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Why economics matters to ICTD

Last fall, I did something that, in retrospect, feels like it was height of masochism: I enrolled in a standard, first-term grad level microeconomics course. My colleagues in the iSchool program probably thought I was crazy. Heck, I thought I was crazy. You might imagine that, looking back, I would say that I’m glad I took it. I will say that, but not for the reasons you might think.

But perhaps I should introduce myself. I’m a second-year PhD student interested in studying ICT and development. Although I studied econ as an undergrad, multiple decades ago (eek!), it really wasn’t my intent to study it at the grad level. But I now find myself gravitating back in that direction in my work

Why pedagogy matters

So, let’s return to this entry-level econ course. Frankly, pedagogy in econ seems to be stuck in about 1950. The idea of students co-creating a learning environment would be laughed at. Come in, the instructor writes some stuff on the board, you take notes, later on you take an exam. Questions are rare. Feedback as to whether anyone is learning anything is non-existent. (The TA, not the instructor, gave me the understanding I needed to pass that course.) Colleagues at other institutions tell me that it’s really a specific phenomenon to any one place. Some econ professors are better teachers than others, but in general the standard seems quite low.

This is a real shame, because sometimes the discipline of economics feels more like a fortress than a silo. Another reason for this — actually closely related — is a historical emphasis on a certain kind of mathematics, generating airtight proofs of theoretical propositions, but historically marginalizing empirical findings. I tend to think of this as characterizing a new science trying to prove itself, indeed trying to prove all of social science, in the gung-ho positivistic mid-1800s.Alas, econ seems to still live in that world where credibility is established by being mathy and theoretical.

It’s fine to value this sort of analysis, but it tends to shut out valuable contributions from those who don’t think as abstractly. That’s also too bad, because there’s is a lot of really valuable cross-disciplinary work that could benefit from incorporating economic models; this work could not only be improved, but could also give back to economics by enhancing those models. But it doesn’t happen.

Why economics matters

So what? At its root, economics is the study of how humans respond (usually rationally) to incentives. ICTD frankly makes no sense without a consideration of incentives. Will some new policy intervention have the desired effect, or won’t it? Will technology improve people’s lives, or will it hurt them? These aren’t easy questions, but they’re impossible questions if we have no basis to predict how individuals will respond to changes in their capabilities. (And really, isn’t the promise of ICT supposed to be about broadening capabilities? Or if you prefer the contrarian view, to argue ICT on balance has a negative effect, don’t you still need to address changing capabilities?)

To be sure, economics also involves a particular toolkit, oriented around models tested through quantitative analysis. It’s not always the best toolkit for this job of predicting behavior, and it might never be the only relevant toolkit. Anthropology, sociology, political science, psychology — all of these have an immense role to play in ICTD, and we need interdisciplinary ICTD scholars who can speak the different languages of their own respective disciplines and of the interdisciplinary field of ICTD. (The same need is no doubt there for fluency in more interdisciplinary fields like communications, international studies, education, women’s studies, and indigenous studies.)

I don’t really know all that much about econ, relative to, you know, actual economists. Frankly, I err on the side of being too brash in my criticisms of it. In giving my outsider’s impressions of the field, I’ve probably made assertions that are highly debatable. If any economists are reading, I’d like to have that debate.

The good news is, I do see a lot of change in the field from my undergrad days. Development econ seems to be much more about generating smaller theoretical models that help us understand empirically observable reality, rather than fitting everything into canonical theories come hell or high water. This quarter, our iSchool has started cosponsoring (with the econ department and the public policy school) a series of seminars on development econ that’s attracted interdisciplinary involvement. So I’m really optimistic that different fields are starting to talk to each other.

Was I a masochist to press on with my micro class? Probably. Will I use those specific theories discussed, or be called upon to derive proofs? Maybe, maybe not. But you can’t enter the conversation if you don’t speak the language. ICTD needs more folks learning the language.

Social Informatics – Where good ideas come from

I came across this video the other day while I was preparing a guest lecture for an undergraduate class on participatory culture and while it’s perhaps old news to many, it was the first time I had seen it and I wanted to share it.

For the last few days this little video has been inside my head; I keep thinking about it, pondering it, so here are some of the thoughts that I am thinking.

Social informatics is, will, and should be an environment where hunches are born of our interactions and discussions, where hunches collide with one another, and where eventually after incubation those hunches develop into great ideas. I suppose every environment in academia would make this claim – I mean we all want to cultivate great ideas, right? But social informatics has something going for it that Johnson discusses in this video; it is a connected space. It is a connected space in a way that is different from either traditional disciplines or areas of study that have a more strongly defined community.

One of social informatics’ biggest strengths, and simultaneously biggest challenges, is its (inter/trans/anti)disciplinarity. As a relatively new and emerging area of study, social informatics is difficult to define. It is difficult to identity a community of people whose work is labeled social informatics. The kind of work that goes on in our group here at IU is also done all over the IU campus (and other campuses as well, of course) by other folks using different labels. While this presents a challenge for a doctoral student trying to decide where to publish, who to talk to, who to work with and so on, it also facilitates an amazing amount of connectedness if we can make those connections happen.

Almost two weeks ago I successfully completed my doctoral qualifying exams. In the oral defense I was asked to explain more about why the work I have done should be considered social informatics. Part of that answer had to do with this very idea: there are many areas of study (media and fan studies, communication, human computer interaction, computer supported cooperative work, anthropology, and sociology) that work in what I have defined as my problem space, but each has a different lens through which they view the space and as a result each has something that is missing from the others. When these pieces are placed together, we can garner a more holistic understanding of the problem space. One strength of social informatics, and hopefully all (inter/trans/anti)disciplinary environments, is such a perspective that can see these connections, put different hunches or ideas into conversation, and use these convergences to cultivate great ideas.

I haven’t read Johnson’s book and I haven’t decided if I completely agree with all of the claims he makes in this video, but I can stand behind the sentiment that “chance favors the connected mind.” I think that’s what we’re trying to do here, both as a social informatics program at IU and with this particular blog.

A few weeks ago the IU campus was able to host both Henry Jenkins and Mimi Ito for a set of talks and gatherings. During a joint brown bag for graduate students, Henry and Mimi gave the students some of the best advice I have heard in awhile. They told us that when we feel like we don’t fit into a nice neat disciplinary space, we need to work on growing our own network of colleagues.

So. Let’s get on with incubating and colliding those hunches.


Hello and Welcome!

The Social Informatics Blog was born from a series intense discussions between PhD students from various departments and schools of Indiana University, researchers with an interest in Social Informatics. The hope of the blog is to show interested scholars and those who stumble across this site what we do and study in Social Informatics (SI), a new and evolving area of study at the intersections of technology, information, and media as well as countless other paths of research.

Instead of simply “advertising” about SI and show the work that has been already done by those who have come before, we see the Social Informatics Blog as meeting place to share our own studies and ideas with society, so anyone can participate by sending any sort of feedback. It’s an ongoing conversation, and we hope you take part, too.

Every week, there will be at least one study / idea posted on the Blog, and everyone else is invited to join in by sending their comments, thoughts, and ideas. We will also announce conferences, call for papers, workshops and so on that address themes related to Social Informatics.

For scholars and interested readers, the SIBlog has a special section: Related Bibliography, where we will be adding relevant publications as our interests evolve. You may also suggest unlisted papers, books, and articles that you’ve found useful in the field.

Take a moment to get to know the authors, and thanks for stopping by!


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