Distinguished Lecture by Professor Maung K. Sein

16 February 2018 at 10:15-12:00 in Lecture Hall 2, Ekonomikum, Kyrkogårdsgatan 10, Uppsala

A Critical Realist Retelling of the Story of Affordances in Information Systems


The theory of affordances has started to reveal its profound use in IS research.  It is useful in explaining how IT artefacts can lead to achieving organizational outcomes and goals. Affordances are defined as the action possibilities offered by an artifact to a goal-oriented actor to achieve her objectives. However, the growing use of the theory has also raised several questions:

Ontological question:

  • What is affordance? Are affordances designed or emerge in practice? Does it exist independent or dependent on users’ perception? What does the relational view of affordances mean?

Epistemological question:

  • How are affordances identified? Do we need to perceive affordances always before actualization?
  • What are the personal, social and environmental factors that inhibit/enable actualization of affordances?

The answers to these questions have led to debates in the IS literature and two distinct stances have emerged: affordances exist independently vs. affordances emerge.  

We argue that the root of these stances is lack of ontological and epistemological clarity. The existing stances are firmly based upon the ontology and epistemology and in both, epistemology is intertwined with ontology.  If we do not differentiate these two levels, it can lead to in Roy Bhasker’s term ‘epistemic fallacy’. In my talk, I will propose a resolution to these debates.  Our proposed resolution is premised upon Critical Realism, which combines a realist ontology and a relative epistemology.  While it has been used in the IS literature on affordances, its “affordance” to resolve the debate as outlined above has not been actualized. Moreover, these attempts have raised their own inconsistencies. I will try to navigate through this maze.  In doing so, I will point out that the “designer” has been ignored in IS discourse on affordances and that is a key reason behind the gap between the existing stances.


Maung K. Sein is a Professor of Information Systems at University of Agder, Norway, and a visiting Professor at Luleå Technical University, Sweden. After completing his PhD at Indiana University, he has led a nomadic life geographically (Asia to North America to Europe), professionally (engineer to systems developer to academic), ontologically (realist to critical realist), epistemologically (positivist to interpretivist to design), and intellectually (user training to systems development to “social aspects”). He currently conducts research in ICT and national development, e-Government, and proactive research approaches.

He has published in leading IS journals such as MIS Quarterly, Information Systems Research, Information Systems Journal, European Journal of Information Systems and presented his research in several international conferences such as ICIS where he won a best paper in IS education award in 2012. His current and previous editorial board experience includes JAIS, MIS Quarterly, Information Systems Journal, MIS Quarterly Executive, and guest-editing special issues of JAIS, Communications of the ACM and Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems.

Maung K. Sein is a former chair of IFIP W.G 9.4 (Social Implications of Computers in Developing Countries) was a founding co-Chair of the AIS SIG Special Interest Group on e-Government and served as a Vice President for Research in the AIS Special Interest Group for Global Development. He has chaired several dissertations and has served as external examiners of doctoral dissertations at several universities in different countries.

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