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Roger Clarke's 'Whose History?'

Whose History?

Version of 26 February 2013
Published in AIS Insider, 7 March 2013

Roger Clarke **

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As Doug said in his recent President's message (Vogel 2013), history is important. We don't want to be backward-looking, and it may be an exaggeration to say that ignorance of history condemns us to repeat errors. But there are considerable benefits in appreciating where we've come from, what we're building on, and whose shoulders we're standing on in order to create a cumulative tradition (Keen 1980).

US society has been virile for well over a century, and its energy, multiplied by its scale, have ensured that the contributions of North Americans to the history of IS have been well out of proportion to population-size. On the other hand, the USA has no priority claim on IS, because the decisive events that mark the discipline's beginnings in the early-to-mid 1960s occurred in Scandinavia and Germany, just before those in the UK and the USA (Clarke 2008, pp. 53-61).

Debates about primacy are picayune. Much more important is recognition that the discipline has always had different flavours in different countries, and that this diversity has been a vital contributor to the discipline's richness, and to its capacity to adapt to changing circumstances.

North America has a strong and deep tradition in quantitative empiricism, and in knowledge transfer through structured PhD programs. That its most common context is business schools has proven to be both an intellectual benefit and a political disadvantage. In other English-speaking countries, and across Europe, the locations and affinities of IS academics have been much more varied. Interpretivism, qualitative empiricism and a preference for participative rather than authoritarian management styles have long held greater sway (Galliers & Whitley 2007).

North American and European traditions have played in both directions across the Atlantic, to the benefit of research quality and understanding on all continents.

In German-speaking countries, meanwhile, the Wirtschaftsinformatik community has sustained a design orientation and stronger links to technical underpinnings than has IS in other regions and language-groups (Ulrich et al. 2008). This represents a counterweight against the risk of IS fashion retreating into social science observation alone, and even into postmodernist vagueness.

It's to be welcomed that AIS now has a Department Editor for History, that a special section on history topics will appear across two Issues of the Journal of Information Technology in mid-2013, and that panels on history topics are being proposed for PACIS, ACIS and ECIS.

Particular IS history chronicles and analyses may of course legitimately adopt specific perspectives. But it's vital that the overall approach to history by the discipline, and by AIS, be both universalist and pluralist - owned by all, not some.


Clarke R. (2008) 'A Retrospective on the Information Systems Discipline in Australia' Chapter 2 of Gable G.G. et al. (2008) 'The Information Systems Discipline in Australia' ANU e-Press, 2008, pp. 47-107, at, PrePrint at

Galliers R.D. & Whitley E.A. (2007) 'Vive les differences? Developing a profile of European information systems research as a basis for international comparisons' European Journal of Information Systems 16 (2007) 20-35

Keen P. (1980) 'MIS Research: Reference Disciplines and a Cumulative Tradition' in McLean E. (Ed.), Proc. 1st Int'l Conf. Info. Syst. (ICIS), 1980, 9-18

Ulrich F., Schauer, C. & Wigand R.T. (2008) 'Different Paths of Development of Two Information Systems Communities: A Comparative Study Based on Peer Interviews' Communications of the Association for Information Systems 22, 21, at

Vogel D. (2013) 'In Praise of Our History (and Future)' AIS Newsletter, 11 February 2013, at

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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