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Andrew Basden


Purpose: To reflect on why the author did not find social theory useful in IS/IT until relatively recently, and why it is philosophy that has aroused his interest. Methodology/Approach: Essay conveying personal experiences (as required by Special Issue) Findings: Social theory was unable to address the diversity and coherence of everyday experience of IS/IT. Dooyeweerd's philosophy did address this. But Dooyeweerd's philosophy was then found to provide a context in which various social theories could be placed and enriched. Research limitations/implications (if applicable): n/a Practical implications (if applicable): It suggests one way in which social theory might become of interest to reflective practioners. Originality/value of paper: It is a journey through a sequence of non-traditional ideas in IS/IT.

Keywords: Social theory, reflective practice, Dooyeweerd's philosophy, aspects, everyday experience.


As a someone who always reflects on his everyday experience in information systems (IS), I tend to come up with ideas that do not fit easily into social theory. Whether it is mild Asperger's Syndrome, a radical commitment to Jesus Christ, or a Scottish upbringing that makes me like different approaches, or all of these, I know not. But because of this my journey into accepting social theory has been slow.

Scotland instilled in me not only a love of the wild, natural world (of which more later) but a deep belief that theory and practice are and should be integrated, not by creating theory and then applying it to practice but by reflection within, and at the very heart of, practice. So, after completing my PhD, I wanted to get out into the 'real world', staying there for 14 years before returning to academia in 1987. But all the time I would reflect deeply, but with reflection that was intuitive rather than overtly theoretical.

Because of my commitment to Jesus Christ, I not only feel hope for IS (of which more later), but I have always felt a high sense of responsibility towards all we experience, whether technological, human, social or natural, along with a sense of the diversity and coherence of all. I wanted all these integrated; even 'socio-technical' smacked too much of a cobbling together rather than a genuine integration. The technical should anticipate the social from the very start.

Because of my Asperger's Syndrome, I not only find social networking difficult (of which more later), but I find I want truth rather than label or appearance. So the ideas that intuition and sense of responsibility would generate as I engaged in I.T. would not be squeezed to suit the labels or extant theories fashionable at the time, but would grow in me in ways that came out as radically different. (By 'truth' I do not mean objective facts, but rather veracity.)

Because, perhaps, of a combination of all three, I found social theory of only marginal value, instead taking an 'everyday' or 'pre-theoretical' attitude to IS. But in recent years I have begun to appreciate the value of social theory. However, this has not been by direct introduction but by a longer journey, via the discovery of the radical philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd. This gave me a basis for understanding the things I have experienced in a pre-theoretical manner, and then for appreciating a new role for social theory. Consequently, since the mid 1990s, I have been exploring Dooyeweerd's philosophy and how to apply it in IS/IT.

This essay recounts some of my story with and without social theory. By 'social theory' I mean not only standard ones like structuration theory but any attempt to account for the social as well as the societal aspect of information systems. This essay does not address any particular social theory but rather social theory as such. While it recounts detail, this is not meant to illustrate short-cuts and improvisations but rather approaches and attitudes, and the reasons why my journey into social theory has been long and meandering.

Relaying some of my experiences, I reflect on a number of 'different' approaches I have adopted and highlight things that might be given stronger emphasis in social theory. I show how Dooyeweerd's philosophy was able to provide frameworks for understanding these things, and then draw it all together to suggest possible future directions for social theory in IS/IT.

The Social Within the Technical

Some might see my journey in I.T. as from technical to social to philosophical, but right from the early days there was an in-built social element.

An early example of this, and in which the three driving forces (Asperger, Christ, Scotland) came together, can be found in the research I undertook for PhD in the early 1970s, which explored algorithms for automated layout of electronic circuit boards. Instead of the usual geometric approach, which represented the components and conductors as numerical x-y coordinates, it took a topological approach, allowing board, conductors and components to stretch. What I was aiming at was to do justice to the spatial aspect of reality, with its continuous extension rather than fixed, discrete numeric coordinates. It was interesting that, in attempting this, the approach seemed to echo the human way of layout, in four ways. Its continuous extension allowed components and conductors to be moved apart to let others through. It gave positive significance to the empty areas of board. It allowed conductors already laid to be re-routed: figure 1a shows how an already-laid conductor blocks another, figure 1b shows the long, wandering conductors that result from tackling this geometrically, and figure 1c shows the re-routing that occurs in both human and topological approaches. And, as a result, the toplogical algorithm tended to generate aesthetically pleasing layouts. All these, and especially the latter two, are difficult with the traditional approach.

Figure 1 (pcb.gif) here

Figure 1. Routing a conductor

I did not knowingly apply any 'social theory' to achieve it; rather I did what intuitively seemed responsible. This coherence between the human expertise and the structure of reality, in this case its spatial aspect, is difficult for most social theory to grasp, especially those of a social constructivist or subjectivist flavour. But I have encountered it frequently in my practice.

I spent fourteen years outside academia after my PhD, in the 1970s in commercial computing within the pharmaceutical industry and building medical records databases in the health sector, building expert systems in the chemical industry (ICI plc.) until 1986, then building an expert system for the surveying profession until mid 1987, when I re-entered academic life. I encountered a wide range of types of domain meaning, to each of which I tried to do justice.

In representing knowledge containing relationships, for example, I want to be able to say "This A-type object points to that B-type object, and automatically B points inversely back to A". But in current data models (such as relational data model, object orientation, and logic programming), which offer pointer-attributes as a way to implement relationships, it is cumbersome to implement the inverse and especially to implement many-to-many relationships, and one is exposed to unnecessary dangers like referential disintegrity and infinite loops.

While in industry in the mid 1980s, I reflected on my experiences. Inspired perhaps by William Kent's classic monograph Data and Reality, it seemed to me that there are four irreducibly different 'aspects of knowledge' that needed to be encapsulated in computer programs or knowledge bases:

  • items and relationships, such as patients and problems that each patient might have;

  • quantitative and qualitative attribute-values, such as the strength of dose of a drug, the date when a problem started, the name of the problem;

  • spatiality, such as proximity to infection (or re-routing conductors);

  • change: events and processes, such as accidents and healing.

The domain meaning that needs to be represented in an IS seemed irreducibly diverse (though not infinitely so). Each of these aspects of knowledge seemed to deserve a different fundamental approach to representing them, otherwise programming errors would increase. More important, I wanted to contribute to the social vision that Ronald Brachman in 1990 dubbed 'KR to the people' - lay people should be able to represent their own knowledge, as knowledge base, database or program, without having to call on expert programmers. Unless every aspect of knowledge is provided for directly, appropriately and intuitively, 'KR to the people' is impossible. The notion of 'appropriateness' seemed important, but in the early 1990s nobody else seemed to recognise this, and my attempts to introduce debate about it and about 'aspects of knowledge' failed.

I was not aware of any social theory that did justice to everyday experience. A few psychological theories about how programmers operated appeared, but these were blind to both the diversity and the shared nature of knowledge. Instead, it was from an everyday, intuitive perspective that I attempted to understand 'KR to the people'.

I wanted to find out what 'the' set of aspects of knowledge was, and work towards providing appropriate representation for each. Doubting whether I had the full set of such aspects - for example, text and its social connotations seemed to be irreducible to any of the above - I sought a fuller set after returning to academic life as a lecturer in 1987.

I did not find one. Most of my colleagues in computer science and artificial intelligence assumed that standard data models were sufficient: so what's my problem? At the other extreme were those who, like a professor who knew some social theory and philosophy and whom I approached with the question of what 'the' correct set of aspects is, replied "There aren't any, they are socially constructed." I went away feeling very naive (in the pejorative sense) and determined not to embarrass myself like that again. And yet, I knew she was wrong. I acknowledge the validity of social construction theory, but it is blind to the difficulty that 'the people', and even programmers, have when forced to use an inappropriate aspect of knowledge. So I continued pondering, but privately.

It seemed to me, if I were to reflect on it, that this technical issue of appropriateness, in trying to do justice to the diversity of the world, at the same time also anticipated our social living with technology in that world. To address this adequately requires a social theory which is able to bring together the irreducible diversity of the world, our intuitions about it and our social constructions of shared knowledge about it. It was not until I discovered Dooyeweerd's philosophy that I found a sound philosophical foundation for this integration. My original four aspects have expanded to fifteen, as discussed in Basden [2007].

The Technical in Use

Around 1990, I began a research programme to implement this vision of aspects of knowledge, preparing sets of primitives in each aspect. With this, a team of us built the Istar KR toolkit, which not only replaced the traditional production rule representation by an inference net, but boasted an enormously wide range of value-types and immense flexibility in items and relationships (including many-to-many and inverses),

Unusually, it employed as its main knowledge representation 'language' not text, not point-and-click, but the dynamics of drawing of box and arrows diagrams. To achieve this required a user interface (UI) which was so natural in use that 'the people' would almost forget they were using a computer and instead be able to focus on the knowledge itself. As Donald Norman once put it,

"The real problem with the interface is that it is an interface. Interfaces get in the way. I don't want to focus my energies on an interface. I want to focus on the job."

This is what Polanyi [1967] calls 'proximal': so cognitively near the user that they are not aware of it. The standard point-and-click GUI might be appropriate for events and for making explicit choices, but is inappropriate for the kinematic operation of drawing, and Istar instead uses mouse dragging with qualifying keys operated by the free hand. As a result, its UI was so smooth and natural in operation that Istar became a joy to use as well as highly effective in the social situation of exploring shared knowledge.

It is the latter which makes this an issue for social rather than psychological theory. However, to understand this properly we must return to my first attempts at IS development outside academia.

The Subjective in the Objective and Objective in the Subjective

During the latter half of the 1970s I developed 'CLINICS, a medical records system to collect data about the on-going activity of general practice. I discovered that data is 'dirty'. Many errors occurred, all requiring active interpretation, and, in an era when programs were either batch or interactive, I designed a system that combined both. Data, entered in batches, was processed automatically until an error was encountered, when the program would request human help. In this way the adage 'garbage in, garbage out' was overcome, because many of the 'errors' were not only rectified but could stimulate extra richness in the data.

In this way my intuition was trained to assume what interpretivist social theory would make explicit a decade or more later: all data and all knowledge or rules for processing data are interpreted rather than being a mirror of some absolute truth. So when I joined ICI plc in 1980 to work on expert systems, this assumption was already ingrained, and Peter Checkland's soft systems methodology (SSM) immediately seemed 'right'. Soft systems thinking (SST) has often been treated in academic circles as subjectivist social theory, and hailed as an antidote to the supposed objectivism of hard systems thinking. But, to me, SST is just structured common sense, and the opposition of subjective to objective is both irrelevant, misleading and wrong.

Paradoxically, Checkland offers an affirmation of part of my experience that has an objectivist flavour. Suppose you are building an expert system (ESs encapsulate human expertise in a way that enables it to give advice and explains its reasoning). If you follow the approach common at the time, you would obtain problem-solving heuristics from domain experts and put them straight into a rule-based software package. But the user is likely to find the explanations based on heuristics unhelpful, and that the ES might give wrong advice when used outside the context in which it was originally designed, and do so without warning. Instead of seeking heuristics, I found myself seeking understanding of the domain. Any heuristics I received would be probed by asking questions like "Why?", "When not?", "What else?" This generated deeper understanding, with which I built my ESs. For some reason such ESs proved more robust when used outside their original context and gave more helpful explanations. In addition, the domain experts also appreciated the questions I asked, because it sometimes stimulated them to see their work in new ways, and it showed them that I respected their knowledge as something valuable in itself rather than merely a means to achieve my own end of building my system. I found this kind of knowledge elicitation immensely satisfying, and some quite intimate social relationships of trust developed with the experts. (Social theory today is now recognising the importance of trust.)

My colleague, Fakhruddin Attarwala, observed this and suggested a model: true expertise combines both experience and understanding in a circular relationship, in which experience is a combination of understanding with context-dependent problem-solving. While heuristics, which express experience, are specific to the expert, understanding is that which is generally true across a range of contexts. From where did Fakhruddin get his idea for the model? From Checkland. But what motivated me to seek such understanding, especially when it was difficult to see, was a deep belief that there is something to understand, outside us. This sounds like objectivism - but it is supported by a supposed paragon of subjectivism!

With the help of Dooyeweerd (see later), I now see my approach is, as Bernstein puts it, 'beyond objectivism and relativism [subjectivism]', but at the time all I knew was that it gave better quality expert systems, in both physical or social domains, and especially the social situation of exploring knowledge.

Order with Conflict

However, a good quality expert system, or indeed any IS, is not enough. If it is not usable, it will drop out of use, and if it is not 'saleable' potential users will not 'buy into' it. I used this awareness when constructing Elsie, an expert system for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in 1986, and Elsie became one of the most widely used expert systems of its time. I was not aware of social theory to back this up at the time, and after I returned to academic life in 1987, the reasons for this success were explored, to yield the 'Client Centred Methodology' (CCM).

CCM embodied an approach which transcended another supposed opposition: order-conflict. Traditional, linear ISD methodologies, such as the Waterfall Model, seek to achieve order by means of a prior specification of the IS and by planning a sequence of tasks to be carried out. But clients and users would keep changing their minds as the project progressed in ways that conflict with both the specification and plan. Iterative methodologies are designed to stimulate the 'conflict' of such mind-changing, in that it, hopefully, lets the users discover what they really need - but they are notoriously difficult to control and complete.

CCM was designed to encourage what is truly needed in the IS to emerge by iterative cycles of engaging the users and other stakeholders right from the start, but also to be controllable by incorporating a sequential element. But, whereas both linear and iterative methodologies think in terms of tasks or processes, CCM thinks in terms of characteristics the final system should exhibit: acceptable to domain experts, expressing what users really need, trustable, usable and saleable. These are placed in a sequence - usability should be attended to after trustability otherwise too much time is devoted to trivialities such as screen colours! In this way, it integrated order with 'conflict', by focusing on why each is important.

Just as the supposed tension between objectivism and subjectivism was dissolved in my approach to knowledge acquisition, so the supposed tension between order and conflict was resolved in CCM. This is, perhaps, why I always found the classic Burrell-Morgan model (BMM) of sociological paradigms rather boring and irrelevant: it is based on these very two oppositions. In my practice I have found subjective, objective, order and conflict merge and integrate, and the challenge is not to identify paradigms but to bring blessing in social situations of using IS. Dooyeweerd (below) has helped explain why BMM is boring.

The Blessing in the Social

Blessing, a word arising from my Christ-centred view, is more frequently referred to by words like 'usefulness', 'user satisfaction' or even 'emancipation'. But these have become labels, and I wish to avoid them, or rather to understand what lies behind them. Until the mid 1990s I worked with only an intuitive notion of what it was. At the time, all the interest in the HCI research community was on 'usability' (a property of the IS itself) and the notion of 'usefulness' (property of human life with the IS) attracted no interest at all, apart from some very restrictive work among economists based on cost-benefit analysis. I was not even aware of Davis' Technology Acceptance Model, and certainly not aware of the more radical ideas emerging from people like Geoff Walsham, Gerald Midgley or Bruno Latour.

The Elsie system was used by quantity surveyors when advising clients who wished to build offices; especially, it helped establish a budget suited to the client's needs. We were given a research grant in the early 1990s to study the real-life use of Elsie among the quantity surveyors, and discovered some suprising things, which went against most theory available at the time. (For details, see Basden [2007].)

One was that though Elsie failed to achieve its original objective of allowing surveyors of slightly lesser expertise to undertake high-level tasks, it was very popular among surveyors and seen as a great success. The partner-level surveyors used it, even though they already possessed the expertise encapsulated within it: they used it as a check on their own expertise, to reduce the risk of litigation.

The second surprise was to find some surveyors changed the way they worked, and did so quite naturally. Before Elsie, the surveyor would, from a client's specification for a building, judge what type of building would be appropriate and calculate what it might cost, and return a report; this might take a couple of weeks. With Elsie, this became a two-stage process. First, an initial estimate could be available within an hour, perhaps while the client was on the phone. Then client and surveyor would meet and, using Elsie's explanation facilities and its ability to override its reasoning and recalculate responsively, would examine the estimate and, in the process refine the client's requirements. This requirement-refinement was an additional task not usually possible before. As a result, the client-surveyor relationship changed from one of novice-expert to one of two equal partners working towards a shared goal. This change in both way of working and role was completely unexpected and brought about by the surveyors themselves rather then by those who designed or sold Elsie.

A third surprise was that, though this changed relationship implied a loss of power for the surveyor, the surveyor welcomed the change because it meant a better relationship with the client. Social theory based on power-relations would have predicted the opposite.

There was obviously something going on here that demanded a very sophisticated social theory to account for it. Soon after this study, I became aware of other similar cases, some a success like Elsie, others involving failure. The challenge of diverse, unexpected, indirect and long-term impacts was beginning to be talked about. But I felt we IS developers had a moral responsibility to consider these, and to consider them we needed to understand them.

Some thinkers were beginning to differentiate technical excellence of an IS from the benefit it brought to tasks - such as Carroll and Campbell's Task-Artifact Cycle - but from our experience of Elsie, I realised we needed to differentiate at least three layers: technical features, human tasks, and human roles.

Though this accounted for impacts of using IT, it did not allow us to address the difference between beneficial and detrimental impact. An interpretivist approach would be content to describe without assigning normative judgement, but in the everyday life of IS use the normative judgement between benefit and detriment is very important. Critical social theory introduces 'emancipation' as a normative element, but I did not find it very useful because not only did 'emancipation' fail to describe what I felt when benefiting from using an IS, but the notion itself was not subjected to critical analysis.

Help came from an unexpected source. Because of both a love of nature and my commitment to Christ I had been involved in the environment movement since the early 1970s, but by the early 1990s, when the movement in Britain was becoming rather fragmented - deep ecologists versus social greens versus economic greens versus spiritual greens versus libertarians etc. - I was pondering "Just what is environmental sustainability?" It was then that I heard of Dooyeweerd's philosophy, which delineates a suite of aspects of reality, each of which was a normative sphere of law, and I realised that this could provide a full-orbed notion of sustainability: sustainability of a community in an environment would be jeopardised if we functioned poorly in, or ignored, any aspect: the biotic aspect of life functions, the economic aspect of resources, the juridical aspect of justice, the social aspect, the spiritual aspect, and so on. (I subsequently suggested the idea to Patrizia Lombardi, who adopted and has now published the idea.)

In a similar way, Dooyeweerd's aspects could also help me understand benefits and detriment of IS use. We might obtain benefits in the economic and lingual spheres, for instance, but at the same time disbenefits in the social, juridical, ethical and spiritual spheres. 'Blessing' (and 'usefulness', 'user satisfaction' and 'emancipation') can all be seen as the result of positive functioning in each aspect.

Changing Social Structures

As has just been mentioned, Elsie changed some surveyor-client social structures unintentionally. But sometimes I have deliberately sought to change social structures.

While at ICI, I was engaged in building an ES to advise farmers on the use of fungicides. At that stage (1980s) it was assumed in ICI's Plant Protection Division that farmers would forever want to maximize yield, but I knew this was changing and that many farmers were concerned about over-use of chemicals. So I took the proactive decision to insert the possibility of 'low input' farming into the ES, asking the expert agronomists "What would you advise if a farmer wanted low fungicide inputs? I believe ICI benefited when the system came into use because farmers could see that the ES was not aimed solely at maximizing fungicide sales, and they began to trust both it and perhaps ICI itself. This was my first (tiny) attempt to use my responsible position as IS designer to contribute to changing structures in society.

But one IS I was involved in was specifically designed around that idea of possibly changing the structure of the construction industry. The INCA (intelligent contract authoring) project explored a radically new means of writing construction contracts and we implemented this as an expert system. The traditional approach is to amend standard forms of contract, but the result is a contract that fully satisfies neither party and each party tries to find loopholes to use to their advantage, exacerbating the already adversarial atmosphere in the construction industry. We wanted to explore the possibility of writing each contract on the basis of principles of what a construction contract should entail, instantiated by the needs of both parties. To work this out manually each time would be onerous, so the INCA ES was built to embody such principles, and thereby write contracts that suited the specific needs of the parties. It was, however, designed not just to generate a contract but to facilitate discussion between the parties by means of the questions it asked them. Hopefully, this might enable new types of non-adversarial relationships to develop and - if the idea spread - this might alter the structure of the construction industry in radical ways.

Our understanding-oriented elicitation approach seemed admirably suited to seeking such principles. The project champion, whose vision it was to try this new approach, was an expert in construction contracts, but of course the principles he was aware of had not yet been tried in the actual practice of writing contracts. So not only did the knowledge engineer have to uncover his principles but had also to give them shape and to reveal gaps. The very process of knowledge elicitation and knowledge representation became a process of generating and refining knowledge. The success of this depended on at least three things. One was a good relationship of trust between them, another was the ability of the knowledge engineer to probe boldly, and a third was that the KR toolkit did not 'get in the way'. The fluid, proximal nature of the Istar UI (see earlier) proved admirable, in that as soon as a thought occurred, the mouse-hand would move and the knowledge would appear on screen as boxes or arrows.

Indeed, it was during this project that the Istar KR toolkit was developed. Thus the very fabric of that technical project was shot through with awareness not only of the social relationship between analyst and expert, but also of the possibility of changing social structures of the users.

At the time (mid 1990s) I knew of no social theory that could account for this complex relationship between expert, knowledge engineer, domain understand with gaps, and a KR tool that encouraged knowledge generation and refinement. Social theory that addresses changes in social structures tends to assume it can work at very high levels such as economic and political theory, but these two examples suggest that it might be useful to devise social theory that recognises these relationships. Dooyeweerd's philosophy might at least provide a framework within which such social theory can develop; see below.

The Destiny of IT and Society

Email, once thought so fast and convenient, consumes increasing amounts of our time. Is it our destiny, from now on, to have to devote ever increasing amounts of time to processing email? Is it the destiny of non-western peoples to follow the West into this huge waste of time? Is it the destiny of IT to waste humanity's time and effort in this way? IT affects the way we (expect and aspire to) live and our expectations, aspirations and assumptions 'inscribe' the type of IT that dominates society. This is a circular relationship. I am deeply concerned that it is a vicious circle, moving humanity and planet ever more towards that which is detrimental (including climate change) - towards evil.

Social theory in this area has addressed various portions of this circular relationship: some versions of technological determinism address the impact technology has on society, social construction of technology, the impact society has on technology, and structuration theory and actor-network theory, both arms of the relationship. But none of these contain a normative element that enables discussion about the validity of my (or others') concern. Feminist social theory, critique from a non-Western stance, and that from some religious groups do exhibit a normative concern. But they tend to be reactive, looking back to the past.

While an understanding of the circular relationship and a normative reaction to the past are vital, I want a vision for the future that is not only attractive but compelling. Destiny is important in social theory. Some technological determinism implies such a positive vision, of a determined path to an ever more glorious technology, but that is not only too narrow, but completely irresponsible because it ignores everything else. The notion of destiny must embrace the whole, with a place for IT.

Slowly Towards Social Theory

Information systems have always been, for me, in a social context. But, as the above stories show, there are many social issues:

  • In programming, respect for human ways of doing things, which seems to correlate with respect for reality
  • Shared intuitive understanding of the world that will allow 'KR to the people' - appropriateness and aspects of knowledge
  • Proximal UI as appropriate gestures
  • That data is always interpreted
  • Integration of subjective and objective; there is always understanding behind experience
  • Integration of order and conflict: CCM
  • Knowledge elicitation as exploration of shared knowledge, with refinement and generation
  • Proximal tool that facilitates this as social activity
  • Usefulness of IS as multi-aspectual functioning
  • Changed tasks and roles, not explainable in terms of power
  • Indirect, unexpected and long-term impacts
  • Difference between benefit and detriment
  • Changing social structures
  • The destiny of IT and society.

Why is it that, with the possible exception of Checkland's SSM, I found extant social theory of little value in tackling these? To say that I was involved in practice rather than theory is neither helpful nor sufficient, because it presupposes that social theory will always be irrelevant to practice. My Scottish upbringing recoils from such an idea, and might suggest that some social theory has started over-against everyday experience, abstracting from it, rather than engaging reflectively with it. My Christ-centred desire to do justice to diversity and coherence of the entire cosmos might find extant social theory too narrowly-focused. My Aspergic desire for veracity might find social-theory-as-label, which motivated this Special Issue, distasteful and irrelevant.

However, I am beginning to see the value of social theory today, though the route to this has been circuitous, via Dooyeweerd's philosophy followed by an enriching transformation of social theory. Dooyeweerd's philosophy has provided a basis on which most of these problems with social theory can be resolved, so as to begin to find social theory interesting and useful.

Dooyeweerd's Philosophy

Getting to know Dooyeweerd's philosophy has been rewarding but hard work, some of which is recounted here, along with various explanations promised earlier.

My first encounter with it was his suite of aspects when trying to understand benefits of IS and environmental sustainability. Aspects are distinct spheres of meaning and law in which we function in life. For example in using IS, we function in the social and economic aspects, but also in the biotic aspect of life functions, and the ethical aspect. This enabled me to understand the diversity of IS use. Such functioning has repercussions, different in each aspect, and this enabled me to understand impacts of use, including indirect and unexpected impacts. Most aspects imply normativity, which provided a basis for differentiating beneficial from detrimental use of IS. Chapter IV of Basden [2007] expands on this understanding of IS use.

I found the visual device of the aspect tree (Figure 2) can be very useful in analysing the 'blessing' or otherwise that IS use can cause: amount of benefit in each is indicated by bar to right, and amount of detriment, to left. Here the reader need not understand the aspects in detail; what is needed below is explained; each aspect is discussed in chapter III of Basden [2007].

Figure 2 (file aspecttree.gif) here

Figure 2. Example of aspect tree

Aspects are not unique to Dooyeweerd. It is very natural to think aspectually, whenever we delineate a set of things that should be taken into account separately from each other and not reduced to each other. Examples include Maslow's needs, Habermas' action types, but I argue in Basden [2007] that Dooyeweerd's suite is richer and better founded than most, and is thus worthy of some trust. Though Dooyeweerd defended this list of fifteen aspects, he made it clear that no such list can ever be considered complete 'truth', and all should be questioned.

Aspects are more than categories and have a modal character. The idea came to Dooyeweerd because of his respect for everyday experience. The words with which Dooyeweerd opens his main work, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought [1955], which are:

"If I consider reality as it is given in the naïve pre-theoretical experience, and then confront it with a theoretical analysis ..."

indicate how Dooyeweerd's approach placed everyday ("naïve pre-theoretical") experience prior to the theoretical attitude. This contrasts with that of most others, who presuppose a theoretical attitude and then attempt to make a theory about everyday experience. Much emerges from that, which this essay only hints at but which is discussed in chapters II and III of Basden [2007], which provide an outline of Dooyeweerd's thought. But it is, perhaps, why Dooyeweerd appealed to the Scottish part of me.

However, I gradually came to realise that aspects was but part of an elaborate positive philosophy, which itself should be seen as almost secondary to Dooyeweerd's critical philosophy. Dooyeweerd made an immanent critique of theoretical thinking, from the ancient Greeks through the growth of Christianity, through the mediaeval era, to Reformation, Renaissance and Enlightenment, into the modern era up to the mid-twentieth century, arguing that the major problems of philosophy could be traced to presuppositions about the nature of reality and of theoretical thought itself. In the vanguard of arguing that reason is never neutral, he was more specific than most about the nature of non-neutrality: it is of a religious nature, invoking deep commitments that capture and drive humanity's desire to understand reality. Dooyeweerd called these 'ground-motives', and traced the effect of four ground-motives over the past 2,500 years. Today's thought is driven by the Nature-Freedom ground-motive (NFGM), which presupposes that determination is completely antithetical to freedom. But in everyday experience, determination and freedom not only coexist but integrate with each other.

Eriksson [2003] argues that the problems with the Burrell-Morgan model stem from the Nature-Freedom ground-motive. Objectivism and order are expressions of the Nature pole, while subjectivism and conflict are expressions of the Freedom pole. But such presuppositions are not 'truth' but deeply-held assumptions. Dooyeweerd argued that dualistic ground-motives like Nature-Freedom inescapably distort and hide, rather than reveal, the structure of reality. This can explain why in everyday life the BMM oppositions can be irrelevant and misleading.

Dooyeweerd chose as his presupposition, the non-dualistic ground-motive of Creation-Fall-Redemption. This did, of course, appeal to my Christ-centred view of life, but it was not the main reason for my interest in Dooyeweerd. Dooyeweerd worked this ground-motive out philosophically rather than theologically, and this led him to radically rethink a number of key philosophical ideas. It is this rethinking that has provided useful understanding mentioned in several places above. Specifically, he focused on meaning and law rather than being or process, he believed that the diversity we experience is genuine and that it coheres (hence his aspects above), and he held that we are part of the world we know, engage with or think about (echoing existentialism but unlike existentialism which denies the subject-object relationship which we inherited from Descartes, Dooyeweerd redefined it in a radical way). He also held that all that constitutes the cosmos (including humanity, society and technology) has a destiny, in which the potential latent in each aspect is 'opened up'.

Dooyeweerd's view of theory (most clearly stated in Clouser [2005]) is that it involves abstraction of properties that are meaningful in one aspect and formulating laws that link them together. Scientific theory, therefore, is best when it focuses on a single aspect, to open it up (and thus help fulfil its destiny).

Below I suggest how these insights from Dooyeweerd might be useful in social theory.

I have found Dooyeweerd immensely practical in each area. There are four main ways:

  • aspectual analysis: analysing a situation by reference to the whole suite of aspects
  • aspectual checklist: checking whether any aspect is missing or over-emphasised in discussion or reports
  • aspect tree (see Figure 2), which is particularly useful to stimulate discussion about benefits and detriment
  • aspect maps, by which aspectual concepts are mapped out, either for ontology generation or for rich interviewing.

    If Dooyeweerd is so good, why have I begun to see value in social theory? Why not just use Dooyeweerd? (Dooyeweerd may be criticised, but the reader is referred to chapter III of Basden [2007] for this.) It was originally in order to engage with others in their terms, so that they might become aware of the potential of Dooyeweerd, pick it up, apply it, test it, discover its weaknesses and refine it for themselves. But it has become more than that. No longer do I see Dooyeweerd, if I ever did, as an alternative to social theory, but rather as a philosophical framework with which social theory becomes relevant.

    The Blossoming of Social Theory

    Dooyeweerd might be able to explain why social theory has not been particularly useful in addressing everyday experience, at least as I have found it. Social theory should see itself as opening up the social aspect. But it has tended to over-extend itself, claiming as its territory all the post-social aspects, and reducing them to the social. This prevents it seeing the diversity of these aspects and so it cannot offer a basis on which the richness of social situations may be investigated. It seems 'thin' when faced with full everyday experience. If this critique has any validity, then the remedy is not to ignore social theory (as I had done for years) but to alter it so that it recognises all aspects as distinct from each other. This is indeed what I have been finding since the mid 1990s.

    I discovered that work with Dooyeweerd was already underway in the Scandinavian IS community of the mid 1990s [Bergvall-Kåreborn and Grahn, 1996] and began a lasting collaboration, especially around applying Dooyeweerd to SSM. This eventually led to enrichment of SSM [Mirijamdotter and Bergvall-Kåreborn, 2006]; for example if the elements of the root definition of a system are seen as multi-aspectual then richer analyses result [Basden and Wood-harper, 2006].

    At home I found the critical IS communities receptive to the general ideas of Dooyeweerd, but needed to reciprocate by engaging with their thought. I would like to pay tribute to Heinz Klein who inspired me to investigate, and helped me in investigating, first Habermas' thought, then critical social theory more generally, then phenomenology and then the linguistic turn in philosophy, in all of which he has expertise in the context of IS. How he inspired me was paradoxical: despite a religious position at variance with my own, he affirmed and valued my interest in Dooyeweerd.

    Habermas' early notion of knowledge interests was my first contact, and agreed well with Dooyeweerd's contention that knowledge is never neutral. Habermas' theory of communicative action proved more challenging to understand because I was not attuned to ask the questions which motivated him, nor did I have the background in philosophy and social theory which makes most of his tortuous sentences meaningful.

    But it was his emphasis on the lifeworld which really caught my attention, because of my penchant for the everyday attitude and Dooyeweerd's own exposition thereof, and because of Habermas' emphasis on the normativity and meaning found even in the modern lifeworld. At first I misunderstood his 'lifeworld' as the world itself, rather than as our shared, agreed understanding about the everyday world, and had a paper rejected on those grounds. But this compelled me to make a study of the lifeworld from Husserl through Schutz and Heidegger to Habermas, and how IS research should be 'lifeworld-oriented'. In this process I had to satisfy myself about the relationship between world and intersubjective knowledge of the world - pace Kant I cannot assume there is no inner connection between them - and Dooyeweerd's philosophy helped here. Dooyeweerd's philosophy also provided a useful basis for understanding the diversity of the lifeworld as multi-aspectual human functioning and knowing.

    Emancipation, as emphasised by much non-Habermasian critical social theory has always caused me problems. As indicated above, it seems to be treated as a super-norm which cannot be questioned or explored but only presupposed. But, in finding that most of my use of IS cannot be appropriately seen in terms of emancipation, I had a problem, because I wished still to affirm the motivation behind, and importance of, emancipatory thinking: injustice and oppression. Dooyeweerd helped me in two ways. First, he offered a way of exploring the nature of emancipation, as multi-aspectual, and secondly, as a result of this, it enabled me to not only question the notion of emancipation immanently but to find a way to an answer that satisfied me: if emancipation is freedom from unwarranted constraints, then aspects as spheres of law helps define what is 'unwarranted': juridical constraints, economic constraints, social constraints, communicational constraints, religious constraints, and so on.

    The linguistic turn in philosophy contributes to social theory by emphasising the importance of language in bringing about shared understandings. While Searle and Austin's speech act theory, and Winograd's Language Action Perspective have been applied to IS, they tend to be limited to IS whose main purpose is to facilitate communication. Moreover, they tend to over-emphasise the lingual aspect, ignoring other aspects of life. Dooyeweerd can contribute a wider perspective on human life while still affirming the lingual aspect, and these theories can contribute specialist understanding of the lingual aspect to Dooyeweerd.

    A pattern is emerging. I find that, though each social theory on its own is unfruitful, when placed in the broader context afforded by Dooyeweerd's philosophy, I can begin to see its limitations, not as implying it is wrong and to be replaced, but as implying that if focuses on certain aspects. This enables me to recognise the validity of the 'problem' that motivated the emergence of each theory in its historical context, and then perhaps enrich it as part of a wider philosophical context, for example by diffracting some of the unitary concepts within it with the prism of Dooyeweerd's aspects.

    Secondly, I can begin to see that no social theory stands alone, and see a place for it alongside others, often, again, by reference to aspects, but sometimes by questioning the presupposition on the basis of which one social theory will deny the validity of another. For example, actor-network theory can sit alongside technological determinism.

    Thirdly, I can begin to see how each social theory can contribute to Dooyeweerd. Each might open up certain aspects in a way Dooyeweerd never did or, on problems which Dooyeweerd has recognised, can shed fresh light.

    Whither Social Theory?

    In the preceding discussion, a number of suggestions were made of issues from everyday experience of IS that it might be useful for social theory to address. Here some will be reviewed, starting with the more straightforward, with a brief indication of a contribution Dooyeweerd might make.

    In understanding IS use, the distinction between benefit and detriment needs to be addressed because it is important in practice, especially where these are diverse and mixed. Interpretivist social theories have difficulty here because they offer no sound basis for such a distinction. This is especially important in order to address unexpected, indirect and long-term impacts. Critical social theory's notion of emancipation has been too blunt an instrument to use in practice. What is needed is a more nuanced approach. Dooyeweerd's notion of normative aspects might help, because they provide a number of distinct types of normativity that transcend us. Emancipation itself may be defined as multi-aspectual, as mentioned above.

    It was mentioned that the Burrell-Morgan Model's four poles of subjectivist, objectivist, order, conflict tend to be integrated in everyday life. Social theory needs, therefore, to do this. The insight that BMM offers, that these four are important, should be retained. It is not enough to merely acknowledge these, as polar extremes, as BMM does, but to find a way in which they may be integrated. This may be done if we see the four as reflecting the importance of different aspects: to hold subjective views involves distance from world, which is enabled by the analytic aspect; to hold there is an external reality involves belief (pistic aspect); to desire order is to emphasise either aesthetic harmony or formative power; to benefit from conflict involves respect for differing perspectives (social and pistic aspects).

    To achieve 'KR to the people' it was suggested that social theory needs to bring socially constructed agreements about our understanding of reality into harmony with our intuitions about it and with the diversity of the world as such. Dooyeweerd believed that both the world and we who know it are subject to the same aspectual law, and that aspectual meaning is grasped by intuition. These suggest that the world is 'friendly' to our intuition. Moreover, the scientific process of opening up aspects yields explicit, socially constructed knowledge about them, which can be used to implement the resources 'the people' need. Social theory that is in tune with these insights will be able to address 'KR to the people'.

    The same type of social theory will be needed to account for the relationship between understanding and experience as components of expertise. That there is something to understand follows from the transcendent nature of the aspects.

    In considering not only how IT can change social structures, but also planning for such changes when designing IS, existing knowledge cannot be relied upon and new knowledge needs to be generated. As exemplified by the construction of INCA, it was suggested that social theory in IS should be able to address the complex relationship between domain experts, analysts, knowledge of the domain, gaps in this knowledge, and IT tools that assist in knowledge generation. Dooyeweerd's non-Cartesian notion of subject and object (specifically a law-subject-subject-object relationship) accounts for proximal use of computers by analyst and expert, and focusing on aspectual law of the post-social aspects addresses types of social structure.

    Finally, while extant social theory is able to address the circular relationship between IT and society, and some is able to criticise its normative direction, social theory for this area should also have a notion of positive destiny for both IT and society. Dooyeweerd's theory of time, history, progress and destiny can provide this.

    These have been terse suggestions. Basden [2007] discusses how frameworks for understanding various areas of research and practice represented here can be formulated systematically using Dooyeweerdian thought, from an 'everyday' perspective.


    It is rare for practitioners to pick up social theory and run with it. In this essay I have reflected on my experience in IT/IS and why social theory did not seem useful, and introduced a way of thinking that I did find useful: the philosophy of Dooyeweerd. Dooyeweerd, it has been said, sought not so much to construct a positive philosophy, as to clear away that which prevents us seeing the structure of reality. The Nature-Freedom ground-motive and a tendency to reductionism in social theory, which fails to acknowledge all aspects, may be two such hindrances. When I began to see social theory in the context of Dooyeweerd, however, and see that its reductionism could be reversed by introducing multi-aspectual versions, I began to see it as interesting and valuable. So this essay can be seen as one suggestion for how to make social theory more relevant to reflective practice where it has previously been largely ignored.


    Basden, A. (2007), Philosophical Frameworks for Understanding Information Systems. IGI Global Inc, Hershey, PA, USA.

    Basden, A., Wood-Harper, A.T. (2006) "A philosophical discussion of the Root Definition in Soft Systems Thinking: An enrichment of CATWOE" Systems Reseach and Behavioral Science, Vol 23 pp.61-87.

    Bergvall-Kåreborn, B., Grahn, A. (1996) "Expanding the Framework for Monitor and Control in Soft Systems Methodology", Systems Practice, Vol 9 pp.469-495.

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