tiistai 10. toukokuuta 2016

Explain and predict and make your own hammers

Today's writing is only in English. Sorry Finnish readers, I am short on time. Today I am in Turku School of Economics, sitting in a lecture with PhD students.
First of all, yesterday is somewhat of an identity crisis for me. I am no longer a PhD student. This role has been with me for such a long time. It has been quite comforting label, I am just a PhD student - I am still learning. Is there something scary of saying ‘Post doc’? It suggests that I now know something about the world, right?  It was something I thought about yesterday. If I am no longer a PhD Student, can I still turn up in jeans and a t-shirt? Or should I be wearing black pencil skirts? Obviously there was no point in my Monday morning contemplation. Perhaps it was a residue of social norms imposed on me by my upbringing or what I think the society would like me to do. That is however not how I want to live my life, my life should be a collection of my own choices, not someone else's. I should do what makes me feel good. So I wore a pair of jeans and House t-shirt. Because that’s what I was feeling like.

But this seminar is about Theorizing and I am still talking about clothes. Surely that makes me rather superficial...? Or is it, that I am trying to understand my own behavior or thinking process?

So today I am in Theorizing in Information Systems Science Course by Anol Bhattacherjee. Now, those of you who have been reading my blog for a while, know, that I attended a very similar course a few years back and I wrote about that course here and here.

So why do the 'same' course twice? Well one answer could be that, Prof. Bhattacherjee is one of the legends of our field, which obviously makes it worth my while to travel to Turku for two days to hear what he has got to say in this area. But mainly my reasoning was: Making theories is not easy. It is always a good idea to learn more about it. So I came to this event based on a) reputation of the lecturer b) the high interest towards the topic and c) lifelong learning perspective.

  Prof. Bhattacherjee started his course by talking of stories and claiming that theories are stories with academic evidence behind them. I liked this approach quite a lot. The symbolism worked for me. I am still looking for that topic for the next big stream of study. Yes I am very bored with my PhD topic and now it is time to do something else. I am looking for the characters and the plot that would be interesting enough. If the characters are all boring, it's probably not a story worth telling. What I need is to find constructs (characters) which would be interesting enough for me as well as for the world, to create a story (a theory). So spot on this seminar gave me a way of re-thinking what I was doing and motivating me into starting to theorize.

INFORTE events are often interesting melting pots of many cultures coming together. That brings extreme richness to the discussions during the seminar days. These two days was not an exception. In this case, there was the American lecturer meeting a 'Finnish PhD students' international audience. In the start of the first day, everyone is still a little lost. The audience is trying to reflect on what the lecturer says. Bhattacherjee is a rather approachable, playful, humoristic and specifically sarcastic lecturer. Using humor and sarcasm with a Finnish audience is always a learning curve for the American lecturers. Finns need to warm up to get the cues and not everyone, (even after two days of being stuck in a hot lecture room together with the speaker) will know when he's serious and when he is sarcastic. My experience of this seminar was that on the second day, the audience had learned to know the style of the lecturer and therefore the second day was the gold mine of this seminar.  

University of Jyväskylä had sent quite a delegation to the seminar - perhaps even 50% of the students came from our university. Perhaps the reason for that was encouragement towards theorizing in our university. The strategy of Computer Science and Information Systems department currently underlines publishing in Top IS journals and that is a lot more likely to happen for researchers who know how to theorize.  
JYU Crew potrayed by (c) Juuli Lintula
What is a Theory?

"Analytic structure of system that attempts to explain a particular set of empirical phenomena." (Saphira, 2011)

"A system of constructs and propositions that collectively presents a logical, systematic and coherent explanation of a phenomenon of interest within some assumptions and boundary conditions."(Bacharach, 1989)

A Theory...
a) Describes what is happening
b) Explains why it’s happening
c) Predicts what might happen
 Spring was certainly happening in Turku this week.
 On day one, we talked about types of theories. What is a variance theory, process theory, grand theory, middle-range theory, meta theory... And obviously the discussion did not end when the lesson hours ended at 4:30pm.
 On day one, Bhattacherjee also talked about Building blocks of Theory:
  • The Constructs
  • The Propositions
  • The Logic
  • The Assumptions/boundary conditions
 Obviously we were also talking what theory is not. Is model a theory? Is model a representation of a theory? Is TAM a Theory? These are questions which it does not really matter how many seminars you attend, are still relevant, are still discussed, you can always comment on. Bhattacherjee has opinions, but he is also very humble in presenting his knowledge - sometimes these are matters of language and semantics. Sometimes supposed "new theories" are old theories in new bottles. Perhaps there are NO theories in IS... That's certainly being proposed. That there is no such things as native IS theories - all theories are just theories adapted from psychology, management, marketing or some other older and more established area of science.
 On Day one we were also discussing what is a typology and what is a taxonomy. Labels might be just those names that scientists gave certain frameworks or phenomenon. Does not mean they are always correct, accurate or good representations of what information the scientist was trying to share with others. Does not mean that we shouldn't pay attention to the labels. Science is about discourse. It is important to at least try to give things names so that other people could somehow understand what we are trying to say. Is there any point in a theory if you never share it with anyone? Sure, you can use it in your own life from now on. But it is not science, if we don't bring our theories to the community to discuss, to falsify, to argue, to agree with. Day one was helpful on going through the meaningful labels around theorizing.
 As we looked at our reading list even before the course, we could observe that Bhattacherjee has a different perspective from the norm of theorizing to some extent. It took the room 3 hours to get to the obvious question: Where is Shirley Gregor's (2006) paper... The bold answer of professor Bhattacherjee was that he never understood the paper. Perhaps we use some papers as the 'de facto'... This was a good reminder that we should constantly question the 'hammers' that we are given. 
 Day two was all about discussing how to do theorizing. Should I do deductive or inductive... How to find constructs. How to find plots and so on. What I learned was, that it does not matter which one you start with. To do real research, theorizing, you should do both. Perhaps you are better at the deductive part. Perhaps you are better at the inductive part. Does not matter. You should be able to do both.
What I also found out, was that there is not ONE FIT into your problem. You can use multiple methods. You can do constructs for example by
- Deducting from prior research (Literature review)
- Inductively from empirical evidence, for example by using focus groups, using expert panels, interviews, observations, collecting other kinds of data...
But, of course the research setting should be systematic and it should be fitting to your research question.
 The inductive-deductive discourse was still continuing after hours in the lobby of Hamburger Börs, where tensions were starting to build on whether we had understood what the professor was saying, correctly.
The night in Turku was rather warm and beautiful. 
 I guess many of the things discussed in this seminar, were familiar to me. However, what one cannot undermine is the psychological effects of listening to one of the top of the field talking to you. First of all,
1. You always learn a lot of new things.
2. You get new ideas and fall into deep discussions with your peers who have even more great and smarter ideas, over a bottle of wine. And isn't that what life is all about? Good conversation.
3. You get new fresh energy and enthusiasm to continue one's research - with this momentum, papers are written and theories are born.
 Personally, it was a relief to learn that one should start data collection and memoing any time. Or that you could start analyzing your data any time. Often I have felt like I have to do things in certain order, which has been stopping me from making observations, coming up with ideas, analyzing data, starting to do things. I now understand that I have to make my own way. And it is okay to do it my way. Of course I can copy hammers that others in the field have proposed. Probably they are good, someone has tested them, someone has used them before - or at least thought of them. But my experience as a creative scientist sometimes can lead me into other ways of collecting data or moving ahead. I should not be so restricted by the fences that previous researchers on my field have been doing. It does not mean that I shouldn't do it well, water tight or logically. But it is deliberating to me to think, I can make my own hammers.

It hopefully is clear to you, that I immensely enjoyed these two days of thinking, learning and discourse. I sure am one of the lucky ones in order to be right here in my life, in this particular generous science community, having absolute freedom to do what I want as my job. Thank you professor Bhattacherjee for sharing your stories with us.

"It does not matter what method you use. 
What matters is that do you have a theory at the end." 
(Bhattacherjee, 2016)

Does this sound like anyone we know in the field?

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