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Theorising big IT programmes in healthcare: Strong structuration theory meets actor-network theory

Authors
Disciplines
  • Linguistics
  • Political Science

Abstract

The UK National Health Service is grappling with various large and controversial IT programmes. We sought to develop a sharper theoretical perspective on the question "What happens - at macro-, meso- and micro-level - when government tries to modernise a health service with the help of big IT?" Using examples from data fragments at the micro-level of clinical work, we considered how structuration theory and actor-network theory (ANT) might be combined to inform empirical investigation. Giddens (1984) argued that social structures and human agency are recursively linked and co-evolve. ANT studies the relationships that link people and technologies in dynamic networks. It considers how discourses become inscribed in data structures and decision models of software, making certain network relations irreversible. Stones' (2005) strong structuration theory (SST) is a refinement of Giddens' work, systematically concerned with empirical research. It views human agents as linked in dynamic networks of position-practices. A quadripartite approcach considers [a] external social structures (conditions for action); [b] internal social structures (agents' capabilities and what they 'know' about the social world); [c] active agency and actions and [d] outcomes as they feed back on the position-practice network. In contrast to early structuration theory and ANT, SST insists on disciplined conceptual methodology and linking this with empirical evidence. In this paper, we adapt SST for the study of technology programmes, integrating elements from material interactionism and ANT. We argue, for example, that the position-practice network can be a socio-technical one in which technologies in conjunction with humans can be studied as 'actants'. Human agents, with their complex socio-cultural frames, are required to instantiate technology in social practices. Structurally relevant properties inscribed and embedded in technological artefacts constrain and enable human agency. The fortunes of healthcare IT programmes might be studied in terms of the interplay between these factors.

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