Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reading :: The Social Study of Information and Communication Technology

The Social Study of Information and Communication Technology: Innovation, Actors, and Contexts
Edited by Chrisanthi Avgerou, Claudio Ciborra, and Frank Land

I read this 2004 book a couple of months back, but haven't had the chance to blog it until now due to other commitments. It's an interesting collection, "the result of a collective effort of the Department of Information Systems of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)" (p.v) with a couple of outsiders thrown into the mix. Essentially, the authors are taking the social approach that characterizes social studies of science and technology (think Latour, Weick, Bijker, Woolgar) and applying it to information and communication technologies (ICT).

With that kind of application, the collection should be riveting to me. Alas, it's not. The collection is short on cases, long on critiques of formal methodologies that ignore the social, and generally short on thoroughgoing analysis and critique of theory.

Even Latour's chapter, "On Using ANT for Studying Information Systems: A (Somewhat) Socratic Dialogue," felt a bit worn, although it did have its moments. Latour stages a Socratic dialogue between a professor and a graduate student in which they discuss actor-network theory (ANT). Latour's stand-in, the professor, explains to the frustrated graduate student that ANT is a method, not a framework (p.63); that ANT is a negative argument, good for new topics rather than established ones (p.63); that a case study that requires a theoretical frame is a poorly chosen case study (p.64); and that only a badly described case needs an explanation (p.67). And the dialogue produces one great quote, which I'm sure I'll use: "As a rule, context stinks. It's simply a way of stopping the description when you are too tired or too lazy to go on" (p.68). Unfortunately, the rest of the dialogue seems exhausted and doesn't really seem to go very far.

However, the collection did feature a couple of other chapters worth a look. For instance, Ole Hanseth's "Knowledge as Infrastructure" takes an ANT approach, characterizing knowledge as an actor-network (p.104), but going beyond to characterize knowledge as a network with network externalities, increasing returns, path dependencies and lock-ins (pp.104-106).

Another good chapter is Richard Boland's "An Ecology of Distributed Knowledge Work," which attempts to "[explore] digital knowledge work as an ecology of knowledge workers, mediations, knowledge objects, documents, and data repositories" (p.119). Drawing on the ANT literature, Boland attempts to map and characterize this ecology through diagrams (ex: p.120), diagrams that remind me of those in Peg Syverson's book. "There are many other important elements that are not in this simple diagram, such as culture, history, and status," Boland adds (p.121; see the Latour quote about context above). Boland points to tensions between global and local logics (p.121), arguing that sometimes these tensions lead to "unblackboxing" in which an element of global logic no longer applies to local practice (p.125).

Eric Montiero's "Actor Network Theory and Cultural Aspects of Interpretative Studies" examines what ANT can do for Information Systems (IS). Montiero argues that "a key challenge [for IS] is to cultivate analytical notions in tandem or co-evolution with a nuanced grasp of the constantly changing nature of IS" (p.129). Indeed, Montiero wants to push back against the very thing the student in Latour's chapter was trying to do: apply a pre-existing frame to a case. (In an aside here, Montiero calls out "'social constructions,' 'activity systems,' 'inscriptions,' 'bricolage,' and 'organizational politics,'" p.130.) "However," he argues, "merely decorating empirical instances with analytical notions is neither very illuminating nor intellectually stimulating. To make an analysis interesting, elements of an empirical case need to be moulded with the analytical notions that go well beyond labelling exercises" (p.130). That's especially true since "the technology keeps on changing, resulting in new patterns of use" - it resists a monolithic framework (p.130). Although Montiero sees potential in ANT, he also charges that it tends to be overly goal-oriented (p.131) and biased toward strategic behavior (p.132). He urges that we learn from studies of mundane everyday technology and that we realize how much we mingle rather than simply use technologies (p.134).

If you're in the field of IS, this collection might be quite useful to you. If, like me, you're more interested in workplace studies/socioculturally informed CSCW, you may have to dig a little harder. But as I've noted above, you can still find some good insights in this collection. See what you think.


Bill said...

The Latour chapter sounds like the same dialogue he published in _Reassembling the Social_.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

I knew it sounded familiar. It might very well be the same one. Will have to check.