too. It can be hard to take her insights and use them systematically. While she can spin the yarn, the next person may not be able to. One gets sensibilities from her not science.

Good idea to read Emily Martin.

It is encouraging to hear that your program questions ERP systems and the like.

I'm not sure what you mean regarding fundamental inequalities.

7:27 AM  
Blogger museumfreak said...

I'm sure this is going to sound ignorant, but what exactly does grounded theory mean? I've heard it thrown around a lot, and it seems to imply a committment to a dialectical process between data and theory but I'm not sure if there's a more nuanced meaning.

The comment about fundamental inequalities was basically meant to mean that I feel like we need theories like Hill-Collins' matrix of oppression and Foucault's biopower (to name two, I could have named a hundred) to account for the simple fact that people have complex histories around things like discrimination and opportunity; in short, some people are advantaged and some are not. Like we discussed in the other post, activity theory and practice theory don't have any way of taking this kind of thing into account. Hence Kallinikos's "ethnographic positivism."

12:03 PM  
Blogger museumfreak said...

Also: I was reading some Haraway this morning. The use of Haraway for me is that she gives me some hope. Every time I feel like I'm entrapped by theory, I reread her, and she suggests this way out, even if it's only in a very vague handwaving way. Also, sometimes (actually a lot of the time) I think I'm a cyborg in her sense: in terms of being a feminist, in terms of thinking through blasphemy, in terms of living in a post-gender world, and especially in the way I write and the way I see things. The Cyborg Manifesto is something I keep returning to over and over again specifically because it takes on different significances to me as I learn and grow.

5:46 AM  
Blogger Bonnie said...

Grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss) is the development of concepts directly from field data, usually qualitative, but perhaps both qualitative and quantitative. To me it is a strategy for developing domain related concepts that are not part of activity theory (or whatever your theory is). Grounded theory usually results in mid-range “theories” or sets of concepts that do not have the sweep of e.g., actor-network theory or activity theory.

True that activity theory does not have a concept of inequality.

It is entirely appropriate that Haraway would give hope – that’s something poets can do. I personally find hope in activity theory because it is optimistic about the possibility for change which it sees as fundamentally a potential of human activity.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Jannis Kallinikos said...

Dear Bonnie
Thanks for the fair review of "my farewell to constructivism". I make below a brief comment on the issue of the Internet you raise in your thoughtful commentary. Before that, however, I would like to take the opportunity to provide the full reference of my piece which is to be found in the following book: The Social Study of Information and Communication Technology, Oxford University Press, 2004. The book has been edited by Avgerou,C., Ciborra, C. and Land, F.

It is true that the Internet provides a technological platform that differs from the large-scale (information) systems I have in mind when I am criticizing the way constructivism has been practiced in the cross-disciplinary field of the Social Study of Technology. One way this difference is manifested is in the breaking of the instrumental enclosures of pre-internet technologies accomplished by the internet and the connectivity it brings about. Very little is currently known about the premises (I am not speaking about the protocols) on which this connectivity is accomplished. I have in mind the slim area of cognition that render internet communication possible and what it means to rely on these premises for acting and communicating. Much of the criticism I direct against constructivism in my chapter I am afraid applies to the case of the Internet and the way it has been predominantly studied so far, that is how particular groups make sense of some of its possibilities in particular contexts. No problem with that as far as the big picture is also assembled; but does it? I doubt. The Internet is a marvelous technology but it also represents a complex array of technologies and practices (writing, information processing, procedural reasoning etc.) that are superimposed upon another to construct a potent system whose immediate influence on people is not evident and cannot be accounted, at least not solely, by ethnographic interpretations. My colleague at LSE Don Slater has a couple of years ago criticized Dreyfus book "On the Internet" in Theory, Culture and Society from such an ethnographic perspective. The more I read his critical review the more I become convinced that "situated" accounts of the Internet treat it only as an occasion for studying social groups. Surely, I would agree with what you and O'Day set out to do in your Information Ecologies. Social groups should be at the front. All analysis of technology is in the very end undertaken with the view of helping us to better cope with it. But that is not accomplished by ignoring technology and its deep-going involvement in human affairs. There is an obligation for everyone of us, I feel, to connect the local with the wider context to which it is embedded. It is crucial in this respect to see the local and the situated not as a contrast to that wider context but, to a considerable degree, as its mirror, the instantiation of the big or wider. Well, I think I will stop here, we have to find a better forum to debate these ideas.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Bonnie said...

Many thanks to Jannis for providing this thoughtful commentary and the proper reference for his paper.

I agree completely about studying the Internet in its largest framing. We should not contrast the local and the global but understand their deep connection. In Information Ecologies we tried to get people to do just that though it is a pretty daunting task.

My question about the Internet is that I see less evidence that it is a technology that constricts personality, as argued for ERP and similar systems. This may simply be because such systems occur in very structured organizations whose goal is profit and/or control. Outside such organizations, the Internet (and technologies like cell phones) allow people to communicate their own thoughts. They can and do express their personalities.

In my study of blogging I found that bloggers were very aware of their audiences and tailored their writing to those audiences. But the audiences were typically family and friends, allowing, even demanding, considerable self-expression.

An important part of understanding technology is the larger organizational or social milieu in which it is used. Ethnographic studies that are too local miss the big picture, as Jannis has pointed out.

Cell phones provide a good example of why we need to study the larger trends as Jannis indicates. While cell phones link tight social networks, they have paradoxical effects such as making people private in formerly public spaces because cell phone users are no longer aware of colocated others, and at the same time, invading public space with annoying private chitchat. Such effects change the culture but they are rarely caught in ethnographic studies.

Again, "Farewell to Constructivism" is highly recommended!

10:35 AM  

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