Sign In

Communications of the ACM

Global computing

The Value of Social Theories For Global Computing

View as: Print Mobile App ACM Digital Library Full Text (PDF) In the Digital Edition Share: Send by email Share on reddit Share on StumbleUpon Share on Hacker News Share on Tweeter Share on Facebook
The Value of Social Theories for Global Computing, illustration


If you want to use technology to help people improve their lives, in whatever community or country, you need to understand not only the technology but the people as well. This simple truth has brought computer scientists together with people like mea social scientist. Theory helps: you may recall finite state machines from your computer theory course. In this column, I explain how social theories can help.

For instance, Actor-Network-Theory (ANT), developed by Michel Callon, Bruno Latour,5 John Law,6 and others in the 1980s (for more see Latour4), views socio-technical systems as networks of actors (actors include humans, technologies, and formal processes) situated in some relationship to each other. These actors affect each other based upon their linking relations. We can use ANT to analyze, for example, how a new software user interface "acts" within its network to enable or prevent actions of other actors (including human users) in the network. Design intentions do not always equal usage outcomes. For instance, consider an e-government system designed to stop corruption by "acting" in a network of actors, some human and some non-human. Depending on how other actors respond, corruption may indeed stop. However, if users find ways of subverting or circumventing the software, corruption might continue along altered channels.

ANT is just one social theory, which is being applied in the field of information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D).a Another theoretical approach used in ICT4D, and one that I have been working with, is the Capability Approach (CA). The CA sees development as something more than economic growth, and urges practitioners to design projects and technologies based on a broader concept of human development. Amartya Sen, the Nobel-prize winning economist who co-founded this approach, defines development as the "process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy." He argues that development should focus on the "freedom of people to lead the lives they have reason to value and to enhance the real choices they have."7 This pluralistic and holistic vision of development includes social, cultural, political, and economic expressions of well-being. People are to be involved in decisions about their lives in a participatory way, not just provided for in a one-size-fits-all and top-down mode of "delivering development."

Applying social theory to practical ICT4D work is not easy and process diagrams can help depict social activities in ways that aid this application. I have translated the Capabilities Approach into a Choice Framework3 by building on work by Alsop and Heinsohn1 and the DFID Sustainable Livelihood Framework.2 This framework traces development processes and examines where technologies can have an impact (see the accompanying figure). In this way social theory can help technologists design and develop systems based on a better analysis of the wishes of and the constraints experienced by the people they design for (or with).

For example, a person may value health information to determine what to do when a family member is ill. Technologists may be interested in developing systems that enable this. We use the figure to analyze specific circumstances and personal characteristics: gender, age, ethnicity, class, and available resources. We can ask about educational resources (including levels of print literacy), health and disability status, financial resources, what information they already have, available material resources (including IT equipment), geographical resources (including relative distance to other places), and access to cultural and natural resources. Social resources include who can advise and help. Psychological resources include curiosity, willingness to learn something new, confidence, and tenacity needed to take full advantage of the technical innovation designed for (or with) that person. An analysis of the intended users' resources helps identify challenges for the design process.

An analysis of the intended users' resources helps identify challenges for the design process.

Each person has individual agency based upon the portfolio of available resources. In the next logical step, the person then confronts a social structure to navigate in order to make choices. Institutions and organizations, such as the government health department or non-governmental organizations working in the health sector, might be in a position to provide health information. Public discourses in media and in the person's community are another element of the social structure. There might be formal and informal norms, which are often gendered in ways that affect women's ability to act. For example, in traditional societies unevenly distributed childcare duties might make women available only in the evening, while social expectations might prohibit women from walking alone or leaving home in the evenings. I have encountered open public access computing points that were seen by the community as a legitimate space for both women and men to congregate, and they can act as empowering spaces allowing women to socialize outside the home. I have also seen cybercafés evidently designed for young men, with an emphasis on violent games and suggestive advertising. In the traditional setting of the village, unwritten social norms would make it impossible for women to use the services such a cybercafé offers.

All of these context aspects must be considered before we assist in achieving a development outcome through access to health information. This Choice Framework can be applied to three design options:

  • Technology A: An extensive online health information database in relevant languages approved by the health ministry and accessed on a public computer either in a local leader's office or a community healthcare facility. This could work but based on the preceding analysis we can anticipate users will need to be literate and women may find it difficult to find time to come to the public access point. Further, if the community healthcare officer is female and the local leader is male (as is likely), then social norms would make it easier for women to visit the healthcare office. Thus it would be good to have the computer there. Having a space where women can legitimately congregate might create additional empowerment effects when women can meet other women, share health information, and potentially develop locally relevant content of their own.
  • Technology B: A recorded health message system on simple feature phones. While good to deal with illiterate users, the amount of information conveyed might be less. Also, it no longer relies on a communal access point but delivers information to devices for individual users. While less time-intensive, it might not empower women through a shared access space the way Technology A would.
  • Technology C: A tablet that allows access to online content, but requires more Internet connectivity (often via mobile broadband). Content might be richer than on the feature phone, but use might require literacy. The empowerment effect of the shared space may also be missed if the device is used in an individualized, rather than a collective way.

The Choice Framework provides a map of social factors that must be taken into account when considering these options. Which resources will be required for each option, and which resources might be affected positively or negatively? Which structural conditions are in place? Whether an ICT4D project succeeds depends on whether, after the technological change, better choices exist. But that is not enough, users must have a sense of the choices that are open to them through the technology and they need to make use of their choices. Ultimately, given the choices made, is the user then able to achieve what they wanted, which here was to get better access to health information?

Social theories such as the Capabilities Approach can be used by interdisciplinary teams to understand their work in context. Mixed teams including computer scientists can use translational devices such as the Choice Framework to make social theory much more concrete. The Choice Framework offers an analytical map of factors and forces governing social change, and allows innovators to identify where leverage might be applied to widen user control and choice in ways they value. These are examples of how social theory can be applied fruitfully in ICT4D or any user-focused design.

Different strategies can be applied to bring social science expertise to project teams.

Different strategies can be applied to bring social science expertise to project teams. I recommend that larger projects engage multidisciplinary teams. Where that is not an option, buddy systems between social and computer science researchers can cause both sides to explore theoretical approaches beyond their disciplines. This is something that can be learned early onfor example, the Master's program in Practising Sustainable Development (ICT4D specialism) at Royal Holloway, University of London, consciously creates cohorts of students from different academic and professional backgrounds and offers a multidisciplinary curriculum.

ICT4D is committed to effective positive change. For this to work, a multidisciplinary spirit is imperative. Computer and social scientists should draw on the best theories to reach ethical decisions on technology, to deepen their analysis, and to conduct projects that work.

Back to Top


1. Alsop, R. and Heinsohn, N. Measuring Empowerment in PracticeStructuring Analysis and Framing Indicators. Washington, D.C., 2005.

2. DFID. Sustainable Livelihoods Guidance Sheets. Department for International Development, London, U.K., 1999.

3. Kleine, D. Technologies of Choice: ICTs, Development and the Capabilities Approach. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013.

4. Latour, B. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K., 2005.

5. Latour, B. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Open University Press, Milton Keynes, U.K., 1987.

6. Law, J., Ed. Power, Action, and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge. Routledge, London, 1986.

7. Sen, A. Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K., 1999.

Back to Top


Dorothea Kleine ( is the director of the multidisciplinary ICT4D Centre at Royal Holloway, University of London ( where she leads the Masters in Practising Sustainable Development (ICT4D specialism). Her Choice Framework is further laid out in articles and in her book Technologies of Choice: ICTs, Development and the Capabilities Approach, MIT Press, 2013.

Back to Top


a. ICT4D examines how ICTs might improve the lives of disadvantaged or marginalized people, many in the Global South of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Back to Top


UF1Figure. The Choice Framework.

Back to top

Copyright held by author.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2015 ACM, Inc.


No entries found