Middleton & Cukier (2006) Is Mobile Email Functional or Dysfunctional?


Is Mobile Email Functional or Dysfunctional? Two Perspectives on Mobile Email Usage

This paper offers a study of contradiction in the usage of mobile email. Using qualitative data, the paper identifies mobile email usage patterns that are dangerous, distracting, anti-social and that infringe on work-life boundaries. Mobile email users were forthcoming in describing these dysfunctional usage patterns, but they made a convincing argument that their mobile devices are highly functional and allow them to be efficient, to multitask without disruption to others, and to respond immediately to messages, as well as offering them the freedom to work from anywhere. These dual perspectives on mobile email (dys)functionality are explored through a metaphorical lens, showing how organisational cultures can reinforce the functional perspective while simultaneously suppressing the dysfunctional view. It is argued that it is important to understand and explore the dysfunctional perspective of mobile email adoption. The paper concludes with a series of questions that challenge organisations to reflect critically on their assumptions about mobile email usage.

Citation Catherine A. Middleton, Wendy Cukier (2006). Is Mobile Email Functional or Dysfunctional? Two Perspectives on Mobile Email Usage. European Journal of Information Systems, vol. 15 no. 3, pp. 252–260. URL

BibTex entry for this article:

BibTex entry for this article:

author = {Middleton, Catherine A. and Cukier, Wendy},
doi = {10.1057/palgrave.ejis.3000614},
isbn = {0960-085X\r1476-9344},
issn = {0960-085X},
journal = {European Journal of Information Systems},
number = {3},
pages = {252--260},
pmid = {218785715},
title = {{Is Mobile Email Functional or Dysfunctional? Two Perspectives on Mobile Email Usage}},
url = {http://www.palgrave-journals.com/ejis/journal/v15/n3/abs/3000614a.html},
volume = {15},
year = {2006}

Key ideas

One of the key differences between a purely interpretive approach and critical hermeneutics is that the researcher does not merely accept the self-understanding of participants, but seeks to critically evaluate the totality of understandings in a given situation. - Myers (1994, p. 189)

Two specific research questions are addressed: p. 3

  1. What are the positive and negative attributes of mobile email, and how are these reflected in its usage?
  2. How can the contradictory attitudes toward mobile email usage be understood, and what are the implications of the existence of two opposing perspectives?

The paper adopts a critical perspective to challenge assumptions inherent in business environments that encourage a positive view of current mobile email adoption patterns.


Research Method

The data are drawn from interviews with 13 BlackBerry users, conducted by one of the authors in March and April 2005. Drawing on our professional networks we identified mobile email users who were invited to participate in the study. Efforts were made to achieve diversity of age, occupation, usage experience, gender and location. The 11 male and 2 female participants work in large Canadian cities like Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Regina, in a variety of industries. p. 3

A conceptual framework (Miles & Huberman, 1994) was developed for the research. This framework did not set out testable hypotheses but rather identified key issues for investigation. p. 4

This paper adopts a critical hermeneutics perspective. p. 4

Applying the hermeneutic circle approach of iterative data analysis, data were coded a second time to identify paradoxes and contradictions of mobile email use (using the categories outlined in the literature review), and a third time to understand how these paradoxes were interpreted by the users applying Morgan's (1997) psychic prison as the analytical lens. p. 4

Background and Literature Review



Discussion and Conclusions

  • Do people really need to be checking their email on the beach or while driving?
  • Is it sensible behaviour to jump out of bed in the morning and immediately check email?
  • Should people be so connected to their offices and work that they feel they must take their mobile devices with them on vacation, or to the doctor's office?
  • Is it absolutely necessary to work all the time, filling in “dead” time by writing emails in planes and taxis?
  • Is it realistic to try to be in two or more places at once, managing communication with multiple parties through mobile email? p. 12

Tables and figures

Figure 1: Contradictory Interpretations of Mobile Email Usage Figure 1 ~ p. 9

Figure 2: The Psychic Prison: Perceptions of Mobile Email Usage Inside and Outside
Plato's Cave Figure 2 ~ p. 11


BlackBerry, INF6001W, Mobility, critical hermeneutics, electronic mail, handheld devices, psy