While the empirical account of Women and ICT in Africa and the Middle East is evocative and revealing, LSE’s Atta Addo writes that the brevity of the articles made it difficult to assess the rigour of the studies.
The volume reports on twenty-one research projects undertaken in fourteen African and Middle Eastern countries by the Gender Research in Africa and the Middle East into ICTs for Empowerment (GRACE) network. The GRACE network conducts research “for the purpose of social transformation” (p.3), specifically, how ICTs might enable desirable interventions in gender relations and the “socioeconomic-political-religious structures that support them” (p.4) based on an assumption that “ICTs can benefit women greatly and contribute to women’s empowerment and gender-equality endeavours” (p.7).
Excluding a methodology section at the end, the book’s twenty-one essays are divided into three parts that are meant to reflect the “processes of personal and social change that (need to) take place when women in the South set out to explicitly empower themselves in and through the use of ICT” (p.7). Part 1 discusses the use of ICTs in women’s personal and professional lives against the backdrop of structural inequalities and systemic biases that have deep socioeconomic, religious and cultural roots. Part 2 is about the role of ICTs in raising gender awareness and thereby creating a safe space for women’s participation and self-expression whereas Part 3 explores the potential for ICTs to enable personal and social transformations through relational ties, community and local participation.
Overall, the empirical account is evocative and revealing and the aims of the research project laudable. However, the book has drawbacks, an important one being the brevity of the articles in the volume. Cramming 21 research articles into a 326-page book does not allow for sufficient treatment of the subject matter or related analytical and methodological issues in each of the articles. Given this limitation, it is hard to assess the rigour of the studies, even according to the volume’s own criteria outlined in the methodology section, as there is not much exposition and analysis.
A substantive critique relates to the general assumption upon which the project is built, namely, that “ICTs can benefit women greatly and contribute to women’s empowerment and gender-equality endeavours” (p.7). This claim is reminiscent of what Orlikowski and Iacono (2001, p. 123) term the “tool view of technology”. They note that this view “represents the common, received wisdom about what technology is and means […] the engineered artifact, expected to do what its designers intend it to do. As such, what the technology is and how it works are seen to be largely technical matters (separate, definable, unchanging, and over which humans have control).” Despite the currency of such ‘tool view’ among practitioners, the field of Information Systems has over the last few decades problematised it by insisting that technology is not independent of the social and organisational arrangements within which it is developed and used. As such, even in action research, rather than taking for granted the potential of ICTs for social and organizational change, some degree of scepticism might be in order.
Orlikowski, W. J., & Iacono, S. C. (2001). Research Commentary: Desperately Seeking the “IT” in IT Research- A Call to Theorizing the IT Artifact. Information Systems Research, 12(2), 121–134.
Book Review: Women and ICT in Africa and the Middle East: Changing Selves, Changing Societies Edited by: Ineke Buskens & Anne Webb Zed Books, London 2014: ISBN: 978-1-98360-042-7; £ 21.99; 326pp
Atta Addo is a research student in the Information Systems & Innovation Group in LSE’s Department of Management.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.