What does it mean doing a ‘critical’ research?

critical puzzlingThis post’s title is equivocal in that it is unclear what ‘critical’ means in this context. Is it ‘critical’ as in critical thinking, or ‘critical’ as in doing research informed by critical paradigm? This is one of many questions I still have left after the workshop on Critical Theory concluded this week.

What is the nature of contribution in research using critical paradigm? Is an extension of current critical social theory enough a contribution? Or, should the study come up with alternative theories?

Why are postcolonialism and postmodernism not entirely included as critical theories? What part of them that are not critical theories? What is the difference between post-colonialism and postcolonialism?

There are a lot of grounds in critical theories that definitely cannot be covered in only two sessions of workshop.

But, if my limited understanding is expected to contemplate on the likelihood of using critical theories as the underlying paradigm of my research, I need to answer this one question.

“What makes a critical research critical?”

A reframing of the question would be “what is the characteristic of research that is informed by critical paradigm?”

Of course, based on the literature, critical research is one that aims to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions in order to emancipate people and free from social injustice.

But, my question is, is it the use of critical theory or the way the research is conducted that makes a critical research?

I am asking myself this seemingly irrelevant question due to my current elation with sociomateriality in IS field. Sociomateriality has recently been brought to IS discourse through the work of Orlikowski, Scott, Leonardi, etc. My first acquaintance with sociomateriality is through suggested reading in this Critical Theory workshop. Thus, my natural question in following up this reading was “Is sociomateriality a critical theory?”. I had asked this question in the last session of the workshop, but did not get a satisfying answer.

Eric did say that the way Orlikowski presented her argument throughout her work is clearly critical. But, he did not go on to explain whether that counts as a research informed by critical paradigm or a research that simply explicates critical thinking. Hence, my question “what makes a critical research critical?”

Normatively, I would say that both the critical social theory and critical conduct of the research need to be present for a research to be critical. In fact, any research should remain critical in its conduct. So, the distinguishing feature of research informed by critical paradigm should be the critical social theory underlying the discussion and argument.

If it is the case, then Orlikowski’s work on sociomateriality is not one that used critical paradigm.

But, this is only my speculation. If we look closely, the way sociomaterial practices being argued in Orlikowski’s and others’ work as an alternative theory in understanding the world is very critical. In this respect, it meets the definition of critical paradigm which seeks to challenge current assumptions which are often taken for granted.

I think, the thing that makes sociomateriality is excluded from critical theories is the subject of critique. Sociomateriality does not challenge a form of oppression, inequality, distortions, or social injustice in people’s lives. Instead, it challenges existing theories or frameworks in understanding the world.

The key message of critical paradigm, on the other hand, is advancing humanist view in IS research. This means the subject of research in critical paradigm is social phenomenon, not theoretical phenomenon. It aims to emancipate people, not just to offer a new way of thinking and seeing the world.

Going back to my PhD research, I have not yet envisioned emancipating communities being one of my research objectives. Yes, the notion of community resilience is appealing as a cause for emancipation and empowerment. But, the concept of resilience is too complicated and it is not my main area of interest. I am more interested in investigating how social media come into being and is used in sociomaterial practice.

If I am to add emancipatory messages here, there are a lot of assumptions need to be settled first. First, are the communities currently experience social injustice of some sort? Secondly, do they themselves feel the need for emancipation? Third, how can resilience be empirically measured in order to evaluate whether my research has yielded empowerment to the communities?

I honestly have no idea about all the above. To argue that sustainable development has created social injustice to the communities is too far-fetching of an argument. Which community experience this social injustice? Are all members of the communities experience the same injustice? What form of social injustice there is? This issue is not as simple as pointing out that there is a gender problem in IT workforce.

Moreover, I am an outsider to my targeted communities. What if they do not feel the need to emancipate themselves? The formulation of my investigation is really conjectural. I do not consult with any member of the communities so far because I know nobody there. In all simplicity, the only thing obvious from the communities I intend to work with is the fact that they use social media extensively to promote change action in sustainability value. But, to frame the investigation in a community resilience perspective is purely my creativity. Thus, I do not even think whether it makes sense for the community to discuss about resilience, let alone assuming they have problems in social injustice.


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