Ontology of Students in Interdisciplinary Programs

I would like to express my heartfelt sympathy for Heather’s posting. I thought it would be more interesting if we have the following discussions. For me, the difficulty of interdisciplinary studies stems not only from the daunting challenge of designing a research framework by ourselves, but also from our daily ontological questions as students in an interdisciplinary program.

Regarding questions of who you are

Two years ago, I was in a long queue waiting to pass U.S. immigration processing. The immigration officer wants to know who I am.

  • Immigration Officer: So, what are you studying?
  • Me: I’m coming here for PhD program in Social Informatics.
  • Immigration Officer: I’m sorry, what?
  • Me: oh…Well…I mean…It is Computer-science-ish stuff. I will be PhD student in CS-ish study.
  • Immigration Officer: oh, now I got it. Sounds cool. Good luck.

I knew that was the fastest way to escape the situation, but I didn’t know it was just the very beginning of endless identical questions that I would face. Even within this small Informatics building, I have often encountered similar questions asking to explain what (the hell) is Social Informatics. Of course, I used to reply plausibly that ‘Social Informatics is interdisciplinary studies of the relationship between ICT technology and society’ as we used to teach in undergraduate course. That answer would be full mark in their final exam. Unfortunately, however, it is never good enough for me. Weirdly I felt I kept wandering into a maze while I tried to answer the questions. It was not just the matter of social recognition, but rather matters of fundamental issues regarding the ontology of students in an interdisciplinary program.

According to the report by NSF, 24%-30% of PhD dissertations were written on interdisciplinary research during 2001 to 2008 academic years in United States. The Indiana University, Bloomington campus is ranked third  in the nation, followed by MIT and Boston University, with an average 38.1% of doctoral dissertations being interdisciplinary. Though the statistic was based on a simple survey that has a considerable possibility of bias, it still means not a small number of doctoral students here have struggled in identifying themselves in academia. The question of the immigration officer became my lingering question: how can I know who I am.

Regarding questions of what you are doing

I’m interested in development of communication infrastructures in 21st century South Korea,  which has been considered as ‘the most successful Internet nation’ (though I don’t know what exactly that means). Almost 8 years ago, I had a chance to sit in a meeting with bureaucrats from Southern Asia. They asked, ‘How did Korea have that amazingly rapid development in building communication infrastructure?’ One officer from Korean government barely replied, “I’m not sure how we did it, we just did it.” It was ‘the moment’ for me. Later, I realized there is not much convincing research that answers or deals with those issues. There are missing links between the success of Korea in the statistical numbers and causal explanations of its success. I started seeking the way to understand development of the infrastructure and its dynamics relationships of global and local technological competition and cooperation as it is situated within political, social, cultural arrangements. Hopefully my research will contribute to demystifying the incredible development of communication infrastructure in Korea.

My academic journey in higher education travels through computer science, history of science and technology, science and technology studies, policy studies and Social Informatics. When I was in the master’s program for history of science and technology, I was getting tired of reading materials about history of science in 18th century England. Moreover, I realized that the discipline of history does not consider the social phenomena in recent ten years as a ‘history’. History was not a good methodology kit to illustrate these issues. While I spent a couple more years in science and technology policy research field after my master’s years, I also realized policy analysis might just provide a partial explanation if I narrow the problem space enough.

In that way, Social Informatics program opened wide window for me as fully opened interdisciplinary program. Our faculty members always say “Whatever you want” with their generous smile. In IU, there were numerous opportunities to be exposed to related fields of research in and outside of the school, like HCI, complex systems, information science, telecommunications, history, political science, sociology and so forth.

But soon, I need to make my choice of which critical lens is the ‘proper’ lens to illustrate my research issues. It was obvious that I cannot use all the methodologies from a wide range of research disciplines in the limited time offered. At the same time, I need to find the audiences who might be interested in my research. CFPs for ‘related’ journals and conferences in my mailbox have stacked up, but I haven’t known what are ‘proper’ journals and conferences exactly. I have realized that I face the chaos of interdisciplinary openness. One more question is added up on top of the identity problem. Where is a good place for me to be?

Regarding questions of where you will be

From last year, we in the Social Informatics crew have been excited to get a new faculty member. During the job talk process, one of the candidates talked to us about the difficulty of finding a ‘proper’ academic position as a researcher with an interdisciplinary background. The candidate said that there are numerous opportunities to pursue, but there are limited places to stay in a stable position.

Science and Technology Studies, also called STS, had similar institutionalization problems. In recent thirty years, STS scholarship has contributed to seeing techno-scientific society practically and academically. Too few universities, however, had made long-term commitments to STS, and the STS as academic disciplines remains institutionally fragile.  STS scholars are scattered in a diaspora across diverse departments. Here, after identify myself as an STS scholar, I might still be asked for a long time: where will I be?

Exhilarating, or terrifying, or both

There is a painting I keep seeing in my mind these days. The image is Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich. Historian John Lewis Gaddis started his book, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past with interpretation of this painting. He explains that this painting is “suggesting at once mastery over a landscape and the insignificance of the individual within it. We see no face, so it’s impossible to know whether the prospect facing the young man is exhilarating, or terrifying, or both. (p. 1)”

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818),
Caspar David Friedrich [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Social Informatics is young studies and a discipline still in a process. But ontological questions of the discipline are not our sole concern, as they also might somewhat overlap with the ontological questions facing all doctoral students. For us, suffering under this chaos of ontological problems might be even more inevitable. It could be part of our job that began when we joined this wonderful academic project in the formative stage. Thus, doing Social Informatics is exhilarating, or terrifying, or both.


Posted on May 15, 2012, in Social Informatics. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. You are thinking the right way. You have identified a problem or, more accurately, a problem space that has been a connundrum for everyone with interdisciplinary interests. My best advice, what I always give my students, is to engage in multiple theories, multiple methdologies, and multiple sources of evidence. It’s a bad policy to select one theory, etc. to examine a substantive problem that you will select for your dissertation. Each theory has its own lens and with it blinders. Ditto for any methodology. There is a strategy for thinking and doing like this when planning a dissertation. I have another reason for suggesting that engaging in different disciplines and different theoretical frameworks, methodologies, and evidence is that it makes it possible for you to understand and communicate with others in your future professional career, especially if you choose the academy. I also urge my students not to refer to their studies as “social informatics: no one will understand what they are referring to. The label is not informative. They have more success by telling someone what they study, i.e., a substantive problem. I certainly can say to an academic that my interests lie in the intersection of information, communication, and policy and then give an example; however, that doesn’t work terribly well for people outside the academy. Instead, I just say something like “I study how people use the Internet.” This turns out to be satisfactory for most people. In any case, if you do choose the academy, you will have to give job talks to an audience most of whom do not have any idea of what “social informatics” is; talking about the substantive problem that your thesis addressed will be more successful.

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