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Social Informatics: Overview, Principles and Opportunities Pennim1.jpg

Steve Sawyer is associate professor in the School of Information Sciences & Technology at Pennsylvania State University where he also serves as research fellow in the Center for the Information Society. He can be reached by email at sawyer@ist.psu.edu

Social informatics is the term that I and others use to represent the trans-disciplinary study of the design, deployment and uses of information and communication technologies (ICT) that account for their interaction with institutional and cultural contexts, including organizations and society. This research is done by scholars in fields such as library and information science, information technology, education, communications, organizational studies, sociology, information systems and computer science. Those pursuing social informatics engage a diverse set of topics and employ a variety of approaches. Social informatics is the term that I and others use to represent the trans-disciplinary study of the design, deployment and uses of information and communication technologies (ICT) that account for their interaction with institutional and cultural contexts, including organizations and society. This research is done by scholars in fields such as library and information science, information technology, education, communications, organizational studies, sociology, information systems and computer science. Those pursuing social informatics engage a diverse set of topics and employ a variety of approaches.

Social informatics has been characterized by many names including the social analysis of computing, human-centered computing, social studies of information technology and the sociology of computing. No matter the label, social informatics provides insights on computing that alternative approaches do not. For example, the rapid growth of socialware networking applications such as Friendster and Linkedin cannot be understood solely as computational artifacts, mediated communication tools, useful and useable interfaces or as electronic exchange markets. Rather, the variations in engaging and using these socialware networking applications reflect a complex interaction of technological and social factors, including social communication norms, group communication expectations, perceived cost and value of communication and the presence or absence of other communication tools. This more complex, situated, multi-level, multi-effect and socio-technical perspective is the added value of social informatics.

Here I articulate the principles that help to define social informatics, highlight some of the common findings from this work and identify two debates about engaging this form of research that serve as opportunities for you to get involved. My premise is that social informatics will become even more important as computerization continues to engage our society. Computerization, to paraphrase sociologist Beverly Burriss, is the implementation of computerized technology and advanced information systems, in conjunction with related socioeconomic changes, leading to a fundamental restructuring of many social organizations and institutions.

Computerization is quintessentially socio-technical: it is complex, large scale and situated in particular activities. For example, we can see Google’s intent to digitize holdings of five research libraries as an example of computerization. By providing digital access to materials previously (and only partially) available through the physical movement of these items through a complex interlibrary loan system changes both the patrons’ experiences (for example, ease of access) and alters the ways in which these libraries will develop and share their collections. Further, I would argue the Google project is likely to have larger scale effects – perhaps increasing pressure on libraries with fewer resources to mimic these efforts. In the five libraries that have agreed to work with Google, social informaticians will see social and computing issues regarding changes to access, possible changes in use (for both physical and online patrons) and variations in (and varieties of) policy and legal implications, systems design and systems deployment. Some social informaticians will see Google’s efforts in relation to other digital library activities and information management themes. Still others will focus on the roles of informational objects and the uses of digital representations as a changing form of social discourse.


Principles of Social Informatics

Unpacking Google’s plan to digitize five research libraries’ holdings helps illustrate several principles that together define social informatics work. First, the various issues I raised above underscore that social informatics is problem-oriented. This work is defined by its interest in particular issues and problems with computerization and not by its adherence to certain theories or particular methods (as is operations research). The range of issues raised illustrates that social informaticians see computing as a web-like arrangement of material artifacts such as computers and software, and the rules, norms and practices of people. These webs of computing are configurational in that their specific forms change over time and are intimately shaped by the social milieu in which they exist.

Webs of computing are, however, path dependent in that previous actions and events guide, but do not predict, the forms and shape of future actions and events. This characteristic is why social informaticians frame Google’s digitization plan in terms of changing social norms, issues of copyright, access and fair use. Digitization is more than just a media decision. From this perspective Google’s intentions raise important and unresolved issues of use, access, design and policy. It is clear that the technical act of digitization is possible (if laborious and based on many, as yet unmade, micro-design decisions). At the crux of Google’s ambitious efforts, however, are the tricky issues that deal with the social activities around these technical activities and ways in which what is social and what is technical interact. If Google’s digitization project is seen primarily as a technical act, or if they mistake the deeply and broadly socio-technical nature of this effort by seeing it as some sort of high-quality interface design, they do little to increase the likelihood of the effort’s long-term success. And, we know much about this topic: Ann Bishop and Nancy Van House have already highlighted the social informatics perspective of digital libraries. Google is a smartly run organization, so they are likely familiar with this insightful work.

By selecting five highly visible, and international, libraries, Google’s leaders made clear they understand that context matters. Context-dependency is a core principle of social informatics scholarship. The situated nature and uses of computing mean that context and use are bound up through practice: to report on use is to report on the situations of that use. In social informatics research, people are depicted as “social actors.” That is, people are depicted as having individual agency, acting in ways that reflect both informal social norms and formal rules of action, and perhaps most importantly not primarily users of ICTs. It is the social actor principle in play when social informatics scholars focus on the notion that many users of newly digitized library material are likely to follow some of our currently recognized information-seeking behaviors in relatively predictable ways even as others explore new (and possibly controversial or innovative) behaviors.

Social informatics work is often critical, as I’ve made clear through my quick analyses of socialware and Google’s digitization project. Social informatics scholars challenge taken-for-granted assumptions about the material value of an ICT, people’s actions toward both computing and the social worlds in which they live, and the nature of the arrangements among these elements. While critical perspectives are sometimes seen naively as being negative towards computerization or a particular ICT, a critical approach is more about exploring embedded and implicit assumptions. Social informaticians eschew deterministic statements such as “digitization is good for all of us” or “being on the Web means unproblematic access for all.”

This critical orientation demands that social informatics research be based on rigorous empirical work. The strong empirical basis of social informatics work, however, is combined with both methodological and theoretical plurality. Social informatics work typically includes an array of data collection approaches, sophisticated large-scale analyses and complex conceptualizations. The rigor, empirical depth and the plurality of theories and methods help to define social informatics work. This also helps make clear that social informaticians often are integrating theories and methods. In this explicit focus on integrative scholarship, social informatics research provides insights that other contemporary approaches to the study of computerization do not.