Thursday, December 10, 2015

Reading :: Interactive Expertise

Interactive Expertise: Studies in Distributed Working Intelligence
By Yrjö Engeström

I first read this research bulletin in the late 1990s in photocopy form. Fortunately the PDF is now accessible at the URL above and at other places on the web.

This 1992 report consists of a theoretical framework and three case studies, two of which were subsequently published in collections. Its focus is on the nature of expertise. As the abstract argues:

Expertise has been understood as a property of an individual professional or craftsman. On the basis of the cultural-historical theory of activity, a radically different perspective is suggested. Expertise is here seen as an interactive accomplishment, constructed in encounters and exchanges between people and their mediating artifacts.
The first chapter, EXPERTISE AS MEDIATED COLLABORATIVE ACTIVITY, explores the question of expertise from an activity theory perspective. Engestrom begins in quintessentially Engestromian fashion by identifying two perspectives on expertise—the algorithmic account, which sees expertise as residing in individuals' heads, and the enculturational account, which sees expertise and thinking as embedded in social situations, practices, and cultures (pp.3-5). Although these schools are presented as rivals, Engestrom asserts that they share three propositions:

  • "Expertise is universal and homogeneous"
  • "Expertise consists of superior and stable individual mastery of discrete tasks and skills"
  • "Expertise is acquired through internalization of experience" (pp.5)
These propositions, Engestrom says, are Cartesian. He discusses how others have questioned Cartesianism in various fields (pp. 6-10), touching on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, Bakhtin, and especially Zuboff, who claims that work is moving from action-centered to intellective skills (p.10). 

Engestrom then goes further by arguing that expertise is located in activity systems (p.11). He describes "the cultural-historical theory of activity initiated by" Vygotsky and Leont'ev (p.12), then introduces additional concepts of multiple mediations and activity networks (pp.12-13). (Note that he does not distinguish these, which are his own contributions, from the work of Vygotsky and Leont'ev.) "Expertise," he argues, "is learning what is not yet there" (p.14). Through the rest of the chapter, he draws on internalization-externalization and internal contradictions to build his account of expertise. 

Late in the chapter, he argues that "expert activity systems are in historical transition" due to changes in work, expecially a shift to multidisciplinary teams (p.23). He presents a matrix with the axes of collectivity and flexibility, using it to show a transition from craft work (with low collectivity and flexibility) to hierarchy, market, and network forms (p.25). These are based on Powell's work, which also influenced Ronfeldt, so the matrix looks a lot like a TIMN matrix. 

In Chapter 2, THE TENSIONS OF JUDGING: HANDLING CASES OF DRIVING UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF ALCOHOL IN FINLAND AND CALIFORNIA, Engestrom applies these insights to a study of DUI cases in two courtrooms, focusing on how judges develop and use expertise under different material conditions. By examining transcripts of different trials, Engestrom argues that judges switch among different "dialects." He uses multiple triangle diagrams to demonstrate how the judges shift among different objects and thus activities. The resulting contradictions indicate how this small organization has a complex social organization (p.60).

In Chapter 3, COORDINATION, COOPERATION, AND COMMUNICATION IN COURTS: EXPANSIVE TRANSITIONS IN LEGAL WORK, Engestrom continues the legal theme by examining other cases. He repeats the matrix from Chapter 1, discussing it in terms of a zone of proximal development (p.65). Citing Raeithel and Fichtner, he draws distinctions among
  • coordination: "normal scripted flow of interaction" (p.66; he cites Goffman)
  • cooperation: "modes of interaction in which the actors ... focus on a shared problem, trying to find mutually acceptable ways to conceptualize and solve it" (pp.66-67)
  • communication: "interactions in which the actors focus on reconceptualizing their own organization and interaction in relation to their shared objects" (p.67). 
(These are defined differently from how I use the terms in All Edge.)

In this case, he examined transcripts of sidebars in court, looking at examples of each. Essentially, the sidebars functioned as a backstage in which people used cooperation and communication to get back to coordination.

Finally, in Chapter 4,  TWISTING THE SCRIPTS: HETEROGENEITY AND SHARED COGNITION IN MULTI-PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL TEAMS, Engestrom examines how such interdisciplinary teams worked. He argues that Bakhtin's speech genres are "implicit constraints or rules rather than tools of interaction," roughly scripts (pp.79-80; I have a different take in Tracing Genres). He argues that medical teams are often "confronted with difficulties that stem from the heavy traditions of craft professionalism and bureaucracy" (p.81) and presents cases, based on transcripts, that involve cooperation and pseudo-cooperation. 

In all, this tech report is well worth reading, both as a way to understand expertise in activity theory and as a way to understand the conversations at play when AT hit the scene. Looking back, I can see the niche that AT filled so ably.

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