This semester I’m going to be doing an independent study with Professor Andrea Wiggins to research and apply Practice Theory in my own work. I’ve included part of my research proposal (which is still a bit in flux at the moment) below. The plan is to use this web space to write up notes about my reading and work as I go. I thought I’d share it in case it shows up in your feed reader–hey I’m told people still use them. Writing here also puts a little bit of pressure on myself to stick to the plan as best I can. I’ll tag all the posts with practice.
The purpose of this independent study is for me to perform a detailed analysis of interview transcripts obtained during a previous study of appraisal practices among web archivists. The goal is to use practice theory as a critical lens for coding the transcripts. Weekly readings will introduce the field of practice theory. Each week I will write up brief summaries of the readings on my blog. The data analysis will be packaged up and results will be written up as a paper that could serve as an initial draft submission for a conference or a journal.
For the past year I have been researching how Web archivists go about doing their work to better understand existing and potential designs for Web archiving technology. Specifically, I’ve been interested in how archivists decide what to collect from the Web, and how they perform these actions using automated agents (software). The goal in this work is to help inform the design of archival systems for collecting and preserving Web content.
While the archivist’s work is sometimes guided by institutional collection development policies, not all organizations have them; and even when they do, considerable interpretive work often needs to be done when putting these policies into practice. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the tools that are available to the archivist in their Web archiving work, and the material of the Web itself are changing rapidly. This churn makes it very difficult to add specific detail to collection development policies without it becoming quickly out of date. By necessity they must remain at a fairly high level, which leaves the archivist with quite a bit of room for experimentation and practice. The practice of Web archiving is relatively young, compared with the longer established archival science. As a result there remain large questions about how the materiality of the Web, and tools for working with it impacts archival science at a theoretical and practical level.
Existing survey work done by the International Internet Preservation Consortium (Marill, Boyko, & Ashenfelder, 2004) and the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (???; NDSA, 2012 ) described high level characteristics of Web archives work, particularly at the level of national libraries and universities. However these surveys intentionally did not provide a very rich picture of the day to day work of Web archivists. In order to better understand how these appraisal decisions are being enacted in Web archives I decided to conduct a series of unstructured interviews with active Web archivists to see what common themes and interaction patterns emerged from descriptions of their work. I employed a grounded theory research methodology which allowed me explore theoretical perspectives that emerged during iterative data collection and analysis. Through coding of my field notes I was able to observe a set of high level themes, which I reported on in a paper I will be presenting at CSCW 2017.
One overarching theme that emerged in this work was the ways in which the archivists and their software agents both worked together to produce the Web archive. I became increasingly interested in ways of viewing this interaction, which led me to reflect on the use of sociotechnical theory as a possible lens for further analysis of the interviews. After some consultation with Professor Wiggins I decided to spend some time exploring the sociotechnical theory literature in order to build a list of readings and a work plan for taking another look at my interview data using a sociotechnical theoretical lens, and more detailed coding of the actual interview transcripts.
I found an excellent overview from Sawyer & Jarrahi (2014) about the application of sociotechnical theory in Information Systems. This led to the realization that sociotechnical theory, while seemingly narrow, was in fact a large intellectual space that had many different branches and connections into IS and ICT. In fact it felt like such a broad area that I wouldn’t have time to thoroughly review the literature while also doing data analysis and writing.
In order to further refine my focus I decided to read Geiger (2015) and Ford (2015) which are two recent dissertations that have looked at Wikipedia as a sociotechnical system. I was drawn to their work because of the parallels between studying a collaboratively built encyclopedia and the study of archives of Web content. Both Geiger and Ford examine a medium or artifact that predates the Internet, the encyclopedia, but which has subsequently been transformed by the emergence of the Web as a sociotechnical artifact. Their ethnographic approach led them to the use of participant observation as a method, which aligned nicely with the first phase of my study. While there were certainly theoretical angles (the study of algorithms) that I can draw on, increasingly I found that it was their focus on participation that I found compelling for my own work.
Last spring Cliff Lampe visited UMD to give a talk about citizen interaction design. While describing his work Lampe stressed what he saw as a turn toward practice in the HCI community. He recommended a series of resources for further exploration of the subject including Kuutti & Bannon (2014). Since I had been having some difficulty in focusing my exploration of sociotechnical theory, and Ford and Geiger seemed to also point towards the importance of practice in their ethnographic work I decided to focus my independent study on three texts that came up many times in the literature I reviewed. I wanted to read books instead of articles because it seemed like a broad area and deep area that would benefit from a few deep dives rather than a survey approach to the literature.
Nicolini, D. (2012). Practice theory, work, and organization: An introduction. Oxford University Press.
This text was recommended by Kuutti & Bannon (2014) for providing an overview of the field of practice theory, and its theoretical and philosophical foundations in phenomenology, ethnomethodlogy and activity theory. I’m hopeful that this text will provide a useful and current picture of the field, which can be useful in diving off into other readings later in the semester.
Dourish, P. (2004). Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. MIT Press.
Dourish is a heavily cited figure in HCI and sociotechnical literature. Where the Action Is in particular helped establish the theoretical foundations for incorporating social practices into system design. I’m particularly interested in how Dourish grounds HCI in the philosophical work of Heidegger and Wittgenstein. I guess it could be arguable about whether Dourish belongs in the practice theory camp. I guess I’ll know more after reading this book. I really wanted to make sure I connected the dots between practice theory and information technology.
Suchman, L. (1986). Plans and situated actions. Cambridge University Press.
This book by Suchman is constantly referenced in HCI literature as helping to establish a theoretical focus on the social and material properties of computer systems. As an anthropologist her use of ethnographic analysis is particular interest to me. I wanted to read it first hand instead of just citing it as a touchstone.
I’ve left some breathing room in the reading schedule near the end of the semester to allow for additional reading encountered during the reading of the main texts, and also for addition ideas from Professor Wiggins. I also wanted to leave time for coding, analysis and writing since the goal of this independent study is a paper.
Nicolini, chapters 1-3
Nicolini, chapters 4-5
Nicolini, chapter 6-7
Nicolini, chapters 8-9
Dourish, chapters 1-2
Dourish, chapters 3-4
Dourish, chapters 5-7
Suchman, chapters 1-4
Suchman, chapters 5-8
Final paper due.
Ford, H. (2015). Fact factories: Wikipedia and the power to represent (PhD thesis). University of Oxford. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282643334_Fact_factories_Wikipedia_and_the_power_to_represent
Geiger, R. S. (2015). Robots.txt: An ethnographic investigation of automated software agents in user-generated content platforms (PhD thesis). University of California at Berkeley.
Kuutti, K., & Bannon, L. J. (2014). The turn to practice in HCI: Towards a research agenda. In Proceedings of the 32nd annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 3543–3552). Association for Computing Machinery. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2557111
Marill, J., Boyko, A., & Ashenfelder, M. (2004). Web harvesting survey. International Internet Preservation Consortium. Retrieved from http://www.netpreserve.org/sites/default/files/resources/WebArchivingSurvey.pdf
NDSA. (2012). Web archiving survey report. National Digital Stewardship Alliance. Retrieved from http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/ndsa/working_groups/documents/ndsa_web_archiving_survey_report_2012.pdf
Sawyer, S., & Jarrahi, M. H. (2014). CRC handbook of computing. In A. Tucker & H. Topi (Eds.). Chapman; Hall.