Critical Realism and ICT4D Research

Richard Heeks, P.j. Wall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


There is little overt engagement with research paradigms in ICT4D research, but what there is shows a dominance of positivism and interpretivism. In this paper, we explore the value of a “third way” research paradigm: critical realism. We concisely review the main features of critical realism: its ontological realism combined with epistemological relativism; its iterative, pluralist, and reflexive methodology; and its emancipatory values. Alongside the general value of explicit use of any research paradigm, we argue two particular types of value of critical realism for ICT4D research. First, generic values including exposure of context, a contingent causality that reflects real‐world ICT4D experiences, support for use of theoretical frames in ICT4D, legitimisation of different stakeholder views, and reduction of research bias and support for ICT4D's interventionist approach and its goal of delivering international development. Second, specific value in addressing current trends in ICT4D research: The growing search for causal links between “ICT” and “D,” and the political and ethical turns in ICT4D that are spurring researchers to engage more with issues of power, rights, and justice. But delivery of critical realism's utility will require the ICT4D research community to take actions that enable this emergent research paradigm to flourish.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalElectronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries
Issue number6
Early online date21 Sep 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2018

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Global Development Institute


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