Monday, June 07, 2004

Network Granularity and Fingertip Knowledge

I have a dull ache behind my eyes: humidity perhaps? Am I coming down with something? Is the cause the rather unfavourable score in the hockey game as I write this (1-0 Tampa in the second). I suspect that I’ve just read too much and it’s no longer making any sense.

The purpose of my particular “epistemic culture” (Knorr Cetina, 1999) is—at the moment—a bit beyond me. This process of reading a lot and reading little just doesn’t seem that productive. That said, perhaps I’m overstating things a bit to claim that my own circumstances are reflective of the entire culture. Van House, for example, points out that epistemic cultures shouldn’t be conflated with other conceptualizations such as “communities” (van House, 2004). Still, the daily process of reading is becoming a grind.

(2-0 Tampa… shit)

There are, however, a few threads that I went to pull out my recent reading. Although the limited space left to me necessarily precludes the construction of the detailed “narrative of conversion” that is so important for science (Brown, 1998). Instead, I’ll just blather on a bit about two ideas: “network granularity”, and “fingertip knowledge”.

Van House (2004) provides a very thorough introduction to the use of STS for information science. I particularly enjoyed her recipe card approach of describing the various approaches: ANT, SCOT, symbolic interaction, workplace, etc. I also appreciated her introduction to some of the criticisms levelled at the various approaches. While I’m a big fan of STS approaches (although I perceive some limitations) I’m intrigued by the notion of normalization and obfuscation. Given the concept of functional infrastructure, at what point do elements of our discourse networks become invisible? This argument certainly resonates with those of Bowker and Star (Bowker & Star, 1999), and Kaghan and Bowker (Kaghan & Bowker, 2001) but I’d like to stretch it a bit further. While ANT enables us to explore both the human and non-human actants in a network, how do we set the granularity of our analysis? In the case of workplace studies for example, we may have difficulty unpacking the “web of group affiliations” (Simmel, 2003 [1922]) of a group of photocopy repairmen or determining the various public and personal facets (Goffman, [1959] 2002) of other human actants. Non human actants represent similar complications. Given Haraway’s notion of the “cyborg” (see van House, 2004) perhaps any type of actor-network analysis should extend to the conditions of production and institutional forces extant in the stabilization of the artefacts. I suppose this type of thing could be a way of unifying approaches like ANT and SCOT. [My personal pet-methodology—chaine operatoire—may offer similar advantages (Bleed, 2001; Dobres, 2000)].

(still 2-0. I’m going to have to go to bed soon just to avoid the tension!)

My other thought involves “fingertip knowledge” and it relates to our particular circumstances in information science. Accepting the premise that our sub-discipline is moving toward understanding how individuals use information (for early discussion, see Taylor, 1984; Varlejs, 1987). How is what I’m doing right now assist in my personal quest [n.b., use of standard narrative tropes and metaphors] to understand information seeking behaviour? In her investigation of molecular biology labs, Knorr Cetina (1999) notes the importance of such things as “body knowledge” and the use of stories and “visual scripts” to represent complicated processes and procedures. Other researchers have noted similar concepts. Latour (Latour, 1987; Latour & Woolgar, 1979), for example, would probably recognize visual scripts as “inscriptions” that are all-important for the formulation and accumulation of science. Body knowledge is similarly evident in the “socialization” half of the socialization/reification dyad of Wenger’s communities of practice (1998)or Vygotskian concepts such as the zone of proximal development (Bockarie, 2002), and the importance of storytelling has been documented by Gabriel (2000).

The importance of tacit information and codification devices such as visual scripts and stories has been recognized in engineers my Henderson (1999) who recognizes that the act of sketching is of paramount importance to engineers:

"The visual culture of engineering is more than the sum of its parts: the practices of sketching and drawing constitute communication in the design world. Other forms of knowledge and communication (verbal, mathematical, experiential, tacit) are built around these representations." Pg. 25-26

In the same way that molecular biologists take control of the unseen through their use of visual scripts and stories, engineers take control of the uncreated. It seems that for both molecular biologists and engineers, these articulations provide some control or power over their respective epistemic cultures and actor-networks in a heterogeneous manner. For engineers, the drawings enable them to communicate with and exert influence on clients, coworkers, legislators, etc. Biologists have similar influence on funders (Lenoir, 1999) and publishers.

(Still 2-0… damn.)

So where does this leave us as researchers of ((human information behaviour) U (information seeking in context) U (information needs and uses) U (everyday information seeking))? We seem to lack those things important for stabilization of an epistemic culture. Where are our big science atom splitters, narrative genres, visual scripts, or disaster stories?

(Calgary is still down 2… time for bed. I can’t bear to watch.)


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Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.


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