Originally posted: Thu, 02 Oct 2003 07:53:57
When I was a PhD student at Iowa State University, word reached me that Dorothy Winsor was going to be joining the faculty. Winsor's work was well known -- required reading, in fact -- and her sociocultural orientation made her a good fit. I was busy assembling my dissertation committee at the time, so with the chair's permission, I wrote her and persuaded her to join. It was a good move: besides being extremely smart and well read, Dorothy is a warm, witty, and considerate person. And she's intellectually curious, reading and writing about activity theory, distributed cognition, and actor-network theory, among other things. Her first book, Writing Like an Engineer, is already a classic.
This book, which has just been published, is good too. Winsor has boiled five summers' worth of observations into a discussion of what it means to communicate in an engineering center. I suppose that probably sounds boring to some of my vast army of readers, but Winsor manages to make it interesting with her strong narrative style and her keen choice of anecdotes. At issue here is the question of how power is constructed, distributed, and maintained through communicative genres. Power is not really an interest of mine -- I find that it's usually underdefined and, as Latour argues, it tends to be seen as a cause when in fact it's more of a consequence -- but Winsor does manage to theorize it in ways that help us examine how genres help to enact it.
I also found reading this book to be helpful because in many ways the study is similar to the one I'm trying to turn into a book -- although Winsor shoots for depth while I aimed for breadth in the data collection and analysis process.
Well, obviously I admire the writer and enjoy the book. But I want to also do a bit of a critique. Winsor touches on a lot of theorists and theoretical schools here: Hutchins (distributed cognition), Latour (actor-network theory), Vygotsky (CHAT), Miller, Bazerman, Berkenkotter & Huchin, Orlikowski & Yates (genre), Bordieu, Foucault (postmodernism, I guess). But, perhaps because it would have disrupted the flow, she didn't do much work in connecting these different schools or synthesizing them. For instance, her discussion of distributed cognition often sounds more like run-of-the-mill division of labor rather than the more radical notion that cognition is computation distributed across humans and nonhumans in the environment. Similarly, when she describes how an engineer asserts that a machine is "communicating" with him, she dismisses the notion by asserting that he really doesn't believe this -- even though a thoroughgoing distributed cognitionist or actor-network theorist would accept the claim and argue that it was indeed true! Symmetrical theories such as DC and ANT have often been criticized because they appear to elide agency (indeed, often by CHAT and postmodernists), and agency is at the heart of much that Winsor has written here, so I wanted to see a discussion of that discrepancy.
In any case, the book is interesting, well written, and useful for folks like me who are interested in how texts and people interact through organizations. Pick it up and take a look.
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