Where is social informatics

The published version of the following may be found here:

Halavais, A. (2004). Where is social informatics? SIGCAS Comput. Soc., 34(1 special issue), 1-2. doi: 10.1145/1517455.1517458  

Where is Social Informatics

The term “social informatics,” at least among those who work in one or more of the various fields it helps to unite, unavoidably elicits its originator and greatest advocate, Rob Kling. Kling coined the term in order to help describe a perspective in which information technologies were studied within their social contexts. It was also used to describe a new interdiscipline, one that drew computer science and the social sciences closer together, and that recognized a literature at this nexus as an emergent, cohesive whole. Kling answered the question “What is social informatics?” explicitly not only in widely read articles on the topic, but in public talks and private conversations. As the idea of social informatics has become more widely known, another question follows it: where is social informatics? Has it made an imprint on scholarly institutions?

It remains less common to find schools and programs for social informatics in North America; they are far more common in Europe and Asia. Still, given the speed with which universities change, the number of schools and programs in informatics recently created in the United States is remarkable. Kling’s own Center for Social Informatics at Indiana University was established nearly seven years ago, but it has recently been followed by schools, departments, and programs at a number of universities across the United States.

However, the study of social informatics has expanded not only within institutions so-named. Conferences on organizational computing or internet studies often address just those concerns that are central to social informatics, as do articles in a broad range of new and established journals. Readers of this journal need not be reminded that the social informatics agenda has found a home far beyond The Information Society, which Kling edited for many years.

Both the need for better understanding of the social context of information
technologies, and the broad recognition of that need, have become increasingly clear in recent years. Many of the issues that remain on the front page of the newspaper, from the use of the internet by political candidates to the pressure peer-to-peer file trading puts on traditional intellectual property, are centrally questions of computers within the social and institutional context. What was only a decade ago considered a marginal field of study has, with the ubiquity of computer networking, become an active area of research and teaching across a surprisingly wide variety of disciplines.

The term informatics itself has become burdened with meaning from a variety of niche fields, from bioinformatics and dental informatics to chemistry informatics and community informatics. All of these are connected by the single thread that makes them something other than computer science strictly construed: they each heavily emphasize the social and organizational context of the use of computers, and how the tools might affect social practices. Because of this confusion, it is still rare to hear a researcher describe her or his field as “social informatics.”

Of course, the term should not be confused with the field of study. It is certainly possible for the study of social informatics to progress under the variety of rubrics more common today. Yet in naming the field, and providing it institutional homes, we ensure continued progress and more opportunities for collaborative work. It is difficult to imagine social informatics without Rob Kling’s imprint, but a thriving field of active
scholars and institutions will remain as a lasting legacy.

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