Social Informatics in the Global Perspective
Jošt Bartol, Zdeněk Smutný, Vasja Vehovar
Social Informatics (SI), in its broadest sense, is an approach for understanding interactions between various societal systems and information-communication technologies (Smutny & Vehovar, 2020). SI is an established and internationally recognized scholarly field, with roots stretching back to the 1970s. However, it is not a conceptually or methodologically coherent field of research (Vehovar et al., 2021; Smutny, 2016).
SI has emerged in geographically different areas (e.g., Europe, Japan, Russia, US), each characterized by a unique set of cultural, social, economic, ideological, and scientific circumstances (Rosenbaum, 2014; Smutny, 2016). These circumstances shaped the conceptualization and focus of SI at each of these sites. This led to the development of scholarly communities tackling similar problems under the same name (i.e., SI), but until recently working in relative isolation.
—The global view on SI scholarly activities suggests that SI is a healthy research field.—
Different regional approaches to SI have been labelled as schools of SI and were named after their country of origin. In total, seven schools of SI have been identified: German, Japanese, Norwegian, Russian, Slovenian, UK, and US (Rosenbaum, 2014; Smutny & Vehovar, 2020).
While labelled after geographical regions, each school of SI is defined by its own conceptual underpinnings, thematic focus, or methodological approach (see Smutny & Vehovar, 2020, for a detailed review). For example, the US school of SI, founded by Rob Kling (Kling, 2007), focuses on the study of design, uses, and consequences of information technologies. It examines these issues through empirical, quantitative and qualitative research. In contrast, the Japanese school of SI studies the processes of communication and information exchange in information societies using a plethora of research methods.
Although this plurality enriches the field of SI, it also poses unique challenges to its convergence. On the one hand, some schools of SI have spread globally with its ideas dominating the field (the US school), while others continue to exist and develop locally (e.g., the Russian school) (Rosenbaum, 2014). On the other hand, a myriad of competing concepts, such as science and technology studies (STS) or computational social sciences (CSS), has also emerged, threatening the identity of the SI research field (Smutny & Vehovar, 2020).
To provide a global view of the SI field, a recent study systematically analyzed all formal SI scholarly activities related to the English notion of SI (Vehovar et al., 2022). A review of 275 articles, 36 research centers, 74 educational activities, 4 journals, 4 conferences, and 19 blogs explicitly referring to SI found that the field is highly active. However, these trends vary depending on specific activities. In particular, the number of articles, educational courses, and conferences is rising, while the number of research centers, study programs, and blogs is stagnating or falling. Interestingly, these trends varied also across countries: they are generally falling in US and UK but rising in some European and Asian countries.
The study did not find evidence of convergence among schools. Although the US school has spread globally, its ideas were mainly adopted by scholars working in regions that did not develop their own school of SI. The other six schools seem to continue to exist locally, with little mutual collaboration. Language might be a key barrier here. This can be seen in the case of the Russian school where most scientific articles relating to SI are published in Russian language.
A key challenge to SI as a scholarly field appears to be the superficial use of this notion. Very often it is used to characterize any research at the interaction between society and information-communication technologies, without considering its conceptual underpinnings. This is best evidenced through analysis of 476 papers published as part of the International Conference on Social Informatics (SocInfo) (Vehovar et al., 2022). Most of these papers focused on topics that strongly differ from those covered by existing schools of SI. Furthermore, only 3 out of 476 papers explicitly referred to SI.
The global view on SI scholarly activities suggests that SI is a healthy research field. It continues to adapt to changes in the interactions between society and information-communication technologies. Nevertheless, it faces challenges of clearly distinguishing itself from other, competing approaches. Moreover, while the dominance of the US school might provide grounds for convergence among schools, it might also exclude SI schools with profoundly different conceptual, thematic, and methodological approaches. This can in turn cause divergence, rather than convergence, of the SI field at the global level.
It seems that a more inclusive and collaborative approach between all SI schools could enrich SI and strengthen its scientific position among other competing approaches. This could also pave the way for global convergence and situate SI as a unique field of study and research.
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Cite this article in APA as: Bartol, J., Smutný, Z., & Vehovar, V. Social informatics in the global perspective. (2023, September 7). Information Matters, Vol. 3, Issue 9. https://informationmatters.org/2023/09/social-informatics-in-the-global-perspective/