I was reading some introductory texts on Social Informatics (SI) that, Rob King, one of its main authors, defines as the “interdisciplinary study of the design, uses and consequences of information technologies that takes into account their interaction with institutional and cultural contexts.” (1999, p. 205). I’m trying to thing if my own work could fit (or how could it do it) with this body of knowledge. The idea that: “social informatics research focuses on exploring, explaining, and theorizing about the socio-technical contexts of ICTs.” (p. 428) seems like a good point of departure. One of the keys of the SI approach is the avoiding and rejecting of any technological (and in the same way, social) determinism. Using the concept of “socio-technical” as a way to mix together both: “technological elements and social relationships into an effectively inseparable ensemble” (1999, p. 210-211). This ensemble is therefore, a “complex, interdependent system comprised of: people, hardware, software, techniques, resources and information structures” (1999, p. 213). Although SI is not properly a theory or a methodology, it seems seductive enough to think about it as a “hat” for my research, especially since it shares a lot with some other approaches I’ve being using like SCOT or ANT (below more about this). The most refine and suggestive tool of SI (without any proper knowledge of it and just with a few readings) is the Socio-Technical Interaction Networks (STIN) model.
The STIN model
In the paper A Bit More to IT: Scholarly Communication Forums as Socio-Technical Interaction Networks, Kling and his colleagues give an overview or the “assumptions (that) underlie the application of the STIN methodology, and drive the methods we use to construct STINs” (Kling, McKim and King, 2003, p. 56-57). These assumptions are:
● The social and the technological are not meaningfully separable, at least not for the purpose of understanding how to design forums that are usable and sustainable.
● Theories of social behaviour not only can, but should influence technical design choices (and thus the STIN methodology has a normative dimension as well).
● System participants are embedded in multiple, overlapping, and nontechnologically mediated social relationships, and therefore may have multiple, often conflicting, commitments. Further, the system plays roles of varying importance in the social or professional lives of system interactors. The sustainability of a system will depend on other systems and communication forums that the interactors already participate in; interactors may be bound only weakly to the forum under discussion.
● Sustainability and routine operations are critical, and must play a key role in determining design. (Kling, McKim and King, 2003, p. 56-57)
So far, my own findings seem consistent with these assumptions although I’m less interested in the “design” of technological artefacts that I am of the integration of certain socio-technical practices in the everyday life. The authors claim that “STINs, like all networks, consist of nodes and links. Constructing a STIN is the complex process of determining what are the relevant nodes and links: what is important enough to matter, and what linkage is so tangential that its impact on the whole is negligible?” (Kling, McKim and King, 2003, p. 56) and they propose some “heuristics for research STINs” that are more “illustrative than enumerative”. The heuristics for use in STIN modelling are:
● Identify a relevant population of system interactors
● Identify core interactor groups
● Identify incentives
● Identify excluded actors and undesired interactios
● Identify existing communication forums
● Identify system architectural choice points
● Identify resource flows
● Map architectural choice points to socio-technical characteristics (Kling, McKim and King, 2003,p. 57)
There is other element that is worth to notice (besides the already mentioned socio-technical construct). The concept of “actors” (instead of “users”):
We prefer the term “participants” or “actors” instead of “users” for several reasons. First, a user is characterized in relationship to a particular system (such as a user of Microsoft Word), whereas a participant or an actor may participate in multiple communications forums (such as an e-print server, a journal, and several conferences). Second, the term “user” generally implies a single type of relationship to the system, whereas a participant or actor may play multiple roles (such as reader, editor, critic, instructor, etc.) (Kling, McKim and King, 2003, p. 57)
This vision is very useful to understand the complexity of socio-technical interactions since one of the key analysis in my work is the statement that, there’s a need, inside of Internet Studies, of breaking dichotomies and simplistic studies of platforms (for example studying just facebook). In my case, flickr is not a platform but just one of the several nodes of a complex network of people, technologies (of communication and image creation), photos and interests. Following this argument, we could state that STIN approach is very similar to others like SCOT and ANT but it’s also worth noticing the differences between them:
STIN, ANT and SCOT: similarities and differences.
The first point in common is that none of the three approaches could be considered a single theory or a methodological “guide”. In his paper Socio-technical Interaction Networks: A discussion of the strengths, weaknesses and future of Kling’s STIN model, Meyer (2006) gives an overview of the similarities and differences between the three approaches. Citing Star’s work, he argues that the “STIN approach shares a common view with both SCOT and ANT; all three approaches reject simplistic, positivistic explanations for complex social systems all too common among more mainstream sociological approaches [Star, 1988].” (p. 40). This takes to the fact that “this critical orientation demands that social informatics research be based on rigorous empirical work.” (Sawyer, 2005, p. 10, italics in the original,), and this work is carried (or could be done) integrating different theories and methods. So far, it seems congruent with both two approaches. Also, the three “draws on qualitative approaches including participant observation, interviews, ethnography, archival record collection, and other forms of fieldwork.” (Sawyer and Eschenfelder, 2002, p. 437) Meyer continues:
The STIN approach differs from ANT in being much more conservative in attributing agency to non-human actants, is more prescriptive than SCOT or ANT, and focuses on patterns of routine use more frequently than patterns of adoption and innovation. The STIN approach is consistent with SCOT and ANT, however, in the sense that the identification of relevant social groups, understanding interpretive flexibility, and examining processes of translation and enrolment are crucial to developing a STIN model (Meyer, 2006, p. 38)
One of my problems with SCOT and ANT was, besides the issue or power, that I didn’t find them useful (probably because of my lack of knowledge, not because they didn’t offer tools for it) to help me understand phenomena that involved “creation of meaning” (microbes and bicycles had, for me, different “ontologies” than pictures, social relationships and identities). I always said that I was looking for a mix between STS and Cultural Studies. Meyer again gives more clues about this issue:
One of the major differences between Latour’s and Kling’s approached is that “Latour theorizes about how new technologies come to be; Kling and Scacchi theorize about how new technologies come to be used” [Orlikowski & Iacono, 2001:126]. The STIN approach is also less committed to ANT’s concept of ‘radical indeterminacy’ [Hanseth et al., 2004; Latour, 1988] and is “much more conservative in attributing action to nonhuman agents” [Kling et al., 2003:66] (p. 39)
And also, and probably as important as the former:
STIN models differs significantly from actor–network theories in that STIN methodology requires that the analyst make attempts to understand the characteristics and scope of the interactors ahead of time, rather than taking the interactors as they come and following them through use or development of the forum. (Kling, McKim and King, 2003, p. 57)
I would have to think more about this and although labelling is always a problem and Kling was aware of that, nevertheless, it seems that the core of SI (the socio-technical approach) fits completely with my own research. Now, albeit SI approach is based on the “socio-technical” construct, at the end, it seems to me that is a goal oriented approach. It seems that it “needs to understand” is a first step in the way to “improve the efficiency”. This is probably because its close related to organizational studies. What about then with creation of cultural meaning? In a fixed organization, the roles and the flows of communication seems to be clear (at least in their goals) than in a pure “social space”. In my case, the people and technology involved in the digital photography practices doesn’t seem to have a collective goal in the first place (although clearly at the end they have it; not only the survival of the collective but, putting dramatically: the shaping of the meaning of photography itself). On the other hand, I’m interested in issues like identity which doesn’t seem to fit in the SI approach and, nonetheless, I consider it important for my research.
When social Informatics met digital photography practices research
I’m using the concept of “practice” (which could be seen as the materialization, in the everyday life, of the socio-technical network and SI suggests that “the situated nature and uses of computing mean that context and use are bound up through practice” (Sawyer, 2005, p. 10). In my case, I study people with a great deal of computer skills, the avant-garde and it seems that SI deals better with the implementation of information systems that with the heavy using of those systems for something else. But also and probably more difficult to integrate with the SI approach is that, in my research, the relationship between computers and groups have another important element that is shaped and also shapes the “network”: the visual imagery technologies. Although in the digital realm is much related to computers use, in fact is a whole different system on its own. The ultimate goal in my research is to understand the way ICTs, social agents and groups, shape, with their practice, photography and its meanings and therefore, participate in the creation of Digital Culture. What it seems tempting is that, if we take seriously the socio-technical approach, we should have to develop methodologies that account all the complex and different elements of the ensemble, it can’t be a fixed recipe but an open opportunity for rigorous creativity and empirical engage with the construction of our objects (something that is in tune with the anthropological base that I’m using).
Kling, R., McKim, G., & King, A. (2003). A Bit More to IT: Scholarly Communication Forums as Socio-Technical Interaction Networks. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 54(1), 46-67.
Kling, R. (1999). “What is Social Informatics and Why Does it Matter?” D-Lib Magazine, volume 5 number1, at http://www.dlib.org:80/dlib/january99/kling/01kling.html
Meyer, E. T. (2006). Socio-technical Interaction Networks: A discussion of the strengths, weaknesses and future of Kling’s STIN model. In Berleur, J., Numinen, M.I., Impagliazzo, J., (Eds.), IFIP International Federation for Information Processing, Volume 223, Social Informatics: An Information Society for All? In Remembrance of Rob Kling (pp. 37-48). Boston: Springer.
Sawyer, S. (2005). Social informatics: Principles and opportunities. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology June: 2–6.
Sawyer and Eschenfelder, (2002). S. Sawyer and K.R. Eschenfelder, Social informatics: perspectives, examples, and trends. In: B. Cronin, Editor, Annual review of information science and technology 36, Information Today Inc./ASIST, Medford, NJ (2002), pp. 427–465