Social Informatics

Social Informatics (SI) refers to the body of research and study that examines social aspects of computerization — including the roles of information technology in social and organizational change and the ways that the social organization of information technologies are influenced by social forces and social practices. SI includes studies and other analyses that are labeled as social impacts of computing, social analysis of computing, studies of computer-mediate communication (CMC), information policy, “computers and society,” organizational informatics, interpretive informatics, and so on.

SI studies and SI courses are organized within diverse fields, including information systems, anthropology, computer science, communications, sociology, library and information science, political science and science and technology studies (STS). SI provides a common meeting ground for isolated and scattered scholars to locate each other as well as relevant academic programs and courses.

Social Informatics is a relatively new term that can serve as a banner for those who are interested in contributing to these studies. The name “Social Informatics” can also serve as a pointer, by which we can help lead others to appropriate theories, key ideas, studies, findings, books, articles, courses of study, etc.

History of the Term

The term “Social Informatics” emerged from a series of lively conversations in February and March 1996 among scholars with an interest in advancing critical scholarship about the social aspects of computerization, including Phil Agre, Jacques Berleur, Brenda Dervin, Andrew Dillon, Rob Kling, Mark Poster, Karen Ruhleder, Ben Shneiderman, Leigh Star and Barry Wellman. As the conversation developed, it became clear that labels that could energize scholars in one sub-community couldreadily turn off participants in other communities. Various participants preferred different labels; a sufficient consensus emerged around “SocialInformatics” that it can serve as a working label.

SI studies aim to ensure that technical research agendas and system designs are relevant to people’s lives.The key word is relevance, ensuring that technical work is socially-driven rather than technology-driven.Relevance has two dimensions: process and substance. Design and implementation processes need to be relevant to the actual social dynamics of a given site of social practice, and the substance of design and implementation (the actual designs, the actual systems) need to be relevant to the lives of the people they affect. SI sets agendas for all the technical work in two ways: 1) more superficially, by drawing attention to functionalities that people value, thus setting priorities for design and implementation; and 2) more fundamentally, by articulating those analytical categories that have been found useful in describing social reality, and that which therefore should also define technical work in/for that reality as well.

Unfortunately, many technical professionals have viewed social concerns as peripheral. One key role of SI is to stand things back on their feet, so that social concerns are central and define the ground that technical work stands on (Phil Agre, 1996).

Based on communication received from Ingar Roggen on October 17, 2005, however, Kling was not the first to assign the name “Social Informatics”. To this we owe our thanks to the Norwegian sociologist Stein Bråten. During a visit to Oslo in the early 1980s, Kling was informed by Bråten about the field of “sosioinformatikk“, its terms, concepts, theories, models, and research projects carried out by Bråten and his collaborators, including Kristen Nygaard, creator of Simula, the first object oriented programming language.

Foundational Documents

The following documents have been prepared as part of an effort to shape the field of Social Informatics.

Early Writings

Below are some articles Rob Kling wrote introducing Social Informatics as a field of study in its own right.