microsoft research talk: jim witte


Jim Witte from Clemson University is here for the faculty summit, and is doing a talk for the community technologies group in MSR today. He's talking about the lack of focus on sociological aspects of computer-based communication in the literature. Notes that there have been articles in the American Sociological Review in the past two years on everything from cricket to tulips, but not one on social impact or significance of new communication and information technologies.

I asked whether some of the problem is with traditional disciplinary boundaries--does it matter if it's sociology or anthropology or communication or education? (Similarly, Lilia points out that these researchers are clustering in places like AoIR, rather than more discipline-focused areas.) Another attendee makes a comment about this being the difference between "what can sociology do for us" vs "what can we do for sociology"?

Jim suggests that we shouldn't be isolating this research, we should be integrating it into the top journals in the fields. In part because of the hiring/tenure pressures, and in part (I think; this wasn't said explicitly) because the field as a whole needs to understand and appreciate these increasingly important topics.

Someone suggests that much sociological research revolves around inequities, and that we need to identify the inequities in technological contexts in order to catalyze sociological research. When Lilia and I point out that there are lots of forms of inequality and exclusion in online contexts, he agrees, and clarifies that what he means is that we need to be focusing journal articles on those aspects if we want to be noticed in the sociological canon.

Jim moves on to talking about some of his web-based survey research. He's been doing survey design work for National Geographic (here's the 2005 survey).

How do their tools differ from others out there? Selective invitation of respondents can be supported, as well as open convenince sampling. Allows monitoring of sample development aparticipant response, including source of respondent. They can support complex skip patterns (branching) to tailor survey to respondent. Incroporates non-text material into questions and prompts (images, documents, audio/video). Allows tracking of respone behavior, including time spent on individual quesitns and use of the "back button" to review or change earlier responses.

(Hmmm...I need to talk to Jim and Roy about using their system for our NSF survey this fall.)

A statement that "this is how you think about X" sparks a great debate between the psychologists and sociologists about whether we "know" what's going on in somebody's head. One person says "if I don't know what's going on in my head, how could you?" Another says that's absolutely not the case. Then we argue about the extent to which people, say, play a snippet of music in their heads to represent a genre. Several of us feel that this is not necessarily how "most" people do this--it's something that's based on learning styles (auditory vs visual, for example), or perhaps other factors (age? gender? education?).

At the end of his talk, Jim mentions some other interesting projects at Clemson, including "animated work environments" (AWE), which allows your work environment to physically change based on needs. (So, for example, your kids are using their computer to work on homework, and then want to eat dinner at their desk--can the surface change to protect the computer while eating?)

All in all, a really interesting talk with some great discussion surrounding it--this is exactly the kind of event and interaction that makes working here so much fun.


this is why groups like exist, because the there is a difference between being at the periphery of a discipline and the core of a transdisciplinary area.

Are Sociology departments interested in this research? Or rather perhaps I should ask, are they willing to accept it for PhD or tenure track research? I wonder if the established faculty in these departments are more interested in having grad students for existing research than in expanding into new areas like this. How does the process get bootstrapped to grow more researchers in the field?

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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on July 20, 2005 12:14 PM.

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