Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Writing :: Toward a typology of activities

Spinuzzi, C. (2015, in press). Toward a typology of activities: Understanding internal contradictions in multiperspectival activities. Journal of Business and Technical Communication 29.1. 
Here's another entry in my series on writing publications. As I began to write this post, I realized that this is the fifth paper I have authored or coauthored with "toward" in the title. Apparently I am always working toward things.

In a lot of ways, the writing process for this article was very similar to that of "Losing by Expanding." For both articles, I had been thinking about and reading sources for a long while, trying to gain a better understanding of some phenomenon that bothered me. For both, I was trying to work toward a different publication, but had to solve the theoretical problem at hand first—the publications were basically byproducts of the larger research arc. And for both, I had to get out a big tabletop-sized piece of paper to figure out what was going on.

One other similarity: Although both articles represented a lot of reading and thinking, when it came time to write them, they both came together rather quickly.

Thinking through the literature
The specific literature I had been chewing over was that of organizational typologies. I've been intrigued by TIMN since 2007, and have expanded to investigate various others, but I've also been mindful of criticisms of organizational typologies—particularly the question of whether the axes of a given typology, which are selected a priori, can say much about a specific organization.

I had also struggled to figure out how to reconcile this work with activity theory, which examines human activities rather than organizations. Historically, activity theory has not done much to distinguish between types of activities, instead emphasizing the uniqueness and situatedness of each activity (just as Schein does with organizations). There are some exceptions, but these are inconsistently applied and do not seem to converge on a single principle.

Such a principle is needed, I think. We intuitively realize that some activities are similar (say, judging in Finnish and California courtrooms), while others are less similar (say, courtrooms vs. World of Warcraft gaming). But activity theory-based studies have emphasized uniqueness, making it difficult to compare cases.

Solving the problem
When writing my most recent book, All Edge (which will be published two months later than the print version of this article), I tried a few ways around this question. After all, I was talking about a distinct kind of work organization, so I really needed a way to type organizations so that I could contrast the emergent work organization of all-edge adhocracies with other forms of work organization. And, of course, I wanted to do this in terms of activity theory.

I tried several things. One was to treat typologies as theoretically distinct from activities, but that approach seemed incoherent; the analytical framework has to talk to the theoretical one. Another was to survey what others had said and not take a stand—but, again, that didn't do enough work. A third was to try to force a theoretical connection. Writing this part of the book, frankly, was like trying to put a square peg in a round hole.

Eventually, I realized that I was too fixated on the quadrants—the types of organizations I was trying to describe. For a typology to be useful, it has to grow from the analytic distinction that one is trying to examine. Here is where the a priori nature of a typology can actually do work: by deepening the already a priori work started by the theoretical framework. In concrete terms, that meant determining what activity theory principles could productively be represented by the axes to yield interesting distinctions.

Once it was framed in that way, the answer was obvious—in fact, it was right there in "Losing by Expanding." The "seed" of an activity system is the object, the thing that the activity cyclically transforms. So my new typology asked:

  • How is the object defined? Is it defined explicitly and deductively or tacitly and inductively?
  • Where is the object defined? Is it defined within the activity’s division of labor or outside it?
Lo and behold, the two axes yielded four quadrants that were reasonably similar to those of organizational typologies. But since the typology was grounded in the object of the activity, it allowed me to coherently connect theory with typology. 

Of course, the problem wasn't completely solved. As I pointed out in "Losing by Expanding," the object is multiperspectival. Two people may perceive the same work object in very different ways, and those perceptions may drive them to embrace different configurations of activities—configurations that could contradict each other. But the typology I had developed, I reasoned, could be used to characterize these contradictions as well.

I used the basic argument in All Edge to characterize the cases I discussed in that book. But I recognized that the typology could also be used to characterize other activity theory-based studies in professional writing research. From there, it was an easy step to select four representative cases and apply the typology. 

Getting it published
When I sent the first version of the article off to JBTC—which, in retrospect, seems to be where I send most of my AT theory pieces—I included an additional hook: I argued that the typology could be used to anchor a meta-analysis of AT studies. The reviewers didn't buy this, and probably for good reason. Although the typology can help to characterize activities, I haven't done the work to connect it to the principled distinctions that would have to underpin a meta-analysis. I overreached, and it damaged my ethos with the reviewers. 

Fortunately, I could remove that argument without doing violence to the piece, and the other comments were easy enough to implement. The article was accepted in October 2013—and slated for the January 2015 issue. This long wait time is probably due to the popularity of the venue (JBTC). For that reason, I'm in the odd situation of having my articles published in a very different order from their writing—this article was accepted before I began serious work on coauthoring "Making the Pitch," but that article was published first.  

Lessons learned
"Typology" was frustrating for a long time, up until the point that it got easy. It's a good example of how theory pieces often have very long gestation times, then assemble themselves quickly once the final puzzle is solved. 

As you can see from the other links above, it's also a good example of how different parts of a research arc can talk to each other. The theoretical problem really did arise from trying to characterize three distinct workplace studies, and it really did connect strongly (once I realized the connection) to my last major theory piece. Like so many of the articles I've been publishing lately, this one is a mid-career piece that can take advantage of the research arc I've traced up to now. 

Anyway, take a look and see what you think. The print version will be out in January, but the online-first version is up—and it's citable.