Adapting the Structurationist View of Technology for Studies at the Community/Societal Levels

Adapting the Structurationist View of Technology for Studies at the Community/Societal Levels

Marlei Pozzebon (HEC Montreal, Canada), Eduardo Diniz (Fundacao Getulio Vargas, Brazil) and Martin Jayo (Fundacao Getulio Vargas, Brazil)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-659-4.ch002
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The multilevel framework proposed in this chapter is particularly useful for research involving complex and multilevel interactions (i.e., interactions involving individuals, groups, organizations and networks at the community, regional or societal levels). The framework is influenced by three theoretical perspectives. The core foundation comes from the structurationist view of technology, a stream of research characterized by the application of structuration theory to information systems (IS) research and notably influenced by researchers like Orlikowski (2000) and Walsham (2002). In order to extend the framework to encompass research at the community/societal levels, concepts from social shaping of technology and from contextualism have been integrated. Beyond sharing a number of ontological and epistemological assumptions, these three streams of thinking have been combined because each of them offers particular concepts that are of great value for the kind of studies the authors wish to put forward: investigating the influence of information and communication technology (ICT) from a structurationist standpoint at levels that go beyond the organizational one.
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Understanding the influence of information and communication technology (ICT) in social life is complex, no matter what lens is adopted to study it. In the information systems (IS) field of research, a range of different social theories have been borrowed and adapted in order to gain insight into the interaction of ICT (its design, adoption, implementation and use) and people at different levels (individual, group, organizational and macro). We found institutional theory (Avgerou, 2000), structuration theory (Barley, 1986), critical social theory (Doolin, 1998; Yetin, 2006), actor network theory (Sarker et al, 2006), social construction of technology (Williams, 1997) and symbolic interactionism (Gopal & Prasad, 2000) to be among the most influential social theories applied in IS research.

A number of recent papers have outlined the particular importance of one of these social theories in IS research: structuration theory. Although structuration theory is not specific to IS, but is rather a general social theory, it has been argued it is used in IS research more than in other areas of organizational research (Pozzebon & Pinsonneault, 2005). In a recent and comprehensive review, Jones and Karsten (2008) noted that structuration theory has been cited substantively in more than 330 IS papers to date, including conceptual and empirical studies. What’s more, the contribution and potential of structuration theory in general, and more particularly of the structurationist view of technology, for gaining insights on ICT phenomena, is widely accepted.

In this paper, we propose a multilevel framework that extends the structurationist view of technology to investigate the adoption, implementation and use of ICT at the community/societal levels. In line with Burton-Jones and Gallivan (2007), we apply the term multilevel to refer to a type of framework that entails more than one level of conceptualization and analysis. However, where we differ from the latter authors is regarding the ontological stance. While they place multilevel research within an organization science perspective that adopts a functionalist, positivist and variance-oriented stance (p. 3), we place our multilevel framework within a constructivist tradition that views any social research as processual and inherently multilevel.

We also argue that most studies that use the structurationist view depict technology as reinforcing or transforming the institutional properties of organizations, i.e., that can be associated with research at the organizational level. Jones and Karsten (2008) highlight such a limitation and identify opportunities for future structurationist IS research to address the relationship between ICT and people in broader contexts than just the specific organizational setting. Greater effort should be made to “broaden the scope of IS research from its traditional focus on phenomena associated with computer-based information systems at the individual, group, and organizational levels, to address the broader institutional and social developments in which IS are increasingly implicated” (Jones & Karsten, 2008, pp. 150).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Critical Social Theory: Critical research focuses on the oppositions, conflicts and contradictions in contemporary society, and seeks to be emancipatory, i.e. helping to eliminate the causes of alienation and domination. The main task of critical research is seen as social critique, whereby the restrictive and alienating conditions of the status quo are brought to light.

Social Construction of Technology: Also referred to as SCOT, this is a theory advocated by social constructivists that contends that technology does not determine human action, but, rather, that human action shapes technology. It also argues that the ways in which a technology is used cannot be understood without understanding how that technology is embedded in its social context.

Adaptive Structuration Theory: DeSanctis and Poole adapted Giddens’ theory to study the interaction of groups and organizations with information technology, and called it Adaptive Structuration Theory, also known as AST. This theory is formulated as “the production and reproduction of the social systems through members’ use of rules and resources in interaction”.

Actor Network Theory: Also known as ANT, this is a sociological theory developed by Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and John Law. It is distinguished from other network theories in that an actor-network contains not merely people but objects and organizations. These are collectively referred to as actors, or sometimes as actants.

Structuration Theory: The theory of structuration was proposed by British sociologist Anthony Giddens in a number of articles in the late 1970s and early 1980s, culminating in the publication of The Constitution of Society in 1984. It is an attempt to reconcile theoretical dichotomies such as agency/structure, subjective/objective, and micro/macro. The approach does not focus on the individual actor or societal totality “but social practices ordered across space and time.”

Symbolic Interactionism: Represents a major sociological perspective derived from American pragmatism and particularly from the work of George Mead, who argued that people’s selves are social products, but that these selves are also purposive and creative.

Institutional Theory: Institutional theory attends considers the processes by which structures, including schemas, rules, norms and routines, become established as authoritative guidelines for social behavior. It examines how these elements are created, diffused, adopted, and adapted over space and time; and how they fall into decline and disuse.

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