Core Sociotechnical Readings

This list is curated by researchers in the CSST sociotechnical community, and should be used by students and scholars new to the field as an historical introduction to the sociotechnical systems research literature. You can also search and browse this list in the Sociotech Zotero Library.

Trist, E. L., & Bamforth, K. W. (1951). Some social and psychological consequences of the longwall method of coal-getting. Human Relations, 4(1), 3–38.

An examination of the psychological situation and defences of a work group in relation to the social structure and technological content of the work system.

Roy, D. (1959). “Banana Time”: Job Satisfaction and Informal Interaction. Human Organization, 18(4), 158–168.

This paper undertakes description and exploratory analysis of the social interaction which took place within a small work group of factory machine operatives during a two-month period of participant observation. The factual and ideational materials which it presents lie at an intersection of two lines of research interest and should, in their dual bearing, contribute to both. Since the operatives were engaged in work which involved the repetition of very simple operations over an extra-long workday, six days a week, they were faced with the problem of dealing with a formidable “beast of monotony.” Revelation of how the group utilized its resources to combat that “beast” should merit the attention of those who are seeking solution to the practical problem of job satisfaction, or employee morale. It should also provide insights for those who are trying to penetrate the mysteries of the small group.

Simon, H. A. (1969). The sciences of the artificial. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

“People sometimes ask me what they should read to find out about artificial intelligence. Herbert Simon’s book The Sciences of the Artificial is always on the list I give them. Every page issues a challenge to conventional thinking, and the layman who digests it well will certainly understand what the field of artificial intelligence hopes to accomplish. I recommend it in the same spirit that I recommend Freud to people who ask about psychoanalysis, or Piaget to those who ask about child psychology: If you want to learn about a subject, start by reading its founding fathers.” — George A. Miller, “Complex Information Processing” Continuing his exploration of the organization of complexity and the science of design, this new edition of Herbert Simon’s classic work on artificial intelligence adds a chapter that sorts out the current themes and tools — chaos, adaptive systems, genetic algorithms — for analyzing complexity and complex systems.

Burrell, G., & Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological paradigms and organisational analysis: Elements of the sociology of corporate life. London, UK: Heinemann.

The authors argue in this book that social theory can usefully be conceived in terms of four broad paradigms, based upon different sets of meta-theoretical assumptions with regard to the nature of social science and the nature of socity. They provide extensive reviews of functionalist, interpretive, radical humanist and radical sturcturalist paradigms which derive from quite distinct intellectual traditions, and present four mutually exclusive views of the social world. Presented are a number of important contributions to our understanding of sociology and organisational analsyis with a historical review and evaluation which provides a framework for appraising future developments in the area of organisational analysis, and suggests the form which some of the developments are likely to take.

Trist, E. (1981). The evolution of socio-technical systems. Occasional Paper, 2, 1981.

This paper consists of a first-ever overview of the evolution of socio-technical systems from its original formulation in the early Tavistock mining studies until the present.

Pasmore, W., Francis, C., Haldeman, J., & Shani, A. (1982). Sociotechnical Systems: A North American Reflection on Empirical Studies of the Seventies. Human Relations, 35(12), 1179–1204.

This paper reviews the development of sociotechnical systems theory and research over the past 30 years, paying particular attention to the evolution of the paradigm in North America during the past decade. Elements of sociotechnical systems theory discussed here include the conceptualization of social systems, technical systems, and open systems, joint optimization, organizational choice, variance control, boundary location, support congruence, quality of work life, and continuous learning. A review of 134 experiments is then summarized, indicating which features of sociotechnical systems design are used most frequently, and which in turn are associated with reported success on a number of critical outcome dimensions such as productivity, costs, quality, and satisfaction. An unexpected finding of this review was that while sociotechnical system experiments have been extremely successful overall, the number of experiments involving technological innovation or change is relatively small; moreover, from the results achieved in these experiments, it is obvious that we still have much to learn regarding the design of technical systems for joint optimization. Methodological issues and areas in need of further research are explored.

Barley, S. R. (1986). Technology as an occasion for structuring: Evidence from observations of CT scanners and the social order of radiology departments. Administrative Science Quarterly, 31(1), 78.

New medical imaging devices, such as the CT scanner, have begun to challenge traditional role relations among radiologists and radiological technologists. Under some conditions, these technologies may actually alter the organizational and occupational structure of radiological work. However, current theories of technology and organizational form are insensitive to the potential number of structural variations implicit in role-based change. This paper expands recent sociological thought on the link between institution and action to outline a theory of how technology might occasion different organizational structures by altering institutionalized roles and patterns of interaction. In so doing, technology is treated as a social rather than a physical object, and structure is conceptualized as a process rather than an entity. The implications of the theory are illustrated by showing how identical CT scanners occasioned similar structuring processes in two radiology departments and yet led to divergent forms of organization. The data suggest that to understand how technologies alter organizational structures researchers may need to integrate the study of social action and the study of social form.

Bijker, W. E., Hughes, T. P., & Pinch, T. J. (Eds.). (1987). The social construction of technological systems: New directions in the sociology and history of technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

“The impact of technology on society is clear and unmistakeable. The influence of society on technology is more subtle. The 13 essays in this book have been written by a diverse group of scholars united by a common interest in creating a new field – the sociology of technology. They draw on a wide array of case studies – from cooking stoves to missile systems, from 15th-century Portugal to today’s Al labs – to outline an original research program based on a synthesis of ideas from the social studies of science and the history of technology. Together they affirm the need for a study of technology that gives equal weight to technical, social, economic, and political questions” –Back cover.

Coleman, J. S. (1988). Social capital in the creation of human capital. American Journal of Sociology, 94, S95–S120.

In this paper, the concept of social capital is introduced and illustrated, its forms are described, the social structural conditions under which it arises are examined, and it is used in an analysis of dropouts from high school. Use of the concept of social capital is part of a general theoretical strategy discussed in the paper: taking rational action as a starting point but rejecting the extreme individualistic premises that often accompany it. The conception of social capital as a resource for action is one way of introducing social structure into the rational action paradigm. Three forms of social capital are examined: obligations and expectations, information channels, and social norms. The role of closure in the social structure in facilitating the first and third of these forms of social capital is described. An analysis of the effect of the lack of social capital available to high school sophomores on dropping out of school before graduation is carried out. The effect of social capital within the family and in the community outside the family is examined.

Grudin, J. (1988). Why CSCW applications fail: Problems in the design and evaluation of organizational interfaces. In Proceedings of the 1988 ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 85–93). New York, NY: ACM.

Many systems, applications, and features that support cooperative work share two characteristics: A significant investment has been made in their development, and their successes have consistently fallen far short of expectations. Examination of several application areas reveals a common dynamic: 1) A factor contributing to the application’s failure is the disparity between those who will benefit from an application and those who must do additional work to support it. 2) A factor contributing to the decision-making failure that leads to ill-fated development efforts is the unique lack of management intuition for CSCW applications. 3) A factor contributing to the failure to learn from experience is the extreme difficulty of evaluating these applications. These three problem areas escape adequate notice due to two natural but ultimately misleading analogies: the analogy between multi-user application programs and multi-user computer systems, and the analogy between multi-user applications and single-user applications. These analogies influence the way we think about cooperative work applications and designers and decision-makers fail to recognize their limits. Several CSCW application areas are examined in some detail.

Zuboff, S. (1988). In the age of the smart machine: the future of work and power. New York: Basic Books.

An analysis of the impact of computer technology in the workplace. Includes in-depth interviews with workers and managers.

Winner, L. (1989). Do Artifacts Have Politics? In The whale and the reactor a search for limits in an age of high technology (pp. 19–39). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Barley, S. R. (1990). The alignment of technology and structure through roles and networks. Administrative Science Quarterly, 35(1), 61.

This paper outlines a role-based approach for conceptualizing and investigating the contention in some previous research that technologies change organizational and occupational structures by transforming patterns of action and interaction. Building on Nadel’s theory of social structure, the paper argues that the microsocial dynamics occasioned by new technologies reverberate up levels of analysis in an orderly manner. Specifically, a technology’s material attributes are said to have an immediate impact on the nonrelational elements of one or more work roles. These changes, in turn, influence the role’s relational elements, which eventually affect the structure of an organization’s social networks. Consequently, roles and social networks are held to mediate a technology’s structural effects. The theory is illustrated by ethnographic and sociometric data drawn from a comparative field study of the use of traditional and computerized imaging devices in two radiology departments.

Malone, T. W., & Crowston, K. (1990). What is Coordination Theory and How Can It Help Design Cooperative Work Systems? In Proceedings of the 1990 ACM Conference on Computer-supported Cooperative Work (pp. 357–370). New York, NY, USA: ACM.

It is possible to design cooperative work tools based only on “common sense” and good intuitions. But the history of technology is replete with examples of good theories greatly aiding the development of useful technology. Where, then, might we look for theories to help us design computer-supported cooperative work tools? In this paper, we will describe one possible perspective—the interdisciplinary study of coordination—that focuses, in part, on how people work together now and how they might do so differently with new information technologies.

Law, J. (1991). A Sociology of monsters: essays on power, technology, and domination. London; New York: Routledge.

Contains the following essays, many of them foundational to sociotechnical systems research: Introduction: monsters, machines and sociotechnical relations / John Law. Power, technologies and the phenomenology of conventions: on being allergic to onions / Susan Leigh Star. Configuring the user: the case of usability trials / Steve Woolgar. Technology is society made durable / Bruno Latour. Techno-economic networks and irreversibility / Michel Callon. Power, discretion and strategy / John Law. Advanced manufacturing technologies: work organisation and social relations crystallised / Juliet Webster. Power, technology and flexibility in organization / Stewart Clegg and Fiona Wilson.

Wajcman, J. (1991). Feminism Confronts Technology. Penn State Press.

In the first major study of its kind, Judy Wajcman challenges the common assumption that technology is gender neutral and analyzes its influence on the lives of women. Does technology liberate women and encourage equality, or are the new technologies reinforcing sexual divisions in society? Does the problem lie in men’s monopoly of technology, or is technology itself in some sense inherently patriarchal? To answer these questions, Judy Wajcman explores what the impact of technology is on the lives of women today. Popular stereotypes depict women as technologically incompetent or invisible in technical spheres. Wajcman argues that the identification between men and machines is not immutable but is the result of ideological and cultural processes. She surveys sociological and feminist literature on technology, highlighting the male bias in the way technology is defined as well as developed. Over the last two decades feminists have identified men’s monopoly on technology as an important source of their power, women’s lack of technological skills as an important element in their dependence on men. During this period, women’s efforts to control their fertility have extended from abortion and contraception to mobilizing around the new reproductive technologies. At the same time there has been a proliferation of new technologies in the home and in the workplace. The political struggles emerging around reproductive technology, as well as the technologies affecting domestic work, paid labor, and the built environment, are the focus of this book.

Akrich, M. (1992). The de-scription of technical objects. In W. E. Bijker & J. Law (Eds.), Shaping technology/building society: Studies in sociotechnical change (pp. 205–224). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hollan, J., & Stornetta, S. (1992). Beyond Being There. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 119–125). New York, NY, USA: ACM.

A belief in the efficacy of imitating face-to-face communication is an unquestioned presupposition of most current work on supporting communications in electronic media. In this paper we highlight problems with this presupposition and present an alternative proposal for grounding and motivating research and development that frames the issue in terms of needs, media, and mechanisms. To help elaborate the proposal we sketch a series of example projects and respond to potential criticisms.

Orlikowski, W. J. (1992). Learning from notes: Organizational issues in groupware implementation. In Proceedings of the 1992 ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 362–369). New York, NY: ACM.

This paper explores the introduction of a groupware technology — Lotus Corporation’s Notes — into one office of a large organization to understand the changes in work practices and social interaction facilitated by the technology. The results reveal that a number of organizational elements such as mental models (which affect how people understand and appropriate groupware) and structural properties (reward systems and workplace norms), significantly influence how groupware technology is implemented and used. Specifically, the findings suggest that in the absence of mental models that appreciate the collaborative nature of groupware, such technologies will be intepreted in terms of more familiar personal and stand-alone technologies such as spreadsheets. Further, in competitive and individualistic organizational cultures–where there are few incentives or norms for cooperating or sharing expertise–groupware on its own is unlikely to engender collaboration. Such products will be interpreted as counter-cultural, and to the extent that they are used they will promote individual not group aims. Recognizing the significant influence of these organizational elements appears critical to both researchers and practitioners of groupware technologies.

Orlikowski, W. J. (1992). The Duality of Technology: Rethinking the Concept of Technology in Organizations. Organization Science, 3(3), 398–427.

This paper develops a new theoretical model with which to examine the interaction between technology and organizations. Early research studies assumed technology to be an objective, external force that would have deterministic impacts on organizational properties such as structure. Later researchers focused on the human aspect of technology, seeing it as the outcome of strategic choice and social action. This paper suggests that either view is incomplete, and proposes a reconceptualization of technology that takes both perspectives into account. A theoretical model—the structurational model of technology—is built on the basis of this new conceptualization, and its workings explored through discussion of a field study of information technology. The paper suggests that the reformulation of the technology concept and the structurational model of technology allow a deeper and more dialectical understanding of the interaction between technology and organizations. This understanding provides insight into the limits and opportunities of human choice, technology development and use, and organizational design. Implications for future research of the new concept of technology and the structurational model of technology are discussed.

Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (1994). Borderline Issues: Social and Material Aspects of Design. Human–Computer Interaction, 9(1), 3–36.

The shared use of artifacts is, we argue, supported by latent border resources, which lie beyond what is usually recognized as the canonical artifact. These unnoticed resources are developed over time as artifacts are integrated into ongoing practice and stable conventions or genres grow up around them. For a couple of reasons, these resources may now deserve increased attention. First, because they lie outside conventional frames of reference, many new designs and design strategies inadvertently threaten to remove resources on which users rely. Second, because of the increasingly rapid proliferation of new technologies, users have less time to develop new border resources. Consequently, we suggest, designers now need to understand more fully the role border resources play and to work more directly to help users develop them. Meeting these goals will require more than an intensification of user-centered design. It will require a fundamental redirection of the way many designers look at both artifacts and users.

DeSanctis, G., & Poole, M. S. (1994). Capturing the Complexity in Advanced Technology Use: Adaptive Structuration Theory. Organization Science, 5(2), 121–147.

The past decade has brought advanced information technologies, which include electronic messaging systems, executive information systems, collaborative systems, group decision support systems, and other technologies that use sophisticated information management to enable multiparty participation in organization activities. Developers and users of these systems hold high hopes for their potential to change organizations for the better, but actual changes often do not occur, or occur inconsistently. We propose adaptive structuration theory (AST) as a viable approach for studying the role of advanced information technologies in organization change. AST examines the change process from two vantage points: (1) the types of structures that are provided by advanced technologies, and (2) the structures that actually emerge in human action as people interact with these technologies. To illustrate the principles of AST, we consider the small group meeting and the use of a group decision support system (GDSS). A GDSS is an interesting technology for study because it can be structured in a myriad of ways, and social interaction unfolds as the GDSS is used. Both the structure of the technology and the emergent structure of social action can be studied. We begin by positioning AST among competing theoretical perspectives of technology and change. Next, we describe the theoretical roots and scope of the theory as it is applied to GDSS use and state the essential assumptions, concepts, and propositions of AST. We outline an analytic strategy for applying AST principles and provide an illustration of how our analytic approach can shed light on the impacts of advanced technologies on organizations. A major strength of AST is that it expounds the nature of social structures within advanced information technologies and the key interaction processes that figure in their use. By capturing these processes and tracing their impacts, we can reveal the complexity of technology-organization relationships. We can attain a better understanding of how to implement technologies, and we may also be able to develop improved designs or educational programs that promote productive adaptations.

Grudin, J. (1994). Groupware and social dynamics: Eight challenges for developers. Communications of the ACM, 37(1), 92–105.

Computer support has focused on organizations and individuals. Groups are different. Repeated, expensive groupware failures result from not meeting the challenges in design and evaluation that arise from these differences.

MacKenzie, D. A., & Wajcman, J. (1999). The social shaping of technology. Buckingham [England]; Philadelphia: Open University Press.

“Technological change is often seen as something that follows its own logic – something we may welcome, or about which we may protest, but which we are unable to alter fundamentally. This reader challenges that assumption and its distinguished contributors demonstrate that technology is affected at a fundamental level by the social context in which it develops. General arguments are introduced about the relation of technology to society and different types of technology are examined: the technology of production; domestic and reproductive technology; and military technology.” — Jacket.

Bowker, G. C., Baker, K., Millerand, F., & Ribes, D. (2010). Toward information infrastructure studies: Ways of knowing in a networked environment. In International handbook of internet research (pp. 97–117). Springer Netherlands.

This article presents Information Infrastructure Studies, a research area that takes up some core issues in digital information and organization research. Infrastructure Studies simultaneously addresses the technical, social, and organizational aspects of the development, usage, and maintenance of infrastructures in local communities as well as global arenas. While infrastructure is understood as a broad category referring to a variety of pervasive, enabling network resources such as railroad lines, plumbing and pipes, electrical power plants and wires, this article focuses on information infrastructure, such as computational services and help desks, or federating activities such as scientific data repositories and archives spanning the multiple disciplines needed to address such issues as climate warming and the biodiversity crisis. These are elements associated with the internet and, frequently today, associated with cyberinfrastructure or e-science endeavors. We argue that a theoretical understanding of infrastructure provides the context for needed dialogue between design, use, and sustainability of internet-based infrastructure services. This article outlines a research area and outlines overarching themes of Infrastructure Studies. Part one of the paper presents definitions for infrastructure and cyberinfrastructure, reviewing salient previous work. Part two portrays key ideas from infrastructure studies (knowledge work, social and political values, new forms of sociality, etc.). In closing, the character of the field today is considered.

Winner, L. (2010). The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. University of Chicago Press.

“The questions he poses about the relationship between technical change and political power are pressing ones that can no longer be ignored, and identifying them is perhaps the most a nascent ‘philosophy of technology’ can expect to achieve at the present time.”—David Dickson, New York Times Book Review  “The Whale and the Reactor is the philosopher’s equivalent of superb public history. In its pages an analytically trained mind confronts some of the most pressing political issues of our day.”—Ruth Schwartz Cowan.

Shilton, K., Koepfler, J. A., & Fleischmann, K. R. (2013). Charting Sociotechnical Dimensions of Values for Design Research. The Information Society, 29(5), 259–271.

The relationship of values to technology is an important topic in the fields of information studies, human–computer interaction, media studies, and science and technology studies, but definitions and attributes of values differ within and among these fields. We suggest that researchers currently conflate multiple categories when they discuss values. Some of these categories are attributes of the source of values (i.e., people, systems, and hybrid assemblages), and others are attributes of the values themselves. This article disambiguates values in sociotechnical systems by providing a framework to describe where and how values are negotiated and enacted by people, institutions, and technology. The framework includes three dimensions that pertain to the source of values (agency, unit, and assemblage) and three dimensions that pertain to attributes of values (salience, intention, and enactment) to enable precision and comparison across this research trajectory. We illustrate each dimension with examples from the values and design literature.

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