Information Technology in Sociocultural Context

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

Online syllabus:


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.

Topic Tuesday Thursday
Introduction to class
August 27
What does it mean to interpret?
Faith and Suspicion
Finding meaning in structure Sep 1
Systems thinking
Saussure: Part One: General Principles, from Course in General Linguistics
Weaver: Recent Contributions to the Mathematical Theory of Communication (Note: Read for general idea of communication; you do not need to understand the math details.)
Sep 3
Metaphors for Meaning
Turner: The Shifting Politics of the Computational Metaphor
Reddy: The Conduit Metaphor
Upsetting structures Sep 8
Hermeneutics of suspicion
Williams: Ideology
Foucault: Nietzsche, Freud, Marx
Sep 10
Suspicions about IT
Dunne: Psychosocial Narratives
Dunne and Raby: Designer as Author
Homework: Proposal for short paper I due
Psychoanalysis Sep 15
Finding meaning in the detritus of life
Freud: On Dreams
Ricoeur: The Conflict of Interpretations (read only pp. 20-28 and 32-36)
Sep 17
Interpretation, or science?
Understanding being in the world
Philosophical hermeneutics Sep 22
Horizons of understanding
Winograd and Flores: Understanding Computers and Cognition, Chapter 3
Dreyfus: Being-in-the-World: Introduction, Chapters 1-2
Homework: Short paper I due
Sep 24
Horizons of Artificial Intelligence
Winograd and Flores: Understanding Computers and Cognition, Chapters 1-2 and 6-8
Ethnography Sep 29
Defining ethnography
Dourish: Social Computing
Emerson: Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, Chapter 1
Homework: Do Human Subjects training and send results to Phoebe
Oct 1
Ethnography of IT and its discontents
Forsythe: 'It's Just a Matter of Common Sense' (note updated link)
Doing Ethnography Oct 6
Ethnography Do-It-Yourself
Emerson et al.: Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes: Chapters 2-4
Oct 8
Writing and Coding
Emerson et al.: Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes: Chapters 5-6
Plans and Situated Actions
Oct 15
Plans and Situated Actions
Suchman: Plans and Situated Actions: Preface, Chapter 1: Introduction, Chapter 3: Plans (through section 3.1 only), Chapter 4: Situated actions, Chapter 6: Case and methods
Plans and Situated Actions II Oct 20
Breaking down at copiers
Suchman: Plans and Situated Actions, Chapter 7: Human-machine communication, Chapter 8: Conclusion
Homework: Short paper II due
Oct 22
Projects workshop
Homework: Ideas for possible final projects due
Juggling Meanings
Deconstruction Oct 27
Reconstructing deconstruction
Culler: pp. 85-156 of Chapter 2, On Deconstruction
Oct 29
De/re-constructing IT
Agre: Metaphor in Practice (start on p. 28, "Language in Practice")
Homework: Group final project proposal due
The proliferation of meanings Nov 3
Production of identities
Nov 5
Proliferating meaning in design
Re-Interpreting Interaction
Interpretive Flexibility Nov 10
Interpretive flexibility
Oudshoorn and Pinch: Introduction to How Users Matter
Laegran: The petrol station and the Internet café: rural technospaces for youth (Note: if the link does not work the first time, return to this page immediately and click on it again - there is an issue with authentication through Cornell Library to ScienceDirect which is resolved the second time you go to the site)
Homework: Short paper III due
Nov 12
Interpreting users and their behaviors
Special guest lecturer: Lily Irani
Special location: 301 College Ave., Large Conference Room
Woolgar: Configuring the User
Cooper and Bowers: Representing the User
Appropriation Nov 17
Final projects workshop
Leshed et al: In-car gps navigation
Nov 19
Re-appropriating technologies
Balka and Wagner: Making Things Work
Wakkary and Maestri: Aspects of Everyday Design
Where to from here? Nov 24
Guest discussion with Gilly Leshed and Lucian Leahu: From 6341 to publication
Homework: Final Projects Due (Early Deadline)

Project presentations Dec 1
Oral Presentations
Dec 3
Oral Presentations/Wrap-Up
Dec 14: Final Project Deadline (Final deadline)


The assignments in this course are designed to foster the development of critical reading and argumentation skills essential to the humanities. Many humanities seminars culminate in one large paper at the end of the semester, but I have found it is easier on students and more conducive to learning, especially when students have disparate backgrounds, to maintain a 'steady burn' of work and feedback throughout the semester rather than to drop a nuclear bomb of work at the end of the semester.

Your work for the class will consist of the following components: a fairly substantial reading load, with brief weekly reading responses, and 3 short papers building on course materials which build up to a group final project.

Regular attendance is expected and is essential to acquire a full understanding of course content.


The most important work you will do in this class are the course readings. They contain the core course content and are designed to deepen your reflection on issues of interpretation that will pay off in a wide variety of research areas. You are expected to have thoughtfully read the day's reading prior to coming to class. I strongly encourage you for your own benefit to keep written notes of your reading annotated with page number. Course reading varies considerably in difficulty; be aware that reading length does not greatly correlate to expected reading time. You should bring the readings and your notes to class to ground our discussions.

To encourage your engagement with the readings, you will once a week post a brief reading response and a brief comment on another's response to our discussion boards on our Blackboard site. You may skip the reading responses/comments twice during the semester without penalty.

Reading Responses

Reading responses are due on Mondays by 1pm, and have two components:

1. One-paragraph description of one of the week's readings (or, in the case of a book, one chapter of the readings), that summarizes the argument made and the evidence being used in support of that argument. You should aim for a fair and balanced presentation of the author's point of view. Reading descriptions will be graded on a check-plus, check, and check-minus basis.

2. One-paragraph personal response to the reading you have summarized. You may choose the form of your response; some examples include:

  • Discussion of an issue or problem raised by that reading that you find interesting.
  • A link to a related news article or short piece from outside of class with brief discussion of the relationship.
  • Discussion of implications of this reading for your own research interests.

Responses are graded on a pass/fail basis.


You must post at least one comment on another student's post or comment by 11:30 AM on Tuesdays. Comments may be brief (3-5 sentences). Of course, if the spirit moves you at any time you may make longer comments or respond to more than one person. Comments are graded on a pass/fail basis. The goal is to stimulate conversation amongst yourselves, not to scintillate the instructor with your intellect; you will get full credit for any comment that shows engagement with another student's thoughts.

Final project

The final project for this course will be a collaborative group project involving all course members on the interpretation of how people plan their activities using both digital and nondigital tools. "To-do" software and other formal tools for planning are ubiquitous in the world of white-collar work and, often, appropriated for personal use. We will develop an empirically and analythically grounded analysis of how users appropriate such tools and make them meaningful - or find them unmeaningful - in their everyday activities. We will develop this project over the course of the semester and use it as a platform to explore course topics.

Short papers

You will write three short (5-7 pages) papers for this class. The topics of the papers are as follows:

  • Paper I: You may write on any topic you choose related to the course content in the unit on "Faith and Suspicion." You are strongly encouraged to choose topics related to your research interests outside of class.
  • Paper II: You will write up one carefully selected incident of a person planning an activity with or without a digital tool, in the style of ethnographic writing (ca. 4 pages). You will also reflect on your ethnographic observations and link your thoughts to the literature in the unit on "Understanding being in the world" (ca. 2 pages).
  • Paper III: You will choose a topic related to the final project. You must discuss to some extent reading from the previous unit ("Juggling Meanings") but may discuss equally or more any other content from the course, as appropriate for your argument.
Your short papers should include proper citations to the literature in a consistent format. A good paper will include balanced, strong, original argumentation engaging with the course readings and on-going discussion. You will hand in a one-paragraph informal paper proposal for each short paper to get early feedback on the topic you have chosen.


Alterations to these assignments are always possible upon approval of the instructor.

Grading formula:

  • Weekly Responses: 15%
  • Short Papers: 45%
  • Final project: 30%
  • Class and on-line discussion: 10%
Grading is not just a matter of numbers, but also of judgment. The instructor reserves the right to adjust grades by up to half a letter grade based on knowledge of your performance not summed up in this tidy formula.

Academic Integrity

My expectation is that, as graduate students, you are generally aware of the need for academic integrity and self-motivated to achieve it. Issues with academic integrity that have come up in my courses in the past have been almost exclusively due to students being unaware of the specific requirements of academic integrity at Cornell, rather than students trying to "game the system" for their own advantage. Some examples of situations I have encountered include:

  • Not knowing how to properly cite or use non-academic on-line sources, informal sources such as another student's comments in class, or another person's ideas (as opposed to their words)
  • Not being aware when doing literature reviews that close paraphrasing of someone else's text is considered a form of plagiarism
  • Coming from cultural or disciplinary contexts where it is considered more appropriate to use an expert's words to express an idea rather than one's one
I am required by the university to prosecute for such violations; doing so is particularly sad because they could have been avoided with a bit of pro-active education. I would therefore strongly encourage you to take Cornell's (brief) on-line tutorial on how to avoid unintentional plagiarism if you have not done so already. I particularly encourage this for students whose primary education was at a non-US institution as well as students who come from a substantially different disciplinary orientation than the sciences, social sciences, and humanities (e.g. art, journalism, law). You are responsible for understanding what constitutes academic integrity violations in Arts and Sciences at Cornell. Please contact me if you have any questions about how to achieve academic integrity in the context of this class (e.g., proper use of citations).


The following texts are required for this course. Where noted, we will use only a subsection of the text, but too much to be allowed to incorporate the excerpts into the course reader, for copyright reasons; you may choose to rely on library texts or other resources for these works. Many of these texts are widely available second-hand.

  • Jonathan Culler. On Deconstruction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1983. ISBN 0801474051.
  • [We will use only the fairly long Chapter 2; this book is widely available second-hand.]
  • Hubert L. Dreyfus. Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heiddegger's Being and Time. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991. ISBN 0262540568.
  • Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. Chicago, U. Chicago Press, 1995. ISBN 0226206815.
  • Ferdinand de Saussure. Course in General Linguistics. Open Court, 1986. ISBN 0-8126-9023-0 [We will use only Part I: Nature of the Linguistic Sign; a different publisher is fine; this book is widely available second-hand.]
  • Lucy Suchman. Plans and Situated Actions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. ISBN 0521337399.
  • Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores. Understanding Computers and Cognition. Addison-Wesley, 1986. ISBN 0201112973.
  • INFO/STS 6341 Course Packet.
All other readings will be made available on-line. Please note that many of the readings that are available on-line are only available if you access the links from within Cornell networks.