Design as reification, commodification and ideology: A critical view of IS design science

In an attempt to reignite progress on my PhD and prepare myself for attending the 4th Information Systems Foundations Workshop next week. The workshop title is “Information systems Foundations: Answering the Unanswered Questions about Design Research”. The workshop is organised by my PhD supervisor and will have a number of “names” from the IS community there.

Over a number of posts I’m going to try and summarise some of the recent papers on design research within information systems in order to force me to read/engage with them and how they can fit with what I’ve been thinking about. Eventually this should lead to a post explaining those ideas and an ability for me to describe those ideas at the workshop and eventually into a paper and/or chapter in the thesis.

These posts are not traditional blog posts, I’m not always going to spend a lot of time trying to make them read well. They are predominantly a method to force me to read, reflect and have some record of the reading that I can come back to. There’s an off-chance that some might find it useful.

The paper

Bernd Carsten Stahl, Design as reification, commodification and ideology: A critical view of IS design science, In: Proceedings of the 16th European Conference on Information Systems Information Systems in an innovative Knowledge-based Society, Galway, Ireland, 09 to 11 June 2008


The following is a disorganised collection of thoughts and comments on the paper

  • The question of what distinguishes the IS DSR as “artefact design” from other approaches to design (e.g. computer science, software engineering) is one I’ve been troubled with. (If it’s not already apparent, I’m not a fan of the IS DSR as “artefact design” perspective.
  • What is the contribution of IS DSR if design research is a discipline itself
    Talk about this — links into Shirley’s discipline/object of interest questions
  • The blurring of BSR/DSR through the inclusion of models, theories etc.
    This seems to be a good lead into the view I’m trying to develop based on Shirley’s theory of theories. An early, brief, incomplete summary/introduction to this work has been posted. This post builds on that. The approach I’m trying to explain (to myself first) would potentially offer some de-blurring. In summary, it sees a great deal of commonality in the underlying approach to the different types of research (DSR or BSR). The difference is the type of theory/knowledge generated as a result and the appropriate methods to generate that type of knowledge.
  • It is suggested that the choice between BSR and DSR becomes a matter of personal preference.
    I see this as a problem, if true. The choice should be based on the research problem/question and the type of knowledge that is required to address it. At least based on my silly little perspective.
  • The distinction between technological and social.
    It’s suggested that there remains a distinction within the IS discipline between the technological and the social. I tend to agree with this and think perhaps it’s another important distinction that needs to be addressed through the development of a new way of looking at DSR/BSR. The other distinctions I’ve already been trying to struggle with include: that between different research paradigms and also the DSR/BSR distinction (which is somewhat related but slightly different).

    Perhaps the contribution of IS DSR is, as Lee points out, the combination of technical and social and the emergence of interesting factors that arise out of that combination. The idea that the combination is greater than the sum of its parts. Does this become the contribution of IS as a discipline and IS DSR to the broader design research discipline.

  • Mention of the social construction of technology and related approaches reinforces the need to consider context and the social in technology. Nice quote about “Technology should be seen as a process rather than an artefact. The artefact, while relevant, cannot be viewed in isoloation”.
  • The concept of design paradoxes (Stewart and Williams, 2005) sounds interesting and needs to be looked at.


The following is a short summary of the paper, created as reading through it.


Starts with some of the traditional problems and uncertainty about IS as a discipline and exactly what is appropriate research within IS. Making the point that this leads to confusion about “what they are supposed to and allowed to do” and the on-going struggle to developer criteria to evaluate research output.

Which raises the question of whether or not design science can “actually promote knowledge in the field of IS”. He appears to want to answer this question by performing a critical analysis of the design science discourse. Basic structure of the paper

  • Definition of the critical approach.
  • Contextualise critical research within current IS debates
  • Describe an understanding of IS design science discourses
  • Apply critical concepts to design science.

The apparent outcomes include

  • The current IS design science discourses can be interpreted as an “attempt to change the understanding and create legitimacy for certain approaches, notable ones that emphasise production and practice”.
  • By promoting this particular understanding it can have the consequence of disregarding other aspects, such as ethical ones.
  • It is argued that alternative conceptions of design are possible and that it is desireable to move away from the business-oriented mainstream view of design.

The aim is to develop a conceptual approach that enables evaluation of design science that includes usually neglected aspects. The paper is not intended as an attack on IS design research. But an attempt to bring out the hidden views. Two views mentioned

  1. Design used to promote hidden agendas, gain advantage for a particular view or group and to shape organisational and societal discourses in ways that problematic.
  2. It can also be empowering and emancipating through an abiltiy to disrupt unquestioned practices and views.

The suggestion is IS design science is too much of the conservative and managerial.

Critical theory and critical research in IS

Critical Theory (CT) encompases a range of theoretical approaches starting with Marx’s critique of capitalism. Flowing from this a main feature of CT is its intention to promote emancipation which focuses attention to topics such as the pathologies of capitialism. Related/associated theoretical influences include postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism and related approaches.

In IS, CT is reflected in Critical Research in IS (CRIS) which has been suggested as a third paradigm following positivism and interpretivism.

Attempts to develop three topics of the older CT that have not yet become visible within CRIS: commodification, reification and ideology. All three of which can be described as “fetish” and goes back to Marx’s work Das Kapital.

The following is a quick attempt to capture the description, probably very badly. Wikipedia has a number of entries on related topics and I’m sure a broader google would reveal more.

  • Commodification – in capitialism, things become commodities in that their value is measured in money. The original socail nature of goods exchange becomes a de-personalised process facilitated by commodities. People begin to desire commodities regardless of their use. Commodities become fetishes because they represent powers and are accepted without regard to their actual usefulness.
  • Reification – process by which social structures become solid or “things” and cease to be subject of social negotiation. It is one part of ideology.
  • Ideology – collection of generally accepted but one-sided beliefs. In the critical tradition ideology stands for the way power relations influence beliefs and perceptions in ways to promote particular interests. Ideologies are not simply wrong, they cannot be wrong because they form part of our understanding of reality.
  • Rationality – all of the above is based on a specific type of rationality. The objectifying view that there is an objective reality that can be described and manipulated. This is the traditional scientific rationality that relies on quantification and abstract formal models of reality. This view is bound with science, technology and modern economics. Habermas and others argue that science and technology are forms of ideology.

Of course, the author has kindly provided a table that summarises the central concepts, which I reproduce below.

Critical Concept Explanation
Reification A social object becomes a thing, separate of its social contexts
and history
Commodification The entity in question becomes a good that can be traded like
any other commodity
Ideology A particular worldview that privileges certain interests and
hides this fact by making the current state of affairs appear
Fetishism The social object acquires the status of an independent entity
that interacts with humans of its own accord

design as ideology

summarises the current accepted differentiation in IS research between behavioural science research (BSR) and design science research (DSR). Uses the following table.

Behavioural science research (BSR) Design Science Research (DSR)
Origin Natural science Engineering, sciences of the artificial
Paradigm Problem understanding paradigm Problem solving paradigm
Objective to develop and justify theories which explain or predict organisational human phenomena surrounding the analysis, design, implementation, management, and use of information systems to create innovations that define ideas, practices, technical capabilities, and product through the analysis, design, implementation, management, and use of information systems
Object Human-Computer-Interaction IT artifact design

These are seen as complementary parts of an IS research cycle (as per Hevner) and developing knowledge about IS within an organisational context requires the application of both paradigms. Summarises more of Hevner and March view of IS DSR.

Problems with the traditional cycle view

The “Hevner view” is seen as problematic because it is “superficial and probably raises more questions than it answers”.

The central question is

what sets apart design science in information systems from established approaches that aim to design technical artifacts, such as computer sciences or software engineering. If design science research is just about the development of artefacts in a theoretically sound manner, then DSR in IS is likely to be a reinvention of the wheel. DSR is thus presumably about something different

Suggests that the existing DRS debate contains conflation of at least three different aspects. Each of which raise their own questions.

  1. Design science as an academic discipline
    This seems to be equated with DSR as being about a theoretical activity, which then begs the question about what contribution IS can make – since IS is more likely a field of application of DSR. I think the point here is that the broader design research “discipline” perhaps encompases IS in DSR and then the question is what contribution does IS DSR make?
  2. Design practice as an organisational reality
    If DSR focuses on the organisational reality of groups that develop software, why is this worth of a specific debate?
  3. The design artefact
    Since his view of the IS DSR literature is that it includes just not software/hardware but also theories, models or approaches it is suggested that this blurs the definition because BSR would then include a considerable component of DSR.

    Indeed, it is hard to see why writing a text such as this should not be conceived as a design activity, which leads to a blurring of the boundaries of DSR to the point of its becoming indistinguishable from BSR

Justification of the choice of DSR

Suggests that DSR/BSR may be no more than two sides of the same coin – that a decision to use one or the other is matter of personal preference, rather than anything else. There is a clear dominance in IS on BSR. That IS is related to the devleopment and use of technological artefacts seems to be a background assumption. But the interest seems to be much more on the social side of technology than the artefact. Doesn’t this make DSR a mere appendix?

Removeing the artefact from IS make the field difficult to define. Hence the strong calls for a return to the artefact. But there remains little attention to the technological artefact.

DSR can then be seen as an attempt to focus the field on the artefact.

But the aim of the paper is to look for alternative explanations.

Critical views of the DSR discourse

The assumption is that all academic discourses are about power. They define what is truth, what questions can or cannot be asked. The aim of the following is to question the DSR discourse and point to issues.

The thoughts collected are

  • The concept of the technological artefact
    The BSR/DSR distinction can be seen as an attempt to create legitmacy for technological research. But it also continues the distinction between the technical and the social. Science and technology studies and the underlying research approaches such as the social construction of technology (SCOT) or the social shaping of technology (SST) have long suggested that this distinction is not tenable.
  • Assumptions of mainstream IS research
    DSR may uncritical accept standard assumptions of IS research including: legitimacy of managerial control and a rationalistic view of humans but also of IT. Which may lead to

    • a perpetuation of current practices and assumptions
    • an emphasis on some aspects of design work. e.g. efficiency and user satisfaction, at the expense of equitability, justice, working conditions.

    The BSR/DSR distinction may lead to a reliance on BSR to generate ever growing amount of information to be designed into the artefact. Which can lead to design paradoxes.

    Suggests that the DSR discourse can be seen as a fashion (fad). The emphasis on the artefact has the danger of taking fashions to seriously. Divorcing the critical and social aspect from the artefact carries the danger of fashions becoming self-sustaining.

    Talks about the problem of the “heroic manager” perspective being put onto the designer. Has a good quote from Stewart and Williams (2005) which frames the the design problem as being conceived as the failings of the practitioner and various other problems which the heroic designer comes along and fixes.

    This raises difficulties with addressing ethical issues.

  • Ethics and design
    Close connection between ethics and critical research. Design is based on ethical assumptions about what is permissible, but most of the moral assumptions information DSR are not explicit. The design of tools/systems embed these and have consequences. Uses development of special tools for child labour embedding a belief that child labour is okay, but also in perpetuating that belief as the tools require children to use them. Makes the point that information systems (through flows, reports, controls) reify existing control structures without consideration of legitimacy.

    Design can be both conservative, but also can implement and reify liberating and emancipatory ideas. This a complex area. Lots of questions. Disclosive ethics, one approach, – where decisions, views and consequences of design decisions are disclosed – can lead to increased awareness of their implications (Introna, 2007)..

    Problems arise with embedding this into design, critical theorists have been struggling with these problems. e.g. if you agree that emancipation is important, you have to identify exactly what emancipation is. The answer is dependent on the individual in question and also the social context.

Critical concepts and design

Reification – emphasis on artefact suggests it is of central importance and carries an intrinsic indication that that it is objective and neutral. Which leads to technological determinism. Design leads to artefacts which have clearly defined properties and predictable outcomes. This renders invisble social influences and non-technical considerations.

This promotes commodification. Various impacts, example of ERP systems which can enable hidden ideologies enter an organisation via reified social beliefs.


At this stage there seems to be little agreement on these concepts and there may be scope for an empirical investigation into what design practitioner understand by such terms as “design” or “design sciences”

This collection of critical remarks should nevertheless not be seen as a general argument against
design sciences. I am not at all against the inclusion of explicit design considerations in IS research.
What I have tried to argue is that the focus on design in IS discourses can be used to camouflage
particular interests and agendas. DSR discourses are in danger of becoming divorced from greater
social and ethical concerns and to turn into ends in themselves. Design can then become a fetish,
something desired for its own sake, without social context. All I am saying is that the attempt to
establish the design paradigm may again be legitimate but it may also be problematic. What I have
tried to do is raise awareness of possible issues.


Stewart, J. & Williams, R. (2005): The Wrong Trousers? Beyond the Design Fallacy: Social Learning and the User. In: Howcroft, D. & Trauth, E. M. (eds.) Handbook of Critical Information Systems Research : Theory and Application. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar: 195 – 221

3 thoughts on “Design as reification, commodification and ideology: A critical view of IS design science

  1. John Fitzsimmons

    Hey David

    I don’t know enough about this to be helpful, but I thought of Bourdieu and habitus. The following is an excerpt from on of my PhD’s student’s recent notes. If you think it might be interesting, I’ll dig out the references. Habitus is a commonplace in sociology, as you probably know.


    Bourdieu’s underlying thesis is that there is always a power struggle between the classes and that habitus – one’s embodied sense of self and position in the world – is the way in which the social hierarchy is maintained. Bourdieu used taste to explain his theory of habitus as the word taste refers to both flavours, what you can taste on the tongue, and aesthetic discernment (1989, p. 474). It therefore encapsulates both the physical aspect of habitus, what Bourdieu refers to as the ‘bodily hexis’, and its role in maintaining the social hierarchy. Taste, Bourdieu posited, is a cultural competency learned from one’s family and social group. Through habitus, it is converted into something natural: what is actually learnt behaviour becomes a natural ability which a working class person neither has, nor expects to have. In short, habitus is the sum of all absorbed ideologies and all the expectations of class and family. It is what has happened to an individual and to a group of individuals, and what is expected to happen in the future. It manifests itself in the body by way of demeanor, by the amount of space one feels permitted to take up, as well as the physical sense of belonging or otherwise. Habitus is knowledge that ‘function[s] below the level of consciousness and language, beyond the reach of introspective scrutiny or control by the will’ (1989, p. 466). It is ‘what goes without saying’, what Bourdieu called ‘the order of things’ (1992, p. 167): behaviour, beliefs, expectations and intentions that require and expect no explanation. And, because it is not questioned, habitus can accommodate any number of contradictions and inconsistencies.

  2. G’day John,

    Thanks for this.

    It looks interesting and connected, at least on my first quick skim.

    It’s the type of area I don’t know a lot about and need the time to reflect and make some connections. Time, which is not exactly currently available in abundance.

    Of course, I should be more comfortable with the idea of habitus given that I’m a co-author on a paper that makes use of the idea in connection with course management systems.

    But then, to anyone who knows about the folk involved, it’s easy to pick Patrick as the intellectual driver behind that application of habitus.

    I’ve only just remembered that paper and its use of habitus in framing this reply. So, thank you very much John. This has been very useful.

    Looking forward to your talk today.


  3. John Fitzsimmons


    Thanks. Read the paper – interesting. A sort of typography of some responses to a LMS. I’m not sure how the following comment applies: habitus – ‘cultural competency learned from one’s family and social group. Through habitus, it is converted into something natural: what is actually learned behaviour becomes a natural ability which a working class person neither has, nor expects to have. In short, habitus is the sum of all absorbed ideologies and all the expectations of class and family’. If it was converted into something ‘natural’, a sort of sum of all ‘absorbed ideologies’ (meaning in the service of power), it is difficult to see how the nexus between habitus and the LMS actually works.


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