Document (#28314)

Author
Kling, R.
Rosenbaum, H.
Sawyer, S.
Title
Understanding and communicating social informatics : a framework for studying and teaching the human contexts of information and communication technologies
Imprint
Medford, NJ : Information Today
Year
2005
Pages
XX, 216 S
Isbn
1-57387-228-8
Footnote
Rez. in: JASIST 58(2007) no.1, S.151-152 (R. Gazan): "Anyone who has ever struggled to describe social informatics to a skeptical colleague or a room full of students will appreciate this clear and well-organized introduction to the field. It is at once a literature review, a teaching guide, and an outreach manifesto for integrating the social aspects of information and communication technologies (ICTs) into system design, analysis, and research. The context of this book is of particular importance. Rob Kling founded social informatics as a research field, and led the creation of the Center for Social Informatics at Indiana University. Kling pinpoints 1996 as the year when his long-simmering ideas coalesced into social informatics, though in the Foreword, William H. Dutton argues that the birth date of the field was actually more than a decade earlier. Kling, Howard Rosenbaum, and Steve Sawyer worked on this book intermittently for years, but upon Kling's death in May 2003, Rosenbaum and Sawyer completed the work. Under the circumstances, the book could easily have become a festschrift or celebration of Kling's career, but the authors maintain tight focus on the findings and applicability of social informatics research throughout. While much of Kling's work is cited, and very little of it critiqued, overall there is a good balance and synthesis of diverse approaches to social informatics research. Creating a conceptual critical mass around an idea like social informatics is only the first phase in its evolution. The initial working definition of social informatics-"the interdisciplinary study of the design, uses and consequences of ICTs that takes into account their interaction with institutional and cultural contexts" (p. 6)-was developed at a seminal 1997 workshop, and background information about the workshop's participants and process is summarized in two brief appendices. The results of this workshop yielded a raft of empirical studies, and at this point in the development of social informatics, the authors' focus on applying and extending the results of these initial studies is particularly well-timed. The authors identify a disconnect between popular, professional, and scholarly discourse on how ICTs coevolve with organizations, institutions, and society, and they aim to bridge this gap by providing a "pointer to the practical value of the scholarship on organizational and societal effects of computerization" (p. 3).
The opening chapter provides a 10-page introduction to social informatics and identifies three high-level subdomains of the field: the normative, analytical, and critical orientations. Chapter 2 then narrows the focus to the social, technical, and institutional nature and consequences of ICTs, and provides a well-chosen review and analysis of social informatics research, mostly case studies of system implementations gone wrong. The recurring finding in these cases is that the social and institutional context of the system implementation was not sufficiently accounted for. In light of these concrete examples, the value and applicability of a social informatics perspective becomes clear. The chapters are organized exceptionally well, with bullet points and tables summarizing core ideas. One particularly good example of the organization of ideas is a table comparing designer-centric and social design views on the task of designing ICTs for workplaces (p. 42). Included are the different views of work, intended goals, design assumptions, and technological choices inherent in each design philosophy. Readers can immediately grasp how a social informatics perspective, as opposed to the more traditional designer-centric perspective, would result in significant differences in the design of workplace ICTs. The chapter titled, "Social Informatics for Designers, Developers, and Implementers of ICT Based Systems," provides an extremely focused introduction to the importance of social informatics for system builders, with more examples of large-scale system breakdowns resulting from failure to account for context, such as the 1988 destruction of a civilian passenger jet in the Persian Gulf by the USS Vincennes. However, many of the chapter subheadings have promising titles such as "ICTs Rarely Cause Social Transformations" (p. 28), and though the findings of several studies that reach this conclusion are reviewed, this section is but a page in length and no dissenting findings are mentioned; this seems insufficient support for such a substantial claim. Throughout the book, conclusions from different studies are effectively juxtaposed and summarized to create a sense of a cohesive body of social informatics research findings, which are expressed in a very accessible manner. At the same time, the findings are discussed in relation to their applicability to diverse audiences outside the social informatics field: system designers and developers, ICT policy analysts, teachers of technical curricula, and ICT professionals. Anticipating and addressing the concerns of such a diverse group of audiences outside the field of social informatics is an admirable but overly ambitious goal to achieve in a 153-page book (not counting the excellent glossary, references, and appendices). For example, the chapter on social informatics for ICT policy analysts includes approximately twenty pages of ICT policy history in the U.S. and Europe, which seems a luxury in such a small volume. Though it is unquestionably relevant material, it does not fit well with the rest of the book and might be more effective as a stand-alone chapter for an information policy course, perhaps used in tandem with the introduction.
In the authors' view, the primary means to more widespread acceptance of social informatics is to integrate it with the more traditionally technical curricula of ICT oriented students in computer science and related fields, and this is the focus of Chapter 5. Here the book delivers on its promise of providing a clear framework for both understanding and teaching social informatics. The goal is not simply to learn how to build systems, but to learn how to build systems that account for the context in which they are used. The authors prescribe field experience problem-driven learning techniques embedded in the needs of particular organizations, and a critical, reflexive orientation toward ICT design and construction. In a chapter endnote, the authors mention that a socia informatics perspective would also be useful to students in other fields such as communication and education, but that space limitations required a focus on computer science. Though an understandable choice, if the goal is to convince those outside the field of the value of a social informatics perspective, it would seem natural to include management or economics curricula as fertile ground to analyze some of the tangible effects of a failure to account for the social context of system implementations. Chapter 6 is something of an outreach manifesto, a treatise on communicating social informatics research to professional and research communities, and an explicit call for social informatics researchers "to shoulder the responsibility for communicating the core of social informatics . . . to ICT professionals and other research communities" (pp. 106-107). The authors are not shy about framing social informatics less as a research field and more as an up-and-coming competitor in the marketplace of ICT-oriented ideas; achieving more widespread acceptance of social informatics is presented almost as a sales and marketing challenge, the goal being "getting to yes" in the minds of ICT professionals. It is an effective presentation strategy, but one that comes with a cost.
Throughout the book, the authors portray social informatics research as being underutilized and misunderstood outside the field, and they should be commended for acknowledging and addressing these problems head-on. Yes, there is resistance from ICT professionals and faculty and students in technical disciplines, most of whom have not been trained to consider social and institutional issues as part of their work. However, this stance sometimes results in a defensive tone. Social informatics research is repeatedly described as "systematic," "rigorous," and "empirically anchored," as if in preemptive response to doubts about the seriousness of social informatics scholarship. Chapter titles such as "Perceptions of the Relevance of Social Informatics Research" and "Raising the Profile of Social Informatics Research" contribute to this impression. Nonscholarly observers are dismissed as "pundits," and students who lack a social informatics perspective have "typically naïve" conceptualizations (p. 100). The concluding chapter ends not with a powerful and memorable synthesis, but with a final plea: "Taking Social Informatics Seriously." The content of the book is strong enough to stand on its own, but the manner in which it is presented sometimes detracts from the message. The book's few weaknesses can be viewed simply as the price of attempting both to survey social informatics research findings and to articulate their importance for such a diverse set of audiences, in such a brief volume. The central tension of the book, and the field of social informatics as a whole, is that on the one hand the particular-use context of an ICT is of critical importance, but furthering a social informatics agenda requires that some context-independent findings and tools be made evident to those outside the field. Understanding and Communicating Social Informatics is an important and worthwhile contribution toward reconciling this tension, and translating social informatics research findings into better real-world systems."
LCSH
Computers and civilization
RSWK
Kommunikationstechnik / Informationstechnik / Gesellschaft (GBV)
Kommunikationstechnik / Gesellschaft (BVB)
BK
02.13 Wissenschaftspraxis
54.08 Informatik in Beziehung zu Mensch und Gesellschaft
DDC
303.48/33 22
LCC
QA76.9.C66K54 2005

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