of The American Society for Information Science

Vol. 26, No. 3

February/March 2000

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Special Section

Social Informatics: Introduction

by Ann Peterson Bishop

Social informatics is gaining ground as a recognized (and recognizable) area of study in library and information science schools around the country. My favorite definition of social informatics was formulated by Rob Kling, who founded the Center for Social Informatics at Indiana University (http://www.slis.indiana.edu/CSI/) and is one of the prime movers in this emerging research domain:

    "A serviceable working conception of social informatics is that it identifies a body of research that examines the social aspects of computerization. A more formal definition is 'the interdisciplinary study of the design, uses and consequences of information technologies that takes into account their interaction with institutional and cultural contexts.'" (Kling, 1999)

At Indiana University's School of Library and Information Science, Kling maintains the Social Informatics home page [http://www.slis.indiana.edu/SI/] and teaches several courses related to social informatics. Other schools have also begun offering courses that bear the name of, or reflect the growing body of work in, social informatics. For instance, last year at Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems, Nancy Van House conducted a seminar called "Social Informatics of Digital Libraries." This past fall, I also taught an identically named course here at the University of Illinois. At each LIS school, the focus of these social informatics courses is somewhat different, tailored to the expertise, interests and ongoing research of each instructor. The birth of social informatics seminars at Berkeley and Illinois is not coincidental: Nancy Van House and I both became more immersed in social informatics in part through our affiliation with NSF/ARPA/NASA Digital Libraries Initiative projects. In fact, we are currently editing a book, with our colleague Barbara Buttenfield, called Digital Library Use: Social Practice in Design and Evaluation. Chapters contributed by, among others, Christine Borgman and Gary Marchionini, also reflect the extent to which socially grounded studies of information systems are entrenched in LIS curricula around the country.

This special section of the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science represents a kind of "student forum" in that its papers were all derived from the term papers of my seminar students who are their lead authors. Collectively, these papers embody social informatics as the foundation of research and teaching agendas that may be pursued by the next generation of LIS faculty.

The papers presented here are intended to provide the ASIS membership with an introduction to

  • prominent social theories that inform social informatics research;
  • selected research results in the field of social informatics;
  • the types of study methods employed by social informatics researchers; and
  • issues facing those involved in the conduct and application of social informatics research results.

They also show the range of important social informatics research problems that arise in association with a variety of user communities. They include such disparate topics as the need for situated studies of aircraft flight deck information processing (to better understand how critical human errors are made) to the need to inform policy related to intellectual property protection through the close study of social values and practices inherent in everyday decisions. In addition, the papers in this section call attention to the wide range of methodological approaches including ethnographic studies of work practices, participatory design, social histories of information technology and action research that can be adopted to study social aspects of information system design, use and consequences.

A prominent theme in our seminar was bridging research and action in social informatics. We looked at the way system designers, users and social scientists come together (and fall apart) in the design and implementation of information technology (see Bowker, et al., 1997 for a magnificent collection of papers on this topic). A related focal point was how research results have been employed to inform policymaking, the development of appropriate user outreach and training programs, the re-design of system interfaces and improvements in local social and environmental conditions. These lines of thought are also well represented by the papers presented here. I hope that this special section will spur interest among those ASIS members for whom social informatics may be relatively unfamiliar territory and encourage critical reflection on the benefits, limits and difficulties of incorporating social informatics in LIS.

Two other papers related to this seminar will appear in later issues of the Bulletin. One is a paper on cultural usability of digital libraries, contributed by Elke Duncker, a faculty member at Middlesex University in London, who presented a guest lecture on this topic to the class. The other, of which I am a co-author, is on the use of scenarios in developing a community health information system.

Further Reading

Kling, R. (1999). What is social informatics and why does it matter? D-Lib Magazine, 5 (1). [http://www. dlib.org:80/dlib/january99/kling/01kling.html]

Bowker, G. C., Turner, W., Star, S. L., & Gasser, L. (1997). Introduction. In G. C. Bowker, S. L. Star, W. Turner, & L. Gasser (Eds.), Social science, technical systems, and cooperative work: Beyond the great divide (pp. xi-xxiii). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.. .

Ann Peterson Bishop is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached there by mail at LIS Building (MC-493), 501 East Daniel St., Champaign, IL 61820-6212; or by e-mail at abishop@uiuc.edu. Authors of the following papers can be reached at the same ground address or by e-mail addresses noted in each article.

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