Saturday, November 30, 2013

Reading :: Digital Detroit

Digital Detroit: Rhetoric and Space in the Age of the Network
By Jeff Rice

First, a confession: When I read Jeff Rice's first book, I don't think I really got his project. Rice was patient enough to explain it a bit in the comments. I suspect that I wasn't the first person he had to wearily correct.

Over the intervening years, I've become better acquainted with Rice's trajectory and his writing style (which Cynthia Haynes describes as "a cross between Rod Serling and Bob Dylan") and am perhaps in a better position to get what he's doing. In this book, he's interested in applying the concept of network to Detroit—network in the sense of associational links—to analyze how implicit and explicit arguments can resonate across these associations. As he says in the introduction, after name-checking chora:
I am... networking Detroit by tracing its accounts. Despite the possible readerly discomfort, I find this method advantageous for how it allows me new kinds of opportunities to explore a space; by using a network to examine Detroit as a digital concept, I am made aware of connections I would not have discovered otherwise. The disadvantage of this method, however, is that it can, at times, feel confusing. (p.13)
At times, yes. In fact, Rice's writing style is sometimes arresting, relying sometimes on repeating the same noun at the end of subsequent sentences, putting the emphasis on old rather than new information, sometimes sounding weary. Haynes hears Rod Serling in this voice; I hear Andy Rooney. Either way, it's a very different style, one that often seems to circle around to (or build slowly to) the point. This style is sometimes disrupted by uncharacteristic, heavy forecasting and other metadiscourse—I suspect that these are due to reviewers' comments rather than being organic to Rice's style. Too bad. Although I'm a big fan of clear signaling and forecasting, there's something to be said for following along at the pace the author sets.

And that style and pace are well suited for what Rice is trying to do here. Rather than describing a phenomenon out there, a shared social phenomenon, he is describing an idiosyncratic understanding based on associations:
All of my information is a network. All of my information I gather and assemble is internal to that network. These previous references—a contemporary op-ed, a 1940s historical book, a kitschy song, a novelist's travel memoirs, a car commercial—are database items within that network. Everything I produce, therefore, is a network as well. ... This book is an exploration and creation of that network. It attempts to be an information system. (p.24)
Readers might naturally wonder why the idiosyncratic network of associations that Rice describes could be useful to them. What's intrinsically more interesting about the network of associations that Rice pieces together about a specific time and place, versus, say, our own associations? Essentially this is the question that I asked about the year 1963 when I reviewed The Rhetoric of Cool. The answer that I was too task-oriented to see back then, but that I think I see now, is this: What's interesting is not the topic around how the network forms, nor the person who has assembled the network, but how such networks work, both for individuals and communities. In particular, how they function rhetorically, persuading and shaping perceptions. "Indeed, as I will argue throughout each chapter of this book," Rice adds halfway through, "networks move and are moved; they transform and translate experiences and ideas as they form and break connections. They do things" (p.70).

In his earlier book, Rice discussed such associations via the notion of chora. In this one, he draws on Latour, particularly Reassembling the Social. But whereas others in writing studies have applied Latour to empirical studies, Rice applies Latour to circulating rerepresentations in much broader, more idiosyncratic ways. As he does so, he opens the possibilities for applying such associational insights to rhetoric, demonstrating how they can help us to understand why these associations can be so persuasive in shaping our understanding of identities. Detroit is the case, but the real contribution of the book is the approach. I hope I've done justice to it—and if you're interested in networked rhetoric, I recommend you read the book.

Reading :: An Inquiry into Modes of Existence

An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns
By Bruno Latour

I've cited Latour quite a bit in my scholarship and reviewed his works on this blog, so when I found out this book was being published, I bought it immediately, along with Rejoicing. The book is respectably thick, 486 pages—which is actually much shorter than it could have been, since Latour omitted parenthetical citations and did not include a bibliography. You can see the citations at the book's website, which also hosts the book's glossary, visual materials, notes, and articles, as well as a column for readers' commentary and critiques. (If you want an index, too bad, use the online search function.) It's an interesting, though quite centralized and controlled, experiment.

For now, though, I'll keep my critique decentralized on this blog. But what a daunting challenge it is to critique a thick book by a world-renowned scholar. Especially when the scholar draws on such a broad set of significant works. Especially when the scholar writes in ways that often seem oblique and metaphorical, And especially when the resulting book seems like a capstone, one that reviews practically all of the author's scholarly output. That's essentially what the book is, from what I can tell: an attempt to tie all of this previous scholarship together into a single broad-based inquiry.

So what is this inquiry? Essentially, it's a taxonomy of different processes that yield different, yet internally coherent, contexts or meanings. Throughout his career, Latour has studied how meaning and knowledge are produced in the sciences, in technology, in law, in religion, in economics, and in politics. Here, he argues that these represent separate processes for developing meaning, processes that are internally consistent but that appear at odds when they come into contact. Those processes are all ways for making meanings and truth—ways with different logics, aims, and standards of proof. But it's difficult to get these modes of existence to interact well for two reasons.

First, it's easy to make category mistakes, mixing up their separate felicity conditions.

Second, and related, it's easy to assume that the different modes of existence are essentially compatible, boiling down to the same mode of existence and ideally following the same logics, aims, and standards of proof (something that Latour describes using the figure of "double click"). For instance, when someone tries to apply the felicity conditions of science to politics, or those of technology to religion, s/he is invoking the "double click," assuming that there can be transportation without transformation.

With that in mind, Latour patiently discusses each mode of existence, then how those modes interact. Patiently, but not economically, because Latour is not an economical writer. Fortunately for us, he lists the modes of existence in the back of the book:

  • reproduction
  • metamorphosis
  • habit
  • technology
  • fiction
  • reference
  • politics
  • law
  • religion
  • attachment
  • organization
  • morality
  • network
  • preposition
  • double-click
Each has its own hiatus (loosely speaking, a disruptive condition), trajectory (i.e., results of transformations), felicity/infelicity conditions (when they thrive vs. when they crash), beings to institute (i.e., objectives to produce), and alteration (i.e., the way in which they are transformed). (I'm not sure how happy Latour would be with my parenthetical explanations, but since he has not provided an index, I'm going to stick with these.) 

You'll notice that some of these modes are tied to fields (e.g., politics, law, religion) while others are not (e.g., habit, organization, network). Activity theorists will note that habit, which AT would associate with the operational level of activity, is presented as a separate mode. Yes, these modes are entangled in practice, and I'm not always clear on why a field-oriented mode (e.g., science) is on the same footing as a mode that is inevitably going to be instantiated in every other mode (e.g., habit). But Latour is not simply attempting to examine these modes as separate, but as inevitably crossing and producing hybrids. For instance, he talks about the crossings between networks and prepositions (p.63), reproduction and reference (p.106), reference and politics (p.128), reproduction and metamorphosis (p.202), technology and networks (p.212), and so forth. In defining each mode along basic canonical questions (hiatus, trajectory, felicity/infelicity, beings to institute, alteration), Latour has presented a way to systematically investigate each mode and how each mode interacts with the others. 

To describe the project in an overgeneralized way, the book is an attempt to get at polycontextuality via a taxonomy of processes that yield different, coherent contexts/meanings. Once the taxonomy is laid out, we can use it to systematically investigate how these processes interact. Along the way, Latour draws on his vast set of publications, discussing Latourean concepts from networks to black boxes to quasi-objects and quasi-subjects to factishes, and on and on. If you haven't read Latour yet, this is probably not the book to start with. The number of concepts is overwhelming, as is the overall scope of the project, and Latour's often elliptical, often metaphorical writing style makes it difficult to keep the concepts and scope straight. 

For those who have read most of Latour's major works, this book is worthwhile. But it's not a walk in the park for those folks either: after all, the book is attempting to reframe key parts of Latour's work, often by re-presenting some of the original material within the newly expanded scheme. In practice, this means that it's easy to begin skimming a chapter ("ah, this is his basic argument from that chapter in Pandora's Hope") only to realize near the end of the chapter that Latour has added a new term, concept, or connection. This problem is compounded by the fact that the printed book has removed some of the key signals that help readers to detect updated arguments: citations and footnotes. Nevertheless, the book synthesizes a vast body of work into a more coherent understanding of what's at stake. Those who have seen Latour primarily as a sociologist of science because of his earlier books should now be able to see how those early projects connect with his overarching ontological project.

At least in outline. As Latour says apologetically on p.478, "I am well aware that I passed over each mode too quickly, and that each crossing would require volumes of erudition, even if the modes and crossings are more fully developed in the digital environment that accompanies this text" (p.478). Latour's hope, I think, is that the digital environment will allow others to work out these ideas more fully, connect the modes more firmly, and examine the crossings more fully. Latour has provided this vast infrastructure, so won't you build on it?

Will I? Probably not. I expect that I'll return to this book over and over—as a sourcebook. But as a work of scholarship, it was too exhausting, too unwieldy, and too sprawling for me to take in. (Longtime readers may note that this review is shorter than those I've written for similarly massive books.) The scope itself was not the only problem. Latour's writing style, which can be immensely enjoyable in 150pp books, wore on me in this longer format, and I began to fervently wish that some editor had been licensed to ruthlessly edit for concision. Frankly, I think this book could have been sweated down to 200 lean, well-organized pages, and the result would have been much easier to absorb and navigate.

Nevertheless, if you have a few Latour books on your shelf, I encourage you to pick it up. In fact—although I obviously didn't try this—you might consider blocking off six months to read the book in concert with Latour's major works. For instance, when the present book mentions religion, you could bookmark it and read On Rejoicing. When it mentions law, you could bookmark that passage and read The Making of Law. When it discusses factishes, you could read Pandora's Hope and On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. If you do this, let me know how it goes.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Reading :: Innovation, Human Capabilities, and Democracy

Innovation, Human Capabilities, and Democracy: Towards an Enabling Welfare State
By Reijo Miettinen

Reijo Miettinen is a professor of adult education at the University of Helsinki, where he works alongside and often collaborates with several other activity theorists (such as Engestrom and Sannino). His work has typically involved case studies of scientific and technical innovations, case studies in which he has applied activity theory. In this book, however, he's less interested in contextualized case studies, instead focusing on the question of why Finland has excelled at innovation in educational and business contexts. That is, this book is focused on policy, using activity theory as a framework for understanding how Finland's educational policies have worked.

Interestingly, in Chapter 2, Miettinen applies rhetoric to the question of policy making, drawing on Burke and Perelman. This move allows him to examine policy and its drivers, setting the stage for an historical analysis of stakeholders and shifts in how those stakeholders have interpreted policy terms and concepts. He also examines the educational system, innnovation and technology policy, and capability-cultivating services. The result is a deeply textured examination of the unique mix at play in Finland.

I'll be honest: I'm not terribly interested in policy. But Miettinen conducts a solid, detailed analysis and does his best to enliven what is inherently a dry topic. I am interested in activity theory, but it is applied here rather than extended; you won't see new insights into AT here, just a model application of it.

If you're interested in policies, innovation, and education, or an application of AT to these topics, pick up this book. If you're not, consider picking it up anyway, but take it slow.

Reading:: Qualitative Research: Studying How Things Work

Qualitative Research: Studying How Things Work
By Robert E. Stake

Whenever I pick up an article on qualitative research, it seems, I see Stake referenced in the methodology section. So when I bought several methodology texts recently, I tossed Stake on the heap.

That was a worthwhile decision: Stake provides a clear, understandable, and (in some places) passionate discussion of qualitative research and its applications. As an introductory text, it works well, covering basic concepts and stages such as the researcher-as-instrument, data collection, literature review, analysis, action research, and reporting.

But at the same time, as with Charmaz's book, this one is pitched as an introductory text. Consequently, I found myself skimming a lot and sometimes skipping chapters. If you're interested in an introduction—for yourself or your students—this might be a good book to use. But if you've conducted a few studies already, I'd look for something a little more advanced.

Reading :: Constructing Grounded Theory

Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide through Qualitative Analysis
By Kathy Charmaz

When Charmaz published this book in 2006, it became an instant classic. Researchers working with grounded theory found it to be an accessible, useful guide for conducting qualitative research. They're right: Charmaz covers the basics of grounded theory, discusses how to collect data, code it, write analytical memos, conduct theoretical sampling, develop theory, and write it up.

The book is accessible. But I was only lukewarm about it. I don't think that's the book's fault, though. Rather, I think that the book is simpler than I wanted it to be—especially just after reading Saldana and Miles, Huberman, & Saldana, both of which explore parts of the qualitative research process in great detail. Those books taught me something; Charmaz's book is more of a primer—which, to be fair, is what it's supposed to be.

But for that reason, I'd consider using Charmaz's book for a graduate or even undergraduate class in qualitative research. It's accessible, clear, and perhaps more lucid than any other explanation of grounded theory that I've read. If you're just learning about qualitative research in general or grounded theory in particular, pick it up.

Reading :: Qualitative Data Analysis: A Methods Sourcebook

Qualitative Data Analysis: A Methods Sourcebook
By Matthew B. Miles, A. Michael Huberman, and Johnny Saldana

Miles and Huberman's Qualitative Data Analysis is a classic sourcebook for qualitative researchers. I have the second edition on my shelf in the office—the one that I bought as a new assistant professor at Texas Tech. Unfortunately, Miles and Huberman passed away before they could produce a third edition, and in the intervening years, qualitative research has gone through transitions. For instance, computer-aided qualitative data analysis (CAQDAS) packages have become commonplace, diversified, and become available on various platforms. Coding has become more systematized, partially because of Saldana's efforts.

The publisher, Sage, decided that it needed a new edition. So it approached Johnny Saldana, who has attempted to preserve Miles and Huberman's insights and text while updating and extending it. Saldana does not always agree with Miles and Huberman, and sometimes signals that disagreement by specifying the source ("Miles and Huberman say...").

The book is a sourcebook, not a cookbook: any method that works is fine (p.6). And it's focused on analysis, not research design or data collection, although it touches briefly on both. You can read it through sequentially—I did—but it's really meant as a reference. It covers matrix and network displays, the two basic types of data displays, and walks through how to apply these to explore, describe, order, explain, and predict. Simple, right? Yes, but the book is 373 pages of painstaking discussion.

It's all worth it. If you do qualitative research, this book should be either on your shelf or (more frequently) open on your desk.

Reading :: The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers

The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers
By Johnny Saldana

I can't remember whether I saw this book cited in a recent article or whether Amazon suggested it to me—but I bought it alongside the third edition of Qualitative Data Analysis: A Methods Sourcebook, the classic Miles and Huberman sourcebook that Saldana recently updated. (I'll review that one soon too.)

In any case, this present book is all about coding, a move in qualitative research that involves interpreting, analyzing, and organizing data. "A code in qualitative inquiry is most often a word or short phrase that symbolically assigns a summative, salient, essence-capturing, and/or evocative attribute for a portion of language-based or visual data" (p.3). It's primarily an interpretive act (p.4).

Coding is often treated in qualitative research texts, but as a chapter or a section, not an entire book. Consequently, we typically get a restricted, crabbed idea of what coding involves. By giving himself the room to really explore coding, Saldana provides a broad synthesis of what others have said about it, and he consequently is able to systematize it and provide many different strategies for it.

In Chapter 1, Saldana describes what coding is, what it involves, and how to use computer-aided qualitative data analysis software to implement it. He explains how coding represents an interpretive, analytical act and prescribes ways to code solo or as a team.

In Chapter 2, he goes on to discuss analytic memos and their role in generating codes and categories of codes.

Chapter 3 is where coding actually begins: Saldana describes first-cycle coding methods, "processes that happen during the initial coding of data" (p.58). By methods, Saldana essentially means discrete categories of coding approaches: grammatical, elemental, affective, literary & language, exploratory, and procedural methods. Each is associated with different types of codes. For instance, affective methods involves emotion coding, values coding, versus coding, and evaluation coding. That is, Saldana has developed an organized taxonomy of coding approaches that might be appropriate for different kinds of studies and research questions. And he gives us explicit guidance in selecting the right coding approach(es). By laying out and taxonomizing these coding approaches, Saldana allows us to see coding in a much more organized and expansive way than we might have when reading more restricted discussions of coding.

Chapter 3 comprises pp.58-186 of the book. It's an exhaustive discussion of each category, making this book more of a sourcebook than a discussion (much like Qualitative Data Analysis: A Methods Sourcebook).

Chapter 4 suggests what to do after first-cycle coding. It suggests performing "eclectic coding," a sort of open coding approach that "employs a select and compatible combination of two or more First Cycle coding methods" (p.188). After eclectic coding comes code mapping: listing the codes, categorizing them meaningfully, constructing major categories as moieties (group divisions), then phrasing the divisions in "versus" terms (pp.196-198). Code landscaping comes next: organizing and examining codes through basic approaches such as word clouds and outlining. Next, Saldana walks us through operational model diagramming, which depict processes in the data, and tabletop categories (i.e., affinity diagrams).

In Chapter 5, Saldana discusses second-cycle coding methods, which allow us to do further, more complex analytical work. These methods focus on Sources, Description, Applications, Example, Analysis, and Notes (p.207).

In the final chapter, Chapter 6, Saldana gives us strategies to pursue after second-cycle coding: focusing, theorizing, formatting, writing, ordering, networking, and mentorship.

If you're getting the idea that this sourcebook is essentially a portfolio or catalog of coding strategies, you're not wrong—and I'll likely turn to this book when I design my next research study. But it's also a meditation on what coding is, what it should do, and how it can furnish a stronger structure for one's analysis. If you conduct qualitative research, I strongly recommend it.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Reading :: The Collaborative Enterprise

The Collaborative Enterprise: Managing Speed and Complexity in Knowledge-Based Businesses
By Charles Heckscher

I read this book during the summer, but have been putting off reviewing it because I got so much from it—it seems as if every page has at least one sticky note on it. But it's time to discuss this book, which I found to be extremely useful for thinking through some of my recent case studies.

Heckscher came onto my radar when I read the book he coedited with Paul S. Adler, The Firm as a Collaborative Community. That book influenced me as I thought through work organization, and Hecksher's The Collaborative Enterprise, which was published a year later, extends those themes that I found so useful. Its focus is on "the power of extended collaboration," which "is the latest of a series of historical expansions of human abilities through an increase in the scope and richness of human interactions" (p.1). At this stage, "the problem at the leading edge of production is to combine knowledge and skills flexibly around changing tasks"—a problem that is not tackled well by markets or bureaucracies (p.1). At this point, "the challenge is mobilizing not effort but intelligence: to get people to use their particular knowledge and capacities in ways that continuously contribute to the success of the whole" (p.2).

Collaboration involves working with others toward a shared objective. As Heckscher puts it, collaboration involves “a shared objective that cannot be reached without the contribution of all. Thus it necessarily implies processes of dialogue and negotiation, of exchanges of views and sharing of information, of building from individual views toward a shared consensus” (2007, p.2). When we work together with others to define a project objective, when we develop a shared understanding of a problem, and when we find ways to make sure that everyone gains an advantage from our shared work, we are collaborating.

Collaboration isn't new—but until recently, "it required sharply bounded groups with enduring and homogeneous membership (p.3). Now, we can support extended collaboration, which represents a "quantum shift" in that specialists can come together briefly, rotate leadership among themselves, and flexibly adjust to changing projects (p.5). This is what interests Heckscher: the "collaborative enterprise," which is "collaboration that extends beyond the limits of permanent teams, units, or firms" (p.5). 

Collaboration contrasts with two other ways of seeing the enterprise: (1) one that centers on loyalty, long-term relationships, and diffuse commitments, typically hierarchical (p.9); and (2) one that centers on individuality and autonomy, usually expressed as a market or bureaucracy (p.11). Both work against collaboration, which demands that people hold dialogues across hierarchical levels and that they give up autonomy to "enter into each others' ways of seeing" (p.12). Yet collaboration is hard. Whereas markets and hierarchies "are simpler because they are highly restricted and simplified patterns of interaction," either restricting information (markets) or links (hierarchies) (p.13). Collaboration involves listing the restrictions on both. 

The seeds of collaboration rest even within the conventional hierarchies. Even though hierarchies formally restrict communication channels, they typically also have informal associational links (p.26), which cut across the hierarchy but which typically do not impute power to the association. This associational dimension is what becomes organized by the collaborative enterprise (p.28), which has the ability to create effective task teams—temporary, project-oriented, multispecialist teams—as needed (p.35).

As  Heckscher later argues, shifting to a project focus can support adaptive collaboration, focusing resources such as knowledge around focused problems; such organizations “reduce hierarchy considerably and emphasize project teams generated around opportunities. Size is not so important because this strategic approach narrows the focus to a small number of ‘core competencies’” (Heckscher 2007, p.63).

Such collaborative enterprises have different needs. For instance, Heckscher argues that “Mobility could be a good thing for employees as well as for companies if there were good systems in place for supporting mobile careers. These systems were unneeded in a bureaucratic order, but they are crucial now—and weak” (2007, p.272). Additionally, people in collaborative enterprises must be able to build “shared understandings and processes” by freely using the physical and service infrastructure to contact each other, collaborating via associational links without going through the levels of their organization’s bureaucratic hierarchy (Heckscher 2007, p.92). This collaborative infrastructure can and should be “deliberately managed” in larger enterprises (Heckscher 2007, p.92, 136). 

Yet, Heckscher adds, “there is no organized and systematic effort to build the infrastructure for mobile careers” (2007, p.190; cf. p.272). He sees these constraints on communications infrastructure—as well as other structures, such as benefits—as restrictors that may retard the development of collaborative enterprises.

If you've been following my readings or writings over the last few years, you can see how I'd be intrigued by Hecksher's work. This review only scratches the surface of this book, which is well argued, thorough, and thought-provoking. If you're even a little interested in the issues discussed here, check it out.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Presentation - All Edge: Exploring the New Workplace Networks

I just got back from speaking at the Austin Chamber of Commerce about how work is changing due to new information and communication technologies. Here's my presentation:

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The new issue of Present Tense, including an interview with me

Brian McNely was kind enough to interview me last year at SIGDOC, and this interview has recently been published at Present Tense. Brian does a great job pulling together our conversation while retaining my enthusiasm about methods and methodology. If you're interested, please take a look! And also see the other stories—it looks like a really interesting issue!

Official announcement below:

The editors of Present Tense are pleased to announce the publication of Vol. 3.1. This issue is our most multimodal collection to date, including our first slidecast essay (“The Quiet Country Closet”) and our first full audio essay (“Voices in Egypt”), as well as a number of other essays that incorporate images, video, and additional modes beyond alphabetic text. 

Volume 3.1 includes:
The Quiet Country Closet: Reconstructing a Discourse for Closeted Rural Experiences: Garrett Nichols examines the rhetorical and communal practices of rural LGBTQ dwellers “who have no desire to flee their supposedly oppressive communities.”
Voices in Egypt: Sound and Revolution: Abigail Lambke explores the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 as a “recorded revolution”—one in which oral utterances of the uprising have been preserved through technology to document the struggle of Egyptians in protest.
From GUI to NUI: Microsoft’s Kinect and the Politics of the (Body as) Interface: David M. Rieder interrogates the role of reflection and critique in immersive natural-user interface (NUI) environments, such as Microsoft Kinect, in which users themselves effectively become the interface.
Rhetorical Empathy in Dustin Lance Black’s 8: A Play on (Marriage) Words: Lisa Blankenship describes how the concept of rhetorical empathy functions in arguments about gay marriage in the play 8.
Louis C.K.’s ‘Weird Ethic’: Kairos and Rhetoric in the Network: James J. Brown, Jr. argues that comedian Louis C.K. opens himself to kairotic moments of vulnerability and unpredictability, in contrast to the snark that constitutes “the dominant mode of networked rhetorical situations.”
Why So Hostile?: The Relationships among Popularity, “Masses,” and Rhetorical Commonplaces: Mark D. Pepper addresses arguments against popular texts by invoking and questioning the rhetorical commonplaces that denigrate mass culture.
“That Light-Bulb Feeling”: An Interview with Clay Spinuzzi: Brian McNely sits down with Clay Spinuzzi at the 2012 Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Design of Communication Conference to ascertain Spinuzzi’s ideas about genre, research methodologies, and much more.
Instructive Commodities: The Rhetorical Regulation of American Health and Gender Norms in Bodies…The Exhibition: Tara Pauliny looks to the popular Bodies…The Exhibition as an example of “how regulation and commodification are networked” to inscribe bodies as metaphors for international commercial practices.
Residual Nations and Cyber Yugoslavia: Speech Acts and Nationality in the Internet Age: Mary Hedengren discusses the “residual nation” of Cyber Yugoslavia to demonstrate how technology can transform and transgress notions of nationhood in contemporary political discourse.

Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society is a peer-reviewed, blind-refereed, online journal dedicated to exploring contemporary social, cultural, political and economic issues through a rhetorical lens. In addition to examining these subjects as found in written, oral and visual texts, we wish to provide a forum for calls to action in academia, education and national policy. Seeking to address current or presently unfolding issues, we publish short articles ranging from 2,000 to 2,500 words, the length of a conference paper.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Reading :: Interaction Ritual

Interaction Ritual - Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior
By Erving Goffman

Erving Goffman is a giant in sociology, and I always feel guilty that I don't enjoy his work more than I do. The work always seems to be promising, but the system weighs heavily on me and the illustrations are light touches, brief stories from others' works, not long enough to feel that the system has been well grounded. It's like reading Aristotle.

Nevertheless, the system itself is valuable and, like Aristotle, Goffman provides a vocabulary and set of concepts that can be productively applied to various instances. In his Rhetoric, Aristotle opposes rhetoric to dialectic and explains appeals such as logos, pathos, ethos; in Interaction Ritual, Goffman describes face-work and explains the various moves that people use to maintain it.

"The term face may be defined as the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact. Face is an image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes—albeit an image that others may share, such as when a person makes a good showing for his profession or religion by making a good showing for himself" (p.5). People must maintain their face (i.e., keep the line internally consistent; p.6). They can be "in wrong face when information is brought forth in some way about his social worth which cannot be integrated, even with effort, into the line that is being sustained for him" (p.8). And they can be "out of face when he participates in a contact with others when he participates in a contact with others without having ready a line of the kind participants in such situations are ready to take" (p.8). They can be shamefaced (perceived as flustered) and can have poise (the ability to suppress or conceal shamefacedness) (pp.8-9). Throughout their interactions, people build a line—and are often stuck with it; switching one's line can be confusing because one is abandoning a line to which one had previously been committed (p.12; Goffman does not go on to discuss common ways of changing one's line, such as confession, repentance, and conversion).

On this basis, Goffman goes on to examine interaction rituals, i.e., "acts through whose symbolic component the actor shows how worthy he is of respect or how worthy he feels others are of it" (p.19).

The rest of the book, though it consists of separate essays, builds on this vocabulary of face-work. In one chapter, Goffman uses a study at two mental wards to examine the nature of deference and demeanor, concluding that the self is in part a ceremonial thing (p.91). Goffman also examines alienation, public order, and the notion of "action." In each, he carefully and systematically examines rituals of interactions.

Again, this book is a classic. But take it in small doses, like Aristotle.

Reading :: The Fifth Age of Work

The Fifth Age of Work: How Companies Can Redesign Work to Become More Innovative in a Cloud Economy
By Andrew M. Jones

Drew Jones was one of the first people I met when I began investigating the coworking scene in Austin in 2008. An anthropologist by training, Drew began looking into coworking in 2007 and cowrote one of the first books (perhaps the first?) on coworking: I'm Outta Here. But Drew's focus was always broader than coworking: he was interested in how work would change in the near future due to a number of factors, such as millenials entering the workforce; the information revolution, which has obviated copresence in a lot of work; the question of how to nurture and sustain innovation in companies; the environmental and financial impacts of moving people back and forth; and the sheer waste of office buildings that are empty two-thirds of the time. Drew outlined many of these themes in forums such as the Future of Work salon and SXSW 2010, as well as his book on innovation. And now he's developed them in this book, which comes out in November. I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy.

The Fifth Age of Work examines coworking and other work trends against this backdrop. This book, aimed at popular audiences, lucidly and engagingly discusses the challenges that organizations face as we move toward "the fifth age of work":
The Fifth Age of Work is an emerging world of work broadly defined by the rise of cloud-based technology such as remote computing, file storage and retrieval (e.g., Evernote, Dropbox), and communication channels (e.g., Skype, Google Hangout), as well as the decentralization and de-localization of work characterized by distributed teams, remote work, flex work and telecommuting, contract and project-based work, and the rapid growth of the coworking movement. But the Fifth Age is also much more than this.  These myriad arrangements are manifestations of more fundamental, evolutionary changes in our economy. The Great Recession in 2008, in fact, was an inflection point that marked the arrival of this new epoch, where we are now witnessing culture and technology colliding to disrupt and redefine the what, when, where, how, and even the why of work. (p. 10).

Jones contrasts the Fifth Age with the previous four:

  • First: hunting and gathering
  • Second: agriculture 
  • Third: merchantilism
  • Fourth: the Information Revolution (pp.11-12)
He sees the Fifth Age as the occasion for a new social contract, one that addresses workers' need for "more independence, trust, and honesty in their working lives" (p.15). 

Based on this vision, Jones discusses coworking, work innovation, corporate culture shifts, workplace design, and other aspects of work that are changing or under pressure. He concludes that in the Fifth Age of Work, leadership must look different—perhaps "anthropological." And he includes a workbook near the end of the book to help leaders think through experiments and innovations in their own workplaces.

Personally, I enjoyed the broad sweep and the way Jones connected different trends in this short but thought-provoking book. If you're interested in the future of work, coworking, or similar aspects, take a look. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

If you're not working on your PhD, maybe you should be. Here's an opportunity.

Thinking about pursuing a PhD? Interested in workplace studies? There's a fantastic opportunity in Austin. Two, actually.

UT's School of Information has two fantastic opportunities in their Information Work Research Group: 
We invite applications for two fully funded PhD positions, starting in August 2014, available for incoming doctoral students to join our study of information work in the Information Work Research Group, School of Information, University of Texas at Austin. 
Applications are due November 15, 2013 (see below). The faculty and students in the IWRG undertake empirical and analytical studies of information workers in their workplaces, exploring how work and occupations are changing. We draw primarily on ethnography, participant observation, interviews, historical analysis and archival analysis to explore occupations such as records managers, remote financial professions, digital humanists, data analysts, open source software developers and online community managers.
The School of Information is full of sharp, talented people who, honestly, have much better offices than mine. They're right across from the Clay Pit and the Dog & Duck. And their research is really interesting. If you fit the bill, do consider this opportunity

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

My book Tracing Genres through Organizations is ten years old this month

Ten years ago, my first book, Tracing Genres through Organizations, was published by MIT Press. It's hard to believe that it's been that long—until I look at the ancient Windows screenshots.

Just a few reminiscences:

  • TGTO is still my most widely cited publication. But when it first came out, I noticed that most of the cites came from the first chapter. MIT Press had put that chapter online for free to publicize the book. Coincidence?
  • I didn't expect TGTO to be accepted by MIT Press. My original plan was to approach the most prestigious press first. Then, along with the rejection letter, I would get some solid reviews that would help me revise it for the next press. To my complete surprise, MIT Press accepted the book and sent me a contract.
  • I signed the contract on September 10, 2001. Needless to say, I didn't get to celebrate much the next day.
  • TGTO was my tenure book. During the tenure process, I sometimes referred to it as Trudging Grimly through Obligations. But despite that, I really enjoyed writing it.
  • TGTO was based on my dissertation. But it represents a complete rethinking. That's because, days after my defense, I read Beyer and Holtzblatt's Contextual Design and realized that I had to step up my game. The next 18 months were spent researching interaction design methodologies, a period that resulted in several side publications in methodology and especially participatory design. In the end, I replaced three chapters entirely and reworked the cases in the remaining chapters.
  • I told someone the other day that I study how people use sticky notes. That's not the whole truth, but it's close enough.

Presentation : Toward a typology of activities

Last month, I was honored to present a paper (via Skype) to the Helsinki Summer School on Activity Theory and Formative Interventions. The presentation was based on an article that hadn't been accepted yet, so I've been sitting on it, but I've just been informed that the paper has been accepted with minor revisions. So here it is.

Bottom line, I've been trying to characterize different sorts of activities and particularly how hybrids of those types lead to internal contradictions. This is my attempt at a typology. See what you think!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Reading :: The Rules of Sociological Method

Rules of Sociological Method
By Emile Durkheim

In this book, Durkheim explains his approach to sociology, describing his emphasis on "social facts" rather than subjective meaning. "A social fact is identifiable through the power of external coercion which it exerts or is capable of exerting upon individuals" (p.56). "A social fact is any way of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint," he says, and adds: "which is general over the whole of a given society, whilst having an existence of its own, independent of its individual manifestations" (p.59).

Like other phenomena, Durkheim says, "social phenomena are things and should be treated as such. ... they are the sole datum afforded by the sociologist" (p.69). And the sociologist must be, if anything, driven by such data: "The conventional character of a practice or an institution should never be assumed in advance" (p.70). Indeed, since "social facts tend to form outside the consciousness of individuals" (p.72), to study them, we must:

  • "Systematically discard all preconceptions" (p.72)
  • Include in the subject matter of research only "a group of phenomena defined beforehand by certain common external characteristics and all phenomena which correspond to this definition must be so included" (p.75)
  • "investigate any order of social facts ... from a viewpoint where they present themselves in isolation from their individual manifestations" (pp.82-83)
When conducting such studies, it's sometimes hard to differentiate the normal from the pathological, Durkheim says (Ch.3). He suggests the following rules:
  1. "A social fact is normal for a given social type, viewed at a given phase of its development, when it occurs in the average society of that species, considered at the corresponding phase of its evolution."
  2. "The results of the preceding method can be verified by demonstrating that the general character of the phenomenon is related to the general conditions of collective life in the social type under consideration."
  3. "This verification is necessary with this fact relates to a social species which has not yet gone through its complete evolution" (p.97)
In Chapter 4, Durkheim goes on to consider rules for the constitution of social types—what he calls social morphology (p.111). He sees societies as forming from combinations of simpler societies (p.112), and in this chapter, he recaps the argument from The Division of Labor in Society, claiming that simple, nonsegmented societies (made up of hordes) evolved into more complex ones (pp.112-117). Durkheim locates social facts firmly within these social types and groups: "The determining cause of a social fact must be sought among antecedent social facts and not among the states of the individual consciousness" (p.134). 

Overall, the book is a fascinating read. It lays out the assumptions that guide Durkheim's research. Many of these assumptions have been called into question in subsequent sociological work, but since Durkheim does us the service of describing them explicitly, we can understand his reasoning even if we don't hold to it. If you're interested in sociological method—or Durkheim—take a look. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Reading :: Rejoicing

Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech
By Bruno Latour

In one scene of the 2011 film Thor, the character—Marvel Comics' version of the Norse god of thunder—blithely explains his godhood to a human being: "Your ancestors called it magic... but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same."And with that throwaway reference to Arthur C. Clarke, the movie roughly reconciles religion and science, then hurriedly turns to other matters.

Thor's treatment of religion is about what you would expect from a movie based on a comic book—that is, a movie that focuses on mashing up characters from very different situations and arguably irreconcilable worldviews, ignoring the inconsistencies in favor of putting together epic spectacles. But in Rejoicing, Latour argues that religion in the modern age has taken this tack as well, attempting to measure itself against science on science's terms, using science's logic, and hiding itself in the areas that science can't explain. Suddenly—according to Latour—religion is about belief, and the world is separated into believers and nonbelievers. Both sides share a belief in belief (p.3). Yet, he says, once believers and nonbelievers did not exist; what existed was a common fabrication or social frame (p.5). This is how Latour describes himself, as a true agnostic who does not believe in belief (p.3). What is important in Latour's understanding of religion is not belief but practice.

If you've read much Latour, you'll find much that is familiar in this argument. Although Latour seems to be imitating a religious genre with which I am not familiar—a sermon, a prayer book?—he still talks about transformation-through-translation (p.18), he indicts the tendency to believe in transportation-without-transformation (p.22, here personified as the devil Double-Click Communication), and he touches on other concepts such as factishes and iconoclasm throughout. That is, Latour is trying to understand religion using many of the same concepts that he has used with such success to understand science, technology, politics, law, and art.

And where does this lead? Latour argues that religion is not meant to lift us higher but to transform us here (p.35); to focus on practice rather than belief; to result in the reformation of a unity, identity, union,  or people (p.55). Rather than rationalizing the old stories, such as Noah's Ark, religion (in Latour's reading) should treat them as parables, asking: "what would correspond for us now to what they were trying to represent by the flood?" (p.87). (Latour does this all the time in his writings.) This approach removes the shame that Latour has felt when having to overlook "unfathomable whoppers" such as the virgin birth and eternal life (p.58). Rather than trying to transfer information from the past to the present, Latour argues, the religious should transform themselves from present to past.

Latour uses a running example of a woman asking her husband, "Do you love me?" The question isn't a request for information; if the husband impatiently points to a calendar showing the last time he answered the question, if he cites his previous response, if he plays a recording of that response, he has missed the point and turned his "yes" into a lie. The answer is not information, it's renewal; if he answers "yes," it's a new answer each time, one that transforms him and renews their relationship.

In this understanding of religion, Latour says, we read the sacred texts not longitudinally but vertically. Think of the narrative as scrolling left to right. Rather than following it as it scrolls, we cut from top to bottom, finding tags, ruptures, reactions, incomprehensions, cautions, recognitions, and envoys (p.113)—the renewal events that we then apply to our own lives, renewing our own applications and our own relationships with others. God is love; love depends on the lovers' speech (p.140).

Rejoicing is an earnest book. Latour deplores what his generation did to religion and wants to restore it as a way to unite and renew the relationships in which we find ourselves. And as I think about it, the vision of religion that he sketches seems akin to that of the corn-religions described in The Golden Bough, with their focus on seasonal renewal and concomitant social renewal.

But Latour has inserted a little twist in here that you may have caught—I caught it early on.

In Latour's other work, he describes how people practice science, technology, law, politics, and so forth. He watches people, follows the transformations, and compares those to the stories that people tell about what they did. This careful descriptive work underpins the theoretical explanations that he provides.

But in Rejoicing, he prescribes how people should practice religion. He describes sacred texts to some extent, but according to his narrative, religion has been captured by Double-Click Communication. Its practice is wrong—according to Latour. From where does he get his description, and how is it authoritative? Can he do something similar to what he did in Laboratory Life, following the practice of renewal and then examining how the religious describe it in contrasting terms? Perhaps—but he doesn't. Does Rejoicing tell us something new about the practice of religion—or does it just tell us the liturgy that Latour recommends?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Looking for a job?

If you're a scholar doing work in rhetoric, writing, and digital communication, consider applying for our job. The department is outstanding, colleagues are sharp (in a good way), and it's in beautiful Austin, Texas. Any questions, shoot me an email.

The University of Texas at Austin, MLA, Rhetoric & Writing
Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Writing
Closes: Oct 27, 2013
The Department of Rhetoric and Writing (DRW) at The University of Texas at Austin seeks applicants for a tenure track position in digital rhetorics and emerging communications technologies with an emphasis on production; preference being given to those individuals at an advanced Assistant Professor level. The successful candidate should hold a PhD in rhetoric and writing or related field and demonstrate excellence in scholarship and teaching with a focus on the intersections of rhetoric, writing, and digital technologies. Additional interests could include technical and professional communication, new media studies, digital humanities, visual rhetorics, sound/audio studies, video or film production, or any historical or theoretical area in rhetoric or composition studies. 
The successful candidate will be expected to publish actively; teach at all levels of our curriculum; direct dissertations, MA reports, and honors theses; and offer service to the Department, the College, and the University. The selected candidate will have the opportunity to design and teach an array of courses that contribute to the undergraduate major in Rhetoric and Writing and the graduate concentrations in Rhetoric and Digital Literacies and Literatures -- all with the support of our nationally renowned Digital Writing and Research Lab (DWRL), which operates state of the art computer classrooms. 
The DRW boasts a dynamic, collegial, nationally and internationally recognized faculty with interests in the history, theory, and criticism of rhetoric; composition theory and pedagogy; digital writing and rhetorics; visual rhetorics; empirical research; writing in the disciplines and professions; and rhetoric and poetics. Sub-units of the DRW include the Undergraduate Writing Center and the Digital Writing and Research Lab. 
The deadline for applications is October 27, 2013; review will begin immediately. Submit a letter of application, a curriculum vita, three letters of recommendation, a dissertation abstract or book prospectus, a sample chapter or a recent publication, and a statement of teaching philosophy (no longer than one page) 
Position funding is pending budgetary approval. A background check will be conducted on the successful candidate. The University of Texas at Austin is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Reading :: Suicide

Suicide: A Study in Sociology
By Emile Durkheim

Durkheim's book Suicide is, as the editor's introduction tells us, an early use of statistics in sociology. The editor, George Simpson, seems to tiptoe around the implication that this treatment of statistics is not very sophisticated by today's standards, "yet Durkheim establishes relationships between series of data by methodological persistence and inference" (p.10).

But beyond the early use of statistics, this book, according to the editor, is significant because it takes what appears to be an individual decision—suicide—and establishes sociological relationships. Each person decides whether to take her or his own life, yes, yet suicides were more frequent among certain populations, in certain conditions, than others. Durkheim plows through an enormous amount of data to develop a sociological account to explain these patterns.

Durkheim describes three types of suicide:

  • Egoistic suicide, in which an individual feels apathy (Chapters 2-3). He connects this type to religion: Protestants kill themselves more often than Catholics or Jews, he says, and he theorizes that this is so because Protestants must deal with "the free inquiry that animates this religion," free inquiry which lowers social solidarity. In contrast, Catholics don't engage in free inquiry, and though Jews do, they maintain social solidarity (pp.158 et passim). (We can see how this thesis directly relates to his previous work, although I am not comfortable with the simplicity of the conclusion.)
  • Altruistic suicide, which is related to passion or will (Chapter 4). Whereas egoistic suicide happens when social solidarity is too low, altrustic suicide happens when it is too high. Suicide is duty (p.219). 
  • Anomic suicide, which is related to irritation or disgust (Chapter 5). In this type of suicide, disturbances of equilibrium—from financial crashes to divorces—result in suicide because these disturbances weaken society's controlling influence (p.252). 
There's plenty to be cautious about here. For instance, Durkheim blandly asserts that women don't commit anomic suicide as often because "generally speaking, her mental life is less developed" (p.272); they don't commit egoistic suicide as often because they are not nearly as social as men (p.216). To put it mildly, I don't think these claims hold up to scrutiny. 

At the same time, Suicide is an interesting book: we get to see a scholar gamely applying an analytical approach that few people at the time had attempted, studying a seemingly individual phenomenon in a way that few if any others had accomplished. As a historical artifact, it's a fascinating book and I recommend it highly. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

"That light-bulb feeling"

Last October at SIGDOC, Brian McNely was kind enough to interview me about my projects and my modest contributions to rhetoric and professional communication. We waxed enthusiastic about an obscure paper of mine, we talked about my previous books, and I told him about two books that I had on the front burner: Topsight and another project tentatively titled All Edge.

That interview is now available. Brian did a great job of turning our wide-ranging discussion into something coherent and (I think) interesting, while still capturing my enthusiasm about this ongoing work. I hope you'll check it out!

Coworking in Austin: Station Coworking

My previous "Coworking in Austin" posts have been in-depth looks at coworking spaces. But this one is about a space I haven't yet been able to visit.

Station Coworking is planning to open around September 1. It's run by Thomas Knight, who was one of my students a couple of years ago, when I was in the thick of studying coworking. Thomas has been thinking for a while about how people work in organizations, how organizations sometimes limit the potential for collaboration and autonomy, and how to try out different models.

Last year I met with Thomas, and he shared his vision of a new Austin coworking space. So it's exciting to see that vision becoming a reality. If you're in Austin and interested in coworking, drop on by. And tell Thomas I sent you!

Monday, August 19, 2013 panel: The Liberal Arts Matter in a STEM World

It's time to pick panels for SXSW again this year. This time, I'm on a proposed panel with others involved with our Human Dimensions of Organizations program.

The topic: "The Liberal Arts Matter in a STEM World."

Can you do me a favor? Click through to the description and consider voting up the panel. We have a strong slate of speakers and I think the panel could be useful for attendees.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Reading :: The Innovator's Way

The Innovator's Way: Essential Practices for Successful Innovation
By Peter J. Denning and Robert Dunham

"Innovation means the adoption of an idea or technology into new practices that produce new outcomes," say Denning and Dunham in this book on innovation, meant for entrepreneurs (p.xxiv). They identify an innovation pattern: "The innovator becomes bothered by a disharmony, puzzles over it for a long time, discovers limitations of the current common sense that produce it, proposes a new common sense that generates a solution, and commits to making it happen. We call this the 'prime innovation pattern'" (p.xxv).

But how do you execute this prime innovation pattern? The authors draw from a deep well of experience to describe eight practices: Sensing, Envisioning, Offering, Adopting, Sustaining, Executing, Leading, and Embodying (Ch.5-12). But they also emphasize how to build these practices into the DNA of one's organization by building a culture of innovation and networking (Ch.13-16). Along the way, they draw from sources as diverse as Latour and Weick as well as examples from entrepreneurial organizations.

I'm not planning to start an enterprise. But as someone who's interested in how entrepreneurs work, I found this book useful and illuminating. Denning and Dunham clearly know what they're talking about, and they convey it in a book that is readable without being reductive, detailed without being inaccessible. If you're interested in entrepreneurship, either as a practitioner or as an interested party, I recommend this book.

Reading :: The Evolution of the Book

The Evolution of the Book
By Frederick G. Kilgour

I happened to pick up this book at a used bookstore in Austin. Opening the cover, I saw the name of the previous author written neatly on the front page: Maxine Hairston.

Of course I had to pick it up. After all, it was just a dollar.

It might have been the best dollar I've spent.

The book is as solid as you might expect from a book published at Oxford. Kilgour, a professor of library and information science, has undertaken a complete history not just of the book but of writing, defining "book" broadly as "a storehouse of human knowledge intended for dissemination in the form of an artifact that is portable—or at least transportable—and that contains arrangements of signs that convey information" (p.3). He identifies four transformations of the book over the last 5000 years:

  • the clay tablet (2500 BC-AD 100)
  • the papyrus roll (2000 BC-AD 700)
  • the codex (AD 100)
  • the electronic book ("currently in the process of innovation"—Kilgour published in 1998) (p.4). 
Along with these transformations, Kilgour identifies "three major transformations in method and power application in reproducing the codex":
  • "machine printing from cast type, powered by human muscle (1455-1814)"
  • "nonhuman power driving both presses and typecasting machines (1814-1970)"
  • "computer-driven photocomposition combined with offset printing (1970- )" (p.4)
Kilgour describes a "historical pattern of the book, in which long periods of stability in format alternate with periods of radical change" (p.4). For each of the seven punctuation of equilibria (clay tablet, papyrus roll, codex, printing, steam power, offset printing, and electronic book), he says, "five concurrent elements were necessary: (1) societal need for information; (2) technological knowledge and experience; (3) organizational experience and capability; (4) the capability of integrating a new form into existing information systems; and (5) economic viability" (pp.5-6). In the subsequent chapters, Kilgour examines each of these punctuations in terms of the five elements, providing an unusually comprehensive examination of the different conditions around each punctuation. For instance, he doesn't just look at production tools, he looks at the impact of eyeglasses, the development of silent reading, and the impacts of abbeys and the Protestant Revolution. 

Those who have studied the history of writing will find plenty of familiar work here, including Schmandt-Besserat's scholarship on Sumerian writing and Eisenstein's scholarship on the printing press. But readers will also find broader discussions of inventions, social systems, and economics across the eras. I was intrigued by Kilgour's discussion of the electronic book in Chapter 12, in which he argues that an "e-book device" will be successful when it meets certain conditions—conditions that sound quite similar to the Kindle!

Before closing, let me go on a little side journey regarding annotation. It turns out that Maxine Hairston annotated her books quite closely. Here's one example from the book. Hairston's annotations are written directly on the page, in pencil; mine are in sticky notes in the margins (a habit I picked up from reading books out of the university library).

Hairston's strokes are bold and her underlining is perfectly straight—she probably used a ruler. And she annotated a lot, not just underlining but also summarizing points with terse phrases in the margins. I found it a bit distracting, and had to resist annotating things just because she had annotated them. But it was also useful to see how a master academic annotated her books.

I can't loan everyone my marked-up version of The Evolution of the Book. But I can recommend that everyone buy and read their own copy. It's a well-written, intriguing text full of information and analysis. Pick it up.

Reading :: Resilience

Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back
By Andrew Zolli with Ann Marie Healy

This book will be familiar reading to those who have read similar trade books such as The Tipping Point or The Wisdom of Crowds. We get a set of characteristics, a set of stories illustrating each along with colorful interviews from experts, and a larger story woven through. Writing a book like this is a special skill, I think, and the second author's background as a "playwright, screenwriter, and journalist" positions her well for providing the punch that makes the book read well. Meanwhile, the first author's background as director of PopTech gives him the vision and connections to underpin the book's argument.

That argument, in a nutshell, is that the world is increasingly complex and interconnected, too often through brittle systems that can't handle disruption well. Consequently, we face the prospect of systemic failure, in which small failures cascade and crash the system. In this case, we're talking about large interconnected systems: the environment, the economy, the social order. To resist these shocks, we have to work on resilience.

Resilience is "the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances" (p.7, their italics). In their quest to describe resilience, the authors talk about related concepts such as scaling and swarming (Ch.2), clusters (Ch.3), cooperation (Ch.5), and the new demands of leadership (Ch.8). In the last chapter, Chapter 9, they revive the term "adhocracy" to describe how distributed, resilient organizations work. (It's this term that brought the book onto my radar, although I think the authors don't differentiate enough between the single-organization adhocracy that Mintzberg was describing and the temporary project-oriented adhocracies that the authors are trying to describe.)

The book is highly readable. But I was left wanting more—and I think that has more to do with the genre of the book than the authors themselves. Books of this genre gain their force by skipping from one expert to another, one story to another, like flat rocks sent skipping across the surface of a pond. The skipping is what makes the book interesting to lay readers, but it means that we spend all our time on the surface rather than sinking into the subject and deeply exploring it. So I would recommend Resilience as a way to get a big-picture understanding of the changes and dangers of large-scale systems—but at some point the rock has to stop skipping and you have to sink into a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the issues, and at that point, I would suggest reading up on some of the source materials that the authors have cited, such as Mintzberg and Arquilla.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Writing :: How Nonemployer Firms Stage-Manage Ad-Hoc Collaboration

Spinuzzi, C. (2014, in press). How nonemployee firms stage-manage ad-hoc collaboration: An activity theory analysis. Technical Communication Quarterly

Here's another entry in my series on writing publications. This particular article hasn't even been typeset yet, but TCQ has posted its accepted author version, so I figure this might be a good time to discuss it. 

The article covers two interrelated studies of nonemployee firms (firms with no employees—such as freelancers and business partnerships) functioning in Austin. What really interested me was how they chose to present themselves to clients, typically as "we" instead of "I"—that is, as larger, more stable organizations. At the same time, on the back end, they had to scramble to assemble a unique set of subcontractors for each project. I use fourth-generation activity theory (4GAT) to analyze why they had to do this and how they accomplished it. It's an interesting story: interesting enough to stick with over the long haul, as I discuss below.

Like many of my publications, this one has a long history—and in fact the piece is definitely a midcareer piece for a few reasons.

I had the luxury of time. First, it's the result of an initial study that I started in July 2007. Yeah, that's five years ago. The length of time that it takes to get tenured. In fact, I originally tried to publish this study in 2010, but received a revise-and-resubmit. The reviewers thought the article was interesting, but that the study involved too few people and drew overbroad conclusions based on that small number. Reluctantly, I agreed. So, rather than trying to revise the paper or try my luck with another journal—which is what I might have done pre-tenure—I decided to be patient and run a second study with additional people. This choice added two more years to the process, since (a) it took a while to set up the study, (b) I began my coworking study at around the same time, and (c) the above was happening at about the same time that I was working through some theoretical issues with activity theory

This brings us to the second reason why this article reflects a midcareer orientation.

I followed my research arc. Yes, people at the beginning of their careers have a research arc too. But post-tenure, you have more flexibility to follow an arc across more projects because the pressure to publish has lessened. Before tenure, my research arc was defined mainly by my two book projects, the one I published for tenure and the one I planned to publish after tenure. About the time I sent my second book off to the publisher, I decided to start a series of studies exploring loosely organized, distributed work, along with some theory to better understand this phenomenon. You can see my 2007 introduction to the TCQ special issue on distributed work as a sort of precis. From there, I studied freelancers (in "How nonemployer firms..."), coworking (in "Working alone, together"), and search engine optimization in an internet marketing company (in "Secret sauce and snake oil"). Each of these examined a different setting of distributed work and helped me to develop genre theory and activity theory to address them (in publications such as "Genre and generic labor," "Losing by expanding," "Integrated writers, integrated writing, and the integration of distributed work," and "Starter ecologies"). And each caused me to further develop my methodological toolkit (as in Topsight and "The genie's out of the bottle" and "How can technical communicators study work contexts?") When "How nonemployer firms..." is published in print in 2014, it will reflect the end of a seven-year arc, one that covers a broader stretch of theoretical and methodological work than my previous efforts. 

And that brings us to the third reason why this article reflects a midcareer orientation.

I didn't try to do everything. When I was writing my first article, and later my first book, I really wanted to shove everything I knew into each project. That's common, I think. It's easy to feel that (a) there's no way to cleanly separate parts of each project, (b) everyone needs to know everything about the project, and (c) maybe we'll get just this one shot to get things right.

From a midcareer perspective, things change. It's easier to think in terms of five- or seven-year arcs. And it becomes impossible to shove everything into a single publication (even, I've found, a long publication such as a book). Neither is it desirable. So in this last set of publications, I've been thinking of the separate articles the way you might think of chapters in a book—or pieces in a Tetris game, or bricks in a wall, or episodes in a miniseries, or dungeons in a Zelda game. Individually, they tell different parts of the major story, the five- or seven-year arc. But they don't have to tell the whole story.

So, for instance, if you read "Losing by expanding," you'll see why I put "How nonemployer firms..." on hold so that I could finish it. I needed that piece. If you read "Working alone, together," you'll similarly see how its analysis dovetails with the 4GAT analysis I describe in "Losing by expanding" and perform to some degree in "How nonemployer firms..."—and you may see where I decided not to open a theoretical can of worms by calling it a 4GAT analysis. 

I experimented with sources. Like "Working alone, together," this piece uses sources outside the mainstream of professional communication research, including industry reports, census figures, and business journals. I had to experiment across a few articles to do this gracefully—reviewers will sometimes overfocus on what they consider lightweight sources—but I gave myself the luxury of experimenting and made sure to use reviewers' comments as a feedback loop rather than becoming frustrated by them. (One trick, I found, is to closely pair nonacademic sources with academic ones.)

Until now, I haven't spent a lot of time reflecting on how my publication strategy has changed post-tenure. But looking back on the last several articles, I certainly do seem to have changed it. 

Reading :: How Institutions Think

How Institutions Think 
By Mary Douglas

I picked up this slim (138pp.) book based on its title and description as well as through a stray citation in a recent reading. Although it's good work, unfortunately it didn't do the job that I wanted it to—that is, to discuss how institutions (that is, large hierarchical organizations) think (that is, collectively reason or cogitate). 

Douglas, an anthropologist, builds on Durkheim (whom I've read) and Fleck (whom I haven't) to examine how human thinking is to a degree dependent on the institutions in which we find ourselves—"institutions" in this case meaning organizations or social structures. Along the way, she contrasts different schools of thought in anthropology and related fields, reexamines anthropology's assumptions about simple societies vs. complex ones, and challenges some of our assumptions about institutions. 

For instance, in the last chapter, Douglas airs the "myth" that minor decisions are offloaded so that individuals can think about important matters (p.111). In reality, she says, "The individual tends to leave the important decisions to his institutions while busying himself with tactics and details" (p.111). (Note: Douglas very much likes to use this sort of chiasmus, but I think that it sometimes results in false choices such as this one.) Indeed, she argues, "any institution then starts to control the memory of its members... It provides the categories of their thought, sets the terms for self-knowledge, and fixes identities" (p.112). 

The book is, or should be, provocative. But I confess that I was not captivated by it. Beyond the fact that it didn't address what I had hoped, the book seemed to oversimplify certain questions about how individuals relate to institutions, seemed to minimize differences in kinds of organizations, and tended to focus on anthropological disputes without deeply considering how discussions from parallel fields might productively impact those disputes. Then again, it could be that I'm simply not in the intended audience for this Oxford-trained anthropologist. If you're interested in how institutions think—in Douglas' terms—certainly you should take a look. 

Reading :: The Philosophy of Rhetoric

The Philosophy of Rhetoric
By I. A. Richards

I'm sure I should have read this little classic a long time ago, but I didn't. Earlier this summer, I found it on the shelves of a used bookstore and decided to pick it up. It's only 138pp, based on six lectures, so I read it pretty quickly—I think I finished it in a day. I think.

Sorry to be so vague. The fact is, this book was based on a series of 1936 lectures, but it had such an impact on the field of rhetoric and composition that, today, its arguments seem oddly unremarkable. It's still a good read, with some great quotes, but if you've read widely in rhet-comp, the effect is similar to that of a rock aficionado listening to early Beatles. The material is good but, part of you thinks, it's so familiar as to be banal.

Let's get to the arguments anyway. Richards introduces the book by explaining:
These lectures are an attempt to revive an old subject. I need spend no time, I think, in describing the present state of Rhetoric. Today it is the dreariest and least profitable part of the waste that the unfortunate travel through in Freshman English! So low has Rhetoric sunk that we would do better just to dismiss it to Limbo than to trouble ourselves with it—unless we can find reason for believing that it can become a study that will minister successfully to important needs. (p.3)
What needs? Richards continues: "Rhetoric, I shall urge, should be a study of misunderstanding and its remedies" (p.3). And to carry on that study, he argues that "we have instead to consider much more closely how words work in discourse" (p.5). And "To account for understanding and misunderstanding, to study the efficiency of language and its conditions, we have to renounce, for a while, the view that words just have their meanings and that what a discourse does is to be explained as a composition of these meanings" (p.9), instead accounting for meanings in context (p.10). "Stability in a word's meaning is not something to be assumed, but always something to be explained," he argues (p.11).

Consequently, he says, "a revived Rhetoric ... must itself undertake its own inquiry into the modes of meaning—not only, as with the old Rhetoric, on a macroscopic scale, discussing the effects of different disposals of large parts of a discourse—but also on a microscopic scale by using theorems about the structure of the fundamental conjectural units of meaning and the conditions through which they, and their interconnections, arise" (pp.23-24).

This is the project Richards takes on. Along the way, he defines context (a cluster of events that recur together, p.34), states that the business of rhetoric is to compare meanings of words (p.37), assert the multiplicity of meanings in discourse (p.39), and lauds ambiguity as something inevitable and indispensable (p.40). He disparages the focus on usage in old rhetoric (p.51), arguing that correctness is a social marker and declaring that the new rhetoric must question the "social or snob control" of languge (p.78). He gives special attention to metaphor, which, he says, is essentially comparative and functions as a transaction between contexts (p.94). In the last lecture, he argues that "Words are not a medium in which to copy life. Their true work is to restore life itself to order" (p.134).

In all, this is a landmark treatise from someone who thought deeply about rhetoric, prescribed a new course for it, and deeply impacted it in ways that reverberate even today.