My own perspective of RRBM has much to do with my tenure as Editor in Chief of two rather different journals: the mainstream Information Systems Journal (ISJ) and the niche Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries (EJISDC). Mainstream IS research often adheres to the tenets of what JC Spender calls the Temple of Positivism 1 , often neglecting relevance and context in favour of espoused generalisation leading to findings that are rarely replicated. At the EJISDC, we see many authors who reflect on and attempt to theorise with local contextual and cultural details that make good sense in the local community and that may have practical value for local managers. In my experience, reviewers (and editors) at the mainstream journals will tend to give the latter short shrift for their failure to generalise, for their insistence on the value of the local over the global, and a host of other problems, missing the key knowledge contribution that could be teased out. Who is the responsible researcher here? The local author who tries to tell a story about what works, what matters and why; or the international reviewer who is an expert at picking holes and finding fault, but less adept at recognising or appreciating impact and relevance? This is the nub of the problem.
Why is generalisation (usually to as wide a context base as possible; occasionally to theory that can be tested elsewhere) so valued? Presumably because a universal truth, that elusive chimera, is revered and fetishised to the point where it reigns supreme. However, a careful examination of context will reveal that it invisibly affects many aspects of research design and the data that we collect, yet it is seldom acknowledged, except as a limitation. Elsewhere, I have argued that we should celebrate context 2, embed it into our research designs, draw on it when we claim relevance in our findings, and not relegate it to the limitations3.
When research is contextually rich, it has the potential to generate findings that are not only relevant but also impactful. People familiar with the context (who may be academics, practitioners, policy makers) will hopefully also find that research to be consumable 4, for if it is not consumable it won’t be read, appreciated or acted upon. I suggest that enriching research with contextual detail will permit the telling of intrinsically interesting stories that are in their nature consumable by a broad audience.
Turning to method, I have long been drawn to a method that thrives on richly relevant contextual detail, that is admirably positioned to enable the telling of interesting stories: action research. An action research exploration of a problem situation may have the virtue of helping the reader to learn about real-world problems and practice, to appreciate how theory can inform a research intervention, at the same time helping the real-world actors overcome their problem situation with impact, all encapsulated in a story rich in contextual detail. The story itself can consider the perspectives and interests of multiple stakeholders (not only the CEO’s) so as to incorporate social and environmental views about the situation under investigation and thus reflect the need for responsible research to address objectives that have little to do with economic profit but that do reflect impacts on both society and our planet 5. Finally, if existing theory cannot explain circumstances, new, perhaps indigenous, theory may be called for, the last string to my bow.
As an editor, I occupy a privileged position. At the ISJ, I have commissioned two special issues that relate to the above themes. One focuses on ‘Making the Developing World a Better Place with High Impact IS Research’ 6, the other on the development of ‘Indigenous Theory’ 7. The first is alwready well under way and papers should appear in 2019. The second has a deadline later in 2018. It is never too late to start.
Author: Robert M Davison
Professor of Information Systems, City University of Hong Kong
Editor in Chief, Information Systems Journal (since 2013)
Co-Founding Editor in Chief, Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries (since 2000)
Chair International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) Working Group 9.4 (Social Impact of Computing in Developing Countries)