Some of the mystery of routine, and our consequent difficulty in studying it, derives from our lack of good representations for such patterns-in-variety, and of good methods to investigate their stability and fragility. We have many observations that there can be large variations in circumstances that leave an established pattern relatively undisturbed–as when new employees move into their roles and an organizational routine continues with little disruption. This is such a common occurrence that we hardly note it, but long-lasting organizations would be impossible if it were not usually reliable. We also have observations that a seemingly small variation in circumstances or behavior can bring a routine grinding to a halt–as when an unnoticed change at Intel from back-and-forth to circular polishing of a production mirror caused a semi-conductor factory to lose days of output.
Perturbations we take to be large (employee turnover) or small (mirror polishing motion) turn out not to have correspondingly large or small effects on the realized pattern of action. This is the hallmark of a complex, and probably non-linear, system. But saying this only indicates a general direction for what may be a long conceptual journey. (p. 792)
Cohen is reflecting here on his fascination with Dewey’s idea of routine, which can be found in Dewey (1957). Dewey saw routine not as a mechanical action that is regularly, or even slavishly, followed. Instead routine is a complex interplay between habit, cognition and emotion. Dewey’s humanistic approach to routine seems in principle quite similar to ideas around practice today, perhaps even Bourdieu’sn notion of habitus. I first ran across Dewey (1957) myself when hearing Steven Jackson talk about his own work on repair, which he traced back to this book by Dewey. Apparently one of Dewey’s last books Dewey (1938) explores ways in which routine or habit can be effectively studied–an inquiry into inquiry. Cohen points out that Bertrand Russell gave Logic a scathing review, which is pretty much a ringing endorsement for me. This post is just a reminder to myself to dig into Logic at some point.