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Using Actor-Network Theory in ICT4D Research

30 July 2011 14 comments

Actor-network theory (ANT) has been around since the 1980s, and significantly utilised in some disciplines, such as information systems.  But – oddly – it has hardly been applied at all in development studies, including within ICT4D research.  That is recently starting to change but to give some further impetus, we organised an international workshop in June 2011: “Understanding Development Through Actor-Network Theory”.  You can find online a working paper series derived from the workshop.

Actor-network theory began as a means to explain how science works, such as the operation of scientific laboratories and projects.  However, it has subsequently grown to be seen as a full-blown social theory.  In particular, ANT says three things.

First, it says, “Hey, sociologists, you’ve been so obsessed with humans that you’ve been ignoring all the objects in the world.  But those objects – documents, mobile phones, plants, websites, etc – play an important role; just like humans they shape the people and other objects around them. So ANT is going to treat them the same as people, and call them both ‘actors’.”

Second, it says, “Hey, sociologists, because you’ve been so obsessed with humans, you think that society and social contexts or social factors are what explains everything in life.  But you’re wrong.  In fact you’re so wrong you’ve got your basic equation of life the wrong way around.  You think that society explains what goes on in the world.  Nope.  What goes on in the world is what explains society.  So ANT is going to focus on the mechanics of life: the ways in which people and objects interact with each other.”

Third, it says, “Hey, more recent French-type sociologists, you’ve been so obsessed with breaking things apart to understand the bits of grammar and bits of history that made them that your idea of researching a clock would be to smash it to pieces with a hammer.  That is not how to research a clock.  To research a clock you need to understand how all the pieces got put together, following the network of people and objects that interacted in order to make that clock.  So ANT is going to focus on how networks are assembled.”

Much ANT writing is horribly obscure, so full of hideously complex sentences and words that the writers must surely have done this deliberately in the hope of avoiding Oscar Wilde’s dictum, “to be intelligible is to be found out”.  But, done well, ANT can tell a good story and even occasionally give you the sense that you are suddenly seeing the world in a whole new light.  A whole new light that – because it’s about dynamics and innovations and technology and networks – seems especially relevant to ICT4D.

A couple of good entry points – good because they each provide a fairly clear and portable conceptual framework that you can re-use in your own research – are:

–         Callon, M. (1986) Some elements of a sociology of translation: domestication of scallops and the fishermen of St Brieuc Bay, in: Power, Action and Belief, J. Law (ed.), Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 196-233

–         Law, J. & Callon, M. (1992) The life and death of an aircraft: a network analysis of technical change, in: W.E. Bijker & J. Law (eds), Shaping Technology/Building Society, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 21-52

Also not too unreadable is Latour’s Reassembling the Social, though had Latour been shot half-way through the dialogue with a PhD student that is reported in the book, I can’t help feeling a verdict of justifiable homicide would have been returned.

Although, as noted, use of ANT in ICT4D research has been limited there have been enough examples, at least from developing country cases within the information systems field, that we get a sense of the questions ANT is good at answering:

–         How do you explain the trajectory of an ICT4D project?

–         What role does technology play in an ICT4D project?

–         How does power manifest itself in an ICT4D project?  How were apparently powerless actors able to influence the direction of an ICT4D project?  How was it that apparently powerful actors didn’t get their way on an ICT4D project?

–         How does a particular ICT4D innovation (be it a new technology or business model or idea) diffuse or scale-up or sink without trace?

–         How did a particular ICT4D impact or ICT4D policy come about?

If you’ve identified other ICT4D questions that are especially suitable for an ANT lens, then do contribute them.

If you want an example of applying ANT in ICT4D that also includes a reflection on the pros and cons of the theory, and some thoughts on applying it in your research, I can recommend:

–         Stanforth, C. (2007) Using actor-network theory to analyze e-government implementation in developing countries, Information Technology and International Development, 3(3), 35-60

There is also a discussion of the relation between ICT4D and ANT in:

–         Rubinoff, D.D. (2008) Towards an ICT4D geometry of empowerment: using actor-network theory to understand and improve ICT4D, in: Developing Successful ICT Strategies, M.H. Rahman (ed.), Information Science Reference, Hershey, PA, 133-154

And feel free to comment on other ICT4D literature that makes use of ANT.

If you would like to participate in discussions about ANT, you can join our online forum on LinkedIn at: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/ActorNetwork-Theory-in-Development-Studies-3995328

We are also populating a group on Mendeley with reference details, and welcome contributions: http://www.mendeley.com/groups/1255941/actor-network-theory-in-development-studies/

Finally, the first of our working paper series delves into some of these issues in greater detail: “Development Studies Research and Actor-Network Theory

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Understanding ICT4D Adoption via Institutional Dualism

28 February 2011 12 comments

Sometimes with ICT4D projects, you build it and they don’t come.  Why is that?  Why do potential users resist, object, reject?

One explanation comes from the concept of “institutional dualism”.

First developed to explain how Japan reacted to the import of Western ideas and technologies in the 19th century, this can also be used to understand any innovation – including ICT4D initiatives – in which there is some separation between designers and intended adopters.

Each of those two groups sits within its own institutional network: a complex of institutional elements (e.g. norms, rules, beliefs, values) and organisations and actions.  Left to its own devices, any institutional network will tend to “self-reproduce”.  For example, its cultural values will encourage particular actions, and those actions will in turn reinforce the network’s cultural values.

But innovations like an ICT4D application will bring two different institutional networks – those of the application designers, and those of the application adopters – into contact.  We can call this institutional dualism because of the two institutional networks that come into play (see figure).

A strong example of institutional dualism would occur if a team from a European university designed an ICT4D application and then introduced it into a rural location in Africa.  The European designers’ behaviour is enabled by a set of Western organisations and shaped by a set of Western institutional forces, some of which will be inscribed into the ICT4D application.  During implementation this network is drawn into contact with the very different network of rural Africa, with different organisational structures, behaviours, and institutional forces.

Many ICT4D projects will be a bit less starkly drawn than this, but will still involve institutional dualism because designers and adopters almost always come from different places and different spaces.

What then happens?  There are four possible outcomes from a situation of institutional dualism:

  • Domination: one of the institutional networks prevails over the other in the ICT4D project.  If the designers dominate, the project could fail due to its mismatch to the broader local context.  If the adopters prevail, that requires a complete re-design of the project to have occurred.
  • Contest: neither of the institutional networks prevails, but there is ongoing competition between them.  The ICT4D project may stagger on, but always in difficulty as it is pulled in two different directions.
  • Parallel-Running: a separation is arranged with some aspects of the project guided by the designers’ institutional network, some by the adopters’.  This is only possible where the ICT4D project has a broad flexibility and scope.
  • Hybridisation: the ICT4D project becomes the site within which the two institutional networks blend, forming a mixture of institutional values and hence a set of hybrid actions within the organisational structure of the project itself.

Of these four, only hybridisation and some types of domination are likely to lead to a sustainable ICT4D project.  We have seen this in practice with a large-scale ICT4D case study of institutional dualism from the Brazilian public sector.  Although giving some outward signs of hybridisation, beneath the surface this remained a story of ongoing contest and parallel-running even some years after its first implementation.  It was still contingent, and it demonstrates the great difficulty ICT4D projects have in institutionalising themselves when operating in environments of strong institutional dualism.

Development 2.0: New ICT-Enabled Development Models and Impacts

12 July 2010 9 comments

Where are the Amazon and eBay for international development?  ICT has delivered new models for business and commerce; is it also delivering new models for international development? 

A new short paper, “Development 2.0: Transformative ICT-Enabled Development Models and Impacts” outlines some initial ideas (summarised below), building on an earlier Viewpoints column in Communications of the ACM.

Ideas about Development 2.0 must be initial because ICTs have only very recently diffused to the bottom of the pyramid (with many gaps and inequalities remaining).  A first pass suggests three potentially-transformative, ICT-enabled development models:

  • Direct Development delivers resources and services without the intervention of traditional development actors; where those resources and services can be digitised.  Examples would include Kiva, MYC4 and similar micro-lending platforms.
  • Networked Development occurs neither solely through the state and similar agencies nor through the market, but through a mesh of actors and institutions that are connected and can act together through ICTs.  Examples include txteagle’s crowdsourcing, and the ‘crowdvoicing’ of e-participatory budgeting.  (See also an example of emergent ICT-enabled networks impacting development.)
  • Grassroots Development occurs from within poor communities, as a result of ICT-enabled empowerment. Examples include beeping/flashing, and use of airtime as currency.  (See further discussion in an earlier entry on grassroots ICT4D innovation.)

These models could only be judged transformative if they are having real and significant new development impacts.  Evidence is only just emerging, but five types of impact are starting to be seen:

  • Connecting the excluded: providing information and other livelihood assets including social capital that were previously unavailable.
  • Disintermediation: cutting out the gatekeepers who prevent access to resources and services, or who charge rents for such access.
  • Digital production: enabling those in low-income communities to become producers of digital content, and to develop ICT-based productive livelihoods.
  • Digital innovation: enabling those in low-income communities to appropriate technology to such an extent that they start to do new things with it.
  • Collective power: enabling communities to bring the power of the group to bear in the service of economic or socio-political agendas.

These ideas on models and impacts, however, leave many questions:

– How should we frame and conceptualise ideas about Development 2.0?

– How can we properly distinguish between an incremental and a transformative effect of ICTs on development processes and structures?

– Where can we get independent, long-term impact data relating to the new ICT-enabled models, as opposed to the current ‘evidence’, much of which is anecdotal and/or written by those with vested interests.

These and other Development 2.0 issues form part of the ongoing research agenda for Manchester’s Centre for Development Informatics.

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