B  U  L  L  E  T  I  N

    of the American Society for Information Science and Technology         Vol. 31, No. 5        June/July 2005

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Social Informatics: Beyond Emergence

by Alex Halavais

Alex Halavais is assistant professor in the School of Informatics at the University at Buffalo where he also serves as director of the master’s program in informatics. He can be reached by email at halavais@buffalo.edu

Development of information and communication technologies, especially over the last decade, has been focused specifically on flexible tools that are designed to shape our social existence. Recognizing the recent acceleration of a centuries-long shift to networked amorphous social connections, those who design information services and technologies are now seeking to create tools that support and accelerate these changes. Social change is not merely a secondary effect, but also the reason many new technologies are developed and adopted.

This trend is demonstrated by continuing efforts to label it. In recent years, “social computing,” “sociable media” and “social software” have joined the more established fields of computer-mediated communication, computer supported collective work and human-computer interaction. Naturally, work related to the interaction of computing and communication technologies with individuals and groups pervades recent research across the traditional disciplines as well as more specialized programs – in “science and technology studies,” for example. The popularity of such work reflects the striking changes in the way society now interacts.

Even as a popular understanding of the relationship of social organization to technological systems emerges, researchers interested in the area often find themselves striving for common understandings of these fundamental relationships and attempting to work around (or break through) disciplinary walls. What is needed is a view that allows us to find such commonalities and identify impediments to shared knowledge. Researchers in the area, while acknowledging the capability of technology to help effect social change, seem unwilling or unable to disrupt their own institutions and knowledge ecologies. While there are dangers in becoming too inwardly focused at present, we need to collectively understand and make this emerging field into a visible and tractable space for sharing and fostering knowledge.

Social Informatics as a Meta-Discourse

It seems that the term social informatics is cursed by the need to continually define itself, despite entirely serviceable definitions provided from its introduction. Social informatics aims to understand the relationship of technological systems to social systems. This definition may seem overly broad or even universal. After all, by understanding the relationship between technology and society, do we not also seek to understand the two independently? As with most fields of inquiry, however, breadth of field is far less important than its perspective. Understanding the affordances of a doorknob may seem far removed from the issues of computerization Rob Kling initially brought forward under this heading, but they share the root questions: What is it that makes this technology work? How does the intended use of the technology relate to its use within the existing social practices? In what ways, both intended and unintended, does the technology affect the structures of interaction and understanding within a community?

But social informatics is in danger of remaining a peripheral label. The reason, at least in the United States, that the terms bioinformatics and medical informatics have more currency is not the strength of their theoretical core, but their utility as rubrics and their pervasive institutional presence both in business and academia. Social informatics lacks the footprint of these examples – it is largely missing from the titles of large conferences and journals, for example. There are now a handful of informatics schools and departments in the United States. Those who work in these institutions, while they may encounter one another in the interstices of various conferences (in divisions of the Association for Computing Machinery, the International Communication Association and the American Sociological Association, for example), and encounter each others’ work within interdisciplinary journals, there are few ascendant central or centralizing scholarly organizations or journals that focus on social informatics over and above information science, communication or computer applications. While a number of organizations might come to fulfill such a role, including ASIS&T, at present none have taken up the mantel of social informatics or embraced the breadth of studies of society and technology.

There are two things needed to make this invisible college more visible. The first is a set of master problems that permeate the involved fields. The most central problem remains how structures of technology and of society change over time. Clearly, DeSanctis and Poole’s “adaptive structuration theory” addresses this question directly, at least within a particular context and from a particular perspective. At a different scale and from a different methodological perspective, Bruno Latour’s work has also approached this question. A genealogy of issues related to the dynamics and arrangement of social networks and technological systems can easily be traced to the cybernetic and systems approaches of a half-century ago, but the question of structure and structuration are equally present throughout sociology and information sciences. Again, that such observations are widespread does not mean we are precluded from making them the central perspective of social informatics.

The second way to develop the field is to provide institutional legitimacy, abrogating the barriers between disciplines. Some elements – a substantial number of faculty with Ph.D.s in social informatics, well-established journals – take considerable time to nurture. However, there are more proximate goals. Those who work in the field of social informatics are sometimes reluctant to identify themselves as such. Particularly for academics early in their careers, there are substantial pressures to work toward established disciplinary norms. This conservative force extends beyond tenure. From recognition by funding agencies to popular understanding of your work, making personal investments in a new area can be a risky proposition.

Universities that have already taken a risk by embracing informatics can do more to ensure that social informatics remains viable. At present, there is too little interaction among students and faculty of the existing institutions. While there is a natural interest in being first and shaping the future of the field, unless that field grows and other universities join in, social informatics will be relegated to the shadows. Exclusivity is no way to grow an academic field. Support becomes even more important when it comes to the creation of a knowledge environment for those studying social informatics.

Perhaps the most difficult divisions are not institutional, but disciplinary in the sense of local knowledge. Each discipline has spent decades grinding lenses that shape what they consider worthy pursuits. These epistemological and methodological gaps are substantial, and bridging those gaps is more than merely incidental to the development of the field.

Design, Research and Design Research

Nowhere are such disciplinary gaps more salient than in the division between “research” and “design.” Those who do social research often see the value of good design, and may even study it, but their aim is to do so in order to build theory. Whatever work is not primarily useful in advancing an explanation of social structure and behavior is of ancillary concern. Designers explain their world through rebuilding it, and while they often see value in research as a guide to such design, it is only useful in so far as it can be reified and applied in a practical way. This tension between theory-driven research and design-oriented process is difficult to resolve, not because these two approaches are inherently incommensurable, but because of the institutional structures that support and impede them.

The field of communication has had some experience with such a divide between practical and theoretical research, a divide it has yet to decisively resolve. Communication in the United States is organized around both professional preparation and social research. Many communication programs began as schools of journalism or of rhetoric and developed only with significant help from sociologists and psychologists. Much of the most influential work was what Paul Lazarsfeld called “administrative research,” funded by those seeking to increase the effectiveness of their marketing machinery. At the same time, those who see communication as a science often eschew the professional orientation and hope to rid communication of this association so that it may be drawn closer to the research tradition of the social sciences. This tension remains, though over time practitioners have become more aware of how theory might inform their work, and researchers have been more willing to place their own work in a more practical context.

Professional and research orientations can and should stand shoulder to shoulder. Social sciences with longer histories show that, while divides certainly remain, there is common ground between the applied and theoretical in fields as diverse as physics and philosophy. As institutional structures are built up around informatics, we will see the increasing need and ability to provide theoretical explanations for the phenomena that information professionals continue to tackle. Indeed, the development of a theoretical core is vital to the survival and development of the field. Creating technological systems will remain the lifeblood of informatics across its many divisions, and recognition of shared principles regarding such systems will continue to be of importance in shaping the new field. But without fostering an understanding of social systems that both create and are reproduced by social technologies, connections across disciplines will remain tentative and temporary.

Though the individual creative impulse will always be important to the design process (as it is to the process of social research), that process is ever more complex and often requires collaboration among large groups of designers. Tools that make comprehending and controlling large information spaces easier and allow for this to be done collectively necessarily draw on effective social research. Therefore, particularly when it comes to social information systems and user studies, the designer has become a social researcher.

Likewise, social scientists have always been designers, in that they have always needed to create technologies of observation. To understand society, it has always been necessary to build tools that allowed for structured observation and probing. These probes often took the form of survey instruments or experimental environments. Social scientists may not immediately see the similarity in designing, for example, a survey and a database, but each requires some understanding of how knowledge is exchanged within a group, and the ways in which this can be represented. Even as designers require more training in the social sciences, social scientists find themselves in need of design fundamentals to better understand the social world.

Locating the Social in Social Informatics

Scientists have often turned to modern technology as a metaphor and a way of understanding social and biological systems. The mind has variously been described as mental chemistry, a hydraulic system, magnetic fields and, of course, a computer. There is a danger that we too may be accused of chronocentrism for attempting to understand society from the perspective of computerization. Nonetheless, there are clearly homologies between the complex organization of society, of information and of technological systems.

The term social informatics leads to confusion for many and with good reason. Informatics is sometimes used interchangeably with information science, to describe ways of managing information and making it available, often to an organization. In most cases, “X informatics” refers to the use of computers to support the management of information regarding X. For example, bioinformatics aims to compare, visualize, organize and analyze very large sets of genomic and molecular data. If social informatics were to extend this usage, we would expect it to study ways in which computers can be used to compare, visualize, organize and analyze large data sets related to social behavior. While this is a part of social informatics – particularly “e-social science” and simulations of artificial societies – it is not the major focus. Instead, the focus is on the ways in which society and technology co-evolve. This confusion is difficult to overcome, particularly when schools pursuing informatics in a general sense also house those who are interested particularly in social informatics.

Computer professionals are sometimes called “wizards,” and there is a reason to associate informaticists with a magical realm – they are privy to esoteric knowledge about systems that otherwise seem familiar. The role of the magician in society, as Malinowski came to recognize late in his writings, is not all that different from the scientist or organic intellectual. Information professionals are in the position of telling society about itself. This places them in a unique position for observing society and gives them a unique obligation to help to improve society. While we may be creating tools that serve a more limited purpose, in order to do so, we must reach an understanding of what people want, how they interact and how they share knowledge. Some may be tempted to limit informatics to the application of information technology, but the social component is vital across informatics and must be preserved.

Tending Our Own Garden

If social informatics is a gathering storm, if there are a large number of people who do work within the area and are willing to build the field, we should be uniquely able to do so. As information professionals, we should be at the leading edge of scholarly communication. Such innovation seems to be the case with other informatics. The benefits accrued in sharing data among bioinformaticists led to a clamoring for open exchange of ideas and for access to data. Clearly, if social informatics is to be a success, it requires a knowledge ecology that fosters such exchanges and allows easy access to the most recent and continuing research.

The Journal of Computer Mediated Communication (JCMC) provides us with an example of how an electronically accessible, widely read journal can act as a catalyst for a field of study. Likewise, FirstMonday, though perhaps not as widely esteemed as JCMC, remains an organ for distribution of research within the field of social informatics and a crossroads for exchanging information between disciplines. Neither of these journals directly identifies with social informatics. While there are several journals that are more closely attuned to the social informatics perspective, because they are only open to subscribers they tend not to be as widely read. If the aim is to present social informatics as a viable and growing field, there is a need for journals that evangelize the work done in this field and that provide a point of contact for scholars.

Perhaps equally striking is that so few researchers who self-identify as scholars of social informatics participate heavily in either open or closed systems of interaction online. How is it that we study computer-supported collective work without using such systems to further our own research? Outside of a few graduate students and an even smaller number of faculty, researchers in the area do not maintain weblogs or even home pages where their work can be easily accessed.

While there is certainly a danger in becoming insular or self-centered, insularity is not a problem the field faces right now. We need to be drawing together the wide range of ideas and approaches to research. We need to be sharing our work, finding common themes, as well as areas of disagreement. We need the kind of discursive community that we study. To borrow a phrase from the dot-com boom, we need to start eating our own dog food.

Bringing designers and researchers of every stripe under the same roof is the greatest challenge to the field of social informatics, but it is also its greatest strength. The division between designers and researchers is an artificial one, tied largely to existing institutional structures. We, perhaps better than anyone, recognize how entrenched such structures can be. Nonetheless, by crafting our own knowledge ecology, by presenting examples of how scholarly communication can be improved, we provide both infrastructure for the emerging field and an object for shared research.

For Further Reading

Burkhardt M., & Brass, D. (1990). Changing patterns or patterns of change: The effects of a change in technology on social network structure and power. Administrative Science Quarterly, 35(1), 104-127.

DeSanctis, G., & Poole, M. S. (1994). Capturing the complexity in advanced technology use: Adaptive structuration theory. Organization Science, 5(2), 121-147.

Kling, R. (1999). What is social informatics and why does it matter? D-LIB Magazine, 5(1). Retrieved April 25, 2005, from www.dlib.org/dlib/january99/kling/01kling.html .

Latour, B. (1996). Aramis, or the love of technology. C. Porter (trans.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Lazarsfeld, P. (1941). Remarks on administrative and critical communications research. Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, 9(1), 2-16.

Malinowski, B. (1965). Coral gardens and their magic. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.

Norman, D. (1999). Affordance, conventions, design. interactions, 6(3), 38-43.

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