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.