A Case for Applying Activity Theory in IS Research

A Case for Applying Activity Theory in IS Research

Tiko Iyamu (Department of Information Technology, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Cape Town, South Africa)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/IRMJ.2020010101
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The use of Activity Theory (AT) to underpin Information Systems (IS) research continues to increase. However, many challenges are implicitly associated with the theory. Access to the qualitative data needed is a significant issue. Other challenges emanate from the lack of examples or know-how, which discourages postgraduate students from selecting the theory, even though AT would have been the most appropriate approach for their research. This study was carried out from two perspectives: (i) qualitative data collection; and (ii) the use of AT as lens in qualitative IS research. The interpretivist approach was employed. The semi-structured technique was used to collect the data. The analysis of the data was conducted by following the hermeneutics technique from the interpretivist approach perspective. Based on the analysis of the data, two models were developed. The first model is intended to guide data collection, while the latter focuses on the use of AT to guide the analysis and interpretation of data in IS research.
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1. Introduction

Information systems (IS) are considered vital in many organisations including government administrations. Hence, many organisations wholly rely on IS (Iyamu, Sekgweleo, & Mkhomazi, 2013). The reliance on IS makes it critical to understand the various and ways of activities in which IS can be used to support and enable organisations’ operations, for competitiveness and sustainability. However, the selections, developments and implementations of IS artefacts are not as simple as they are sometimes proclaimed, hence the continuous challenges, and subsequent research. Due to their complexities, from both technical and non-technical perspectives, organisations and researchers employs a more innovation approach, such as the use of theories to underpin IS studies. Thus, the Activity Theory (AT) is, or can be employed to guide IS studies. According to Rose and Scheepers (2001), social technical theories significantly contributes to the development of the IS discipline, in that the theories help to gain better understanding of human interactions with technologies in order to make meaningful impacts in an environment.

The interactions and relationship that happen between actors in the activities of IS are often unpredictable, and sometimes unstructured, which makes it subjective in nature. However, subjectivism in a qualitative study does not necessarily make examining and understanding of activities easy, which AT can help to provide a guide. Engeström, Miettinen, and Punamäki (1999) explain that human activity is composed of three levels, which include activity, action and operation. Along the same line of argument, Moawad, Liu and El-Helly (2003) suggest that an activity is a constitute of actions, which manifest into operations. According to Nardi (1996), an activity is carried out through collective of individuals’ actions or chains of actions that are connected to one another for a common interest or goal.

Qualitative studies in IS, primarily focuses on actors’ relationship and interactions, from the perspective of subjectivism. Callon (1991) defines actor as both human and non-human entities. According to Myers and Avison (2002, p. 70), “qualitative research methods were developed in the social sciences to enable researchers to study social and cultural phenomena.” The primary purpose of qualitative research is to understand a phenomenon as it is seen by respondents within context and over a period of time. This is achieved by studying the respondents’ views in the context of their natural settings. The outcomes from qualitative research are subject to the meanings which people give to them in real-life situations and context (Yin, 2010). However, the meaning which individuals and groups give or associate to events has never been easy for researchers and practitioners, without analysis and interpretation. Data analysis is critical in empirical studies, in that it entails unpacking of data into perspectives (Bryman, 2012). Analysis is a process of sense making of the data that was gathered within context and relevance of the phenomena that is being studied. The relevance of data is determined by the research questions and objectives. In this study, the data was analysed by following the interpretive approach, and guided by the AT.

The AT is one of the many social-technical theories that are currently employed to underpin IS studies. Other theories include actor network theory (ANT), contingency theory (CT), diffusion of innovation (DoI) and structuration theory (ST) (Sekgweleo, Makovhololo & Iyamu, 2017). The theories are often used as lenses, in attempts to gain better or deeper understanding of how IS behave as socio-technical subjects in an environment. AT is used in studies of IS to provide an understanding of how humans interact with other actors in their environments in the course of developing and implementing information systems and technologies. Therefore, AT guides and enables unpacking of complex activities, which helps to gain better understanding at detailed levels (Nardi, 1996). In addition, AT helps to create distinct processes within an activity, and assists to define the types of relationships that exist among the subjects (Er, Kay & Lawrence, 2010).

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