Theoretical framework

It is clear that the internet and its World Wide Web interface are rather central in the present e-research pilot projects. Without fast and high-capacity digital networks, the idea of e-research would not be very practical. But how do we conceptualise the internet? The internet is usually captured in terms of older metaphors, especially the archive, the library and the post office. Seen from these three perspectives, the internet brings drawbacks as well as some advantages. Many needs of new services or infrastructures formulated by scholars in the humanities and social sciences are implicitly founded on one of these metaphors. However, this conceptualisation ignores the crucial aspect that the internet is a medium that represents older media while adding fundamentally new characteristics to each of them. The novelty of the net is its hybrid character and its potential to re-inscribe and re-mediate other media (Slevin 2000).

Theoretically, the internet can be conceptualized as a complex communication space in which distributed digital inscriptions proliferate in ways that build upon and differ from the distribution of other types of inscriptions (Poster 2001; Wang 2002). This social space mediates both practices of technology design and development, and knowledge practices. In e-research this culminates in the creation of novel, digitally inscribed, epistemic objects (Rheinberger 1997) that promise to become accelerators of scientific and scholarly development. Epistemic objects are generators of questions and the creation of novel types is strongly related to technologically embedded paradigms or scientific styles (Hacking 2002). Examples of epistemic objects are databases, new phenomena that are created in experimental settings, and imaging technologies that create new perspectives. They share that they facilitate new questions. The creation of new epistemic objects and the study thereof in the domain of the humanities and social sciences will be the core business of the Studio in theoretical terms. We expect that this combined effort will lead to empirically based discussions and explorations of the following theoretical questions :

  • does e research lead us to redefine how we can understand the development of scholarly cultures?

The notions of epistemic culture (Knorr-Cetina 1999) and epistemic object (Rheinberger 1997) have been developed to capture the fine-grained nature of knowledge creation. However, they have been mainly applied in studies of knowledge practices in the natural and physical sciences. There is still a relative lack of theoretical understanding of the specificities of knowledge practices in the humanities and social sciences (but see Dehue 1990). How are the relations to empirical materials and the process of interrogating them changing as e research develops in the humanities and social sciences? In what ways are digital data and meta-data affecting the dynamics and order of epistemic cultures (Beaulieu 2004)? How do scholarly communities within diverse specialisms conceptualise e research and its valency in their knowledge creation practices? We will be particularly interested in what we can learn from the collaborative creation of new epistemic objects for research in the humanities and social sciences that will be conducted in the Studio partnerships.

  • how can we explain and understand diversity of mediated knowledge practices, such as across disciplines and specialties?

In the sociology of knowledge, a number of theoretical models have been developed to explain and understand the variation of knowledge practices across the sciences (Weingart 1974; Becher 1989; Whitley 2000). They are crucial in the study of e-research in the humanities and social sciences because they critique a linear model in which it is assumed that all research will in the end adopt the e-science practices of the physics community. At the same time, the development of e-research practices in the humanities and social sciences is an exemplary case to further test and refine these theories of intellectual change (Fry 2003a). For example, how do Web based communication practices relate to the social and intellectual organisation of academic work? How do technical task uncertainty and strategic dependence (Whitley 2000) shape collaboratories and email practices and how can these practices be used as proxies for those theoretical notions? How do mechanisms at the level of the university (the computer network structure and its ICT policy), the level of the discipline (international conferences, (e-)journals), the level of the specialty, and the level of the research group interact in the creation of intellectual and institutional variation?

  • what roles do digital epistemic objects play in knowledge creation, and how can we use them to reformulate informatics problems in the humanities and social sciences?

A specific characteristic of e-research is the comprehensive digital representation of research objects, often intimately embedded within digital research instruments and resources. This may generate new dynamics in the creation and analysis of research objects, leading to new research questions as well as analytical methods in a variety of fields. This is particularly relevant to the humanities and social sciences. We have already noted how increased availability of digital collections and data may enable new forms of research. The question which roles are played by these digital epistemic objects in the humanities and social sciences has not yet been addressed in the literature. Theoretical work in this area is urgent because it may help to reformulate specific problems in humanities computing and humanities and social informatics into more generic information science terms. Presently, many practical problems are addressed on an ad-hoc basis. This is partly the result of lacking resources, but also of less than satisfactory theoretical models in information science.

  • do we need to rethink the conceptualisation of scientific labour and markets to understand the dynamics of e-research practices?

An important element of e-science is the increase of scale in the organisation of scientific and informatic labour. This affects the research practices but also the formation of scientific humanpower and expertise, the labour market of researchers and information specialists, and the political economy of e-science. It also raises the question of how to understand theoretically the role of scientific labour as value creation (Vann, 2004). This is the more important, since the upscaling of research in a number of fields goes together with an increase of standardisation of expertise that also affects the formation of new scientific researchers. To what extent do we witness a certain homogenisation of the qualities of scientific labour? Does this also affect the scholarly practices in the humanities and social sciences and the knowledge created in these fields? How do e-research institutions position themselves in the chain of value creation and what influence does this have on the future development of the labour market for researchers and information experts in e-research? This relates to the process of accounting for research, especially with respect to the evaluation of research institutes, the competition between universities, and the systems of reputational control and career development. For example, how does the increasing role of data and databases in research affect the way scientists and scholars can build up their reputation? And conversely, how do existing systems of reputational control promote or hinder the adoption of e-research practices and institutions?

  • does the extra connectivity of e-research lead to new forms of complex relationships in social structures and does this lead to new understandings of complex systems?

In recent decades, the interdisciplinary interaction between physics, mathematics, evolutionary models and sociology has led to exciting interdisciplinary approaches based on the notion of complex systems (eg. sociophysics). e-Research is a particulary interesting case to explore and develop these approaches because it is the product of the interaction of two complex systems: the system of knowledge and innovation, and the internet. The emergence of the knowledge society can be understood as the reflexive reorganisation of the role of knowledge in the subsystems of economy and politics (Leydesdorff 2000). In this process, the social sciences and humanities may play an increasing role, partly because they reflect and organise the systemic self-representation of society and culture. The hybrid research programmes in which the humanities and social sciences are called to contribute to the development of the European knowledge society attest to this trend. This means that the humanities and social sciences will be taken up in more complex interactions than in the past. By studying these, we expect that we can contribute to the development of domain specific models of complex systems. Simulations of specific processes in these interactions (Ebeling, Karmeshu et al. 2001) may throw light on key events in the self-generation of these complex systems.

  • does the operationalisation of sociological concepts of agency, institution, textuality and infrastructure need to be revised in order to study mediation in e-research?

The combination of networking and digitisation has led to a proliferation of social interactions that are mediated by information and communication technologies. This is particularly strong in scientific and increasingly also in scholarly contexts. This puts into question key concepts of social order and cultural interaction. Issues of access to resources is crucial for the distribution of authority. Do agency, institution and infrastructure acquire new characteristics in these mediated contexts? To what extent do information and communication infrastructures embody both agency and institution, and thereby enable and constrain particular social and cultural configurations? Does the fact that digital infrastructures make visible otherwise “hidden” interactions, affect the duality of agency and structure? And last but not least, how can the textuality of digital media be characterised in relation to circulating data and objects, and to infrastructures in e-research?