Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Reading:: Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems

Originally posted: Wed, 03 Sep 2003 01:43:33

Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems 12 (2000)
Special issue on Information Technology in Human Activity
Eds. Olav W. Bertelsen and Susanne Bodker

Occasionally I review a special issue of a journal as if it were an edited collection, if the articles are interesting enough and the issue as a whole has a strong enough theme. Both are true with this issue. SJIS is a really interesting journal to begin with, so interesting that I've ordered several articles from it via interlibrary loan. SJIS is one of the last bastions of the serious Scandinavian-style participatory design work that flourished in the 1980s and early 1990s, before globalism and US-style user-centered design approaches overshadowed it. At the same time that PD flourished, activity theory began to flourish and develop -- primarily through Yrjo Engestrom's efforts, of course, but also through those whom he influenced. There was -- and is -- quite a bit of cross-fertilization between the two camps, particularly with Susanne Bodker's groundbreaking work connecting AT and PD. And much of what is going on between the covers of any given issue of SJIS reflects that cross-fertilization.

The nine articles in this issue, fortunately, are online in PDF format -- and they're worth downloading. At this point (2000), researchers are attempting to adapt PD-inspired methods to a globalized world, using AT and similar theoretical frameworks as grounding. That makes sense because the early roots of PD tended to be flat-out Marxism with some Heidegger thrown in; that early framework was good at making class distinctions, arguing for class struggle, and thinking about language games, but it provided too bifurcated an understanding of the workplace to take into account the various constituencies and allegiances at play in the Scandinavian workplace, let alone other workplaces across the globe. It also did not provide a strong enough empirical framework for examining microinteractions or theorizing artifacts well. Activity theory, with its Marxist roots, its empirical focus, its developmental orientation, and (later) its extensions for handling networks of activity, provided a suitable framework while allowing researchers to continue PD's early goal of workplace democracy. So this issue provides insight on how the two traditions have merged and developed.

Activity theory has become one of the most important sociocultural frameworks for human-computer interaction, computer-supported cooperative work, and information systems, so these articles tend to break new theoretical ground -- they really are pushing to develop AT rather than simply applying received wisdom to a new problem domain. Some of the topics covered in this issue include the nature of an artifact (Bertelsen; Beguin and Rabardel), networks of activity systems (Helle; Fitzpatrick; Spasser; Korpela et al.), and adapting usability methods for AT/PD design work (Bodker and Petersen). Also included is an introduction that nicely lays out the issues involved in studying information design as a human activity. And most of these articles are supported with empirical or illustrative cases.

I wish I had time to review each of the articles. But the standouts include Bertelsen & Bodker's introduction, Helle's study of a newsroom as an activity network (especially interesting in light of the shortcomings of the UTOPIA project, the most famous of the early PD projects), and Beguin and Rabardel's discussion of how the notion of mediation can guide design work.

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