Sociotechnical Systems

What are Sociotechnical Systems?

“Sociotechnical system” is a concept that recognizes the reciprocal influences between technical systems and individuals who design, develop and use them; “sociotechnical systems” describe the hybrid nature of organizations in which individuals and technological actions are constantly interacting with one another, allowing for the creation of new affordances.

Sociotechnical system in action

Data science projects typically rely on a considerable amount of human and non-human infrastructure: the sociotechnical systems. Because of the precise nature of its research question, each project transforms the ways these systems are organized and interact with one another; each of these transformations shift risks, benefits, and responsibilities within the system and beyond.

Consider a map showing a network of rivers and streams. A performative artifact, the map is a dashboard presenting complex information in an organized fashion, produced using real-world geographical, geological, urban, and residential data. It visualizes of a vast sociotechnical system, which includes wastewater and freshwater streams, residents’ localization or density, water flow sensors, water management techniques (e.g., size of pipes), and policies (e.g., urban and environmental regulations), to name a few. As a resource, the map makes visible interactions between elements of a sociotechnical system while becoming a technical artifact by itself, part of the more extensive sociotechnical system.

An abstract illustration of a hexagon in the center of the image with 8
About the Illustration: An ecosystem that illustrates the potential for infinite connections

Ways to reflect on sociotechnical systems

  • How would you describe the sociotechnical system your work is embedded in?
  • How would you describe the sociotechnical system your work has an impact on?
  • How are these two systems related?
  • What social constructs or assumptions are inherent in your dataset and presented as fact?
  • What actions (and whose actions) are enabled by data science tools, and what steps are proscribed or hindered by them?
  • How does your data science project seek to contribute to modifying an existing sociotechnical system?
  • Could you describe the tools and technologies implemented in your research process?
    • In which phase of the process are they deployed?
    • What are their roles?
    • How do they interact with one another?
  • What are the risk-benefit arguments for using (or not using) these technologies and or tools?
  • Who or what is held responsible when something goes wrong?

Dive Deeper

​​The concept of sociotechnical systems concerns how people and technologies are entangled at different levels, so the human agency is intertwined with technological devices, practices, and infrastructures. The lens of sociotechnical systems adds the crucial dimension of thinking about how human and technical abilities to perform are intertwined. This lens invites practitioners to interrogate the sociotechnical systems in which their project intervenes, which may involve considering the systems the project depends on to function and how the output of their analysis can instantiate novel socio-technical arrangements. The intertwining of human and technical agency introduces an even more significant element into the data scientist’s analysis: considering how human and technological actors are mutually constitutive (Jasanoff, 2004; Sawyer & Jahari, 2014). In other words, it encourages practitioners to consider how their questions, processes, and outputs are shaped by the social milieus in which they are produced and how they simultaneously shape the social world by, for example, giving rise to new routines and practices (e.g., Akrich 1992; Latour, 1992; Orlikowski, 2000), facilitating certain behaviors while constraining others (e.g., Hutchby 2001), or distributing agency and accomplishment (e.g., Hutchins 1991).