Toward a More Informed and Informative Use of the Concept Network in ICT4D

Toward a More Informed and Informative Use of the Concept Network in ICT4D

Sylvain K. Cibangu
DOI: 10.4018/IJICTHD.2015040101
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In an era of ever fast connected digital communication technologies, network has become the buzzword of our work and daily lives. However, while the concept network has been employed by information and communication technologies for development's (ICT4D) authors the last few years, it has not yet received solid attention. In most cases, ICT4D's authors have merely referred to network, leaving its definition and related conceptual issues at the discretion of the reader. To make things worse, ICT4D has been exposing its readers to theories of various strides and disciplines, such as development studies, management science, information systems, Actor Network Theory, computer network, social networks, etc., but ICT4D's readers remain largely uninformed and misled about network theories/approaches. This paper seeks to fill the gap by heeding the continued calls for ICT4D's stronger theoretical grounding. The paper sketches networks in the social sciences, in general, and derives the consequences for ICT4D's research, in particular. To this end, ICT4D's articles have been analyzed to trace ICT4D's involvement with networks. The paper provides the groundwork from which to produce contributive works on networks in ICT4D. The goal is to instill a more informed engagement of ICT4D with networks.
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ICT4D was academically established in the late 1990s in the aftermath of development studies with the two-phased seminal World Summits on the Information Society, Geneva 2003 and Tunis 2005 (, on the one hand, and the creation of the United Nations ICT Task Force, on the other hand. Since then, the field of ICT4D has been seeing an unprecedented increase of its published work (Adera, Waema, May, Mascarenhas, & Diga, 2014; Gomez, 2013; Heeks, 2009; Heeks & Molla, 2009; Heeks, Subramanian, & Jones, 2013; Heeks & Walton, 2011; Gurumurthy & Singh, 2009; Kleine, 2009, 2011, 2013a, 2013b; Kleine & Unwin, 2009; Unwin, 2009a, 2009b, 2009c, 2009d, 2010; Geldof, Grimshaw, Kleine, & Unwin, 2011), engaging in debates in an ever broadening transdisciplinary research space. By the same token, the world has been becoming all the more networked, making network issues one of, if not, the most pressing and rampant phenomena of our times. Networks have been making the world increasingly small and wide (Prell, 2012). Failure to assess the concept network will only lead to ICT4D’s uncritical, under-informed, and misleading management of our societies. The importance of networks can be seen in all aspects of social reality. Borgatti, Everett, and Johnson (2013) wrote,

Much of culture and nature seems to be structured as networks – from brains (e.g., neural networks) and organisms (e.g., circulatory systems) to organizations (e.g., who reports to whom), economics (e.g., who sells to whom), and ecologies (e.g., who eats whom). Furthermore, a generic hypothesis about network theory is that an actor’s position in a network determines in part the constraints and opportunities that he or she will encounter, and therefore identifying that position is important for predicting [understanding] actor outcomes, such as performance, behavior or beliefs. Similarly, there is an analogous generic hypothesis at the group level stating that what happens to a group of actors is in part a function of the structure of connections [networks] among them. For example, a sports team may consist of a number of talented individuals, but they need to collaborate well to make full use of that talent. (p.1)

The central idea gained from the passage above is that without networks, development becomes unfeasible. The information age has turned into an age of networks. As van Dijk (2012) reminded us, “with little exaggeration, we can call the 21st century the age of networks. Networks are becoming the nervous system of our society” (p. 2). The information about the improvement of people’s lives around the globe has come to revolve around networks and their impact/efficiency.

Nonetheless, though hailed as our state-of-the-art characteristic, networks have been receiving little to no attention from ICT4D’s researchers. By and large, mentions of network in ICT4D’s literature refer to Actor Network Theory, set of information systems, and groups (Effah, 2012; Heeks & Seo-Zindy, 2013; Mpazanje, Sewchurran, & Brown, 2013). ICT4D’s literature does not engage with the concept network. Provan and Kenis (2008) remarked,

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