Saturday, November 15, 2003

Reading :: Interactive Expertise

Originally posted: Sat, 15 Nov 2003 08:50:08

Interactive expertise: Studies in distributed working intelligence

by Yrjö Engeström lists this book as "out of print -- limited availability." No kidding. My copy is actually a copy of a copy: Charles Bazerman lent his copy of the book to David R. Russell, who copied it and later lent the copy to me to make my own copy. So I have the notes of two really outstanding scholars in the margins. It's not as great as it sounds: Chuck apparently puts vertical lines by the parts that he likes, while David typically writes "YES!!" by points he finds to be illuminating.

There are a lot of vertical lines and yesses in this book, though, because it is smart and interesting. And unlike Learning by Expanding (reviewed below), this slim "research report" is based almost entirely on empirical work the author did with other scholars: two examinations of interaction in courtrooms and one of interaction between nurses and an elderly patient. All use conversation analysis or at least something that looks a lot like it (but Ritva Engestrom, one of the group, published a 1995 paper in Mind, Culture, and Activity arguing that activity theory was a superior framework to CA, so now I'm not sure what to call it). And fortunately all three empirical studies have been published elsewhere. So you don't have to get copies of them from me.

The real gem here, though, is Chapter 1. It's a framing piece meant to situate the three studies that follow, and it does that quite well, arguing that reigning understandings of expertise are Cartesian and suggesting that a non-Cartesian understanding -- like that provided by activity theory -- has to understand expertise as distributed. "Expertise resides in collective activity systems," he declares. That's a striking argument, because taken to its logical conclusion, it means that competence -- and incompetence -- is not the property of an individual but rather of the system in which that individual is embedded. As I argue in a piece to be published in 2005, that's rather problematic because it means that responsibility, blame, and accountability are complicated enormously. What about when someone just flat screws up?

Well, let's leave that question for now. Engestrom gets to the instability of activity systems here -- an old theme, and I hope that my review in yesterday's "Reading Roundup" didn't give the opposite impression -- and uses one of my favorite declarations, "the activity system incessantly reconstructs itself." Incessantly, because its parts undergo continuous transformations, partially because their interpenetration with other activity systems in a network of activity. No, he doesn't cite Latour here, but he does elsewhere and the comparison with actor-networks is quite clear.

Latour, of course, is almost indifferent to explanations of expertise and competence; he says very little about how people learn, gain expertise, and transform their activities accordingly. Engestrom is very interested in all these topics and he brings in key concepts from activity theory, such as internalization/externalization and the zone of proximal development, to talk about these. He also brings in Bakhtin to argue that an activity system is a multivoiced formation.

Much of the rest of the chapter introduces vocabulary and arguments that we've seen elsewhere in his writings. For instance, he discusses the four types of contradictions and again fingers the primary contradiction as between use value and exchange value in a capitalist society. (That's the Marxism showing through.) He presents a detailed taxonomy of disruptions. And he preps us for the three careful case studies that follow.

It's a great publication, and one that I keep coming back to. Despite its 1992 publication date, this material is largely fresh and keeps giving me new insights, particularly as I wrestle with this issue of networks.

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Friday, November 14, 2003

Reading:: Analyzing Streams of Language

Originally posted: Fri, 14 Nov 2003 20:07:56

Analyzing Streams of Language : Twelve Steps to the Systematic Coding of Text, Talk, and Other Verbal Data

by Cheryl A Geisler

I ordered and reviewed this book partially because I'll be teaching a qualitative research class next spring and I'm on the prowl for good texts. Not sure that this is a good fit for that particular class -- it trends quantitative -- but it's a very strong textbook nevertheless. I found myself wishing that it had been around when I was taking my grad courses in research (and maybe wishing Geisler had been around to teach them).

The book is well considered and well put together. It starts with the review of the literature and goes all the way through presenting the results of the study. And it manages to describe what's happening in plain language, making things look simple where before they seemed insanely complicated. Examples, tips, and exercises help pull us through. It's a fast read; I think I spent a total of 90 minutes on it, although to be fair I skimmed some parts.

But the most striking -- and at the same time the most limiting -- feature is the tight integration with Microsoft Word and Excel. Geisler points out that MS Office, which appears to be on practically every Windows and Mac machine in the world, is a fine tool for coding and analyzing data, so who needs more expensive tools such as Nvivo or ATLASti? So Geisler provides detailed instructions on how to get Word and Excel to do sophisticated analyses, exploiting very specific features that many people don't know about. On the one hand, this is a welcome development: students at UT can buy Office for $5, so why spend $500 on a high-powered qualitative research tool? On the other hand, the book starts to sound like an extended ad for a particular version of a particular office suite. The next time MS Office gets upgraded, the book will be out of date. Or is this planned obsolesence? I'm also not sure how germane the advice is to those of us who are running different office suites.

The book's website, maintained by Geisler, contains videos, exercises, spreadsheets, and other resources, including what I think is supposed to be a sample syllabus. It could be useful, but it doesn't appear to be very extensive or well maintained. I saw some disconcerting typos -- as I did in the book, most distressingly in the first paragraph of the first chapter.

All in all, well worth it. If you're intimidated by the thought of analyzing verbal data, particularly with simple statistics, check this book out.

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Thursday, November 13, 2003

(Reading roundup: Latour, Mol & Law, Engestrom, Engestrom & Vahaaho, Nardi, Whittaker & Schwarz on Networks and Structure)

Originally posted: Thu, 13 Nov 2003 21:34:55

I'm working on reading several books right now, including Barbara Mirel's new book on complex problem solving, Cheryl Geisler's new text on analyzing text, and two of Engestrom's older books. And I have recalled Deleuze & Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus: everyone is citing the damn thing, so I might as well read it. So expect more reviews soon.

For now, I'm chipping away at the notion of network and I'm reading several articles and chapters related to it. Network's a bit outmoded. Actor-network theorists are now "post-ANT," having traded in their networks for rhizomes, fluids, and regimes. Activity theory picked up on networks in a big way, but in their later work they've become suspicious as well. Four pieces have helped me to muddle through and do some comparisons:

Bruno Latour's "Social Theory and the Study of Computerized Work Sites" is a short chapter in which he talks about the problem with networks -- among other things. "Rhyzomes and homogeneous networks are thus powerful ways of avoiding essences, arbitrary dichotomies, and to fight structures." But they "define entities only through association." Thus "they remain critical tools, good only at disturbing, undoing, deploying, disseminating." They're always critical, not terribly constructive. Latour argues that something has to be added to networks "to make them useful in following displacements without seeing them as so many fragments." Not essences or structures, of course, but something that endures. Fluids (Mol & Law), modes of coordination (Callon), and regimes of delegation (Latour) are all ways to do this.

The concept of fluids is an intriguing one. In "Regions, Networks and Fluids: Anaemia and Social Topology," Annemarie Mol and John Law discuss this notion. In this taxonomy, regions are areas that can be negotiated and where something can exist (typically geographically). For instance, anemia is widespread in a region called Africa, not so much in a region called The Netherlands. Within Africa, there are regions where anemia is more severe. One can link these regions with a network, in this case a network of laboratories in which immutable mobiles circulate. In The Netherlands or in Africa, the same lab equipment can be deployed in similar lab settings to come up with results that tell us about anemia. That is, anemia can be performed similarly anywhere in the network; outside the network, that performance of anemia isn't possible; that sort of anemia, in a sense, doesn't exist.

But some sort of anemia does exist outside the network. Even when equipment breaks down, doctors can test for anemia or at least make good guesses based on practices that spring up outside the network. Checking the eyelids and gums, for instance, can provide a reasonably accurate diagnosis of anemia in the hardest hit parts of Africa (where anemia is most severe), but not in The Netherlands (where anemia, when it occurs, is far milder). Checking for dizziness and shortness of breath can similarly provide a good diagnosis in The Netherlands (where good nutrition and easy labor make these symptoms rare) but not in most parts of Africa (where poor nutrition and hard labor are the norm). So anemia, in this case, is a mutable mobile, something that has the same name but that is performed quite differently in different regions and networks. It flows: it varies without boundaries, transforms without discontinuity. There is no obligatory passage point.

This lack of structure and order tends to bother activity theorists. I've alluded to this tendency already, in my review of a special issue of Mind, Culture, and Activity earlier in this blog. Activity theorists tend to want a more ordered, genetic-historic analysis. So the AT understanding of network has traditionally emphasized relatively stable groups and activities interacting, sharing their tools or objects. Recent AT work, however, has led away from stable structures. In "When the Center Does Not Hold: The Importance of Knotworking," Engestrom, Engestrom & Vahaaho examine "work that requires active construction of constantly changing combinations of people and artifacts over lengthy trajectories of time and widely distributed in space" (p.345), work that has no center or stable configuration (p.346). That description sounds suspiciously like the one Latour has advanced repeatedly, yet the authors argue that "networks are typically understood as relatively stable structures" and thus do not provide a sufficient explanation (p.346)! Engestrom, Engestrom & Vahaaho invent the term knotworking to describe this phenomenon. A closer examination of the chapter reveals that even when this dynamic work is recognized, it is immediately contextualized within stronger and more durable ordered structures.

Finally, Nardi, Whittaker & Schwarz argue in "NetWORKers and their Activity in Intensional Networks" that cross-disciplinary and temporary links -- in personal social networks in the workplace -- are on the rise and cannot be explained by the existing formulations of network. They examine and reject knotworking as one model to apply. Interestingly, they also examine and reject actor-network theory's account: they claim that it assumes "firm footings in institutional structures inhabited by Machiavellian 'princes'" as opposed to the "incessant buzz of small but crucial communications and reflections [that] shaped people's worklives and consciousness" in their study (2002, p.235). Again, activity theorists are accusing actor-network theorists of being too structural. Pot to kettle: you are black.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Reading:: Learning by Expanding

Originally posted: Tue, 11 Nov 2003 20:08:15

Learning by Expanding
By Yrjo Engestrom

I met Yrjo Engestrom once. He's over six feet tall, energetic, aging gracefully, impossibly fit, impossibly productive as an academic. Like a Nordic superman, he flies between the University of California, San Diego and the University of Helsinki. He radiates the clear-eyed certainty that you sometimes get with fervent Marxists.

I'm not sure whether to describe Engestrom as a Marxist. In this 1987 book -- published online, thankfully, because it's out of print -- his influences definitely include Marx and the Soviets who followed him, but they also include Peirce, Mead, Popper, etc. And although Engestrom talks about the key contradiction of capitalism (use vs. exchange value), Braverman, dialectics, and so forth, I think he attempts to move beyond the standard Marxist mode in his exploration of learning.

Like many Marxists, though, Engestrom writes densely. Maybe it's part of the Marxist aesthetic: lots of block quotes of other Marxists, few headings. And unlike some of his other books, such as Learning, working and imagining, this one has no empirical work. Instead, Engestrom analyzes Huck Finn, Robert Jungk's account of the making of the atomic bomb, and other nonempirical work. (Engestrom explains that fiction in particular is a good place to look for the sort of long-term learning patterns he identifies; I am skeptical.) Consequently, the book often seemed longer than it really is.

It does hold important lessons, though. This 1987 work sketches out the notion of learning by expanding (as opposed to learning by rote or learning as storing discrete bits of information), a key concept that permeates Engestrom's later work. He methodically describes each element of the learning process, provides an expansive methodology based on Scribner's description of Vygotsky's methodology, and links the whole mess to the notion of zone of proximal development. The last chapter attempts to lay the methodology out -- although, again, empirical cases would have helped quite a bit here.

At the same time, I notice some things that I think are amiss in this 1987 piece. One is that he tries to explicate dialectics ("the logic of expansion") by referring to Bakhtin. Bakhtin. The fellow who ridiculed dialectics as a stilted, artificial counterfeit of true dialogue! I also note a tendency to appeal too quickly to the abstract. Engestrom holds fast to the notion that learning is ascending from the abstract to the concrete, a notion that I have a hard time following -- and I don't think that's just because I am dense. Maybe there are some Continental reverberations that I am missing. Finally, everywhere in this piece are references to structures and systems -- even though Engestrom shows a willingness to examine idiosyncracies, variations, and differences, it's always with the intent of explicating structure and systematicity. I can see why Latour was so frustrated with him in the 1996 exchange I reviewed earlier.

This book was a struggle, but worth it.

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