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Posted by: on Dec 12, 2008 | No Comments

Designing Collaborative Systems: A Practical Guide to Ethnography
By Andy Crabtree

Designing Collaborative Systems has favorable blurbs on the back by Graham Button (XEROX Research Centre, Europe) and John A. Hughes (Lancaster). So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the subtitle “a practical guide to ethnography” really refers to the particular strain of ethnography that Button, Hughes, and others such as Lucy Suchman use: ethnomethodology. As Crabtree explains in Chapter 3, “the term ethnography denotes neither a unified method nor a coherent school of thought. Rather, and as Shapiro makes clear, the term ethnography is a gloss on various and different analytic formats” (p.87).

In fact, as is typical of ethnomethodology, Crabtree argues strenuously that ethnography should not take an analytic format as a starting point (in a footnote on p.87 he singles out activity theory on this point), and he even objects to research protocols in general: “What is seen through research protocol, is not a reflection of cooperative work, but a function of the methods applied and the theorizing done by the researcher in applying them” (p.49). Instead, he urges researchers to “set aside his or her preconceptions and instead be faithful to the phenomenon, exploring and inspecting Work Organization as it is observably ‘put together’, constructed and assembled by the Organization’s staff in their real time collaborations” (p.50). Therefore, he says that the first phase of investigation is Exploration, in which the researcher should “start anywhere, with any person that looks approachable and least likely to be bothered by the presence of a researcher, and collect as much material as possible of whatever sort is appropriate” (p.51). The researcher then proceeds to Inspection (in which categories emerge) and Analysing.

It would be easy to get caught up in the family fight among competing qualitative traditions here — I’m not in the ethnomethodology camp, although I can see its appeal — but instead let’s talk about how Crabtree develops these ideas. In Chapter 2, Crabtree takes us through ethnomethodological data collection and analysis, discussing its philosophical and methodological suppositions along the way. In Chapter 3, he discusses how to apply ethnomethodology to work studies. Then, in Chapter 4, he introduces us to participatory design and its methods, along with some history of its development and controversies. Finally, in the Summary, he provides the purpose.

Yes, in the Summary! Crabtree answers the question that I had been asking the entire way through. After all, the text seemed too advanced for people who were just coming to ethnomethodology without a social science background, such as students or working software developers. On the other hand, the discussion of methods and methodological underpinnings seemed too elementary for those with qualitative research backgrounds. The material seemed too vague and too background-heavy for a how-to, and too practice-oriented for a methodology text. It didn’t situate the methodolgy well among other methodologies. It tended to show more than tell, with large sets of data displayed in the later chapters but rather thin discussion of how to collect and analyze one’s own data. So who was this book supposed to reach?

Here’s what the Summary says:

The purpose of this book has been to sensitize the reader to a discrete ensemble of practical strategies and methods for the study of work and the use of ethnomethodologically-informed ethnography in the creative process of design. The book took its departure from the requirements problem and the inadequacies of HCI formats and methods for describing, analysing and representing the design space. …

… The format articulated herein is practical rather than theoretical in character and is intended to orient the analyst to important features of the workplace or factors to be taken into account when observing and describing work and undertaking analysis of the design space. The primary orientation here is to cooperative work. … (p.165)

And that’s as clear an answer as we get.

So to whom would I recommend the book? Graduate students who are conversant in qualitative research, conversation analysis, or ethnomethodology and who want to apply these skills to cooperative work.

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