Spinuzzi, Clay, William Hart-Davidson and Mark Zachry.  “Chains and Ecologies: Methodological Notes toward a Communicative-Mediational Model of Technologically Mediated Writing.

Abstract:  Studies of knowledge work tend to take one of two research foci: either on communication (the transactional,  intersubjective exchange of information, thoughts, writing, or speech among participants, performed in serial chains) or mediation (the nonsequential, implicit aspects of artifacts that serve to guide and constrain workers’ activities). In this paper, we propose a methodological framework that coordinates the perspectives.

  • The authors begin by highlighting the ways that information management has transformed the world of work substantially since the onset of the postindustrial information age.
  • Two foci of current work on the kinds of research done on “knowledge work”: 1) communication focus – Communication is the “transactional, intersubjective exchange of information, thoughts, writing, or speech among participants” (43).  Our research methods have developed a focus on this kind of work because, as rhetoricians, we are intensely invested in researching how people communicate and exchange information.  The emphasis of research in these sorts of studies is on how the intersubjective transactions of communication transmit chains of information.  Metaphorically, the method traces how “The camera follows the ball” or how the information is exchanged, traded, handed off and transmitted among users.  The second form of research on knowledge work deals with mediation or the ways that information is continuously transformed through context-specific, often interfacial technological mediums.  This kind of method traces how “The camera follows the game” or the broader systemic dynamics of a rhetorical/communicative situation transform as “players” and “artifacts” constantly reconfigure each other in the iterative process of becoming that we call space-time.
  • Can we keep both the communicative and the mediational working in tandem from a methodlogical standpoint?  Here’s a response:

  • So, in this article, the authors hope to develop a method that discusses chained (communicative) and ecological (mediational) perspectives on method by grounding them in activity theory (ecological) and genre theory (communicative).  They claim to be able to do it. . . .
  • On the question of boundaries:  a lot of the time AT & ANT & Ecologies are criticized methodologically because they don’t do a reasonable job of drawing a line.  To answer this problem, the authors claim that “One has to draw a line somewhere; analytically, we must select focuses to make sense of work like Ralph’s” (44).  So, the authors recognize that the bounds of their activity/actor-network must be pushed only far enough to make sense of their research emphasis.
  • One method of tracing the chains of communication involved in textual activity are Communication event models.  Here’s a pic:

  • To consider the mediations that structure the communicative chains of textual activity, the authors also consider activity theory.  This Vygotskian materialist analytic argues that all human activity is marked by engagement with culturally created artifacts – external objects that structure our actions.  These objects aren’t mere tools but actually transform the activity in ways that an unmediated human being couldn’t achieve.  To map this, the authors rely on a Genre Ecology Model (GEM):

  • Problems with GEM: it tends toward a purely mediational understanding that loses some of the power of the communicative event: it is “description without direction” (45).
  • To move beyond the Baktinian (communication chains) – Vygotskian (mediational ecologies) problem, the authors turn to the work of Bruno Latour on sociotecnical graphs.  So these graphs are composed of a syntagmic dimension (the dimension of association – which parts must be associated to make a claim?) (CEM) and a paradigmatic dimension (the dimension of substitution – which parts, once assembled, can be substituted with other parts?) (GEM).
  • Methodological assumptions established by the authors:
    • Work can be segmented into ‘events’ defined by the participant:  Research participants describe things in different ways; however, those differences in description don’t mean despair; rather, they are spaces where the tensions between descriptions can tell us a lot about the kinds of associations drawn out of accounts.
    • Genre is defined by the participant:  Allowing participants to define their genres allows researchers to identify black boxes.  Identifying black boxes allows for the creation of coherence among participant stories in the ways they relate to their technologies.
    • Genres can be discussed as “communicative” and as “resources”:  Communicative genres are genres used to “directly foster intersubjective understandings through chained artifactual transactions” or CEM.  GEM are the nontransactional ecological “helpers” that make the CEM work (47).

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