Suchman, L. (1993). Do categories have politics? The language/action perspective reconsidered. In Proceedings of the Third European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work 13–17 September 1993, Milan, Italy ECSCW93, pages 1–14.

Winograd, T. (1993). Categories, disciplines, and social coordination. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), 2(3):191–197.

Suchman, L. (1994). Speech acts and voices: Response to Winograd et al. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), 3(1):85–95.

Over on the ORG discussion list I got clued in to this debate between Lucy Suchman and Terry Winograd that played out in the CSCW scene in the early 90s. Their debate centers on the use of of categories in The Coordinator communication tool or software pattern for messaging in organizations that is described in Winograd & Flores (1986).

These are two towering figures in the field of design and human-computer interaction. I read Winograd & Flores (1986) a few years ago, and found much to like in it–particularly its use of the idea of breakdown from Heidegger as a way to understand the world. I came to Suchman fairly recently via my interest in repair, and have found her sociomaterial approach as an anthropologist to be really refreshing…even 30 years after Suchman (1985). It’s interesting that both of these books came out in the same year, and played a big part in ushering in the field of human-computer interaction. It turns out that they are also friends, which I only learned in the last paragraph of the last article in the debate.

In the first article Suchman has a bone to pick about the way in which categories embedded within The Coordinator pattern express managerial politics in an unreflective or unconscious way.

… systems of categorization are ordering devices, used to discipline the persons, settings, events or activities by whom they are employed or to which they refer. Non-compliance with the use of a particular category scheme, particularly one imposed from the outside, or the adoption of an alternative are in this sense acts of resistance.

What’s really going on here is a critique of speech act theory to model conversations to inform the design of computer systems. Suchman isn’t ultimately saying that such modeling techniques aren’t useful, but that as they are encoded into computer systems they are embedding politics, and that it is imperative on us as the designers of these systems to reflect on those politics. It’s astonishing how we are still in this moment today.

In his response Winograd basically argues that Suchman is characterizing his work in an overly negative light, and that the goal of The Coordinator is not to build a generalized model for organizational communications, but to provide a pragmatic framework for the design of computer systems:

Suchman is absolutely correct in observing that no systematic account can fully capture the richness of mental life or social interaction. In spite of our extensive writing to the contrary (Winograd & Flores, 1986) she mistakenly takes that to be the goal of our work. Flores and I work from a practical rather than a disengaged analytical stance–the guiding question is not “How do you account for all of human behavior?” but “How do you design to augment people’s capacity to act?”

But Suchman’s point still stands – as we decide how to build these systems that augment our ability to act, how do we determine what acts to augment?

The important point is that wherever we find systems of categorization we should look to see where they come from, and what work they are doing for whom.

and then later:

My “hostility” then, is not to “the disciplinary power of category” but rather, as I stated earlier, to the premise that some others are in a position to know better which categories are good for us as organizational members than we do ourselves.

It seems to me that this is an argument for participatory design, where the users of computer systems are directly involved in a conscious way in the design. It’s so interesting to me after years of working as a software developer that ideas such as agile software development have this long intellectual history.

And this debate between Winograd and Suchman is still just as relevant today:


Suchman, L. (1985). Plans and situated actions: The problem of human-machine communication. Xerox Corporation.
Winograd, T., & Flores, F. (1986). Understanding computers and cognition: A new foundation for design. Intellect Books.