Academic journal article JITTA : Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application

The Social and Academic Standing of the Information Systems Discipline: General Theory Considered as Cultural Capital

Academic journal article JITTA : Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application

The Social and Academic Standing of the Information Systems Discipline: General Theory Considered as Cultural Capital

Article excerpt


Bourdieu's concepts of social fields and social power provide a theoretical basis for arguing that the information systems (IS) field is engaged in an ongoing struggle with other disciplines for prestige and support. While IS has produced a considerable amount of high quality theory and research, it is by no means clear that this is understood by either the academy or the general public. It is argued that the discipline 's profile could be raised by the development and promulgation of a general theory of IS, similar in scope to the general theories found in other disciplines such as sociology. The political and cultural value of developing such a theory is discussed, as are a range of issues it is recommended that it should address.


It is proposed in this paper that the development of a prestigious general theory in the information systems (IS) field is possible, opportune, and would be of considerable benefit to the field. "Prestigious" is taken in this context to mean achieving a degree of renown, ideally with the public at large, but at least within the academy. While significant benefits could derive from the application of such a theory in research and practice, its primary value to the discipline would be as an item of "cultural capital" (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992) contributing to its public image. An influential theory is implicitly a statement that the field from which it originates is a source of marketable ideas, and worthy therefore of interest and respect (Abbott 2001).

The term "general theory" is taken here to refer to the type of overarching theory constituted by a set of umbrella concepts designed to explain a broad range of social phenomena (Layder 1993). While such a theory is not something that can be produced on demand, the further argument in this paper is based on the assumption that there is a logical gap in the theoretical spectrum that a general social theory of IS could fill. The types of issues such a theory could address are discussed in more detail later in the paper, but can be briefly outlined here.

In broad terms, the proposition is that IS structures for dealing with some basic types of business and social activity are becoming highly standardized and pervasive in social life, and are beginning to constrain possibilities for social change. A number of related trends are driving this development, including data sharing among organizations and government departments, interorganizational systems based on generalized data and process definitions, the emergence of systems with some degree of social autonomy (automated teller machines provide a simple but representative example - Dos Santos and Peffers 1995), and the widespread adoption of high profile proprietary enterprise software packages from companies like SAP and Oracle (Davenport 1998). This trend and its social effects do not appear to have received comprehensive theoretical treatment in the IS field or elsewhere. In IS this is because theories of IS integration (Wyzalek 2000), strategic alignment (Saberwhal, Hirschheim, and Goles 2001), and competitive advantage (Kettinger, Grover, and Segars 1995) that deal with large-scale IS structures do not consider wider social effects, and elsewhere because theorists in other fields have been reluctant or unable to address the social capabilities and limitations peculiar to IS (for instance Bogard 1996).

Grounds for arguing the capital value of such a theory are provided by Bourdieu's concepts of social power and social fields (Bourdieu 1980; Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992; Swartz 1997). On this, the IS field - comprising an array of academics, professionals, and institutions is conceptualised as engaged in more or less continuous struggles for relative power and status with other disciplines. The assets enabling participation in these struggles include both economic and cultural capital, where cultural capital is the combination of ideas, knowledge and research that are seen as intrinsically linked to the field, and which form the basis for its academic and community standing (Bourdieu 1980; Kline 1995; Abbott 2001). …

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