Sep 1, 2013

Loaded Terms in Socio-Technical Work

The biggest problems in interdisciplinary work arise not when we don’t know the terms that other scientists are using, but when we use the same terms in different way. A recent workshop on sociotechnical systems (at Maryland's DSST Institute) targeted such challenges, and as we tired to make sense of them, we realized how common ground, in language and practice, is necessary (but not sufficient) for interdisciplinary teamwork.

Here are some examples:

Problem: In Computer Science, this term often means “research challenge,” as in “I’m working on the problem of how to connect parents and children who live apart.” However, in some Social Science domains the word “problem” may be reserved for situations that are broken or non-normative. Using the word “problem” takes agency away from the people we am trying to support, instead positioning the designer as “the fixer.” Usually, this is not what people who build systems actually mean. This is a loaded term and, for better or worse,  social scientists, educators and therapists have replaced it with “challenge.”

Theory: In Computer Science, theory is the study of abstract constructs like Algorithms and Data Structures and  developed through mathematical proofs. In the Social Sciences, theories are  heuristics used to make sense of empirical data, and may or may not need to have strong predictive power. There are many types of theories serving different functions (see Halverston’s “What Does CSCW Need to Do with Theories”)

Social Computing: This is a new term, and the jury is still out on what it does and coul mean, both to designers and researchers ("social technologists"). Social computing at the intersection of social science and computational systems, but what is included or excluded? Some people at the workshop equated Social Computing with large-scale social network analysis (e.g., “we looked at 3 mill Tweets”) or Crowdsourcing (e.g., “we leveraged the crowd to do citizen science”), and broadly,  mediated communication for supporting social relationships. Video chat, haptic connectedness devices, online support groups, depending on the research and design goals, can all be aspects Social Computing.

At the workshop we mapped out the research space of DSST, focusing on how we fit into the research space of many different communities of researchers and practitioners.