Monday, September 08, 2003

Reading:: Cognition and Communication at Work

Originally posted: Mon, 08 Sep 2003 19:02:09

Cognition and Communication at Work
by Yrjv Engeström (Editor), David Middleton (Editor)

This book is a strong collection of essays reporting on work research, mostly using ethnographic and ethnomethodological approaches and informed by sociocultural approaches such as activity theory, symbolic interactionism, situated and distributed cognition. Work is studied "as mindful practice," as the title of the introduction puts it; throughout, work is valorized as a complex, interconnected, intellectual task with a strong communication component.

Given the lead editor, it's no surprise that activity theory shows up frequently in the book. That's fine with me. And unlike the chapters in Perspectives on Activity Theory (which I reviewed about a month ago), these studies tend to be accessible to those without much background in AT. The book isn't quite introductory material for an AT class -- which is what I was evaluating the book for -- but several are suitable for that purpose and may find their way into my course packets in the future.

Several standout essays are in here. But I should point out that I tend to get bored with the ones using an ethnomethodological approach. Sure, that's a failing of mine, I guess, but I just become dismayed when I see pages of closely set quotations followed by pages that dissect those quotations line by line. So the studies that caught my attention tended to be in the ethnographic, philosophical, or PD categories instead.

For instance, I enjoyed reading the Bodker and Gronbaek piece. The afterword claims that this is a reworking of the essay they published in IJMMS in 1991, and indeed some of the framing is the same, but the empirical case is actually different and B&G end up bringing out different insights here. Star's comparison of symbolic interactionism, AT, and information systems was highly interesting, especially in that she reviews some really fascinating SI studies from the mid-20th century. Engestrom's "The tensions of judging" is a nice example of the developmental work approach and allowed me to see some of the similarities between it and PD. And of course the other usual suspects show up -- Hutchins and Klausen, Suchman, Heath and Luff -- all with strong work. The book ends with an essay by the late Arne Raeithel in which he discusses his excitement at how ethnography is making its way into the German milieu.

On a side note, I notice that there's been an exodus of top-flight work researchers from industry to academia. Lucy Suchman is now at Lancaster University; Bonnie Nardi is at UC-Irvine; Steve Whittaker is now at Sheffield. Bad days for Silicon Valley.

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