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«Global Co-Operation in the New Millennium The 9th European Conference on Information Systems Bled, Slovenia, June 27-29, 2001 GENDER, EMANCIPATION ...»

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Global Co-Operation in the New Millennium

The 9th European Conference on Information Systems

Bled, Slovenia, June 27-29, 2001


Alison Adam

Information Systems Research Centre, University of Salford, Salford M5 4WT, UK

Tel: +44 (0)161 295 3125 Fax: +44 (0)161295 5559


Alison Adam


This paper addresses ways in which theorizing gender may be important in forming an understanding of the topic of emancipation which is central to the new critical information systems based on Habermas’s thinking. After briefly introducing current research on gender and IS and arguing that we need to look towards feminist philosophy for appropriate theory in order to understand foundational issues such as emancipation, the paper reflects on the reasons why technical disciplines may find feminist theory threatening. The development of feminist philosophy and epistemology is introduced. Habermas’s ‘ideal speech situation’ is problematized in relation to feminist writing on male and female communication juxtaposed with recent research in computer mediated communications. The paper continues by exploring the concept of emancipation through feminist epistemology and closes by analysing how these concerns may be applied to critical IS.

1. INTRODUCTION There is much evidence to suggest that gender is a fundamental, and possibly even the most fundamental aspect of the way we organize and categorize our social existence [Evans, 1994]. The first thing we are told about a baby when it is born is whether it is a boy or girl. We are often thrown off guard if someone of the ‘wrong’ gender appears in a given role. We phone Professor Smith and her secretary, Mr Brown, answers the call. Someone who feels like man trapped in a woman’s body, or a woman trapped in a male body may go to extreme lengths to change sex. Leaving aside procreation and potential fleshly pleasures, there is no doubt that gender, and ordering the world along gendered lines, matters a great deal to us. Yet, given that it is accepted alongside class, and ethnicity, and even age, sexuality and religion, as an important determinant of social behaviour in research in the social sciences, it rarely appears in the ‘technical’ disciplines as a research topic.

This paper briefly reviews current research on gender and information systems, both from within a tradition of writing on gender and information technologies and from within IS, to conclude that, so far, little has been written on gender aspects of more foundational issues in IS as the concept of ‘gender’ itself has remained under-theorized. I reflect on why feminist theory may hitherto have appeared threatening to technical disciplines. It is suggested that feminist theory, feminist philosophy and, within that, feminist epistemology, may be a fruitful starting place to analyze the problematic concept of emancipation which has been imported into critical IS through the work of Habermas. Habermas’s [1972] theory of knowledge-constitutive interests Alison Adam is a critique of epistemology which questions the validity of our knowledge of the world. The concept of emancipation is crucially linked to epistemology through the ideal of emancipatory interests overcoming technocracy. Yet feminist writers [Meehan 1995] have criticized Habermas for his tendency to universalize and the gender-blindness of his work. The paper analyzes associated problems through, first of all, considering the ‘ideal speech situation’ of communicative rationality which has proved an appealing idea in critical IS and linking this to recent research in computer mediated communications (CMC). Secondly, arguments from feminist epistemology are adduced to contend, in more detail, that, until the fine structure of emancipation is better understood, attempts to emancipate may not achieve their ends. Finally these arguments are applied to critical IS.

1.1. Gender and IS from Gender and IT

Although there has been a widespread turn towards treating social and organizational issues as important and legitimate areas for IS research, work which has specifically addressed gender as a research variable has remained limited in scope and in quantity within the IS domain. At the same time, it is interesting to note that feminist research on information systems has dwindled from a high point in the late 1980s and early 1990s where a number of reasonably high profile projects were funded and reported in the literature [Green, 1994;

Green et al, 1993; Bjerkenes and Bratteteig, 1987; Vehvilainen, 1997]. Although there appears to be just as much interest on gender and information and communication technologies as ever, this implies that the ‘gender equity’ inspired empirical research project in IS seems to have all but disappeared.

One problem is that this type of research appears to have lost momentum as research on gender and virtuality and the Internet has overtaken earlier workplace studies. But it should be pointed out that, at the same time, the projects listed above were all but ignored by the IS mainstream. For instance, although the FLORENCE project was reported in a widely cited edited collection [Bjerknes et al., 1987] I have found only one citation of FLORENCE itself in a major IS publication [Hirschheim et al., 1995].

Clearly this area of research does not fit into to mainstream IS as such, belonging instead to a more specific ‘gender and information technologies’ research community. Nevertheless the seeming failure of gender and IS as a research paradigm, within this apparently very relevant sub-community, further adds to the feeling that gender and IS research is in the doldrums and a failure to get anywhere near the mainstream may have contributed the apparent atrophy of this paradigm of research.

1.2. Gender and IS from IS

Research on gender and IS from within the more broadly defined ‘gender and IT’ community can be compared in style to the much more slender body of quantitative and qualitative research on gender and IS which is located and reported in the IS literature. The problem with research on gender and IS from with IS itself is somewhat different. Apart from the fact that there is not very much of it, I argue that, currently, much of this work is under-theorized with regard to the concept of gender itself. Quantitative research revolving round statistical surveys which look for differences in men’s and women’s behaviours, tends to force men’s and women’s characteristics into stereotyped straitjackets [Gefen and Straub, 1997; Igbaria and Chidambaram, 1997; Truman and Baroudi, 1994; Venkatesh and Morris, 2000 ].

On the other hand, although there are exceptions [Wilson and Howcroft, 2000], qualitative, or, perhaps more properly, non-statistical research on gender and IS tends to focus on the low numbers of women in the profession and how to attract more of them [Camp, 1997; Panteli et al, 1999; Robertson et al., 1999]. Camp’s [1997] notion of ‘shrinking pipelines’ captures the mood of such work well. Whilst low numbers of women continues to be a problem, it is much harder to tackle the question of why information technology is unappealing to women in the first place. Last year’s ECIS conference panel on gender was possibly one of the very few mainstream appearances of the topic ever, but this does not represent a major project in the area [Robertson et al., 1999].

–  –  –

1.3. Feminist Theory – Why is It Threatening?

Reviewing gender and IS research from within the IS discipline itself, points to the conclusion that this area needs to be informed by a more thoroughgoing theoretical perspective and, in particular, a perspective which places gender centre stage as an analytical category. One place to look for such a perspective is academic feminism, which has been a tremendous academic growth area in the last twenty or more years. But understandably most ‘technical’ and mainstream disciplines shy away from feminist writing. It is not difficult to see why. Put bluntly, but without intending to universalize the experiences of women, feminist writing starts from the base point that women generally stand in an inferior position to men in most walks of life. Whilst analyzing and reporting, at the same time much feminist research looks to ways in which such situations might be alleviated. It is therefore a political project. Not surprisingly this can be seen as threatening, particularly for areas such as IS, which subscribes to a rhetoric that, as a relatively new discipline, it may have escaped old discriminatory practices prevalent in longer established domains [Truman and Baroudi, 1994]. A dimension to this potential threat is that if women are the oppressed then it could be argued that men are the oppressors.

Not surprisingly such a position would seem threatening to say the least. Nevertheless this is not a position which is generally held in contemporary feminism which eschews such a stark and unanalyzed view of the many facets of oppression. Here I am attempting to present the extremes of the argument to find reasons why feminist thinking often appears threatening to mainstream writing. Indeed, as I suggest above, the stereotypes promulgated by a major strand of gender and IS writing i.e. statistical gender difference studies, are just as oppressive to men as to women. Therefore it would seem to be in everyone’s interests that gender relations are thoroughly explored and then couched in an appropriate theoretical framework.

1.4. Addressing ‘Non Gender’ Topics in IS with Feminist Theory

It would be easy to view the ‘pipeline’ style and statistical research reported above as the acceptable face of feminism, where figures and statistics can be endlessly analyzed, thus postponing the requirement to look at deeper, underlying reasons for women’s absence from technical disciplines.

The question of relative absence remains important and must not be dismissed. Yet, if we were to believe that the only contribution that feminist theory can make to IS is at the ‘equal opportunities’, human resources end of the subject then we would be missing out on its potential to contribute significantly to the critical, analytical end of the IS spectrum. A further, and equally important task for feminist theory in the service of IS involves combining the lessons learned from the diverse literature on gender and information technologies with relevant aspects of feminist philosophy and bring all these to a discussion of the development of the theory of IS.

This means that a more radical job for feminist theory would be to see if it could contribute to debates fermenting round important topics in IS which have hitherto hardly been seen in gendered terms at all [Adam, 2001; Adam and Richardson, 2001]. The rest of the paper addresses the latter area, namely a contemporary, apparently ‘non-gender’ topic (i.e. not, on the surface related to masculinity and femininity) from the point of view of various aspects of feminist theory.

The topic in question is the emancipatory vector of critical IS in its basis on Habermas’s writing. The following sections bring a critique and analysis of Habermas’s writing, developed from feminist philosophy, to bear on the important topic of emancipation. Critical IS has appropriated the term ‘emancipation’ based on its adoption of an anti-positivist position based on Habermas’s critical theory. Although it might be tempting to regard the concept of emancipation as purely beneficial, I argue that a better understanding of the implications of this term can be made through a feminist analysis to show that we need a much more sophisticated understanding of the fine structure of emancipation. This shows that attempts to universalize the concept are problematic. In particular I draw on feminist critiques of Habermas’s writing [Benhabib, 1986; Meehan, 1995] to argue that, just as feminist writers have criticized Habermas’s theories as being gender blind, there is a danger that this ‘gender blindness’, with its concomitant problems, may be imported Alison Adam by critical IS in its adherence to Habermas’s critical theory. In what follows I will argue, in particular, that the concept of ‘emancipation’ is problematic and that calls for emancipation may actually mask existing power structures and hence reinforce them, offering little scope for true emancipation.


Space permits no more than the briefest introduction to feminist theory through feminist philosophy which I have argued can provide a fruitful perspective from which to analyze contemporary issues in the foundations of IS, and in particular crucial concepts in critical IS. Feminist philosophy is one of the most theoretically developed parts of contemporary feminism and at the same time is one of the most important developments in contemporary philosophy, particularly at the radical end of the discipline [Tong, 1994]. It has two major roles; firstly to form a critique of mainstream philosophy and secondly to offer alternative theoretical positions, ones which often rest on feminine inspired attributes such as intuition, collective responsibility and fairness rather than what are often perceived as masculine norms of individual rights and rationality. Since World War Two it has developed two distinctive branches, Continental or what is sometimes termed ‘postmodern’ feminism and Anglo-American feminism [Hekman, 1990].

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