Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Literature landmarks

From my Inaugural Lecture, 15 September 2015

Title: 'Connectivity isn't everything (but it's almost everything)'

Landmarks in the Literature
While all social science disciplines are concerned with human connections, there are three (3) landmarks in the literature that underpin my work.  These are information theory, social network theory and structuration theory and its variations.

In 1937, Claude Shannon, while a student at MIT, produced what has been called the most influential Masters thesis of the 20th Century. Published in 1938, it contained what we now call ‘information theory,’ the proposition that any and all data can be expressed in binary terms, of zeros (0s) and ones (1s).  Information theory made way for digitization, which underpins, just about everything we experience nowadays. It is estimated that a duodecillion, that’s 10 to the 39th power (1039), zero/one switches take place every second of every day, but that figure seems low to me. :-)

If information theory has created the digital world, the landmark that has transformed our social world is network theory.  In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram and others’ experiments demonstrated that it is ‘a small world after all.’  Milgram challenged his students to deliver a letter to a subject 1000 miles away using friends-of-friends.  The average number of links was 6 and therefore the popular notion of ‘6 degrees of separation’ was born. 
A few years later, Mark Granovetter discovered that we get more and better resources from those more distant and less well known to us.  His article, entitled the ‘strength of weak ties,’ basically explains how Facebook and LinkedIn work.  While the power of Social Network Analysis is debatable, networks are currently seen, not just as a way to find a job or a place to eat, but as a metaphor of society (Castells, The Rise of the Network Society).

The third major landmark in the literature is the social construction of reality, which challenged functionalist views of society and technological determinism.  In my senior year at college, we read Berger and Luckmann’s book, entitled The Social Construction of Reality and it blew my mind! 

Returning to the sociology literature years later I discovered Giddens’ structuration theory and it was slightly easier to understand, but also offers a more compelling case for individual agency or choice in the face of social structures (norms), something I believe is critical to living in a connected world.   In structuration, agency is intertwined (constrained and enabled) with structure in a duality, a relationship that I also found applicable to connectivity. 

A related strand of thinking that is more specifically related to connectivity is the evolution of our thinking about how we socially create meaning through, around and with technology.  The socio-technical school begin in Britain in the 1950s and advanced through Barley and others’ work in the 1980s.  Orlikowski, Scott, Barley et al have since reminded us of the importance of the material attributes of technologies and we now have the ‘sociomaterial’ school of thought. 

Essentially, the sociomaterial view is that while society is still socially constructed, our interpretations, enactments and sense making all involve, and are affected (though not necessary determined by) the material attributes (including design, functionality, look and feel) of the technology and anything in the material world.  In short, we humans make stuff up in our heads, but the stuff outside our heads--and in our hands--still matters!

Based on these foundations, I would now like to highlight four (4) contributions that I having introduced to the literature, namely the:

sociomaterial nature of connectivity,

the duality of connects and disconnects,

attributes of connectivity, and

states of connectivity.

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