Virtual Society?

the social science of electronic technologies


Social contexts of Virtual Manchester

Principal Researcher

Professor Penelope Harvey
Department of Social Anthropology
University of Manchester
Roscoe Building
Brunswick Street
Manchester M13 9PL
+44 (0)161 275 3993


Dr Jon Agar
University of Manchester

Dr Sarah Green
University of Manchester

Research Period
1 January 1998 to
31 December 1999
Aims and Objectives
Project Design


Historically, Manchester has been closely associated with so-called technological revolutions, a fact upon which public bodies draw in the conscious promotion of Manchester as an 'Information City'. This project focuses on how the technological is constituted and recognised in the field of information and communications technologies (ICTs), taking a theoretical approach which stresses the social nature of technical activity. Particular attention is given to how the technical is distinguished from other kinds of social activity, to how such demarcation is sustained and reproduced and to what is done in the name of such a difference. Western cultural narratives that link technology, innovation and social change are highly visible in Manchester's public ICT strategy. The project will trace previous efforts at conflating social integration with scientific-technical integration and ask what, if anything, is new about a 'virtual society'.

Aims and Objectives

The main aims and objectives are to:

  • assess the ways in which a city (Manchester) is confronting the development and use of new information and communications technologies (ICTs)

  • identify and critically evaluate the cultural assumptions which sustain current understandings of the relationship between the 'virtual' and the 'non-virtual' in attempts to fashion an "Information Society"

  • develop further understandings of the social contexts in which ICTs are actually used, and the different ways in which users (both individual and institutional) conceptualise contexts of practice

  • develop an ethnographic and historically grounded method for the study of the extensive international networks through which an "information city" is both constituted and "lived in"

  • provide local institutions with the means to identify and communicate with end-users with a view to enabling them (i) better to meet the needs of existing users and (ii) to identify new users.

Project Design

Ethnographic work builds out from the core public ICT activity in Manchester, the EU-funded INFOCITIES programme which co-ordinates activities in the fields of culture, education, commerce, public administration and generic services both within the city and across Europe. The ethnographers work within this programme (working with designers, managers and end-users) while simultaneously building up a picture of the wider context of ICT activity in the city - in both public and private sectors. Historical research is carried out in the archives of technological firms, in particular those making and marketing ICTs, the archives of the City Council and those of other organisations which shaped the network of urban technologies, the archives of the regional and local media, the Public Records Office and the archives of Imperial College, London. Oral histories are also being collected to strengthen our understanding of place in "technological Manchester".


It is increasingly recognised that more needs to be understood about the relationship between the technological potential of ICTs, the non-virtual contexts in which they are being introduced and the needs and interests of users and potential users. It is now well understood that simply providing computer terminals, access to the Internet and a few CD-ROMs is insufficient for harnessing the potential of ICTs. Furthermore such potential is difficult to assess. The interests and needs of the target population tend to be assumed, not empirically established. We treat both the technologies themselves and their users as fully embedded in social contexts. These include the global development of a 'knowledge economy', regional social policies and developments and the contexts of everyday interaction. The project will bring these contexts together to reveal how an understanding of technological innovation as situated social practice might benefit future policy and practice.

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Contents current at 12th December 2000