Wednesday, October 11, 2006

(Reading Roundup: Nardi, Engestrom, Sun)

Originally posted: Wed, 11 Oct 2006 19:51:21

Coming off of a very busy couple of months, and with the Net Work manuscript complete and being reviewed by a couple of good friends, I've finally been able to get back to my readings.

They start with the latest TCQ, which is quite a good issue.

Zachry, M. (2006). An interview with Bonnie A. Nardi. Technical Communication Quarterly, 15(4):483?503.

Mark Zachry's interview with Bonnie Nardi is really interesting to me, not just in terms of her research trajectory and her development of activity theory, but also in terms of her thoughts on methodology -- something that is fresh in my mind, since I taught a qualitative research seminar this spring and have been developing methods sections for various grant proposals over the summer.

In terms of qualitative research, Bonnie says:

Qualitative analysis for me is a very open-ended

kind of enterprise. So, what I usually like to do is get my interview text and my field notes in front of me in some reasonable form where I can kind of read through them, like a novel. And I don?t look for metaphors or anything else. I just read them and hope that things are starting to work in my unconscious. And then I go back and do something much more systematic where I look for themes, or metaphors, or whatever kinds of constructs that I think are really important.

And a moment later:

No, I am not that systematic. I am a very old school anthropologist. I don?t use computer-based analytical tools. I don?t count very much. Sometimes I count things, but mostly I am looking for the themes and the sensibilities that I find in the transcripts, or in my field notes, or on the websites.

This is indeed old-school anthropology, the sort of intuitive work that hearkens back to ethnography's roots in travel writing, and that has been critiqued by later methodologies that focus on analytical rigor through strict analytical tools and procedures (e.g., grounded theory). Nevertheless, Bonnie's work has considerable analytical rigor -- as we'll see in a moment -- that is perhaps intuited and perhaps guided by her theoretical rigor.

Bonnie's rigor comes partially through immersion, and at the time of the article she was immersed in World of Warcraft, which she characterizes as an introductory step to global collaboration:

And, although it is only a game, certainly, I am interested in the fact that people are learning to interact with people that they don?t know, and that they are never going to see. It is interesting that they learn how to get along with these other players and organize themselves and do things together. I think this is really going to be important in the future because I think we are going to be doing a lot more of that. All the problems we?ve created, many of which come from technology, are global in nature, and we can?t solve them in our own little neighborhoods and our own backyards. We have to collaborate with other people.

She goes on to discuss the implications for networks, and particularly for "placeless organizations," which are "organizations that have a transformative object and which do work in shifting multiple sites." And "what really grabbed my attention was the fact that people are trying to create either national or global change through these placeless organizations, and they are placeless because the world is a big place and if you only pick one place, you can?t effect the kind of change necessarily that you want to."

Which brings us to the next reading:

Nardi, B. A. (In press). Placeless organizations: Collaborating for transformation. Mind, Culture, and Activity.

Bonnie was kind enough to share this manuscript with me; it'll be published in early 2007. Here, she elaborates on the concept of placeless organizations, which are characterized as "sites and generators of learning at a large scale." The concept here -- which goes a long way toward studying transformative global net work -- hinges on starting with the object (in the activity theoretical sense) rather than with organizational boundaries. The notion is somewhat similar to actor-network theory's dictum to "follow the actors," but more focused in that objects are a bit better defined in the activity-theoretical sense (although Bonnie acknowledges that the term still has a lot of slippage). One important deliverable in this article is a detailed taxonomy of different types of organizations, including placeless organizations, distributed teams, virtual organizations, corporate hierarchies, knots, communities of practice, and social movements.

I don't want to say too much about an unpublished article, but I look forward to reading and citing the final version when it comes out.

Engestrom, Y. Current State and Future Strategy of the Center

Speaking of these sorts of organizations, I was interested to see what's happening at the Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research in Helsinki, where researchers have been developing third- and fourth-generation activity theory to deal with the sorts of distributed organizations Bonnie talks about above. This PowerPoint presentation outlines the Center's recent strategic focus and its possible foci through 2011, and may provide an interesting glimpse into what's coming next. What strikes me is that these issues primarily deal with how to develop activity theory to address a globally networked world in which traditional organizational boundaries are insufficient to characterize human activity. In particular, the Center will be studying issues such as

  • Hybrid and amoeba-like activity systems, including the global organizations, hybrids, and high-discontinuity organizations that are increasingly characterizing a globally networked world. This research strand is subtitled "Toward a 4th Generation Unit of Analysis."
  • Gigantic objects, universal tools, which focuses on large-scale crossdisciplinary objects such as global warming. This strand is subtitled "Toward a New Relationship Between Humans and Nature."
  • Object-oriented interagency, which is primarily concerned with how we understand human agency in the face of the collaboration (coordination, cooperation, communication) that happens within and across activity systems.

These themes complement the work recently coming out of the Center, focusing on horizontal learning.

Engestrom, Y. "The horizontal dimension of expansive learning: Weaving a texture of cognitive trails in the terrain of health care in Finland."

Horizontal learning has become a really interesting focus in recent "third-generation" activity theory, primarily because work organization is changing: "the world of work is is increasingly organized in ways that require horizontal movement and boundary crossing." No longer is the focus on learning exclusively vertical, that is, a progression within the bounds of a single activity or discipline. Increasingly, we learn across overlapping activities. To explore this issue, Engestrom turns -- as he so often does -- to a comparison with another construct, examining how it handles the issue theoretically and methodologically, then discussing how it can inform activity theory. Talk about "learning by expanding." Engestrom sees cognitive trails as an empirically useful construct, in contrast to Deleuze and Guattari's construct of "rhizomes," which he critiques for being too metaphorical to be applied in empirical research.

Sun, H. (2006). The triumph of users: Achieving cultural usability goals. Technical Communication Quarterly, 15(4):483?504.

And that brings us back to the issue of TCQ that I have been reading. Based on Huatong Sun's award-winning dissertation, this article uses activity theory, genre theory, and British cultural studies to examine how Chinese and US phone users enact text messaging. (British cultural studies -- particularly articulation theory -- owe a debt to Deleuze and Guattari and their notion of rhizomes.) If you've read her dissertation, this article won't be news to you -- but if you haven't, start with the article first, because it provides a cogent summary of the dissertation's themes and underscores how far ahead Huatong is in terms of understanding how intercultural communication issues interact with usability and technology.


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