Social Studies of Work and Technology, 4 points

Research course at IPLab,NADA, given by
Dr. John Bowers, Senior lecturer at the University of Manchester
and leading researcher in social studies of CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) and in VR (Virtual Reality)

Latest update of this information 1996-04-28 by Yngve Sundblad,

Schedule for Lectures

Rooms: Mainly in the seminar room (1537) on 5th floor in the NADA building, Osquars Backe 2, KTH.



Individual paper writing assignments


This course will comprise 12 sessions, each of 2 hours in duration, and concern itself with the different ways in which studies of work and technology can influence computer system development. The course will particularly focus on studies whose methods, theories or general orientation is social scientific in nature. The use of methods and concepts from the social sciences is becoming increasingly influential in the research fields of CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work), HCI (Human Computer Interaction) and VR (Virtual Reality). This course is intended to give an impression of the state of the art in social science research which takes an interest in computer technology in these fields. After a general introduction, Dr. Bowers will present a series of case studies of various work settings ('workplace studies') and encourage discussion of their implications for computer system development. The course will finish with a summary of current problems and issues for those who wish to draw inspiration from the social sciences for computer system development and a discussion of possible future directions. The implications of social scientific studies for controversies over the ethics of computer system development and the quality of working life will also be discussed. No prior knowledge of social scientific theory or method will be assumed and throughout the emphasis will be on what the computer sciences can gain in practical terms from the social sciences.

Introduction: The Relation Between the Social and Technical Sciences (2 sessions)

These sessions will introduce the course and discuss in general terms the kinds of relations the social sciences (e.g. sociology, anthropology, social psychology) might have to the technical sciences (e.g. engineering but especially computer science) and how this affects the kinds of studies of technology and human affairs that can be conducted. The argument that social scientific methods might be more useful to computer science than social scientific theory will be explored. Particular attention will be given to methods such as ethnography and interaction analysis and how these can be used to study the workplace in ways which might inform system development in novel ways.

CSCW (4 sessions)

These sessions will concentrate on a series of cases which have been influential in the CSCW literature. Each case is devoted to the study of a particular workplace setting and the implications that these studies might have for the requirements for or evaluation of cooperative computer systems will be discussed. Studies to be discussed will include those conducted in Air Traffic Control, the print industry, the control rooms of the London Underground system, the Stock Exchange, the banking industry together with studies of the implementation of cooperative systems in business consultancy and government organizations.

HCI (2 sessions)

Though this situation is gradually changing, HCI research is still dominated by studies which draw on cognitive psychological methods and theory. Laboratory based experimentation is the most common way of evaluating system design ideas or, for that matter, of testing psychological theory. Social scientific workplace studies are less prominent in HCI research than in CSCW. However, a number of notable studies exist, particularly those which study the system design process itself and how systems are tailored in use. Additionally, the course will discuss work which critically discusses fundamental concepts in HCI (e.g. user, interface and task) from social scientific standpoints. The implications of this work for traditional notions of system evaluation will also be discussed.

VR (3 sessions)

These sessions will concern how workplace studies and methods from the social sciences can be used to derive requirements for VR systems or to evaluate them. Particular attention will be paid to Collaborative Virtual Environments (CVEs) where multiple users share and interact within a virtual world and how requirements for such systems can be motivated by studies of the workplace. As an example, a case study from the fashion industry will be discussed to examine how VR technology could be most sensibly used to support fashion design work. Studies which attempt to evaluate CVEs using interaction analytic methods will also be examined so as to address issues regarding how users should be embodied and interaction and mutual awareness supported in a shared virtual environment. There are a number of attempts to inform virtual world design by social studies of the built environment (e.g. work in architecture and urban planning); whether this is a profitable research strategy in VR will also be reviewed.

Problems and Debates (1 session)

The course will close with a review of the major problems and controversies that exist surrounding attempts to relate the social and technical sciences. In particular, the relation that workplace and similar studies have to traditional and alternative system development concepts (e.g. models of the software lifecycle, the waterfall model, formal methods, Soft Systems Methodology, Participatory Design) will be examined. Recent controversies concerning the 'limits of ethnography' will be outlined and the value that workplace studies have in both the social and computing sciences will be assessed. If there exist tensions between traditional development methods and social scientific methods, how are these to be resolved or creatively used? When are detailed workplace studies feasible and informative and when should other methods be used? How, in the light of the studies examined in this course, should we conceive of the relation between human beings and technology, and what implications does this have for human well-being, the quality of working life and the ethics and politics of technology?

Suggested Reading

Books, Edited Books and Collections of Readings

Articles and Conference Contributions

References to specific studies will be given in the course sessions. Most of these will be drawn from: