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Author: Mariana Marcondes

What do digital sociologists mean by “socio-technical”?

This is a short essay I wrote as an assessment for the course Issues and Concepts in Digital Society, part of the MSc in Digital Society. It is more formal than my usual blog posts, but I think it is a useful reflection, so I decided to share it here.

The term “socio-technical” is a constant presence in the literature about technology and society, both in academic and popular contexts. It has been widely disseminated because it condenses multiple ideas, becoming useful in the analysis of technology and society, even if has not always been rigorously defined. This essay will first describe the development of its main ideas based on a historical review by Grint, K. and Woolgar (2013), then will present how the term is used in the current analysis. That should contribute to an understanding of its use by digital sociologists.

The socio-technical system approach was created in the context of organizational theory. Focusing on the outcome of the relationship between machines and the social aspects of the workplace, this approach established that appliances only constrained human action, as opposed to the deterministic idea that they defined the production of workers. It considered a clear distinction between technology, which was understood as something objective, and the collective of workers, the social.

A critique of that perspective is the constructivist social shaping approaches, mostly developed by the sociology of scientific knowledge and industrial sociology. They focus on the political circumstances of the production of technology and its consumption, especially the “constraints” they present to users. In this instance, technologies shouldn’t be assumed to be stable entities with fixed and determinate ‘users’, because the processes of design, development, manufacture, and consumption are socially constructed. One of these approaches, actor-network theory blurs the distinction between human and non-human actors, which are equal entities of contingent networks involved in processes of negotiation that result in the development and stabilization of different technologies. This approach does not account for any influential structural powers outside from the network, in stark contrast with socio-technical alignments.

Socio-technical alignments focus on the significance of the fit between technology and society. One of its most important theorists, Habermas arguments that technology can be mistakenly perceived as having autonomy whenever general social norms become conflated with or reduced to the norms constructed by technologists and their supporters. By creating this “technocratic consciousness”, those groups conceal their interests in an atmosphere of objective necessity for and the inevitability of technological advancement. Through that deceit, they determine the function, direction, and pace of technological and social developments (Held, 1980 in Grint and Woolgar 2013). Discourse is also the focus of anti-essentialism, that proposes they cause disagreements in the analysis of technology’s capacities by presenting them as objective reflections of the truth, not interpreted representations of a truth.

The idea of a socio-technical perspective, thus, has a diverse history and ample foci. This intricacy is conducive to its application without an explicit commitment to one specific approach: the term “socio-technical” is routinely summoned to imply an awareness that society and technology are distinct but dependent, and take turns influencing agents, processes, and consequences of each other. In its vagueness, it captures a complexity that makes it intuitively useful in the analysis of technological products, frequently preceding the mobilization of clearer sociological theories and concepts.

An exemplary case study is Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How search engines reinforce racism(2018). In this work, she investigates the socio-technical aspects of Google’s search engine results, informed by race and gender studies. On one analysis, a query for the single adjective “beautiful” returned only images of white women. A constructivist interpretation of this output suggests it as a result of negotiation processes between users and platform interpreting beauty in the context of a society that embodies it as female and evaluates it by white standards. This produces the pool of possible results available for search and the results that are consumed in the form of clicks by users that make such a query. But Noble also notes that those outputs are additionally shaped by the values and norms of the search company’s commercial partners and advertisers. Through the “technocratic consciousness”, economic interests of technologists that control the platform is concealed but still expressed in the form of results that can be perceived by the user as objective.

The same perceived objectivity of technology is operating when people request facial plastic surgeries motivated by the output of their mobile phone self-portraits, as reported by Belluz (2018). The device’s lenses can make a nose look up to 30% larger compared to the rest of the face depending on the distance it is kept from the user at the moment of capture. An anti-essentialist interpretation of this phenomenon could raise interesting research questions on whether users see the photographs as an interpretation of their faces or a reflection of it. Or more poignant still: could it be that users may just be willing to change their faces to achieve the desired interpretation regardless of how their faces will actually look like without the mediation?

Throughout its existence across disciplines, the term “socio-technical” has analyzed agents, processes, and consequences involved in the complex relations of technology and society. The examples in this essay should illustrate how different approaches underlie current analysis of everyday technology in very relevant.



 Belluz, J., 2018. ‘Selfie face distortion is driving people to get nose jobs’, Vox, 21 Jun. Available at: 25 October 2018).

Grint, K. and Woolgar, S., 2013. ‘Theories of technology’, in The machine at work: Technology, work and organization. John Wiley & Sons.

Noble, S.U., 2018. Algorithms of Oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. NYU Press.

Feminism and the authoritarian states – the cases of China and Brazil

Leta Hong Fincher’s Betraying Big Brother is a simultaneously inspiring and alarming reading for attentive Brazilians. The author takes us through the life stories of a group of feminists in China, how their personal struggles led to their political awakening, their activism and the government’s attempts at suppressing their voices. It is a very refreshing portrayal of Chinese women, too often represented as plain, passive and accommodating; at the same time, it shows a pattern for suppression of dissenting voices that rings many bells for people living in other authoritarian contexts.

One of the points Leta makes is how the internet enabled the organisation of women’s movements in the recent years, initially without major resistance from the government: “Despite intrusive censorship, the rise of China’s new generation of feminist activists was inextricably linked to the explosion of Weibo in 2010 and WeChat in 2011. […] The internet provided space for them to explore ideas with more freedom than many of their workplaces and homes, and also allowed like-minded women throughout the country to find one another.”

In Brazil, too, the internet has been playing an important role in the dissemination of feminist thought, with many shared issues, such as violence against women, workplace discrimination, and sexual harassment. Unlike China, in Brazil there is no wide governmental censorship of online content, but women are disproportionally targeted with online violence, putting feminists under increasing threat. Although this is certainly not part of official state policy, one could argue that the current political moment seems too encouraging of that kind of harassment: even before the election cycle of 2018 was finished, a very successful Facebook page organised by women against the eventual winner of the presidential race was target and taken down for a few days, not before having its name changed in order to feign support for the candidate.

Too often, Feminism is not perceived as a proper political movement, and for a while Chinese feminists played with that to bypass state control. Initially, the movement was made up mostly of university students and other highly educated women, with a strong focus on violence against women. Progressively, as they gained visibility, coordinated offline performances and organised with layers to defend worker’s rights, they suddenly seemed much more defiant of the government – especially since Xi Jinping came to power.

Leta describes how the image of Xi Jinping, initially built by state media and supposedly largely embraced by the Chinese people, is deliberately based in both hyper-masculinisation and an attachment to family values. He is simultaneously presented as a militarily powerful man and lovely model husband every woman should aspire to engage.

If You Want To Marry, Marry Someone Like Xi Dada

The name of the song above refers to Xi Jinping as Xi Dada – Big Daddy Xi, as Leta translates it, supposedly an endearing nickname used by Chinese people and state media to talk about their leader. The reference to a familial relationship is not poorly thought: the traditional family is fundamental for the Chinese government. The country is a “family-state under heaven” (jiaguo tianxia)” – and as such, the role played by women is fundamental to managing that family.

That is not at all unlike this moment in time in Brazilian politics. The current president was elected after a campaign light in proposals and strong in the reinforcement of conservative, religious-based values that praised both the traditional family and a very caricatural idea of masculinity, of which Bolsonaro was a model: from his everlasting gun gesture to his much younger wife. His popular nickname, though, is much more messianic – The Myth.

The myth has arrived 

Observing the fan-art that illustrates the fan-made video above, one may think of the place reserved for women in such family-forward states. In her book, Leta reminds us how control of women has been a constant through Chinese history, the most glaring example of that being the one-child policy that for decades meant forced sterilisation and abortions. Because of the decline in births over time and its consequences for the economy, in 2016 a two-child policy was adopted, now pressuring women into having 2 babies. Despite the failure of the policy in increasing births to the level expected, it seems that a three-child policy is soon to be enacted, as hinted by the release of a 3-kid family of pigs on the 2019 commemorative stamps for the year of the pig. Not much has been done in order to support working mothers, and much effort seems to be put into convincing women they would be much better off at home.

When the state has such strong positions on how women should behave and what constitutes proper femininity, it only makes sense that feminists and LGBTQ activists will be persecuted, with their speech and NGOs suppressed. Looking at Brazil again, we can see the same symptoms, this time directly from the government. The most flamboyant, and yet very consequential, example comes from Damares Alves, chosen as head of the ministry for Women, Family and Human Rights.

Damares is an evangelical pastor in charge of a brand new ministry responsible for taking up work previously done by smaller, specialised institutions focused on policies for women, family, human rights, the advocacy for racial equality, prevention of torture and others. Damares has been a prolific meme generator, either gleefully chanting that “boys wear blue and girls, pink”, or carelessly declaring that in an ideal society women would stay home with their children. According to her, Brazil is entering a new era.

There is a strong disagreement between concerned Brazilians whether those declarations are just smokescreens or should be taken at face value. But this requires ignoring the consequences of the already realised amalgamation of women’s issues with family issues in a single ministry, which hints at even more control over women’s reproductive rights in a country where sex education is poor and access to legal abortion is virtually inexistent. At the very least, advancements for women’s rights will be halted for the next 4 years. In a less hopeful perspective, this government would materialise their campaign promises, such as eliminating any form of activism and all leftists. In the present, NGOs are being monitored, and the LGBT population is no longer mentioned in the text of public policies for human rights.

Nothing can threaten the traditional family, neither in Brazil or in China – the government will make sure of that.

In spite of all that, Chinese feminists resist. Two things have been fundamental for the maintenance of their activism: courage and strategies to keep going and evading censorship; and the support from wider sections of the society. Because so much of their activism involved mobilizing for worker’s rights, they had popular support in many critical moments of their fight. The second point is becoming specially important: Chinese companies have aimed at monetising the growing feelings of empowerment among women. They amplify its individualistic aspects, making it less political and therefore less threatening to governments – not too different from what has been happening in the west.  But in the conclusion of her book, Leta presents us with some relief for that: “Yet Lü Pin argues that the new corporate interest in feminism in China might, paradoxically, help keep the political movement alive. […] ‘When the government wants to silence us, [corporate feminism] may help us to get our message out and expands the space for the discussion of women’s rights.’ She cites a Chinese idiom: ‘The pond that is too clean has no fish” (chi zhi qing ze wu yu), which she takes to mean that a movement cannot survive if it is too ideologically pure'”.

We Brazilian feminists should take notes.

Facebook Feminism in Brazil

For my degree in Social Psychology, back in 2017 I wrote a dissertation about intersectionality and Facebook Feminism in Brazil. I had two main reasons for that: the perception that intersectionality was a growing concern for feminists in Brazil and the fact that this specific platform had become so popular for fast feminist activism that “Facebook Feminism” had become an easy derogatory expression.

After reading a couple of qualitative research focused on one specific Facebook page or movement and limited by narrow time frames, I thought it would be good to get a broader view of the field, so I decided to do a wider-reaching data collection and exploratory analysis. More than just satisfying my own curiosity, I wanted to contribute to further research (although I am still to work on writing and publishing a paper about it). Today I want to share a fragment of what I found out.


Simply put, the intersectional approach posits that thinking about oppression requires that we consider all the relevant multiple forms oppressions at play and how they relate for creating specific outcomes. So, for feminist analysis, that involves going beyond just gender, as not all women navigate the world in exactly the same conditions.  Markers of oppression vary widely across cultures, but overall there is an agreement that the minimum 3 categories of difference that should be taken into consideration are gender, race and class. That being said, it is not a simple task to try to attribute the presence of those markers to Facebook posts or, really, any text.

What I did and what I found

I collected posts from the six most liked Facebook pages in Brazilian Portuguese that I could identify using the platform’s research tool (which is in itself very limiting). I chose only the pages that did not explicitly identify whit any specific strand of Feminism. The most popular one at that time (July 2017) had 1.242.852 likes; the least, 727.575. The gathered corpus had a total of 26.890 posts published from mid-2013 up to that moment.

A bar chart representing the number of posts by type. Different colors represent the different pages analyzed.

The first thing I could immediately conclude was that any serious future analysis should focus on images, not text, as “photo” is the predominant type of post. That is reinforced by the fact that only 35% of the collected posts had text with more than 140 characters. 

A word cloud of most common pairings for the word “Feminism”.

A word cloud for the most common pairings for the words “woman” and “women”.

In order to try to observe what kinds of Feminism were enunciated in the posts, I used n-grams to see which words most commonly accompanied “Feminism”. “Intersectional” showed up only 24 times, while “black Feminism” occurred 50 times.

That focus on racial identity was also predominant when repeating the same process using the words “woman/women” to observe which categories of women were most frequently enunciated in the posts. “Black women” had 579 mentions, while “white” had 266 and other WoC had 46.

Whether or not this really says anything about intersectionality in Facebook Feminism, it is great to see some emphasis on blackness in these spaces. White middle-class women are traditionally over-represented in Feminism; in a country where most of the population identifies as black, it only makes sense that any new approaches to mainstream feminist conversation elevate black women’s voices and concerns.

Intersectionality does not have to be enunciated to exist. My simple exploratory methods did not allow for more nuanced inquiries, but more complex approaches could provide a deeper understanding of this form of digital activism.

Hung jaak – paying a prime for your belief

One thing often commented about Hong Kong is how the modern and the traditional coexist harmoniously. Walking around there, between steel and glass skyscrapers you will inevitably come across at least one colorful and fragrant temple, and it will not seem out of place. That same grace manifests itself in many ways, and for this post I want to focus on the mix of traditional beliefs with digital technologies and the reproduction of inequalities.

Hong Kong-made tech are usually created for financial purposes, which is unsurprising given the region’s location and History. Fintech can seem very acultural in a sense that, being fundamental for globalized markets, it tends to be somewhat homogeneous around the world. But a much more local character shows up in real estate uses of technology.

A bit of background info here: Hong Kong is one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world. While that is often attributed to a chronic shortage of land (a very disputed and evergreen subject), you cannot ignore the fact that this is also one of the most unequal societies in the world. While a mansion at The Peak has been sold for £338 million earlier this year, thousands of people remain homeless, spend their nights in 24-hours McDonald’s restaurants or live in awful conditions in cage/coffin apartments (although Beijing representatives may mock that). In such a competitive market, even the most precarious spaces come with high price tags, and people are always looking for opportunities for bargaining.

Another important contextual information is that the people of Hong Kong are very superstitious. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianism and other religions and philosophies all melt together and inform spiritual and mundane practices in Hong Kong. How seriously? Feng Shui shapes the very skyline of the city.

Superstitious people looking for a place to live in HK, then, have to take auspiciousness into consideration. At the top of the list of concerns is avoiding hung jaak – Cantonese for ghost apartment: homes inside which people have died, especially in cases of untimely deaths, carry a lot of bad energy. Before the internet, potential residents would have to trust on a real estate agent’s knowledge and honesty, because there is no official listing of that kind of data. But clever technologists saw a business opportunity in manually gathering and providing such information.

For at least six years, Squarefoot, an international “property portal”, has kept a page dedicated to the listing of indoors deaths since 1977, with varying levels of detail. A most widely publicised tool came from another company, inspired by augmented reality game Pokémon GO: made the headlines in 2016 by timely creating and marketing a new feature in its mobile app, which allowed users to check for haunted properties by aiming the camera at a building. If there was any such occurrences there, a ghost should appear on the screen. Even before that tool was developed, the site of the company already had a layer on its map for checking that.

But the main reason why those services are good business is not that they help believers to avoid the haunted properties, but the exact opposite. Because those beliefs are so ingrained in Hong Kong (and other Chinese) society, prices of those homes can plunge around 10 to 50%, thus attracting non-believers.

In practice, that means any superstitious person would have to consider how much they can pay to live in accordance with their values. While neither company knows who actually gets those places, they seem to believe their services cater to millennials and expats, as those are the segments of population least prone to holding traditional Chinese beliefs. Because of that, this form of house hunting ends up reproducing inequalities present in the society, notedly the privilege of expats: usually already richer then locals (and immigrants), they get to save handsomely with hung jaak.

e-cidadania, is it worth it?

Just a few days after the election of Jair Bolsonaro a couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a link suggesting that we voted, in a poll, in favor of maintaining the current gun control legislation in Brazil. That had been a very common and divisive subject during the election cycle and will likely remain so, at least until the new leader passes the desired changes.

Some examples of Bolsonaro showing his appreciation for guns.

The link took me to a page called e-cidadania, a portal launched in 2012 by the Brazilian federal Senate to allow and incentivise citizens to take part in legislative activities, budget planning, accountability and representation. The platform consists of three tools:

Legislative ideas: citizens can suggest and support changes in legislation and the creation of laws. If a suggestion reaches 20 thousand supporters in at most 4 months, it is then discussed by the Senate.

Interactive event: users can watch and comment on events open to the public.

Public consultation: all law projects and other propositions being discussed by the Senate are described to users, who can then vote for or against them.

The main concern I have about this platform is online safety. There have been many instances of data breach worldwide, and Brazil is believed to be an easy target. Here we have a national participatory technology that requests its users to create an account with full name, password, state of residence and e-mail: all sensitive information that could be used for gaining access to other services. Looking closely at its terms of use and privacy policy, things don’t get more reassuring: the only information about personal data storage is that it is held in the Senate’s database, with no mention of expiration period. It is stated that the Senate retains the copyrights and prerogative to divulge users’ names and other input information whenever they consider it necessary for the portal’s mission.

Such is the case when a user’s legislative idea gets more than 20,000 favorable votes and is sent forward to be discussed by senators. Not only the author’s full name is divulged to the representatives and anyone who accesses the site, but also those of all people that supported it, along with their e-mails.

That may seem like fair use, but right now in Brazil, any discussion topics are clearly divided ideologically. That political divide has reached e-Cidadania: the two most voted proposition of 2018 so far suggests “criminalising MST and other social movements that occupy private lands” and “turning into a crime the teaching of gender ideology in Brazilian schools“. Those propositions (which were both supported and will be discussed by the Senate) are a reaction to what is perceived to be the greatest harms caused by leftist politics. By looking at the list of supporters names, you can identify people who are at least in part aligned with the incoming government. I wonder where are held the names of the people who voted against those values, and who can/will be able to access them: maybe a government that has promised to end any forms of activism and to eliminate opposition?

Criminalising “gender ideology” at schools: yes

Criminalising land justice activism: yes

Reviewing gun legislation: no

How do senators handle those results? A research by Raianne Liberal Coutinho in 2017 using data from the previous year shows that although representatives say they check the votings and take the results into consideration, they vote against popular opinion in the most relevant cases.

If e-cidadania is becoming more partisan by reflecting the current political climate, it does not seem to be overly protective of user’s personal information, doesn’t seem to influence political outcomes and could be a tool for an authoritarian government, I have to ask: is it worth participating?

My vote is no.

#running in China

Runners taking part in the Great Wall Marathon 2017. Image: Albatros Adventure Marathons.

There are so many interesting topics to discuss about the uses Chinese people and companies are making of the expanding Internet structure and technological innovations, but for this post I want to focus on something very close to my heart: running.

According to the Chinese Athletics Association, last year 5 million people took part in 1,102 running events in China, almost 20 times as in 2014. In one single day in April there were 40 races! And yet, a lot of people are left out of events: 100,000 runners applied for the 2017 edition of the Beijing Marathon, for which there were only  30,000 slots available – although that did not stop all rejected runners.

Why have so many people in China suddenly caught the running bug? There seem to be three main reasons: the expansion of the Chinese middle class, government encouragement and a desire for status on social media platforms.

For the government, this running boom is positive in many ways: it improves overall population health, stimulates domestic tourism and keeps the money flowing: despite the fact that running doesn’t cost much, the Chinese are very willing to put their RMB to use in gear and events.

That joyous spending has been made possible by the economic boom China has experienced in the last years and the expansion of its middle class. More people have some disposable income, time for leisure and a desire for a healthier life, both physical and mental. Running is perceived to be a pastime of the wealthy, so many people feel that it is something they have to take part in.

And how do you join the marathoner status if not through social media? Neil Connor, a writer for The Telegraph, reported finding “100 million-plus views of photos and posts bearing the hash tag #Wuxi #Marathon on Weibo on the day of this year’s race [2018]”. That desire to impress on social media dispate one’s actual fitness level can have undesirable consequences: although more than 1.2 million people took part in full and half-marathons in China in 2017, half a million of them didn’t make it to the end of the race. That same year, in a marathon in Qingyuan, more than 12,000 out of 20,000 runners received mid-race medical treatment.

Not only thousands of people are putting their health at risk, but a smaller group is actively cheating the system by using other runner’s bibs or taking shortcuts to run shorter distances.  Last year’s Shenzen half marathon made the headlines for shameful numbers: 258 runners were caught by traffic cameras and photographers taking shortcuts or otherwise breaking the rules, and at least 18 were identified wearing fake bibs. As we can see, the technology that allows for a carefully curated athletic self also allows for the surveillance that can destroy it. Now the organizers of the Shenzen half and the Beijing Marathon have announced plans to use facial recognition to identify cheaters and ban them permanently. Those measures are seen as ways to not only eliminate cheaters from future events but, more profoundly, a way to  “respect the marathon and respect sporting spirit”.

I finish this post with a humble homage to my very own personal cheater, whom I met during this year’s Hong Kong Marathon. She showed up in the racecourse less than half a kilometre to the finish line, wearing casual clothing, with her hair down and not a memory of sweat on her body. She crossed the finish line, got a medal and left laughing. I hope tech will someday avenge me.


Digital identity crisis

Youtube and Spotify know when I am missing Hong Kong (although that is a Chinese music video in Shanghai, but you can’t control emotional associations)

For the last two and a half years, I lived in a country that was not my own. I moved to Hong Kong in a short notice and did not know much about the place before arriving. As so many people do, I started using technologies to find my way around. Af first I relied on the usual “neutral” apps: wouldn’t step out of my apartment without Google Maps and would only know where to eat if Foursquare directed me to a vegetarian-friendly shop.

With the passing of the months, I had to also move my digital presence to my new physical place. To my surprise, it was very cumbersome to change my Google, Apple and Spotify accounts from Brazil to Hong Kong. But it was necessary, both to allow for adding my new local forms of payment and for getting access to local apps. Netflix did not require such a maneuver, but my options for consumption in the platform were automatically changed. Of course, in due time, I forgot what I lost and started to enjoy the Asian content that was new to me.

In order to keep up with local news, I started following Hong Kong media on Twitter, then Chinese and Asian media more broadly, as traveling took me to those places and made me more invested in their realities. Around the same time, local social scientists started creeping up in my feed, as did local photographers on Instagram, both because the platform suggested them to me and because I was getting more and more attached to images of specific roads, neons, bamboo scaffolding and all sorts of daily mundane details that make a place dear to us. Slowly but surely, as I became accustomed to those sights and because I recognised them, they started becoming part of my identity.

My support systems for living in the in 852* had by them changed almost completely: I checked the weather using the Hong Kong Observatory‘s app; the Hong Kong Public Libraries‘ app was something I couldn’t live without; Foodpanda and Deliveroo fed me, HSBC Hong Kong‘s app made me anxious. Not to sound offensive, but was I not, at least digitally, a bit of a Hongkonger?

Thousands of tiny (mostly) perfectly rational and practical decisions ended up amounting to some sort of (quite emotional) identity shift. Which was reinforced by locals interpreting my ethnically ambiguous face as Chinese, only to be corrected by my reaction, that was usually just looking very surprised and confused.

Now I am a Brazilian who lives in Edinburgh and has to decide what to do with this digital Hongkonger self. There is no playbook for that. Some things are not a matter of choice, so I find myself once again suffering with Google, Apple and Spotify. But what about the Facebook page of my former running community; the Instagram account from the vegan restaurant in my neighbourhood that was pretty much my dining room; the local charity from which I adopted my two lovely cats? If I keep all of these, am I maintaining my Hongkonger digital self alive? Would that stop me from moving on and developing a more current digital identity? Killing her feels like killing a part of myself that I actually kinda like. But honestly, can I even move on, when different social media platforms still recommend me HK content and Google Photos keeps bringing up memories? Is it up to me?

I just don’t know what to do with my(digital)self.

*852 is HK’s area code and how locals sometimes refer to here there. You know, just something we locals do.

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