The Role of the Researcher in New Information Infrastructure Research

The Role of the Researcher in New Information Infrastructure Research

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-1622-6.ch010
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In this chapter, the role of the researcher in new information infrastructure research is explored. The key ideas informing this chapter are drawn from a critical reflection on trends in information systems (IS) research and the need for a more pragmatic approach (Constantinides et al., 2012). The focus is on developing a better understanding of the consequences of research choices by drawing on the notion of phronesis – the reflective development of prudent knowledge that is continuously shaped by and imbued with situated values and interests (Flyvberg, 2001). Specifically, it is argued that, IS researchers must recognize that research involves not just choices about how to conduct a study (i.e. theoretical and methodological choices), but also about why we study what we study and who is affected by our work (i.e. the desirable outcomes and long-term impact of research).
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As researchers, we all strive to produce relevant knowledge, and, thus, we are all preoccupied with the question of ‘which body of practice is my research concerned with?’

In many ways, relevant knowledge may refer to those practices which are specific to a particular organizational, social, economic, political, and business context (Pettigrew, 1985; Walsham, 1993). Contextualist research provides the necessary links between theory and practice, thus contributing to relevant knowledge. At the same time, however, it can also be argued that contextualist research eschews generalizability in favour of a descriptive and analytical understanding of the concerns, beliefs, and practices of particular contexts (Lee & Baskerville, 2003). Yet contextualists argue that generalized knowledge is far too removed from any specific context to be immediately relevant, and to shape it towards very different interpretive, political, and ethical worlds would be difficult. Giddens (1984, pp.42) supports this claim by stating, “[t]he problem in the study of human activity is that every attempt at a context-free definition of an action, that is, a definition based on abstract rules or laws, will not necessarily accord with the pragmatic way an action is defined by the actors in a concrete social situation.” In other words, generalized knowledge fails to directly inform and direct practitioners who find the remoteness of theoretical language and generalized rules-of-thumb to lack immediate relevance to their everyday practices (Lee, 1999). Instead, practitioners draw upon other sources of knowledge, particularly popular business magazines, which ironically provide short and to-the-point advice about present and future trends.

Despite these debates, the problem of relevant knowledge is not about whether to choose generalizability over contextuality and vice versa. The problem of relevant knowledge rests with the fact that researchers and practitioners live predominantly in different worlds (Flyvbjerg, 2001) and enact different language games1 (Astley & Zammuto, 1992).

Social science and organizational researchers often strive for episteme – or knowledge of universals through abstract generalizations of social practices. The concern with episteme is meant to generate theoretical constructs and language that are meaningful to the research community that will (hopefully) read them in relevant publications. However, these “theoretical constructs are not mirrors reflecting the ‘true’ nature of reality” (Astley & Zammuto, 1992, pp. 445), but reflections of the concerns, hopes, and fears of a research community and its particular views of the world. As such, these theoretical constructs are not immediately relevant to the practice fields from which they were drawn. In particular, Bennis and O’Toole (2005) suggest that scientific rigor (i.e. episteme) has dominated relevance. They ask “why have business schools embraced the scientific model of physicists and economists rather than the professional model of doctors and lawyers?”2 (Bennis & O’Toole, 2005, pp. 96). They argue that, business schools should focus more on technical knowledge and professional skills (i.e. techne), and, likewise, social science and organizational research should focus on how such knowledge and skills are acquired and nurtured in practice.

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