Scientific Concepts, Language, and Change

One of my research interests concerns philosophy of science in information systems. How do we understand the field of information systems and it’s development?

The conceptual foundation of the Information Systems (IS) field has divided opinions among IS researchers since the early days of the discipline. The scholars seem to agree that there is a lack of unity but disagree on whether this lack of unity is beneficial or harmful for the field. Why do we understand the core of the field so differently and yet so willing to relate ourselves to this particular field, even when we practically conduct research under no common name and identity? Perhaps we are looking for a mistaken kind of unity. Perhaps our mistake is that we each attempt to define the “core ontology” of the field to forward merely a viewpoint. Would it be possible to find unity that is capable of inclusion, instead of exclusion, of current research in the field?

The conceptual foundation of a scientific field may be solid and coherent, or it may bring in different, even contradictory viewpoints into professional and scientific problem solving activities in the field. Professional and scientific practice is based on a specific conception of the basic type of concepts that are seen applicable for describing and explaining phenomena and the most essential types of problems or problematic situations that need to be studied in that field. What are good systems like? How can we gain good systems? What does it mean that a system is successful? The foundation of professional and scientific problem solving is a body of concepts that enable the professional or the researcher to discern a potential problem and to identify or to invent a potential solution for it. On the one hand, the identification of an issue as a problem is possible only from a certain conceptual viewpoint. With different concepts a problem is perceived differently. Or, an issue might not be perceived as a problem at all, or at least not as “our problem”. On the other hand, also the identification or the invention of a potential solution for a perceived problem is possible only from a certain conceptual viewpoint. The chosen conceptual viewpoint determines what kind of answer could be accepted as the “solution” of the problem. Sometimes the identification of a problem and a solution need different viewpoints. This implies that both conceptual innovation in line with hermeneutic interpretation and critically conducted traditional theoretical analysis is required in this problem solving activity.

The purpose of professional and scientific concepts is thus to enable problem solving. Problem solving requires the identification, selection and definition of suitable concepts but also guides and drives it. In this way, the problem solving activity matures through conceptual development and evolution. Concepts and conceptual viewpoints are chosen in a way that “valid” answers are gained for chosen “valid” questions. These choices are ultimately paradigmatic, whether we recognise it or not. Concepts evolve with problem solutions when it is recognised that currently used concepts can not help solve a problematic situation or that some new concepts are better for solving it. For example, the problem of IS implementation has been understood differently e.g. as a technical IT problem, an organisational management problem, or a fully human problem. The latter ones have emerged in IS vocabulary only after it was recognized that the former ones are not enough for IS researchers to account for the general problem. It may also be recognised that a problematic situation under study can be viewed in an entirely different fashion, and that an entirely new starting point is opened up for dealing with it. The more fundamental changes there are the more radical scientific change is involved.

As a fragmented field, Information Systems has produced no coherent and solid tradition for its problem solving activity. Therefore, it has no coherent and solid conceptual foundation or unified scientific language either. Instead, different disciplinary schools have developed different conceptual viewpoints and linguistic conventions for their own preferred purposes. This has yielded several problems. Is it even possible to conduct and maintain a meaningful discourse between researchers or practitioners with different conceptual and paradigmatic backgrounds? Are the commonly used terms such as “information”, “system”, and “information system” so charged with different meanings and connotations that they can not play their role as the central terms of the profession? Is there anything in common and how could we discern it? These are questions that need to be solved by the current and future IS community.

A common paradigm in a scientific field emerges only if there emerges also a common and unified scientific language. Such a language is able to emerge only if scientific education in the community is unified, which means excluding any teaching of contra-paradigmatic viewpoints and belief systems. However, this is not feasible unless it is credibly demonstrated that the most essential problems of the field can be identified and solved with a current scientific language. This is not the case within the field of Information Systems. Although we need to be disciplined, being disciplined in a meaningless way does not help.

Reference

Koskinen, M. 2005. Information Systems Research: Scientific Concepts, Language and Change in Evolving Problem Solving Activity. ECIS 2005 Proceedings. Paper 150.