Science of Socio-Technical Systems: Summer Research Institute 2009

I had the pleasure of attending the 2009 Summer Research Institute formed by a network of academics interested in the ‘Science of Socio-Technical Systems’. It was held from 11-15 June 2009, outside of Syracuse, New York, in the Adirondack’s at the Minnowbrook Conference Center. The conference had an open wiki that provides an overview of the event and its participants. The event was organized by Professors Steve Sawyer, Syracuse University’s School of Information, and Tom Finholt, University of Michigan’s School of Information. It was the latest in a series of events inspired by Suzanne Iacono (NSF), who was a student of the late Professor Rob Kling, who coined the concept of ‘social informatics’, and was a former colleague of mine. (I argued with Rob in the late-1970s that the concept of ‘social informatics’ would not be viable, so it is fitting that I attend an institute inspired by it.) The set of events was launched by range of scholars, including Sara Kiesler at Carnegie Mellon University and Lee Sproull at NYU.

Minnowbrook Conference Center
Minnowbrook Conference Center

What is meant by ‘socio-technical’ was of course one topic of the institute, which brought together advanced doctoral students, early career researchers, and some later career researchers who have contributed to this field, such as myself. The field is not a discipline, as it is better described as a network or consortium. It brings together multi-disciplinary perspectives on the shaping of information and communication technologies and their impact in organizational settings and society at large. This field is fragmented across such areas as social computing, computer supported cooperative work (CSCW), social informatics, information systems, social studies of science and technology, and Internet studies, to name a few. This ‘Consortium for the Science of Socio-Technical Systems’ (CSST) is one effort to overcome this fragmentation, but as all such efforts in could further divisions in creating another community of researchers.

My own contributions to the meeting, other than commenting and supporting the work of colleagues presenting their work, was to describe some of the research I am conducting on the social implications of the Internet in Britain and with the World Internet Project. I also did a small ‘spotlight’ session on the Fifth Estate. In one panel on the field, I raised the following issues among others:

1. Naming Problems: This field has had a naming problem since its inception. I worked with Rob Kling from 1974-79 on the ‘Evaluation of Urban Information Systems’ (URBIS) at the Public Policy Research Organization (PPRO) at the University of California, Irvine. The PI on the project was Kenneth L. Kraemer, with Rob, myself, Jim Danziger and Alex Mood, co-PIs. From 1974 to this day, the multi-disciplinary study of information and communication technologies has been challenged for a name. Personally, my problem has been solved by the Oxford Interent Institute, which people seem to understand, but Internet studies, like ‘sociotechnical studies’, may simply add another fragment to an already fragmented field.

The ‘politics of naming’ arose as an interesting topic in itself. For example, some disciplines try to protect their turf – in this case, their definition of terms, such that the Internet means different things to different disciplines.

In short, the science of socio-technical systems defines a network of people looking for a label, but because this has been a problem for some time, I think those involved should not waste too much more time trying to find the perfect name. Best to get on with their research – a sentiment shared by many at the institute.

2. A Legacy Problem: New fields such as Internet Studies must deal with the legacy of other disciplines. For example, it was possible to have an OII at Oxford in part because we did not have a Department of Information or Communication or Media Studies. New fields bump up against the existing landscape of departments and centers, rather than a greenfield on which they can plant the field of their choice.

3. Cross-Disciplinary Understanding: Views across disciplines are often over-simplified and close to stereotypes. Computer scientists often misunderstand what social scientists can contribute to solving issues, and vice versa. This problem can be addressed to some degree through multi-disciplinary teams, but this approach confronts communication problems.

4. Communication Problems: This is an issue for all multi-disciplinary research. Disciplines and even sub-disciplines have different languages and assumptions underpinning their work. For example, it is difficult even within the social sciences, such as communicating across the disciplines of psychology and sociology, or between quantitative and qualitative researchers. This is most frustrating when individuals think they understand one another, but are defining terms, like ‘identity’, in completely different ways. The only solution is to have an open mind and develop skills in collaboration, or bring someone into the team that can translate across the boundaries.

5. Assessment Problems: Finally, this multidisciplinary field faces problems with assessment. The field often is committed to shaping policy and practice, but most academic assessment continues to be focused on traditional academic output, such as refereed journal articles. Even the journals that are best for this field tend to be specialized journals and not the mainstream disciplinary journals. People in HCI might know that a conference paper at HCI counts in their field, but not all of those assessing their work are likely to know this.


I was most impressed with the various techniques used by Sawyer and Finholt to generate genuine dialogue and creativity by the participants. No chance to sit back and catch up on e-mail. One of the most interesting set of break out groups led a team of us to develop what we called ‘The New School for Socio-Technical Research’. This new school would be driven by the big (new) questions for the field, and inspired by the theme of ‘get out in the field’. It would be anchored in local field research, not desk or screenbased research. It would be global by being event-driven, where events of significance are recognized by a global human sensor network – distributed human sensors – which could lead researchers to go where innovation occurs. Several members of the insitute were so taken by the enthusiasm of our group that they worried we had forked off to establish a new institute.

All said, the institute brings together people who are willing and able to pursue research in this area, despite the problems. It is clearly a growing and increasingly mainstream field. It has taken a couple of generations of research, but Rob Kling would be gratified if he could see the talent assembled by this institute.

Comments are most welcome