Handbook of Critical Information Systems Research
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Handbook of Critical Information Systems Research

Theory and Application

Edited by Debra Howcroft and Eileen M. Trauth

This important Handbook provides a unique overview of information systems (IS) research by focusing on the increasing interest in critical-related issues.
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Chapter 4: Are Social Constructivist Approaches Critical? The Case of IS Failure

Nathalie N. Mitev


Nathalie N. Mitev Introduction The information systems (IS) literature has recently witnessed an increasing interest in the adoption of a network perspective to studying the information and communication technology (ICT) innovation process. A social constructivist approach, actor-network theory (ANT), has gained popularity in IS research – see, for instance, the recent special issue of Information Technology and People on ANT and IS (Hanseth et al. 2004). It is therefore important to examine its application to IS research and its potential for critical IS research, about which there has been some debate already (for example, Walsham 1997). This chapter first reviews the basic premises of social construction and constructivism in general and how science and technology studies (STS) have adopted these theoretical outlooks, long before IS research – indeed, it is mainly through an interest in developments in STS that IS researchers discovered ANT. As a result, some questions are raised concerning the nature of the ‘critical’, about which there is also some divergence in critical IS research. The notion of IS failure is then used to illustrate the main differences between more mainstream functionalist understandings and interpretivist, constructivist and critical perspectives. The ANT refusal to distinguish between the social and the technical, and its notions of actor networks, symmetry and translation are explored using a few examples of failure case studies in order to assess what elements of criticality can be brought to IS research by social constructivist analyses of technology. Finally, some suggestions are made to ensure that constructivist approaches can...

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