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Basden Defining IS


On Defining the IS Discipline by its Spheres of Meaning

Andrew Basden.

Salford Business School, University of Salford, U.K. A.Basden@salford.ac.uk


This article suggests a new approach to defining disciplines. It views disciplines in terms of what is meaningful to those who work within them. Making use of the philosophical notion of 'spheres of meaning', and one well-thought-out suite of such spheres (Dooyeweerd's), the core interest and contribution of the IS discipline may be understood, giving it confidence among its neighbours so as to maintain dialogue with them. Questions about identity are replaced by questions about dignity, destiny and responsibility, and strategic suggestions are offered.

Keywords: Information systems discipline, disciplines, spheres of meaning, aspects, Dooyeweerd, dignity, destiny, responsibility.


The question, "Is information systems a real discipline?" has taxed IS scholars for over 20 years, and they debate its identity at length. Some other disciplines are facing similar crises, so the principles discussed here might be of interest to them.

In academic institutions, we joined schools of business and management rather than computer science, but then found ourselves undervalued by those who work in those disciplines. As provocatively suggested by Carr (2003), "IT doesn't matter"; information technology is no longer seen as of strategic importance, but more like drains and street lights. We seek, but cannot find, an answer to this that convinces others in a fundamental way.

Meanwhile we could not even agree on what defines our discipline, far less convince others that our contribution is important (Agarwal & Lucas, 2005). There seemed no sound basis for establishing our identity, and this made us more intently focus on ourselves. We began to ask ourselves, "Are we a real discipline?" "What is our identity?" Definitions of IS abound but they seldom capture the excitement and diversity that should characterize the life and interests of a discipline (Avison & Elliot, 2005).

Perhaps the most common attempt at answering these questions is to bring the social and technical together, the so-called socio-technical approach, in which we try to define ourselves by the interdisciplinary combination of the social and technical spheres of organisational studies and computer science (witness, for example, the name of the Centre for Technology, Philosophy and Social Systems). But Lee (2004) believes that something is missing from this combining of social and technical, arguing that (p.13) "information itself is a rich phenomenon that deserves its own separate focus no less than either information technology or organizations." Lee does not say where we can locate this rich phenomenon, though he points hopefully and vaguely in the direction of hermeneutics and systems theory. We might do well to try to understand what is this 'rich phenomenon'. Various ways have been attempted, involving empirical studies of IS literature or activity, and analysis of the core of the discipline. The discussion of these is brief and illustrative rather than exhaustive, because its aim is merely to situate the rather different approach which is introduced here. A fuller comparison must wait for another time.

The approach proposed here employs philosophy, but does not delve too deeply into philosophy itself. It makes use of the 'everyday' philosophical notion of spheres of meaning to suggest how we might find a central focus that provides both dignity and destiny, and suggests how the IS discipline can relate to other disciplines by way of responsible application, foundation and anticipation. A concern with dignity, destiny and responsibility replaces concern with identity, though an identity may be forged by reference to these.

This paper does not assume that IS currently is a discipline, but rather discusses what direction we need to take if IS were to be a discipline. The concepts of science, discipline and field will be used as follows. Both science and discipline involve specialised knowledge, but whereas science is concerned with abstracting from everyday life in order to formulate generic knowledge, a discipline employs the knowledge in the service of everyday life in an orderly manner and with some normative direction. 'Field' here is a subset area of a discipline. The link with everyday experience is important ('everyday' can include work as well as non-work life) because it implies that any attempt to understand a discipline must take a pre-theoretical rather than theoretical attitude in so doing. A theoretical attitude approaches with a lens that abstracts certain aspects (Clouser, 2005), focusing attention solely on these, and as a consequence filters out many others. A pre-theoretical attitude, by contrast, is open to the diversity of aspects that are meaningful in the discipline, while also recognising something of its unity. 'We' in this paper refers to researchers and practitioners in the IS discipline. But the principles discussed could be extended to any other discipline.


Agarwal & Lucas (2005) suggest that IS researchers are better at interdisciplinary research than social scientists are because they understand the nature of technology. But the interdisciplinary nature of IS makes it difficult to clearly identify the bounds of the discipline. Several approaches have been taken to define its scope and establish its identity and dignity.

2.1 Finding Core Characteristics

Benbasat and Zmud (2003) seek general core characteristics of the discipline. They generate a model centred on the IT artefact surrounded by a concentrically expanding environment of usage, impact, "IT managerial, methodological and operational practices" and "IT managerial, methodological and technological capabilities". From this they construct a 'nomological net' of relationships between main issues of the discipline and end with rules for judging quantitatively whether research is within the IS discipline or not.

While Benbasat and Zmud's proposal illustrates the core characteristics approach, it also illustrates some problems with it. First, they employ one theoretical lens to understand what a discipline is (the biological metaphor of organisms competing in an environment) which focuses on a single aspect rather than being open to the diversity of everyday experience within the discipline. Using a misleading metaphor restricts their view of legitimacy to cognitive and socio-political factors, ignoring, for example, philosophical and moral legitimacy. Second, they tend to treat the IT artefact as a black box, despite warning against doing so in their conclusion. That is, they give little attention to the composition of the artefact, and their treatment of the process of its coming into being (conception, construction, implementation) is very brief, even though construction and composition of the IT arfefact affects its use and its use should influence its composition. Third, they presuppose what they want to argue for: the distinctness of the IS discipline centred on the IT artefact.

March & Storey (2008) discuss IS treated as a design science, not only because IS development (ISD) lies at its centre but also because the implementation of IS change organisations, and this change should be designed. They refer to Simon's seminal work (1996), which posits as core issues, utility, defining the problem space (using statistics), and searching this space, and expand this these to: clear identification of organisational IT problems for which no extant solution exists, development of novel IT artefacts, along with evaluation and explanation of its value to managers.

One problem with this is that it sees IS use as merely an anticipation of what is to be designed rather than a field in its own right (Basden, 2008). Another is that, though it does not treat the IT artefact as a black box, it takes for granted the basic IT materials from which the artefact is created, whereas in practice they should be influenced by the needs of ISD and use. A deeper problem lies in what is presupposed: that the context is organisational and managerial use; this is not always appropriate for today's diversity of ways in which humanity engages with IT, such as in virtual worlds and social software.

The core characteristics approach tends to overlook many important issues that concern IS in practice. It needs a way to recognise all issues that might be meaningful, to select something meaningful to be its core, and to understand how the rest relates to the core.

2.2 Empirical Approaches

Empirical approaches promise to provide wider recognition of what is meaningful because they examine what has actually happened in the field. There are several ways of doing this.

Wernick, Shearer and Loomes (2001) collect together research topics: the nature of software, software development, software systems in external, 'real world' context, data and information held and modified within the system, the development, evolution and decommissioning of individual software systems, individual cycles of development, the languages, tools, notations and process models used in software development, the nature of the world as expressed in individual notational (textual or graphical) elements. The implication is that anyone working in these areas can be included in the discipline.

Sidorova et al. (2008) analyse journal articles. Semantically analysing articles in three top IS journals from 1985 to 2006, they show that the IS discipline has consistently concerned itself over this period with four types of relationships, between IT and individuals, groups, organisations and markets, together with IS development. The implication is that work in the IS discipline must concern itself with one of these relationships.

Baskerville & Myers (2002) discuss the relationships the IS discipline has with others. In the past the IS discipline has played the role of 'consumer' of concepts at the end of an 'intellectual food chain', always referring to others for its theories and concepts. Now, they argue, the time has come for IS to see itself as a reference discipline, to which others refer; fields in business and medicine refer to IS. If this is so, then IS can become a reference discipline and take a leadership position.

Examining what actually happens can ground debate in the realities of the discipline, but there are problems with empirical approaches. One is that what is discovered depends on what interests the researcher, so a lot might be overlooked and never brought into the debate; Wernick et al. seem particularly interested in those issues visible from software engineering, and Baskerville & Myers are interested in relationships of interdependency. Second, it is influenced by prior beliefs about what is meaningful; Sidorova et al. prejudge what kinds of relationship might be important. Third, it depends on which sources are included and excluded from the study, so a prior idea of what the disciplinary boundaries are is smuggled in from the start; Sidorova's 'discovery' of types of relationship with social structures might be explained by the editorial interests of the journals they examined. Fourth, this approach looks back at the past so, if its findings are taken as a guide for the future, the status quo might be given undue prominence and innovative new directions in the discipline might be ignored or suppressed.

Though the core characteristics approach might overcome the last-mentioned problem, both approaches exhibit problems of prior selection of what types of issue it is meaningful to consider, and they are challenged to provide a sound way of deciding how types of meaning relate to each other.


The proposal of this paper is that both the core and the activities of a discipline are related to the philosophical notion of spheres of meaning. In any discipline certain types of things, relationships, properties, occurrences, norms, etc. are meaningful while other types are less so. The things that are most meaningful may be thought of as forming a sphere centred on some 'meaning kernel'. Things that are less meaningful are in other spheres of meaning centred on other kernels. For example, the discipline of psychiatry is centred on that kernel of psychical issues like feeling, emotion and response, and it is things related to these that are researched and given most attention in the work of the discipline. Things like which type of computer a person owns are less important, since ownership and type of technology are meaningful in spheres other than that of emotion; while occasionally relevant, they are not central.

Though centred on a single sphere (in some disciplines more than one kernel might be central), the work and research of the discipline reaches out to other spheres. For example, in psychiatry the biological functioning of the human body is also important, but not so directly important as the psychical functioning, and physical issues such as density of oxygen, though occasionally important, are usually even less so. Usually, spheres of meaning become progressively less meaningful the further from the central one they are.

If we adopt this proposal, can we identify a sphere of meaning that is the core of the IS discipline, and others nearby? If we can, this will indicate the types of things with which it can centrally concern itself.

3.1 Spheres of Meaning

This notion of sphere of meaning has intuitive appeal, but is it valid? What are spheres of meaning? What ones are there in reality? These questions must be addressed by philosophy because it is the 'integrative discipline' (Hart, 1984). For reasons that it is not appropriate to discuss here but are elaborated in Eriksson (2003, 2009) and Dooyeweerd (1979), most philosophies have failed to address the issue of spheres of meaning because of the types of presuppositions on which they rest (Greek, Scholastic, Humanistic).

However, Cosmonomic philosophy (Dooyeweerd 1955/1984; Vollenhoven 1950) has made spheres of meaning an object of exploration. The approach here is based on Dooyeweerd's thought. Starting with the observation that everyday experience (e.g. of IS) impresses upon us a great diversity of meaning (ways in which things can be meaningful), he argued in depth that for 2,500 years theoretical thought has failed in its mission to reveal the multi-faceted structure of reality and instead has obscured it, partly because it tends to reduce the diversity of spheres of meaning. Either it elevates one sphere and ignores the rest (e.g. the economic sphere concerned with resources is supreme in business and management) or it tries to explain all other spheres in terms of the favoured one.

Because of his own, clearly stated, presupposition (reformational-biblical) Dooyeweerd rejected all such reductionism, seeking what systems philosophers call an holistic view. Dooyeweerd delineated 15 spheres of meaning, each with a distinct kernel that cannot be reduced to others. 'Spheres of meaning' are also 'aspects' (ways of looking at things) and 'law-spheres' in that they guide us towards what is good. The aspects or spheres Dooyeweerd delineated are listed in Table 1 with their kernel meanings; the 'sciences' and 'norms' columns are used later.

Table 1. Dooyeweerd's suite of aspects/spheres.
Sphere Kernel meaning Norms Sciences
Quantitative Amount Sequence Mathematics
Spatial Continuous space Simultaneity Geometry, Toplogy
Kinematic Movement Dynamism Mechanics
Physical Energy, mass, forces, material Persistence Physics, Chemistry, Materials and Fluid sciences
Biotic / Organic Organism, life functions Health: integrity of organism Biology, Ecology
Psychic / Sensitive Sense, feeling, response Sensitivity, responsiveness Psychology
Analytical Distinction, concepts, logic, pieces of data Clarity, non-contradiction Logic, Analytical science
Formative Structures, construction, processing, goals, technique, technology, history Achievement Design science, Engineering
Lingual Symbolic signification Understandability Linguistics, informatics
Social Social relationships and institutions, roles Respect Social sciences
Economic Management of scarce resources Frugality Economics, Management science
Aesthetic Harmony, enjoyment, humour Rich harmony Aesthetics
Juridical Due, reward, punishment Justice: due, appropriateness Legal science
Ethical Self-giving love, generosity Self-giving love Ethics
Faith / Pistic Vision, commitment, certainty, belief Faithfulness Theology

Centred on the kernel of each sphere is a whole constellation of meanings. From the analytic aspect onwards, the full meaning of aspects cannot be understood without reference to human living. So, for example, the juridical aspect is not primarily about justice as an abstract concept but about human beings in society doing justice. The lingual aspect is not about abstract notions of symbolic signification but about the human activities of recording, informing, communicating, etc.; in Dooyeweerd's view symbols, qua symbols, can never be divorced from what they signify in human living.

The kernel meanings themselves can never be grasped by theoretical thought, Dooyeweerd maintained, but may be grasped by intuition. So they cannot be defined, nor even conceptualised, precisely, and the descriptions in Table 1 should be taken only as a guide to each aspect. Dooyeweerd does not allow us to treat his suite - nor any other suite - of aspects as a final 'truth' (1955/1984,II,p.556):

"In fact the system of the law-spheres designed by us can never lay claim to material completion. A more penetrating examination may at any time bring new modal aspects of reality to the light not yet perceived before. And the discovery of new law-spheres will always require a revision and further development of our modal analyses. Theoretical thought has never finished its task. Any one who thinks he has devised a philosophical system that can be adopted unchanged by all later generations, shows his absolute lack of insight into the dependence of all theoretical thought on historical development."

So why should we adopt Dooyeweerd's suite? Many thinkers have tried to produce sets of aspects, because to do so is a natural response to the diversity we experience as human beings (e.g. the ontologies by Bunge (1979) and Hartmann (1952), the set of needs by Maslow (1943), and the types of action and validity claim by Habermas, 1986). It may be argued that most are a subset of Dooyeweerd's and miss some of the latter (see Basden (2008) for a comparison). In particular, the lingual aspect, which will be useful below, is recognised by only a few others, one of them being Habermas. As well as being open to wider diversity of meaning, Dooyeweerd explored the nature of diversity more penetratingly than most other thinkers, spending a lifetime in sensitive reflection on what aspects there might be, taking account of philosophical thinking over 2,500 years, and applying philosophical tests such as antinomy (Basden, 2008). For these reasons we may adopt Dooyeweerd's suite with reasonable confidence.

Spheres of meaning (ways in which things can be meaningful) are also spheres of law, which guide reality towards what is good (beneficial) in diverse ways. See the Norms column of Table 1. Law is not like socially constructed and imposed norms, but rather should be seen as more like promise or possibility. The physical law of causality, for example, makes possible a physical cosmos; the lingual laws of understandability (involving syntax, semantics, pragmatics, etc.) enable us to express what we mean in a form that can be communicated to others. From at least the biotic aspect onwards, what is good can be negated by its opposite, what is bad or detrimental.

3.2 Using Spheres to Understand and Situate Disciplines

Dooyeweerd argued that when we engage in scientific activity we focus our analytical and other (e.g. discursive) energies on a way in which reality is meaningful to us (i.e. a sphere of meaning), largely ignoring others (e.g. physicists focus on physical laws and properties, and treat such things as the religious faith and social status of the researcher as secondary). So each aspect defines the central interest of a different scientific area, defining the types of entities, processes and laws with which each science concerns itself; sciences are illustrated in the 'Science' column of Table 1.

Likewise, when we engage in disciplinary activity, we focus on certain things that are meaningful to us (a sphere of meaning), but, in addition, we are also guided by the norms inherent in the sphere of meaning, for example, the lingual norm of understandability or the juridical norm of justice.

It was crucial to Dooyeweerd that in their mutual irreducibility of meaning, the aspects (spheres) also relate to each other. Each aspect depends foundationally on earlier ones, such that the proper functioning in one aspect depends on that in another. For example, the psychical functioning that is of interest to psychiatry depends on biotic functioning as a foundation or substratum, which in turn depends founcationally on physical processes. So psychiatry cannot ignore the biotic life functions of the patient, but they are not central. Each aspect also anticipates later ones: for example psychical functioning also anticipates, and is affected by, a person's propensity to distinguish one thing from another (analytical functioning), their skills and ability to form, shape and construct things (formative functioning), their facility with language (lingual functioning) and social functionings; so psyschiatry cannot ignore these either.

Likewise good, full lingual functioning depends on good formative and analytical functioning foundationally, and anticipates social functioning.

All disciplines may, therefore, be seen as centred on one sphere of meaning, while also concerning themselves with others, as depicted in Figure 1 for psychiatry and management. Some disciplines might have two aspects at their centre, for example, social psychology, and customer relationship management. When this is so usually one is primary.

Figure 1. Aspects meaningful to disciplines

3.3 The IS Discipline

On which sphere might the IS discipline be centred? Since reason cannot give an absolutely right or wrong answer because we are dealing with aspectual kernels, whose meaning can be grasped only by intuition, we seek an answer that accords with our intuition. It should be able to be justified and informed, but not constrained, by the types of research currently thought of as within the discipline.

The proposal here is that the sphere of meaning that is central to the IS discipline is the lingual aspect. The kernel meaning of this is symbolic signification, i.e. symbol-as-expressed-meaning, and its central norm is understandability. Though it is valid to study symbols as entities, the important thing about them is that they signify, as human beings record, inform and communicate. That is they cannot be understood as symbols except as their role as expressing or representing some meaning in these activities. Signifying should not be seen as simply creating symbols, but also in understanding what they signify, perhaps at a later time, whether by their originator (as in recording) or by others (as in communicating). This is in line with most extant discussion of information (e.g. Alavi & Leidner, 2001; Checkland & Holwell, 1998), which presupposes that information stands for or signifies something.

Topics meaningful under the lingual aspect (and thus of central interest to disciplines centred on this aspect) include such things as the varieties of types of signification (expression, representation), kinds of meaning signified and how different kinds of symbols can signify ('affordance'), languages, the development of symbol systems, intersubjective interpretation of symbols (hermeneutics), the place of lingual functioning in life, and its relationship with society, long-term preservation of information, and much more. Symbol implies a medium. Whereas in conventional writing the medium is paper and in speaking it is the voice, in information systems the medium is these plus computer technology.

3.4 Neighbouring Aspects

Also centred on the lingual aspect are disciplines like languages, linguistics, semiotics, and media. These might be called sibling disciplines. What differentiates the IS discipline from languages is its presupposition of advanced technology; what differentiates it from linguistics, semiotics and media is that it treats IT users as full, multi-aspectual human beings rather than as mere language-users, signifiers or audience.

As with any discipline, all other aspects furnish areas of application, of which there is an unlimited variety, such as agriculture and banking (Baskerville & Myers, 2002), in which the kinds of meaning signified by symbols is from the biotic and economic aspects. However, regardless of application, the IS discipline must also concern itself with what is important in the neighbouring aspects, because of foundational and anticipatory dependency.

The formative aspect is important in several ways foundationally, including the structure and processing of information, the creative human activity of IS development, and that IS involves technology, technique and artefact. This is why both design science and computer science are important in IS; they are two disciplines that focus on the formative aspect. Each is a valid topic of IS research and practice, not in their own right, but because they affect, and are affected by human activities of signification.

The social aspect is important in several anticipatory ways, because what symbols express is not an absolute property of them but is socially agreed, with cultural connotations and other illocutionary meaning (Lyytinen, 1985; Basden & Klein, 2008), and because the quality and type of recording, informing and communication deeply affects social activity and structures. But the IS discipline is interested in these from the informational angle, not the social per se.

Farther-out neighbours also provide a few topics of interest. The analytic aspect, whose kernel meaning is distinction and conceptualization, is exhibited within an IS as individual pieces of data. Though of more interest to computer science (because the analytic is a nearer neighbour), the types of data available (e.g. quantitative, spatial or logical) enable or constrain what we can easily signify. The economic aspect, concerned with management of resources, is marginally important as the topic of information resources such as limitations on bandwidth or screen area. (Note that the widespread use of IS in business is as an application area.)

The salience of these aspects or spheres of meaning is depicted in Figure 2. It is the importance of the foundational aspects (analytical, formative) that prevent the artefact being treated as a black box.

Figure 2. Structure of the IS discipline and neighbours

3.5 Neighbouring Disciplines

Figure 2 also shows two neighbouring disciplines that may be treated in like manner. That of computer science and engineering is particularly interested in data processes and structures, in methods of program construction, program correctness in relation to its goals, etc.; these are centrally meaningful in the formative sphere rather than the lingual. Its closest neighbour aspects are the analytic, in which conceptualizations (pieces of data) and their types are important, so it is no surprise to find logic and data types are important in computer science. The lingual is important in that some account must be taken of what the structures and processes are to represent. The topics of affordance (Gibson 1977; Greeno 1994) and Cognitive Dimensions (Green & Petre 1996) link the formative with the lingual aspects, and research into these requires stances from both computer science and IS.

The discipline of organisational studies, in its various forms, is centred on the social sphere, and is interested mainly in the organisations, roles, relationships, etc. Its interest in the lingual aspect is because communicative action is essential for good social functioning (Habermas, 1986). Also, the social activity of emailing and social network sites would be impaired if address books and circles of friends did not contain appropriate information. Likewise the economic activity of knowledge management would be impaired if information held was lingually deficient.

3.6 Limitations of This Approach

If this approach is adopted, a number of problems might need addressing. The above is by no means a full statement of topics relevant to IS; to obtain a fuller picture, all aspects must be considered because, Dooyeweerd contended, all activities involve every aspect and no aspect can be divorced from any other. For example, the juridical aspect provides the topic of emancipatory IS (Hirschheim & Klein, 1994), and the aesthetic aspect provides an analogical link with architecture as recognised by Baskerville & Myers (2002) and discussed in more detail in Basden (2008).

One criticism is that Dooyeweerd is not a mainstream philosopher - but perhaps that is only a drawback when there is no need to find new approaches! Dooyeweerd's thought is exemplary in its depth, breadth, criticality, honesty, sensitivity to others, and applicability to everyday life.

A more substantial concern is whether the need to fit everything into a suite of aspects is rather rigid. Rigidity can occur if the aspects are used only as categories, ignoring the inter-aspect relationships and the important insight that no set of aspects can ever be final. But that would be a misuse of Dooyeweerd. Aspects should not be seen as rigid categories giving answers, nor even giving questions to answer, but as spheres of meaning that provide spaces to help us formulate questions that are stimulating and important (Basden 2008).

Another limitation is that this approach situates the IS discipline in a high-level way and does not generate concrete guidance for IS research and practice. The discussion that now follows tries to bring out some useful implications, but concrete guidance might require considering how human beings relate to the lingual and other important aspects of information systems. An initial discussion of five such ways may be found in Basden (2008).


The proposal in this paper is that the discipline of information systems can be defined and situated by reference to the spheres of meaning that are most important to it: the lingual sphere at its centre together with foundational and anticipatory spheres, the analytic, formative, social and economic.

4.1 The Dignity, Destiny and Responsibility of the IS Discipline

Most extant approaches try to establish an identity for the IS discipline, in terms that are meaningful within the discipline itself (essentialist approaches) or in relationships with other disciplines (existential approaches). This evinces an inward-looking and self-serving attitude. The essentialist view leaves us in despair because we have not been able to agree on an identity by looking at ourselves. The existentialist view leaves us in despair when those in other disciplines suggest "IT Doesn't Matter" (Carr 2003).

What the IS discipline seems to lack is not identity but dignity, destiny and responsibility. Even in Baskkerville & Myers (2002), who recognise relationships with other disciplines, and are partially concerned with dignity, those to which IS refers are treated in a functional manner, as knowledge resources we 'consume', and those that refer to it are treated as referees to whom to appeal in order to establish our own importance. Dignity has little to do with self-importance; it has more to do with intrinsic worth, assured position, seriousness of purpose (Webster, 1971, I, p.632). 'Intrinsic worth' is not to be understood in financial terms, but has to do with meaningfulness - not only to self, not only to others, especially not in a functional way, but also in the broader scheme of things. 'Serious purpose' looks forward to the future, to a destiny for the discipline. Destiny cannot be wholly at the mercy of its own self-worth nor the worth to others if exploration of innovative new directions within the discipline is to be encouraged, so destiny is a future that is worthwhile and beneficial in the broader scheme of things. 'Assured position' speaks of a relationship among others characterized by responsibility and an attitude of mutual respect.

This approach goes beyond both essentialist and existentialist approaches. Dooyeweerd grounds the identity of a thing in the pattern of its links to spheres of meaning. Such a view yields a rich, multi-aspectual notion of the IS discipline, which can never be precisely defined but may be grasped with the intuition and lived-within as lifeworld. It offers:

  • An understanding of how information-as-expressed-meaning functions in human life, what forms it takes, what norms guide us to fruitfulness and benefit and away from sterility and harm, and its limits and conditions - and, crucially, why these are so. For example, IS usage is beneficial insofar as the informing, recording, communicating are of good quality, facilitating understanding. It is the IS discipline that is responsible for understanding how information-as-expressed-meaning exists and these human activities occur differently in agriculture and art, for example, and how agriculturalists and artists respond to different types and styles of information. Disciplines like computer science, sociology and business can only see the differences in terms of technical, social or economic impacts of information in these areas. This clarifies the significant contribution of the IS discipline, and provides a basis for its dignity.

  • A foundation for exploring future possibility. While neighbouring disciplines might be able to comment on the future of the IS discipline from a technical or sociological point of view, they have no insight into the inner dynamics and motivations of the lingual sphere. By contrast, the IS discipline, which delves into, and is immersed in, its meaningfulness and laws, has a sounder basis for understanding what might be developed from extant work and of possible innovative directions in the future. It is the lingual aspect that reveals destiny for the IS discipline.

  • An understanding of how to relate to neighbouring disciplines. Since the IS discipline concerns itself with the aspects either side of the lingual, IS researchers and practitioners should be at least aware of the major issues and debates going on in neighbouring disciplines that centre on them, and have a basis on which to understand the issues immanently. This takes on a different form in the foundational and anticipatory directions. Formative matters - technology, structure of information and processing of information - affect, and should in turn be affected by, the human propensity and need to express meaning in symbolic form. The IS discipline itself does not penetrate far into formative and analytic matters as such, but relies on disciplines centred on those aspects to do so. In the anticipatory direction, matters important from the point of view of the lingual sphere affect social and economic functioning and the norms of these anticipated spheres can impact on lingual matters. Thus the IS discipline has a responsibility towards neighbouring disciplines, treating foundational disciplines with respect and anticipatory disciplines with an attitude of willing service.

This approach provides what Avison & Elliot (2005) called for but did not develop: the diversity and excitement of the IS discipline. The diversity may be experienced both in the myriad of issues meaningful in the lingual sphere, and in the richness of relationships with other disciplines. Excitement comes from such diversity linked with confidence that we have dignity, destiny and responsibility.

We can now agree with Carr's (2003) provocative belief that IS nowadays provides little competitive advantage - but without loss of dignity, destiny or responsibility, because 'competitive advantage' is a factor only meaningful within the economic sphere, and says nothing whatever about the importance to human and social life of information-as-expressed-meaning.

So, this spheres-of-meaning approach replaces a focus on identity with one on dignity, destiny and responsibility. At the root of these is meaningfulness, to ourselves, to others and to the broader scheme of things.

Hirschheim & Klein (2003) see the crisis in the IS discipline as a "communication deficit", manifested as a lack of discipline-wide dialogue and a lack of understanding of the relevance of IS research by those outside the field. Their solution for this is "strengthen the communicative function of IS research" (p.270), especially related to agreed bodies of knowledge. While better communication is certainly needed, we also need a clear idea of what to communicate, and why to bother, before we will make the rather strenuous efforts needed to overcome the deficit. The crisis is not only, or indeed primarily, one of communication but one of having something to believe in: a crisis of dignity, destiny and responsibility. Every discipline assumes and develops a body of knowledge, but this notion is not likely to motivate many. The spheres of meaning approach outlined in this paper offers a central, visionary notion of what to believe in, what to communicate about, both among ourselves and to others - that the IS discipline has dignity if it centres itself on the lingual aspect (information-as-expressed-meaning) has the destiny of understanding this and how it relates to all else that is meaningful in different aspects, and has responsibility towards other disciplines.

4.2 The Sufficiency of This Approach

Is this approach sufficient? Ultimately that question can only be answered in the long term, but it can be argued that it can address all issues mentioned in Section 2. It can account for empirical findings: the various types of functioning collected together by Wernick, Shearer and Loomes (2001) would be seen as human functioning in various aspects; the articles in top journals may be analysed in terms spheres of meaning because articles are about something meaningful; the unique, interdisciplinary skills offered by IS researchers (Agarwal & Lucas, 2005) arise from recognising many aspects; the types of reference relationships discussed by Baskerville & Myers (2002) form as a result of those working in a discipline centred on one aspect finding issues of another aspect important. This approach can help us identify the core the IS discipline because it tells us what is meaningful, at the core and then in concentric circles around that. It also leaves room for variability in practice because the aspects (spheres)enable rather than constrain.

Indeed this approach can enrich existing approaches. For example, while Benbasat & Zmud (2003), employ the theoretical lens of entrepreneurship and treat the IT artefact as a black box, the lens adopted by this approach is multi-faceted (multi-aspectual) and provides a way of opening up the black box by reference to the formative and analytic aspects. Enrichment of Baskerville & Myers' (2002) discussion of relationships is discussed below.

It can also provide a basis for relating or even choosing between such different categorisations as those of Sidorova et al. (2008) (relationships IT has with individuals, groups, organisations, markets) and Wernick, et al.'s (2001) (nature of software, software development, software systems in external, 'real world' context, data and information held and modified within the system, and so on). The notion of spheres of meaning reveals that Sidorova et al. make differentiations that are meaningful mainly to the social aspect (types and degrees of social relationship) while Wernick et al. make differentiations that are meaningful mainly to the formative aspect (technologies, techniques and purposes).

4.3 How This Approach Helps Us

We can now offer Lee (2004) the "rich phenomenon" that he believes is missing to those who try to characterize the IS discipline as 'sociotechnical'. The aspects of which 'sociotechnical' speaks are the social and formative, leaving a gap between them: the lingual aspect. This is the aspect of information itself, which was identified, though not discussed, by Lee. The proposal made in this paper not only provides a philosophical basis to support Lee's belief, but also provides a core that may be opened up in its own right.

The spheres of meaning approach removes the need to seek precisely drawn boundaries. Several disciplines can be interested in the same topic (such as affordances), with none claiming exclusive right; they will simply find the topic of interest in different ways according to their various aspects. For example, Internet-enabled social networking involves the formative, lingual and social aspects, and may thus be of interest to technological, informational and social disciplines. This casts interdisciplinarity in a different light that particularly suits the IS discipline, no longer bringing as different processes or phenomena together, but as looking at different aspects of the same phenomenon.

This approach has implications for education and training, at all levels. It suggests that the curriculum should comprise a main core of issues centred on the lingual aspect, with secondary modules associated with social and economic issues on one hand and formative and analytic issues on the other, pervaded by an overall, holistic awareness of all aspects.

At present, those working in the IS discipline seem to aspire most to link with disciplines centred on social and economic aspects, and seem reluctant to acknowledge links with computer science. This is evidenced by the number of IS researchers located in business schools or departments of sociology, in the concern lest IS be dropped as a core topic in MBA courses (Avison, 2003), in that the main bodies of theory we use originated in social science, in that the majority of IS papers published mention business or organisational applications, and in that much of the debate about the IS discipline itself presupposes organisations as the context within which our research and practice are carried out. This skews the interest of those working in the discipline towards the social and economic spheres, not only away from the technology (formative sphere) but also away from the lingual sphere itself. It can also be argued that the predominance of applications in business has not only distorted the field, but has prevented us, until recently, from fully engaging with other types of application, such as computer gaming and social fun.

To Dooyeweerd, all spheres of meaning are equally important, the lingual and formative as important as the social and economic, so perhaps it is time to reconsider this imbalance. Though the social aspects of IS is important because IS are embeddedness of technology in a complex social, economic and political environment (Orlikowshki & Barley 2001; Sidorova et al. 2008), perhaps there should be a shift of alliances away from the disciplines centred on the economic and social aspects towards sibling and foundational disciplines. Alliances with sibling disciplines centred on the lingual aspect, such as linguistics, hermeneutics, languages and media, can contribute insights and provide stimulation. Even advertising might be included because it has valuable experience in how types of expression influence the recipient. It is surprising how little these links have been explored, but the appropriateness of such links might be reflected in the merging, under the U.K.'s Research Excellence Framework, 2009, of the previously separate Library and Information Management panel with the Culture and Creative Media panel.

Alliances with the foundational disciplines of computer science and engineering should also be revitalised. Benbasat & Zmud (2003) call for reinstatement of the IT artefact at the centre but the spheres of meaning approach would study and practise this differently, not as mere development and use of an artefact but as collaboration on the very link between structure and signification, in which specialist expertise is brought from each discipline.

This can provide a valuable IS perspective on topics traditionally assumed to be the preserve of computer science. One example is program languages or knowledge representation formalisms. Most of the effort in computer science and engineering over the years has been devoted to structure and implementation of such formalisms. Only occasionally, a lone voice might be heard, such as Kent (1978) on 'Data and Reality' or Wand & Weber (1995) who try to define a full knowledge representation ontology. They strike a chord but their impact in computer science is localised, and computer science continues to focus on technical aspects. This may be because the chord they strike resonates in the lingual sphere of meaning, not the formative, because it is to do with what the formalisms refer to rather than with their structure. Knowledge representation ontologies are usually assumed by belong to the application, but with the insight afforded by spheres of meaning, we can perhaps see it as the lingual contribution to a joint topic. Without the critical contribution of the IS discipline about meaning-expression, it may be that computer science will make little progress for some time on such formalisms. As Basden (2008, chapter VII) suggests, maybe it is time for the two disciplines to work together towards a host of better and more appropriate formalisms?

4.4 Destiny and Hope for the IS Discipline

Destiny speaks of the longer term. To complement the prevailing focus on activities, journals and other detail outlined in section 2, let us take a broader view. Dooyeweerd critically examined the notion of historical progress and suggested it is constituted in the opening up (disclosing) of the potential and norms of all the aspects. Humanity's project of science has opened up the analytic aspect, the project of technology has opened up the formative, and the project of democracy has opened up the juridical aspect. In similar vein, humanity's project of information systems contributes to the opening up of the lingual aspect.

To Dooyeweerd, each aspect plays a different but necessary part in making life richly 'good'. The role of the lingual aspect is to allow what we mean (intend and believe) to be set down outside our minds in a way that is persistent and sharable, thus enabling communication and facilitating social functioning. The IS discipline has a mandate to open up the possibilities of this kind using IT - along with other information technologies like writing, printing, film. Just as writing opened up the possibility of persistence, printing opened up the possibility of broadcast, film opened up the possibility of dynamic signification, so computer technology now opens up the possibility of interactive signification and the Internet opens up the possibility of global connectedness, both offering new forms of communication, recording and informing, and thus social functioning. This gives the IS discipline a distinct responsibility, destiny and hope for the future.

Dooyeweerd made clear however that the opening of any aspect should be guided, not by its own norms, but by the norms of other aspects, especially those later than itself. Each aspect should serve the interests of others, not its own interests. So the opening of the lingual aspect by the IS discipline should be guided by the norms of all other aspects. To some extent, this is already the case in that it has been guided by the norms of the economic aspect (as it has been primarily applied in business) and, more recently, the social aspect (e.g. social networking, email).

Extending this to the four last aspects in Dooyeweerd's suite leads to an expectation that the IS discipline might also be guided in future more explicitly by the aesthetic norm of harmony and enjoyment, the juridical norm of justice, the ethical norm of self-giving, and the faith norm of commitment and vision. Wikipedia might furnish an example of the potential of the lingual aspect being guided by norms of the ethical aspect, in that it eschews advertising and seeks to be a service. To date, however, this is an exception, and the norms of these four aspects should become much more apparent in IS. In these days, now that we understand more clearly our responsibility for the future health of the planet, for a healthy global economic system, and for the happiness of our children, this message of each aspect serving the others has never been more important.

The dignity, destiny and responsibility of IS as a discipline is that it opens up new potential of the lingual aspect in the service of other aspects - and especially to assist in meeting these major challenges - in a way that no other discipline can. The good news is that some of this is already happening via the Internet. The bad news is that this is happening despite rather than because of the academic side of the discipline that is information systems. Therein lies our challenge.


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Copyright (c) Andrew Basden, 2010.