ETHICS, Morality and Critique: An Essay on Enid Mumford's Socio-Technical Approach

By Stahl, Bernd Carsten | Journal of the Association for Information Systems, September 2007 | Go to article overview

ETHICS, Morality and Critique: An Essay on Enid Mumford's Socio-Technical Approach


Stahl, Bernd Carsten, Journal of the Association for Information Systems


Abstract:

Enid Mumford's continuing interest was in change management and the humanly acceptable development of systems. Her most prominent contribution to the IS field was the ETHICS methodology. The overall aim of her work was arguably to find a way to design and use technology that is ethically acceptable. In this paper I suggest that there are two other approaches that share this aim, namely critical research in information systems (CRIS) and computer and information ethics. I undertake a reading of Mumford's work from the point of view of these two other fields with the aim of clarifying and strengthening her argument. This leads to a discussion of what the three approaches can learn from each other and how they can cross-fertilize one another. The overall aim of the paper is to suggest a way that socio-technical design can take to further Enid Mumford's humanistic aim to improve life using information and communication technology.

Keywords: Enid Mumford, Critical theory, ETHICS, participation

Introduction

Enid Mumford's work contributed considerably to the development of the academic discipline of information systems. During a research career spanning more than five decades, she helped develop a number of theoretical approaches and provided her readers with large amounts of data to support the value of her approach. Her name is probably most closely associated with the ETHICS methodology, but she has also contributed to other streams of thought, including sociotechnical design, action research, and risk and change management.

In this volume aimed at commemorating Enid Mumford, I ask how to build upon her legacy. What parts of her work need to be developed, how can this be done, and how can we ensure that her intentions can be realized? In this paper I address these questions by interpreting Enid Mumford's work through a contemporary philosophical and theoretical lens. This should help readers gain new insight on her contributions to areas such as critical research, information systems theory, morality, and ethics. The purpose of this analysis of her work is to pinpoint areas where it could draw fruitfully on other bodies of work or, simultaneously, where other current discourses can learn from what she achieved.

The starting point of the paper is the observation that, throughout her working life, Mumford promoted the humanization of work and aimed to enlist technology as a tool in this endeavor. She drew mostly on socio-technical theory to achieve this, but there are other, possibly related fields that follow similar aims. I concentrate on critical research in information systems and computer and information ethics. What the majority of scholars in these three fields agree on is that technology has the potential to be conducive to a fulfilled life for workers and citizens, in general, but that this potential is not always fulfilled. The question thus arises how technology can be designed, used or employed in such a way that humans achieve their potentials and are enabled to lead lives of freedom and self-determination.

In order to develop this argument, the paper commences with a brief overview of Mumford's work and contribution. I ask how much overlap there is between Mumford and critical research in IS and how her approach relates to current debates in computer and information ethics. In order to facilitate the analysis, I will briefly introduce critical research in IS and computer and information ethics. The analysis and comparison will lead to a discussion of the respective strengths and weaknesses of these distinct strands of debate. The purpose of this comparison is to determine how a more thorough understanding of the other fields can improve the respective debates, concentrating on possible developments of Mumford's socio-technical design.

Change, Participation, and ETHICS: Enid Mumford's Position

A special issue in remembrance of Enid Mumford's contribution needs to avoid redundancies in descriptions of her work. …

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