Home > Theorising ICT4D > Understanding ICT4D and Capabilities via User Roles

Understanding ICT4D and Capabilities via User Roles

There has been a small but substantive engagement to understand how the capability approach of Sen and others could be applied in the ICT4D field (e.g. Andersson et al 2012, Kleine 2013).  One of the key challenges is the granularity of the capability approach.  It requires us to break down development not merely to the level of individuals but to the level of single capabilities or functionings.  Thus, at least in theory, generating a list that is many billions-long.

The capabilities approach can therefore only be operationalised by aggregation: a simplification that groups capabilities into a relatively few categories (e.g. Alkire 2002), or which aggregates from the individual to the group (e.g. Thapa et al 2012).

In this blog entry, I propose a different type of aggregation, via the notion of the “roles” people play in relation to ICTs.  Developing from the concept of roles within the workplace (e.g. Biddle 1986, Huvila 2008), we can define a role as a set of tasks and behaviours that are performed by an individual.  Roles therefore represent something halfway between a realised functioning and a livelihood.  They are shaped by “a mix of both social dynamics and technological affordances” (Postigo 2011:184).

Here, a set of roles will be analysed that people can play vis-à-vis ICT; represented as a ladder, as shown in the figure below.  In simple terms, climbing the ladder could be read as a greater intensity of engagement with the technology.  It is also a ladder of technological capability; each step reflecting higher-level competencies (skills, knowledge and perhaps also attitudes) that are required for this type of ICT use but which are also created by this type of ICT use.  And it also represents Sen’s ideas, with each successive role being a greater level of realised functioning.

ICT Roles Ladder

Figure 1: Ladder of ICT-Related Roles

The various roles can be understood in relation to categories of ICT use.  These are summarised in the figure and detailed below, selecting examples of particular relevance to those in low-income communities.  For further details, see the online paper: “ICTs and Poverty Eradication: Comparing Economic, Livelihoods and Capabilities Models”.

Non-Use:

In these roles, members of poor communities are not direct users of either the technology or the information and services it carries:

  • Delinked: there is no obvious connection between particular ICT applications and poor communities.  An example might be applications within a large corporation which does not produce goods or services of relevance to poor communities.
  • Indirect: this represents a very large category of ICT applications in organisations in which the poor have no direct connection with the ICT, but in which the ICT application does deliver some benefit.  Examples might include the use of ICTs in large firms to improve supply, distribution and marketing to base-of-the-pyramid markets.

Other ICT Uses to Enterprise ICT Use:

In these roles, the poor make direct use of either the technology or the information and services it carries.  They can do this either as entrepreneurs or in other roles:

  • Intermediated consumer: this can represent all three main levels of consumption-related use of ICTs – one-way broadcast of information, interaction, transaction – but in no case is the consumer a direct ICT user; hence there is limited ICT-enabled change in role.  A typical example might be the delivery of e-government services, undertaken at kiosks and service centres staffed by intermediaries.
  • Passive consumer: a role in which there is direct use of the ICTs but just to receive “broadcast” information e.g. about health or market prices.
  • Active user: digitally-enabled interaction and transaction with socio-economic contacts; for example, the remittance of “mobile money” from urban migrants to rural relatives, or the use of telecentres by farmers to get agricultural guidance from distant advisers.

Enterprise ICT Use to ICT Sector:

In this role, those in poor communities make direct use of ICTs:

  • Producer: creation of enduring digital content.  This could be undertaken by an entrepreneur, for example, advertising goods and services on a voice-activated information service.  But it also overlaps into the ICT sector category; for example, musicians or video producers recording then sharing content on mobile phones.

ICT Sector:

In these roles, the use of ICTs is so central to the livelihood that it is seen as lying within the ICT sector:

  • Worker: employment in an ICT-based activity (one that could not exist without ICTs); for example, those employed to undertake data entry and other digitisation tasks as part of IT impact sourcing contracts.
  • Entrepreneur: creation of a self-employed ICT-based livelihood (one that could not exist without ICTs); for example, the umbrella people selling phone calls by the roadside, or those who set up PC kiosks providing digital photography, e-ticketing and e-government services.
  • Innovator: adaptation of the technology by modifying the technology itself such as the “street hacks” that alter mobiles to accept dual SIMs, or by modifying ICT-enabled processes such as the mobile money agents who adapt methods of service delivery to match their local context.

Any attempt to aggregate capabilities has its downsides, since it must necessarily simplify away some of the richness of Sen’s ideas.  However, the use of roles – whether those proposed above or others – as an analytical approach offers a fairly straightforward and robust way of evaluating ICT4D initiatives, which does some justice to the intentions and insights of the capability approach.

Further work now needs to be done to dig into the literature on work-roles, life-roles, social-roles and role theory, in order to provide a stronger foundation for the role ladder.

  1. Dr. Somya Joshi
    15 July 2014 at 11:30 am

    Interesting idea. Isn’t the key question here about the degree or extent to which an individual/group can “opt into” a particular role. This would have a direct bearing on the capability afforded. Often in ICT4D initiatives roles are assigned by one set of actors (the designers and deployers of a technology for example within a community context) and this can influence the impact as well as capacity that is thus generated. So an interesting idea to explore would be to look at the relationship between assignment of roles and the capabilities that then emerge. Just a thought….

    • Richard Heeks
      15 July 2014 at 11:45 am

      So that might point us towards two levels of capability: those within the roles themselves, and then the meta-capability of choice of role. The latter – as you note – may be absent in the case of formal ICT4D initiatives giving us a “flying free but within a cage” notion of bounded capabilities; bounded by the choices of others who hold power in specific contexts.

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