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Reading :: Documents

Posted by: on Dec 17, 2008 | One Comment

Documents: Artifacts of Modern Knowledge
Ed. Annelise Riles

Documents are a big deal to those of us in writing studies, particularly technical communication. But to ethnographers, they have not typically been attractive foci. Yes, they are analyzed along with other artifacts, but (as Riles suggests) they usually take a back seat to field observations and interviews. Perhaps, she says, documents are despised by ethnographers because studying them means that ethnographers treat their own knowledge as just “one instantiation of a wider epistemological condition” (p.7). (See the article “Chains and Ecologies” that Mark Zachry, Bill Hart-Davidson and I wrote a while back for some thoughts about this issue.)

But interest in documents is picking up in ethnographic circles, due in part, no doubt, to the rapid spread of documentation and the trend toward ethnographies of workplaces and bureaucracies. This volume gives us some idea of this interest. For me, as a rhetoric and writing professor and workplace researcher of writing, the project is interesting in outline: what do ethnographers think of documents, and what new perspectives will they bring to bear?

In practice, I regret to say that the insights are not startling. The authors of the collection’s pieces study NSF proposals, documents used at the UN, cases and parent-generated biographies of infants, attributions in scientific articles, intake records at a Papua New Guinea jail, university mission statements in the UK, and documentation of Fiji gift-giving. Each of these cases is interesting and each has flashes of insight – particularly the chapter on infant biographies. However, most focus primarily on representation of the documentation’s author or subject, and none really dig into how the documents are interwoven into complex activity, either in routine problem-solving or novel situations. In other words, we learn a lot about how biographies and intake records represent and socially shape infants and convicts respectively; but we don’t get to see how these representations travel across bureaucracies, become transformed in relation to other documents or activities, or develop over time in response to recurrent needs. In retrospect, I am a little startled at how focused the investigations are on specific documents and subjects as opposed to the bounded systems in which they function.

So who should read this book? If you’re interested in representation in documents, or if you want an ethnographic take on documents — particularly document types similar to the ones above — this book might be worthwhile. If you’re already in writing studies and are seeking cases that will deepen your understanding of how documents work, though, I wouldn’t put this book at the top of the list.

1 Comment

  1. David
    December 23, 2008

    Readers interested in this book would be interested in the Document Academy.

    –David Beard

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