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.

Writing :: How Magnets Attract and Repel

Spinuzzi, C., Nelson, S., Thomson, K.S., Lorenzini, F., French, R.A., Pogue, G., & London, N. (2016). How Magnets Attract and Repel: Interessement in a Technology Commercialization Competition. Written Communication 33(1).

This is another in my series on writing articles. The link goes to the online first version, which should convert in January 2016 to the print version.

It's also another in my series of articles on business pitches, researched and published in conjunction with my colleagues at the IC2 Institute. The other articles addressed aspects of the process, focusing more on nuts-and-bolts aspects; this one theorizes the program being analyzed, using Latour's concept of interessement and my own notion of standing sets of transformations. These two concepts help us to understand how the program led innovators through tactical moments of persuasion; ultimately, successful innovators were able to make these tactical moments cohere in strategic arguments. This journey from tactical to strategic persuasion remained steady in a program that had to address extreme variability in other aspects.

Since this series is on writing, let me pull out just a few things about the writing of this piece.

Letting things cook
This article was one of the first pieces I planned, but it's among the last pieces to be published. That's for two reasons.

One, it depended on a lot of analytical work, and much of that work was done piece by piece in the other articles. For instance, our two IEEE TPC articles helped us to take apart and understand how the innovators were making and iterating their arguments, while our summer articles at IEEE Procomm and SIGDOC let us examine the market reports and the pitch training. In promising and writing these articles, we were compelled to reduce the data enough to make analyses practical. For instance, the TPC articles helped us to figure out what argument strategies to look for in the new batch of data, while the SIGDOC pitch paper compelled us to narrow our scope to four main firms; if we had tried to thoroughly analyze the entire range of materials for all firms, we wouldn't have published until 2020.

Two, it depended on some theoretical work as well. Although the standing set of transformations (SST) was pretty well established by the first publication, and although we began thinking in terms of interessement early on, it took a while to understand the relationships between the two, and longer still to try to test them. It was perhaps last spring that we realized the real import of what we were seeing: firms were dealing with wildly different audiences, timeframes, and industries with almost no overlap, but the competition itself provided a reproducible structure that allowed them to navigate these wildly different challenges. Without the time to put two and two together, we wouldn't have been able to develop the paper we did.

Of course, letting a piece cook for 2-3 years is a luxury that the tenured enjoy. Your mileage may vary.

Framing, framing, framing
When the reviewers' comments came back, they pointed to the same problem I always seem to have with these sorts of papers. The methodology and analysis were fine, but the paper read like a sociological study. Where was the connection to writing studies?

The connection was, of course, crystal clear in my head and in my conversations with my collaborators. The firms were awash with texts, texts that articulated and rearticulated their positions! But to the reviewers, these texts were too much in the background. And I had to admit that their concerns were valid—readers of Written Communication needed clear signposts to understand how this paper dealt with concerns about writing and built the basis for further understanding of writing.

In the revisions, therefore, we built in more close analysis of specific texts. We also built more framing and implications connected to writing studies. Finally, we included more methodological and theoretical cites to writing studies pieces.

Concision, concision, concision
The problem with a rich case study like this is that, when you tell the story, everything seems important and interesting. But, as the editor told me in the nicest possible way, the article has to fit within the guidelines. (I suspect she also felt the audience would not be as raptly interested in the details as we were.) So we had to cut 3000 words. This task seemed daunting when we took it on, but in retrospect, it wasn't that hard and it resulted in a much tighter and (hopefully) more interesting piece.

I admit that this may have been the most I have had to cut a piece, but the general problem occurs over and over. It's usually easier to cut than to add, so I let myself go a little long, then cut when I'm told. The danger, of course, is that the piece will get rambly and boring. Rambly is worse than boring—it indicates a lack of underlying framework—and I don't think I usually suffer from it. Boring can be fixed with judicious cuts, and often the editor is the best person to recommend such cuts.

In any case, I hope you enjoy the paper as much as we enjoyed writing it!

Reading :: Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists

Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists
By Anselm Strauss

Anselm Strauss, one of the founders of grounded theory, published this handbook in 1987. I picked it up recently at the used bookstore based on the author's name.

Alas, I don't think it's nearly as useful as Strauss and Corbin's handbook on grounded theory. It explains the basics of GT, including a list of the basic elements (p.23), and it does a nice job of describing what I sometimes call the believing-doubting game: "the experienced analyst learns to play the game of believing everything and believing nothing—at this point—leaving himself or herself as open as the coding itself" (p.29). It also clarifies the relationships among open, axial, selective, and in vivo coding (Ch.1 and 3), although I think these might be explained differently from Strauss and Corbin. (I'll have to check.)

Honestly, the more I read in this explanation of grounded theory, the more I remembered what I don't like about GT. GT aims to develop theory, so the approach is about sifting through codes to find the principles on which the theory will be built, and that requires more single-mindedness than qualitative research based on preexisting theory (let's call that QRPT). QRPT lets you test, complicate, and push back against someone else's theory; GT is more like searching for the key that will unlock this particular case. Perhaps I'm not convinced that such a key exists.

This book also suggests extremely close reading. In one example, the author describes a seminar in which the professor and students begin reading a transcript. They begin with the interviewee's first sentence: "Once I'm in the shower..." Then they spend an hour talking about the first two words, one word at a time (pp.57-58). This is close reading x1000, and I am deeply skeptical of the proposition that exhausting the interpretations of individual words can help us to better understand the utterance as a whole. Certainly such an approach makes it difficult to actually analyze multiple interviews.

The book has useful advice on memos, coding, and visual displays (network diagrams and matrices), all focusing on developing theory. The author also includes a flow diagram summarizing the scholar's reflective process (p.209).

On the other hand, the book could have been much shorter if the author had edited the copious (and I use that word with restraint) examples from the illustrative study and the transcripts in which the author led his graduate class in interpreting these examples.

Overall, yes, this book is useful in explaining the concepts and application of GT. But I recommend the Strauss and Corbin book over this one. It covers much the same ground, but more parsimoniously and engagingly.

Reading :: Frame Analysis

Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience
By Erving Goffman

I first bought this 1974 book early in my PhD program, having read Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life during my MA studies. It's a thick book, and (between you and me) not that engagingly written, and although I briefly attempted it, I gave up and focused on my assigned readings instead. It was always there on the shelf, I thought; I'll eventually get to it.

But at some point—either in the move to Texas Tech (1999) or to the University of Texas (2001), it was lost along with a box of other books. I was not heartbroken, since my research interests had drifted away from Goffman by that point. But earlier this year I saw a copy at a used bookstore. I had just reread Goffman's Presentation of Self and had read his Interaction Ritual for the first time, so he was fresh in my mind. And the price was right. So I picked it up.

And it stayed on my shelf for a while longer, unread, until I began thinking about frames again. The notion of frames had been brought up in a recent reading on pitching, and I began thinking about it in terms of how teachers present themselves to students, so Frame Analysis suddenly had new currency for me. So I sat down and read it.

Not in just one sitting, mind you. The book is 576pp.

So here's what you need to know about Frame Analysis. Here, even more than in Goffman's other books, it becomes clear that Goffman is a cross between Aristotle and Art Linkletter. Like Aristotle, he likes to exhaustively taxonomize the subject he's describing—in this case, frames. And like Art Linkletter, he is an inveterate gossip, pulling examples of frames and frame ruptures from everywhere he can (odd newspaper stories, magazines, television shows, books on cons and magic, and repeatedly from Dear Abby columns) in addition to published research. The result is overwhelming. There's a definite structure underneath, but it's not consistently signaled, so I sometimes had trouble remembering what the endless examples of grifters, airline accidents, and 1950s sexual peccadillos were meant to illustrate. (Although the book was published in 1974, I think the bulk of the examples came from the 1930s-1960s).

Let's try to strip away these examples, then, and get to what Goffman was trying to frame up. Goffman borrows the term "frame" from Gregory Bateson (p.7), using it to describe the ways that we bracket social situations so we know how to interpret and react to them. His aim is to "try to isolate some of the basic frameworks of understanding available in our society for making sense out of events and to analyze the special vulnerabilities to which these frames of reference are subject" (p.10). He uses frame to describe how people define a situation based on principles of organization that govern events (pp.10-11). Strip refers to "any arbitrary slide or cut from the stream of ongoing activity ... as seen from the perspective of those subjectively involved in sustaining an interest in them" (p.10). Essentially, we sample the strips available to us and use them to apply frames that can help us interpret further strips. When frames are confirmed, our assumptions "disappear into the smooth flow of activity" (p.39)—that is, once we are pretty sure which frame is operant, we tend to assume that frame and interpret subsequent interactions within that frame.

At this point, one can see why Goffman becomes so interested in his eclectic examples. They are full of instances in which people misapply frames in various ways. Some are deliberate (cons), some are accidental (comedies of error). But he successively deploys concepts and vocabulary to better understand them.

In Chapter 3, he introduces keying, a systematic transformation along schema of interpretation (ex: play fighting, which resembles actual fighting).

In Chapter 4, he discusses fabrications: deliberate attempts to manage activity so that someone will have a false belief about the activity (p.83). Like keyings, fabrication is a transformational vulnerability of the activity; keying is to fabrication as satire is to plagiarism (p.84).

Chapter 5 discusses the theatrical frame (cf. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life). Here, there is a performer and an audience (p.124).

In Chapter 6, he discusses structural issues in fabrications, including retransformations, recontainment, transformational depth, actor transformations, and fabrication frameworks. Sorry, I'm not going to give you thumbnails on all of these; suffice it to say that these all boil down to tactics that fabricators use to reassert their fabricated frames. These are useful if you're going to fool or con someone (or if you want to avoid being fooled or conned).

Chapter 7 considers out-of-frame activity: overlapping activity that inevitably intrudes on the focus activity.

Chapter 8 describes the anchoring of activity: the way that the frame is related to the world in which the framing occurs (p.248).

Chapter 9 describes "ordinary troubles" in sustaining a frame: innocent troubles that relate to "straight activity" as well as collapses in fabrications.

Chapter 10 is about breaking frame: the extent to which people are engrossed in the activity rather than drifting into other realities (or: becoming engrossed in a competing frame) (p.347).

Chapters 11 and 12 focus on manufacturing negative experience and the vulnerabilities of experience, respectively; the latter explores frame traps, in which people are trapped in a specific interpretation of a frame (p.482). Also in the latter, Goffman protests that his aim is not to compile tips on how to hoodwink people (p.486).

Chapter 13 specifically applies frame analysis to talk.

As you may be able to intuit from the increasingly short descriptions of each chapter, the book was in some respects exhausting. If you are fascinated by endless midcentury news clippings and advice columns, you may find the book easier going than I did. I would have preferred that Goffman make his points more succinctly and with more explicit definitions. Nevertheless, the fact that it was exhausting does not make the book less valuable; there are few keener observers of human nature. If you are interested in how people construe, misconstrue, and correct their readings of situations, pick this book up. You may have to use both hands.

Reading :: A Theory of Discourse

A Theory of Discourse: The Aims of Discourse
By James L. Kinneavy

James Kinneavy was a professor at UT—I think his office is now Diane Davis'—and founded the English PhD's concentration in rhetoric. A Theory of Discourse (1971) is his most broadly read book, and today I learned that "The Texas Education Agency adopted his theory of discourse as the foundation of its English program, as did the State of Wisconsin." Certainly it was frequently cited in the Iowa State program during my PhD work (1994-1999). However, by that time, A Theory of Discourse had become received knowledge. We didn't read it in the program, instead reading later articles that critiqued its central organizing principle, the aims of discourse, and the results of those aims, the modes of discourse.

The modes of discourse were so important to the book that Kinneavy promised in this book that he would write a second volume focusing on them. Unfortunately that volume never came to pass. In 1981, Robert J. Connors published his "The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Discourse" (which we did read in ISU's program), in which he critiqued the concept and traced its eventual abandonment.

But Kinneavy's book is more than the modes of discourse. It's an attempt to make rhetoric a scholarly field of study. As Kinneavy argued in 1971, "Composition is so clearly the stepchild of the English department that it is not a legitimate area of concern in graduate studies, is not even recognized as a subdivision of English in a recent manifesto put out by the major professional association (MLA) of college English teachers ... , in some universities is not a valid area of scholarship for advancement in rank, and is generally the teaching province of graduate assistants or fringe members of the department" (p.1). Composition classes were "chaotic," and "the agenda of freshman composition vary from nothing to everything" (p.1). "There is no definite concept of what the basic foundations of composition are" (p.2). Yet, Kinneavy argued, "it is the thesis of this work that the field of composition—or discourse as it will presently be termed—is a rich and fertile discipline with a worthy past that should be consulted before being consigned to oblivion, an exciting present, and a future that seems as limitless as either linguistics or literature" (p.2).

Kinneavy argued that composition was in its Kuhnian preparadigm period (p.2), without common foundations or systematic commitments (p.3). Kinneavy proposed to provide such a foundation.

To begin, he discussed four rival terms for what he wanted to accomplish: rhetoric, composition, communication, and discourse. After some discussion, he chose "discourse" because it could be directed at any aim of language and any text (pp.3-4). (Today, the term "rhetoric" has taken this position and is used roughly in the way Kinneavy attempted to use "discourse"; offhand, I suspect that this term rose to the top because it could claim classical lineage. Kinneavy's understanding of discourse roughly parallels the Bakhtin Circle's notion of the utterance; compare p.22.) Kinneavy grounded his exploration of discourse in the communication triangle: the points are the encoder, decoder, and reality, while the area of the resulting triangle is the signal (p.19). This communication triangle has often been critiqued in subsequent literature, for good reason, but it gave Kinneavy a systematic way to analyze and discuss different aims of discourse. Kinneavy traces the triangle structure back to Aristotle, and he liberally uses it to diagram the study of language as a whole (p.25), the field of English (p.31), the aims of discourse (p.61), and Aristotle's Rhetoric (p.226). Side note: I have often wondered whether activity theory's rapid inroads in writing studies had to do with the fact that it also uses triangle diagrams to represent contextualized aims.

Based on this work, Kinneavy separates out four aims of discourse, centered on corresponding "classes of kind of referents" (p.36). These aims are expressive, referential, literary, and persuasive (p.61). To help you orient: the referential includes scientific, informative, and exploratory discourse (p.63); reports are considered referential rather than persuasive (p.61). Having established the different aims and the modes that serve them, Kinneavy seeks to establish their norms (p.63).

The rest of the book examines each aim of discourse in turn, one aim per chapter. These chapters are subdivided into introduction and terminology; nature; logic; organization; and style. Throughout each chapter, Kinneavy dives deeply into each aim, connecting it to vast literature and systematically explaining it as it relates to a part of the communicative triangle.

For instance, in his chapter on persuasion, Kinneavy locates persuasion as being focused on the decoder (p.211). He argues that rhetoric has three traditions, the stylistic (attending to ornamentation), the Aristotelian (a distinct way of thinking), and the communicative (grounded in Isocrates, Cicero, and Quintilian, with a modern representative in I.A. Richards) (pp.214-215). Kinneavy argues strongly that "persuasive discourse is generally different from reference discourse (and literary and expressive discourse as well). Otherwise everything is rhetoric" (p.217). (Compare this claim with the central claim in the popular first-year composition Everything's an Argument, coauthored by UT professor John Ruszkiewicz, whose term overlapped Kinneavy's.) English departments distrust persuasion, Kinneavy argues (p.222), yet rhetoric "is necessary as long as man is a being with a body, with emotions, and with persistent character judgments. It would, indeed, be a cold and forbidding cosmos in which rhetoric did not exist" (p.224).

And here we get to the nub of the problem with A Theory of Discourse. I strongly sympathize with Kinneavy's central project, which is to systematize study of discourse so that we can appreciate, value, and research all of its facets. But discourse doesn't really have "facets," nor can it be well represented in a triangle with separated corners, nor does it typically have analytically separate aims. As facile as it might seem to declare that "everything's an argument," that statement seems more defensible than the claim that discourse has practically separable aims. As much scholarship has repeatedly shown since 1971, for instance, "referential" documents such as scientific papers and reports have persuasive aims, often nakedly persuasive ones (consider recommendation reports, for instance, or read Latour). Similarly, as Kinneavy alludes, "literature and love" could not exist in a world without rhetoric (p.224). I think Kinneavy recognizes that these separations are really analytical, but in proposing separate structures and modes to serve these analytically separate aims, he implies different approaches; there's not a good way to recognize and analyze the layering, melding, and tensions that inevitably result from contradictory aims (if such aims indeed contradict each other in the first place). I think these issues spring from the communicative triangle itself, which posits an analytic separation that is qualitatively untenable.

Not to say that this book isn't an achievement or isn't worthy of reading. In fact, if you study rhetoric, you really ought to read it. I regret that it took me so long to do so! But understand it as a part of a larger arc that the field of rhetoric has traversed.