Monday, June 10, 2013

Connecting theory and method: capabilities, communities of practice, and tracking media usage

I've started reading Dorothea Kleine's book Technologies of Choice? ICTS, Development, and the Capabilities Approach (MIT Press, 2013), which operationalizes Sen's capabilities theory of development.
image of book

Kleine contrasts Sen's capabilities approach with various "growth focused" views of development, noting four key tenets of capabilities (p. 4):

1.) development is understood as a process, not an outcome;
2.) it is by necessity ongoing and dynamic rather than fixed and static;
3.) explicitly puts people at the center of the development idea;
4.) it posits that people themselves define what lives they value, which will likely result in a plurality of views

Or, in summary: "…any piece of research based on the capabilities approach needs to reflect an understanding of development as a process, consider it in a holistic way, and put people at the center, stressing their choices. The focus on people's choices renders the development process open-ended and pluralistic in its aims" (p. 4)

She then takes a broad perspective on ICT, defining it this way: "ICT can refer to any technology serving the purpose of gathering, processing, and disseminating information, or supporting the process of communication." (p. 5)

She notes (p. 6) that the tradition of ICT4D work up to now has been to introduce Internet and mobile phones "in various classic sectors of development work, including electronic and mobile learning … e-health and m-health, e-government, e-business, political participation, disaster management, and so on." and she points out that if we learned and applied lessons from past experience, "ICTs could make a positive difference in many sectors," however it is difficult to prove impacts as directly caused by ICT interventions in any given sector (p. 7)

By contrast, Kleine suggests a holistic approach can pick up important usages that sectoral thinking can overlook: "Mainstreaming ICTs into sectoral initiatives does not adequately grasp the full transformative and often highly personalized effect that access to the Internet or even mobile phone can have on people's lives.  People may find that communicating with family and friends, gathering information, or exploring their social and cultural interests online may be among the most important ways in which these technologies assist them in leading the lives they value" [emph. added] (p. 7).

Within the capabilities approach, ICT usage is regarded as part of a complex social practice: "In the language of the capabilities approach, ICT usage takes place within a particular outcome in mind -- capabilities that the individual aspires to. Capabilities are the various things a person may value being or doing that are feasible for her to achieve" (p. 8). Along these lines, she notes that ICT use may be a capability unto itself but is more often a means to an end, "a tool used to achieve or expand other capabilities. Indeed, people will draw on a varied set of media to achieve a purpose of information or communication, which in turn will be a means to another outcome" (p. 8).

Reading these passages reminds me of a chapter that Nuwan and I wrote a few years ago, where we speculate on Richard Ling's "ritual theory" as an approach to help understand how the mobile phone as an everyday communication tool can help to generate and sustain "social coherence" among  communities of practice.  The connection between Ling and Kleine comes from this idea that these tools fall within a set of social practices that we might think of as a kind of ritualistic behaviour.  Nuwan and I quoted Ling to illustrate our understanding of his use of that (easily misconstrued) term:

[Ritual] … involves the establishment of a mutually recognized focus and mood among individuals, and it is a catalyst in the construction of social cohesion. The focus is not on obsessive or repetive behaviour, although ritual interactions can take place in these settings. Rather, the emphasis is on a group process and the outcome of that process. (Ling, 2008b, p. 9)
This notion of ritual as "mutually recognized focus and mood" and group process, bears some similarities to the Wenger et al. definition of communities of practice as a group of individuals that engage in some form of sustained interaction on a common topic or domain of interest.

To what extent ritual might be usefully introduced into Kleine's framework, or indeed, the CoP social dynamic is yet to be explored but clearly there is an important conceptual nexus here that we can draw on to inform the project.  Among other things, ritual can help establish a conceptual bridge between the focus on individuals within the capabilities approach with the more group focussed perspective within the communities of practice.

Media footprint diagram
Source: Kleine (2013, p. 141)
The capabilities approach is holistic and seems to confirm our approach that begins with understanding autochthonous social practices and the integral role of ICTs within those practices.  Knowing something of that is then the first step toward looking at how digital ICTs can enhance those practices through expanded capabilities.

From a more practical standpoint, Kleine presents what she terms "media footprint diagrams" in her book.  These are spider diagrams that illustrate media use among individuals within a community.  Wenger et al, offer a similar method in their book Digital Habitats to analyze community orientations.  Take a look at the Slideshare presentation from Nancy White to see what I mean.

Now what if we were to overlay the spider diagram of community orientations with one showing media use?

Perhaps this type of analysis could be a useful way to explore how people individually and together use ICTs in a ritualistic way, leading perhaps to better understanding of how and where ICT enhancements might be considered.

1 comment:

  1. I really like that concept of ritual as a conceptual bridge between the focus on individuals and the capabilities approach that is more focused on benefits for being part of a group and the individual benefitting the group. We know from recent research that many people are motivated by a sense of belonging and contribution to a higher purpose, whereas it seems that when experts speak of ICTs they are often assuming the only reason the person is using it is for some sort of personal gain. I like the dynamic definitions of development as sustained interaction may last for varied periods depending on the needs of the individual and group, and thus no longer be sustained when other priorities take hold.