An ESRC Research programme

Virtual Society?

the social science of electronic technologies

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An Overview of the Virtual Society?Programme

Programme Director
Professor Steve Woolgar

Programme Administrator
Dr Sara Daw

Virtual Society? Programme
Sad Business School
University of Oxford
Park End Street
Oxford, OX1 1HP
+44 (0)1865 288935
+44 (0)1865 288900 (fax)
Why the ? in Virtual Society?


Are fundamental shifts taking place in how people behave, organise themselves and interact as a result of electronic technologies? This is the central question addressed by an exciting Research Programme funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The answers will have a crucial bearing on commercial and business success, and on the quality of life.

New electronic technologies are widely regarded as the impetus for radical changes. These include interactive and multimedia communications, Internet and World Wide Web, video conferencing, virtual realities, computer-aided design, the information super highway, and the new technologies of electronic surveillance and consumer profiling. All are set to modify the nature and experience of interpersonal relations and communications and the form and substance of social control, participation and cohesion. The development of new information and communication technologies is central to emerging industries and regulatory policies throughout the world, based on the recognition that the new electronic information and communication technologies are key to future vitality. UK and European White Papers on Growth and Competitiveness, and users in industry, have in turn identified the social context in which technologies are actually used as a key area which is poorly understood. The Virtual Society? Research Programme aims to shape policy and practice through a better understanding of electronic technologies and information infrastructures in their development and use.

The importance to business and industry, to organisations and how people perform in them, and to the future of society cannot be over-emphasised. It is not enough to rely upon technological expertise. We also need a sophisticated appreciation of the social and human dimensions. Accordingly, a key emphasis of the Programme is to enhance and promote new and better forms of interaction between technical and social scientific expertise, between academics and industrialists, between researchers and the business community.

Virtual Society? is a key element of ESRC's response to the UK Foresight programme. Virtual Society? addresses issues identified by many Foresight sector panels. Investigating the future development of new technologies and social activities is recognised as crucially important to wealth creation and the quality of life. Virtual Society? draws together research efforts to form a UK research sector in the now strategic field of the social context of new electronic technologies.

The Programme has an initial budget of 3 million and runs 1997-2000. It comprises a portfolio of 22 projects, involving researchers at 25 universities throughout the UK, and a series of related events and activities. The Programme national headquarters are based at the Sad Business School, Oxford University. The Programme is directed by Professor Steve Woolgar and has an Advisory Committee chaired by Dr Geoff Robinson (former Director of Technology, IBM).

Why the ? in Virtual Society?

While claims about the radical nature and likely effects of new electronic technologies are widespread, it is important to distinguish hype from reality. For example, it is not always clear that the new technologies will actually have the capacities and effects attributed to them, nor that much trumpeted revolutionary changes will necessarily accompany their adoption. Accordingly, the Programme benefits from research which retains some (analytic) scepticism about the claims made for the new technologies. The "?" in "The Virtual Society?" signals this analytic stance.

Social science perspectives informed by a degree of scepticism about technical capacity underpin several important lines of research. For example, we need to know much more about why electronic technologies take the form they do. What social processes account for the emergence and projected popularity of remote networking and delivery? Which kinds of social constituency are instrumental in promoting the convergence of computing and telephony? In short, what social processes help shape the nature of new electronic technologies and what sorts of expectations are built into their development and implementation? We also need to know what accounts for the generation of knowledge about the capabilities and potential of new electronic technologies, and how is this knowledge socially distributed? Which social agencies play a key role in the mediation of views and images of the Internet, and what helps promote and sustain ideas about its capacity to revolutionise work practices and fundamentally alter social arrangements? What, in other words, is the significance of the "public understanding of technology" for the realisation of the "virtual society"?


The Programme addresses the following main themes:

  • Skills and Performance: the impact of new electronic and communications technologies on human and organisational potential, performance and learning. How have electronic technologies developed as they have and what is the impact on human and organisational performance and skills?
  • Social Cohesion: the role of new electronic techniques in relations between people and in modifying processes and degrees of social inclusion and exclusion. This theme examines the ties which link people together and mechanisms of governance, social control, inclusion and exclusion.
  • Social Contexts of New Electronic Technologies: the changing social contexts and factors influencing the transformation and adoption of electronic technologies. Social contexts present difficult-to-analyse sources of risk for investors, managers, organisations and communities. Research is directed to the manner in which technologies are rejected, adopted or adapted and deployed in specific settings.


The Programme is of relevance to several overlapping constituencies:

  • Voluntary and public sector, social services: the potential of electronic technologies for disadvantaging or for alleviating disadvantage, social inclusion and exclusion.
  • Organisations: the effects of electronic technologies on organisational issues, group dynamics, social interaction and human behaviour.
  • Commerce and industry: the implications for wealth creation, for service industries and for skills and organisational requirements.
  • Government and politics: the nature of electronic government and its impact on economy and society; the effects of using technology to deliver public services; changes to democratic structure and process; globalization versus localisation; resurgence of the regions, and the flight to the cities.
  • Education: the impact of new technologies from primary to tertiary level; potential effects on distance and lifelong learning.
  • Technology: the social contexts of development and implementation of new technology; social scientific contributions to technical design.
  • Academia: social scientists and other disciplines - computer science, information technology, electrical engineering, arts and creative design - researching in and on electronic technologies.

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