Rethinking Theory – Rigor and Relevance in Telecommunications Policy Research

12 Pages Posted: 1 Apr 2014

See all articles by Ewan Sutherland

Ewan Sutherland

University of the Witwatersrand, LINK Centre

Date Written: March 30, 2014


Objectives and insights

The disciplines of media studies and management information systems share with telecommunications policy research the challenge of constant technological change, while the first and the third also share repeated policy and regulatory changes.

Telecommunications policy research appears fundamentally different from the other two, lacking the constant, fractious disputes between different schools of thought (e.g., realist v. interpretivist). There are no Marxists arguing against the neoliberal model of the telecommunications industry, nor anyone opposed to Internet access “anytime, anyplace, anywhere”, the emphasis on service delivery with some measure of efficiency. Indeed, there are very few critical or extreme voices in telecommunications policy, instead it appears a peacefully productive area of research.

While initially surprising, telecommunications policy research seems to be an instance of Kuhnian “normal science”, a discipline which has adopted a research paradigm that is unchallenged. Taking the hegemonic research paradigm for granted, rigor has been assumed, with researchers have proved very productive, admittedly within a rather narrow scope, since other perspectives are excluded. The emphasis has been on relevance to practitioners, requiring engagement with the ever changing technologies and business models of the sector. This is in contrast to MIS research, which has had years of anguished, soul-searching debates on the most appropriate methodologies, or media studies, where a wild variety of perspectives survive and prosper.

Analytical method

The nature of the debates in media studies and management information systems are briefly reviewed in terms of two principal criteria: relevance and rigor. The former is primarily engagement with the professional community, while the latter is with an academic community. These are compared and contrasted with telecommunications policy research as a triad of case studies.

Description of the data

This is largely a theoretical analysis, though examining the uses of theory and epistemology in the journal Telecommunications Policy.


Papers on the theory of telecommunications policy research are relatively unusual. This one describes a substantial research agenda that potentially opens the way to considerable areas of research (e.g., an archaeological history of telecommunications policy based on the work of Foucault). The manner in which “bandwagons” are handled appears very different and worth further study.

Keywords: Telecommunications policy, Research, Paradigm, Philosophy, Methodology

JEL Classification: l96, l82, 033

Suggested Citation

Sutherland, Ewan, Rethinking Theory – Rigor and Relevance in Telecommunications Policy Research (March 30, 2014). 2014 TPRC Conference Paper, Available at SSRN: or

Ewan Sutherland (Contact Author)

University of the Witwatersrand, LINK Centre ( email )

1 Jan Smuts Avenue
Johannesburg, Gauteng 2000
South Africa


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