First Monday

The future of Sociology of FLOSS by Yuwei Lin

The following commentary is part of First Monday's Special Issue #2: Open Source.

This paper briefly summarises the current research on the free/libre open source software (FLOSS) communities and discusses the deficiency of a body of FLOSS research done from the sociological perspective. Since Eric Raymond's famous 'Cathedral and Bazaar' that depicts a harmoniously cooperative community/bazaar that engages 'hackers' to develop and advocate FLOSS, many other successors have adopted a similar utopian-like perspective to understand the FLOSS development and organisation processes within and across communities. However, I argue that such a view, partially valid in explaining the FLOSS development, not only ignores the diversity of population and their different articulations, interpretation on and performances towards developing FLOSS, but also neglects the different environments and contexts where FLOSS is deployed, developed and implemented. A sociological point of view is vital in that it helps understand the dynamics emerging from the heterogeneity of the FLOSS social world and allows us to see different roles played by diverse actors and various environments and contexts where FLOSS evolves differently. This paper concludes with a list of suggested research topics for future studies.



Flourishing research on FLOSS across disciplines echoes the increasing interest of both the public and private sectors in adopting FLOSS. Many have noticed that the FLOSS development is not merely a technical evolution but also denotes a complicated socio-technical system Kuwabara, 2000; Lin, 2004a). Eric Raymond's 'Cathedral and Bazaar' (Raymond, 1998), one of the earliest writings on how FLOSS projects are developed and organised, depicts the FLOSS communities as 'a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches (aptly symbolized by the Linux archive sites, who'd take submissions from anyone) out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles'. Consequently, the multiplicity and diversity of socio-technical resources fostered by the openness of FLOSS communities generate extensive creativity that has accompanied with a broad active participation of diverse actors from many sectors. Whilst noticing the diversity, Raymond, however, fails to take a more holistic view to explain the phenomenon particularly towards the three questions often asked towards the FLOSS development: (a) how are individuals motivated to contribute free code; (b) how are their efforts coordinated and organized; and, (c) how can complicated pieces of software be developed on an ongoing basis (Weber, 2004).

For instance, in answering the first question, Raymond suggests that the motivation for sharing source code is not purely altruism. There is rather a social mechanism at work that helps to maintain/sustain the gift culture found among FLOSS users. Raymond suggests that the gift culture actually has its competitive dimensions that are rewarded in the FLOSS world. Apart from various licenses in the FLOSS world that state that all source code should be distributed together with its binary code, and that anyone who receives a program has the right to modify the source code and to further distribute the program, changed or unchanged, Raymond shows that there is a set of strict rules of ownership in the hacker community that form part of the informal culture of hacking (Raymond, 2000). Hackers who make contributions to a program get credit. The system of ownership and credit ensures the FLOSS producers and users conform to these rules that produce pride, personal identity and a degree of mutual acknowledgment of efforts and skills as some kind of social reward. Raymond argues that hackers compete to get higher social status by making greater contributions in FLOSS programs.

Parallel to the writings from Richard Stallman and other FLOSS advocates in the 90s, Raymond's work co-constructs the later research on the FLOSS development and communities gravely. As Tuomi (2004) observes, 'inspired by Raymond, some authors have built economic models based on the assumption that the open source model is "better" or "more reliable" than the proprietary software development model, without much evidence to support and qualify these beliefs'. Some try to conduct quantitative research to gain more insights on motivations of individual FLOSS developers, firms and other governmental organisations (e.g. Ghosh et al., 2002; Bonaccorsi & Rossi, 2004, 2005). Some try to map an organizational structure of the FLOSS communities and development (e.g. Krishnamurthy, 2002; Crowston and Howison, 2005). Some try to strengthen the cooperation-oriented mechanisms (e.g. peer production and gift culture) that function the FLOSS development (e.g. Benkler, 2002; Lee & Cole 2003). Still others try to explain the gift phenomenon from a philosophical point of view suggesting a 'hacker ethic' driving interested people to engage on collective open source practices (e.g. Himanen, 2001; Lakhani & Wolf, 2005). Whilst these models and arguments usually based on 'a unified [FLOSS] community with shared values, motives, and development approaches' (Tuomi 2001, 2004) explain some elements involved in the FLOSS development, they are not helpful for our understanding of the social dynamics of the FLOSS development process (e.g. how conflicts and differences between different parties influence the development and how are they resolved).To bridge this epistemological gap, a sociological perspective might improve our understanding of this socially and technically complex field.


Sociology of FLOSS

Non-sociological research usually attempts to explain the FLOSS development with instrumental and reductionist tools by measuring the attitudes and activities of the participants. These dominant studies are inadequate because they fail to see that there is no universal activity duplicated in the FLOSS development. Each event has different interested people involved and results in different outcomes. It is evident that some practices and concepts supposedly found only in FLOSS can be found elsewhere too, such as scientific filed (e.g. open content, open science) (e.g. Cedergren, 2003; Willinsky, 2005; Kipp 2005). Hence, any claim that there is something peculiar that has to be explained with regard to an essential FLOSS culture is mistaken. In light of my observations and available discourses, participants in the FLOSS development process constantly compete and cooperate across various social groups (e.g. communities, projects, corporations, NGOs). Their identities change over time and space (no matter if it's virtual or real) rather than staying as leaders or followers, developers or users, of a project in the way that previous research suggests. Through these cross-boundary interactions and communications, there is no static hierarchy in most of the FLOSS projects and communities, particularly when knowledge is concerned. The traditional power relationship between experts and lay people, users and designers, might be challenged in this situation given that 'the influence of local knowledge and tacit skills is very much in evidence in the FLOSS innovation system' (Lin, 2004b). Instead of assuming a quintessentially fixed subculture, the membership of a FLOSS community is quite loose and the boundary is soft. Open source practices can be seen through diverse social actors; it is a collection of activities with diverse actors shared amongst interested people. Assuming any fixed or static culture in FLOSS communities is essentially flawed due to its attempt to impose a hermetic seal around the relationship between open source practices and practitioners. From a sociological point of view, the core elements that make the FLOSS development dynamic is the multiple cultures and a collective set of practices found across the social worlds that are not fixed or ordered, but rather, indeterminate, flexible and contestable, that shape the FLOSS innovation. It is obvious that the FLOSS communities are much more dynamic than the paradigm given by Raymond or the ones suggested by others.

The concept of social worlds and practice-based research
In observing software practice, one can see some sense in which there is a degree of closure or at least convergence around a group of practices that are framed as FLOSS activities. Open source practices gradually integrate in the mainstream software engineering along with the development of FLOSS. This more or less indicates that the FLOSS practices have been useful and beneficial for the whole of the computing industry and therefore many companies (IBM, HP etc.) and governments ( Germany, Spain etc.) (e.g. Semenov, 2003) have adopted FLOSS and contributed to the community. To study the FLOSS development in terms of sociology, "practices" are the main elements connecting diverse actors from various social worlds (Strauss, 1978; Gerson, 1983; Star & Griesemer 1989; Bowker & Star 1998; Clarke, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1997; Fujimura, 1991, 1992).

Social worlds are made up of groups with shared commitments to certain activities sharing resources of many kinds to achieve their goals. In each social world, at least one primary activity (along with related activities) is strikingly evident. There are sites where activities occur; hence space and a shaped landscape are relevant. People typically participate in a number of social worlds simultaneously and mixed worlds are both possible and common (Clarke, 1997). Participation in social worlds usually remains highly fluid, and consequently, the structure of social worlds is also highly fluid. Social worlds and subworlds themselves become the analytical concepts used for the study of collective action.

In the FLOSS arena, various actors from diverse backgrounds shape progress digitally and in the material world each day. Each actor in the FLOSS development plays as important a role as the others do. To analyse the heterogeneous constructions of FLOSS by diverse actors, employing a social-worlds perspective is adequate because it allows us to understand the interactive socio-technical processes without losing sight on heterogeneous and contingent voices of actors and artefacts in an arena. Each actor or social group has an equal chance to express itself and the researchers are able to analyse the complicated interactions between them and the complicated constructions of the technology. Apart from investigating claims made by diverse actors, it is also important for us to take a more pragmatist view to explore the collective practices among the actors, as their claims and identities are embedded in practices, through which a technological tendency of software engineering and related work practices can be mapped. It is also a methodological strategy for scholars in sociology to be open to the diverse and complex forms of data that can be found in the world of computer software engineering (e.g. survey, ethnographic, interview, textual/visual materials etc.).


Future studies

Hitherto, I have argued that, instead of treating FLOSS communities as a static and homogeneous entity which either is based on a reductive hacker culture or embeds in simplistic development patterns or structures as current literature suggests, we need to pay attention to the heterogeneous and contingent factors in the FLOSS development and the consequences influenced by their complicated relationships and interactions. I propose a sociological perspective based on the social worlds theory to better understand the dynamics emerging in the FLOSS communities to bridge the knowledge gap in current literature on FLOSS. This sociological perspective is helpful for investigating the evolution of organisational and institutional ecologies in the FLOSS development, including the following themes:



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Copyright ©2005, First Monday

Copyright ©2005, by Yuwei Lin

The future of sociology of FLOSS
First Monday, Special Issue #2: Open Source — 3 October 2005