Information Technology in SocioCultural Context


This course provides an introduction to Information Studies, i.e. historical, sociological, qualitative, and critical approaches to computing, and demonstrates how to integrate such thinking with design. The central theme for this class is interpretation.

As anyone who has designed or used computer applications is aware, users' interpretations of what soft- and hardware are for and their meanings for them in their everyday lives can differ substantially from those of their designers. One goal of this class is to analyze these processes of interpretation in practice. How do users, designers, marketers, and other mediators develop their interpretations of who users are, what they will be doing with software, what activities are worth supporting and which are not, and what applications will mean in their everyday, ongoing use?

At the same time, as analysts of information technology (IT) - whether as builders or evaluators of designed systems, social scientists studying how people interact with and through computers, or as researchers analyzing the social and historical nature of IT practice - we, too, are engaging in processes of interpretation. In reflecting on interpretation, we are therefore also reflecting on our own practices: what sorts of interpretation do we consider to be reliable or useful and why? What relationships are we setting up between ourselves as researchers and the subjects of our research, and what implications does this have - epistemological, social, or political - for the kinds of knowledge we produce? What novel forms of interpretation might we wish to consider?

We will answer these questions through a two-pronged approach:

  1. We will ground our discussions methodologically by exploring critical theories of interpretation and meaning through the works of thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger. This will allow us to identify major issues around interpretation and apply them to the case of computing applications.
  2. We will explore the implications of these critical theories through concrete case studies drawing from Science & Technology Studies, Information Science, and critical design.


This is a graduate-level course aimed at students from a broad variety of backgrounds, including but not limited to Information Science, Science & Technology Studies, Communication, and Visual Studies. There are no fixed pre-requisites for this course but some familiarity with the humanities at an undergraduate level is strongly recommended. Technical skills are not required, nor are they taught (but they may be used in the course if you have them). Graduate standing is expected but advanced undergraduates may contact the instructor for permission to take this course.

If you have questions, please contact the instructor, Phoebe Sengers, at sengers @

You can download the syllabus in print-friendly format.

Instructor: Phoebe Sengers
Location: Phillips 213
Time: Tu, Th 11:40-12:55