My research areas have spanned a broad range, from Informetrics and Scientometrics to Digital Libraries. Currently, I am focused on two areas: A. Social Network Analysis and B. Deconstructing Disinformation. To set the context of these two research interests and how they dovetail, I would like to delve into my research journey, which hopefully connects the dots and weaves the different research threads into a mosaic.
- The genesis of my research journey
The “Aha!” moment that helped me discover my penchant, potential, and personality for research happened while working on my master’s thesis. The process of deep dive into the literature, the ability to bring fresh perspectives, and the diligence to tease out underlying connections and the threads of arguments are central to my research. My research approach straddles different domains. Having majored in physics and chemistry during my undergraduate studies, I am fascinated by structures and schemas. I believe that schemas and structures help unravel diverse phenomenon. Just as Mendeleev’s periodic table helped derive relationships between the various elements and their properties and predict chemical properties and behaviors of undiscovered or newly synthesized elements, I believe studying the structures and agents of systems and societies helps us unravel human behaviors. I explore the structure versus agency debate in social sciences through the lens of network sciences.
- Information as structures
My doctoral research into “Relevance in Information Communication: A Study of Individual Differences” was not only intellectually intriguing and satisfying but helped me foray into cognitive sciences. I studied the notion of information from an epistemological perspective. Based on Nicholas Belkin’s information concept imbued with the idea of structure, I developed a theoretical framework of information¾from a cognitive paradigm perspective. Defining information as that that changes the recipient’s cognitive structures, I argued that relevance is individualistic and context-specific and empirically proved the hypothesis. After researching various aspects of informatics for forty years, I take a 3600 view of Information¾from cognitive to cultural. I view information as both a process and a product of structuring/restructuring through signs, symbols, and other representations. This notion of structures is the lens that I wear while studying different informational phenomena.
- McLuhan and Media as an extension of people
Moving beyond cognitive aspects, I am naturally drawn to broader psychological and sociological dimensions of information. I was and continue to be hugely influenced by Marshall McLuhan’s writings and his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) and his famous quote, “The medium is the message.” As McLuhan said, we tend to focus on the obvious, which is the content to provide us valuable information, but in the process, we mostly miss the structural changes that are introduced subtly or over long periods. As society’s values, norms, and ways of doing things change because of technology, we realize the medium’s social implications. Internet, including social media, is influencing structural changes. Networked Individuality is a societal phenomenon that exceeds the idea of the Internet as a place for vital but closed online communities and shapes the individual cognitive and distributed cognitive structures.
- Technology is an enabler and equalizer, but societies as structures influence.
I believe that technology is a great enabler and can be an equalizer when applied to learning. I have always tried to tie my academic work to my engagement with society and undertook projects to leverage Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for learning and scholarship. Under the broad rubric of digital scholarship, I built eLearning systems such as HyperCAL (1995) (funded by the University Grants Commission, India); Vidyanidhi Digital Library (2000 to 2010) (funded by the Government of India, The Ford Foundation, and Microsoft); WikiGyan Open Data Repository (2008-9) (funded by the National Internet Exchange of India—NiXi); Internet Safari¾Online Interactive Learning System for underprivileged school children (2009 – 2010) (funded by NiXi). Building these platforms made me realize that while technology is an enabler, societies are the structures that constrain agency and limit technology from being an equalizer.
- Web 2.0 and Social Media
With the emergence of Web 2.0 technologies, my academic pursuit transitioned to studying new technologies, which heralded the era of social media. I developed a course on “Web 2.0 Technologies” as an Open Elective for all University of Mysore graduate students and had students from across disciplines. Teaching the course from 2005 to 2010 helped me obtain a truly trans-disciplinary purview of Web 2.0. I fine-tuned my teaching and research focus to “social media and social network analysis.” Over the last decade, I have studied and written primarily on Social Media and Social Network Analysis (SNA). I have written about the “small world phenomena” and “making the invisible visible through SNA.” I developed and taught a course on “SNA, Crowds, and Strategies” at the MYRA School of Business from 2017-19.
- SNA as an axis of inquiry
Today, I look at SNA as a line of inquiry that helps unravel diverse phenomenon. The common thread of my investigation is how we can study relations and interactions¾whether between individuals or organizations, or events¾with the help of SNA. I am convinced that SNA helps us make sense of the phenomenon by discovering the hidden patterns of relationships. Anchored to the overarching debate of structure vs. agent theory, I apply the Actor-network theory (ANT)¾a theoretical and methodological approach to social theory where everything in the social and natural worlds exists in continually shifting networks of relationships. ANT posits that nothing exists outside those relationships.
Using SNA as an axis of inquiry, my research plans are to study different social movements beginning with feminist movements. SNA helps us in visibilizing the network structures behind social movements in general and feminist movements in particular.
- Research Plans: An Overview
I outline my current thinking and research plans in the domain of SNA and disinformation here:
- Exploring networked individuality, social movements, and collective action through Social Network Analysis (SNA)
- This research project¾Exploring networked Individuality, social movements, and collective action through Social Network Analysis, aims to study the phenomenon of social movements and collective action through the approaches and the lens of SNA. First, we look at the feminist movements in South Asia and hope to expand to other regions and later to other social movements.
- The overarching objective is to understand the formation, function, and efficacy of social movement organizations (SMOs) and examine the network formation, network dynamics, and network characteristics that lead to successful collective action.
- The main research questions are: What are the interdependencies between individual actors, their networks, and organizations? What triggered the blowout and contributed to becoming a movement? How do social movements turn into steadfast movements?
- Focused on feminist movements across South Asia using the approaches and tools of SNA, we will generate networks of feminist movement organizations (FMOs); analyze the actors that lead to successful collective action, especially those that lead to new policies.
- The study would be carried out at two levels¾macro and micro. Macro-level would be studying the feminist movement based on literature and content analysis. Content analysis will help map the networks.
- Micro-level studies would be carried out by identifying the defining actors, acts, events of the FMOs in each of these countries. We use the ego network approach to map the actors, acts, events of the networks.
- The project’s approach would be a novel methodology based on a triangulation of Case study, Content Analysis, and SNA methods. Based on the literature, snapshots of the FMOs and their networks would be constructed using content analysis. These FMO networks would be analyzed using the methods and metrics of SNA. The goal is to carry out an in-depth study of the principal actors and events and their networks using the ‘ego network’ approach.
- Deconstructing Disinformation: Unravelling what, why, and how of the spread of disinformation (a Book writing project)
Having studied the notion of information deeply as part of my doctoral research, I continue to be fascinated by the notion of information and now disinformation. As Luciano Floridi (2011) says in his book Philosophy of Information, we, especially information professionals, are primarily concerned with “how information should be adequately created, processed, managed, and used.” As he notes, we also need to study what happens when “the process of information is defective.” I would argue that disinformation is an outcome of this defective process. I take a constructivist approach to conceptualize and understand the phenomenon of disinformation.
The proposed book aims to deconstruct disinformation from the conceptualization of information and study the phenomenon taking a 3600 view of disinformation, straddling from cognitive to cultural, spanning the diverse hues of and evolution of information culminating in the emergence of a networked economy and information societies. The book will begin with the anthropology of disinformation, primarily covering human evolution as informational beings and ending with networked economy and the distributed cognition of human beings.
Specifically, the book would cover psychology, pathology, sociology, economics, technology, and the culture of disinformation. The premise of the book is as follows:
- Human cognition represents a specific order of entities (physical or conceptual) in our minds and mental spaces. This representation is information, and order is the essence of information. The defective process of formation leads to disinformation.
- Distributed Cognition (DCog)¾a theoretical and methodological framework developed by Hutchins (Hutchins, 1995) explicates the cognitive activities as embodied and situated within the settings in which they occur.
- Networked Individuality is a societal phenomenon that exceeds the idea of the Internet as a place for vital but closed online communities and transforms the nature and working of DCog.
- Communication is transferring/offloading this structure/information to the outside environment through social/technological means. Context and communication (messaging and massaging) significantly change the structure and meaning.
- The loss of order either in its formation or transfer leads to entropy leading to disinformation.
- Information is primarily a process of structuring/restructuring through signs, symbols, and other representations of concepts/ideas.
- The resultant order defines and shapes our thinking, identity, behavior, and culture.
- Contexts and cognitive styles influence information creation, processing, and management, including consumption.
- Creating new realities through narratives and the resultant worldview is the aim of disinformation.