Monthly Archives: April 2012

The difficulty of interdisciplinary narratives

This post is also cross posted on heatherwiltse.me.

Interdisciplinarity is a concept that is frequently lauded but notoriously challenging to realize. Practical realities like publication and tenure requirements and conceptions of what counts as valid research in established fields tend to push even the best-intentioned academics toward more well-trodden and recognizable paths, despite the potential benefits of interdisciplinary perspectives and collaborations. There is also the intellectual challenge of bringing possibly quite different intellectual traditions into conversation with each other in substantive and non-dilettantish ways.

This last challenge in particular is one that I have been wrestling with in framing my dissertation research. I have been for the last few months working on my dissertation proposal, with my literature review chapter being inordinately irksome. My research deals with the ways in which interactive technologies can mediate engagement with the world in our everyday lives, and aims to develop grounded theoretical frameworks and critical perspectives that can inform technology design and critique. I am actively trying to bridge Social Informatics/STS, HCI design, and philosophy of technology in order to consider social implications of technologies in ways that can speak to their design.

My work is thus suspended in the middle of these three areas, with a number of others being potentially relevant (e.g., media studies, cultural studies, critical theory, information and information society studies, infrastructure, etc.). Just identifying which literatures and theoretical perspectives I should engage with, and how, and why, has been a daunting task. But now that I have this more or less pinned down and have been trying to corral it all into some manageable structure for my literature review I have discovered another, perhaps more basic but still vexing, challenge: that of crafting a narrative to provide the theoretical backdrop for my research.

My Informatics colleagues and I have joked about wishing we were doing something easy, like theoretical physics, because then at least we would have a fairly well-defined problem space (or an established paradigm, in the Kuhnian sense). A scholar working in such an established discipline is able to present (or assume) a boring, predictable setup for her research: the history of her discipline, its intellectual traditions, questions, and progress made toward addressing the problem at hand. Included in this nifty paradigmatic package are also shared conceptions of what count as acceptable problems, methods, and solutions. Of course, even research that fits this pattern has its own significant challenges that I do not mean to trivialize. But at least framing and rhetoric can be fairly straightforward.

When choosing to take a fundamentally interdisciplinary perspective, however, these things cannot be taken for granted. If the problem/question is not well set up (and sanctioned qua problem/question) by any single discipline, one can be left to at least some extent appealing to the audience’s intuitive and practical sense of something being a real problem in the world that requires such a newfangled approach. And one person’s interesting question is often another person’s uninteresting assumption.

Nonetheless, I am convinced that the issues I am wrestling with require multiple perspectives to understand and address, and that understanding and addressing them is important. So I’m going to keep wrestling, and if I figure out this whole interdisciplinary narrative thing I’ll let you know.

Review: Eubanks’s Digital Dead End

I recently read Virginia Eubanks’s Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age and thoroughly enjoyed it. What I loved the most about this book is that it is work that manages to both investigate social relationships and critique the role of information systems within them. Eubanks offers a compelling analysis of the role of technology in the lives of impoverished women in upstate New York. I found her discussions of participatory research and development and technological citizenship to be particularly helpful. These concepts help to define the kind of human engagement in the creation, implementation, and use of technology that social informatics research seeks to cultivate. This book is a great example of the kind of work that should be characterized as social informatics because of its thorough investigation of sociotechnical phenomena and its aims to address real problems experienced in everyday life.

Eubanks spent several years working with women in at the Troy-Cohoes community YWCA. She worked with a group called WYMSM (Women at the YWCA Making Social Movement), comprised of women who were organizing to “use technology as a tool for social change” (xviii) to help disadvantaged women.  Eubanks argues that contrary to the popular vision of impoverished people suffering from lack of access to technology, technology actually permeates these women’s lives and these women have strong ideas about the role information systems play in their daily lives. Eubanks argues that the digital divide is not simply a gulf between those who have technology and those who do not. The women of WYMSM simultaneously see technology as a means to opportunity and as something that limits their possibilities.

In fact, Eubanks shows that the construct of the digital divide is not only useless for actually understanding the complex sociotechnical ecology in which these women live, it is dangerously misguiding as it pushes agendas for increasing access, when that, as Eubanks shows, is not necessarily needed. The problem is that it is not a lack of access that keeps marginalized people from prospering in today’s high-tech oriented economy.  If the problem is not lack of access, then programs that work to distribute access to technology will not only fail but will perpetuate the real problems.  Eubanks critiques the idea that the solution to helping people out of poverty is to give them access to technology, calling such ideas “magical thinking.”

Eubanks argues that throwing technologies at these social problems only makes them worse by obscuring the ways in which information systems reproduce, or even strengthen, oppression.  Eubanks defines technology as a process, a continual scene of struggle. She writes,

“…technology embodies human relationships, legislates behavior, and shapes citizenship. Our mistaken assumptions about technology’s static ‘thingness’ prevent us from recognizing the real world of IT, and from realizing what Ruth called ‘technology for people’” (21).

She argues that the real problems are political, economic, and social. She advocates for a new strategy of developing technologies she calls “popular technology.”  Popular technology privileges the perspective and participation of everyday experts. It is described as

“an approach to critical technological citizenship education based on the insights of broadly participatory, democratic methods of knowledge generation…popular technology creates a space in which all participants can become more critical technological citizens” (104).

Notions of participation are underscored throughout the entire book. Eubanks used participatory action research methodology to conduct her research. She sees the women she works with as colleagues rather than her subjects.  The book concludes with an agenda that includes several broad social changes, such as the protection of lower-tiered (customer service and manufacturing, for instance) high-tech industry jobs, that might be possible through such participatory practices.

I see this focus on the creation of critical technological citizens as a goal shared by a social informatics perspective.  Eubanks describes critical technological citizens as those who “can meaningfully engage and critique the technological present and respond to the citizenship and social justice effects of IT” (30).  Social informatics research seeks to create knowledge that meaningfully engages and critiques the technological presence. I share this goal not only in the research I produce, but also in my teaching of undergraduate social informatics courses.

The vision of a society in which technology is liberating for all and never a tool of oppression, where the democratic participatory possibilities of networked technologies can honestly be leveraged by anyone might be fantastically optimistic, but we will never get anywhere close without the kind of work Eubanks has done here. While not all social informatics work is as overtly political as Eubanks’s work is here, we share the critical stance Eubanks expresses. Such nuanced understanding of sociotechnical relationships is absolutely what social informatics work should strive for.

Eubanks, Virginia (2011) Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age. MIT Press

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