Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The Xeno-Theories of LIS

There are a whole class of works on my comps list that just don’t seem to sit within the core cannon of the LIS field: they’re not professional, they’re not systems, and they’re not related to needs and uses. They are the big works written primarily by guys with French or German names. My current job is to carve this jungle of social theory into a framework I can work with [Ed. My main reason for writing this is to assign the “reviewed xxx” keyword to these texts in my citation manager].

I have a problem with the sort of thought and writing involved with reconciling social theory: it’s tough. We end up with an overflow of information and a complete lack of narrative to structure it. I need a protagonist. There are two I can choose. They both come from my recent experiment in writing down scenes that I’ve dreamed or otherwise imagined. The first character is Mike. He’s some sort of special ops/ private dick in some ex-Soviet country who has just seen something very dense come off the airport luggage carrousel. The second is Joe; he’s an itinerant roofer working the hurricane torn coast of the Gulf of Mexico. I think Joe’s the guy.

Joe lives in a particular world. He goes about the day doing various things: working, travelling, and dealing with his family. To accomplish these daily tasks he uses two types of consciousness. For much of the day he doesn’t really think; he just goes through the motions that are deeply embedded in his daily life. He accomplishes these tasks using what Giddens (1984) calls “practical consciousness”. For another set of task such as acquiring new clients or reading up on new roofing technologies, Joe uses “discursive consciousness”, the consciousness of texts and open discourse.

According to Giddens, certain practices emerge that stabilize these practices on a societal level. The structure that appears in society is really just an abstract; instead, it’s the actual practice of these practices that create “social systems”. Of particular importance is how these types of consciousness propagate into the wider world. By acting out a type of consciousness, Joe’s actions will have an effect on the actors (and actants) around him in different space-times. These actants then shape their surrounding environment, which in turn effects the affordances of this environment. Joe’s behaviour is a product of this environment. In essence, Joe’s behaviour both creates and recreates the social system in which he exists.

Certain means of communications seem to stabilize in these social systems across time and space. These “genres” (Yates & Orlikowski, 1992) become very powerful within the broader system and may become tools that can shape power through their use (Foucault, 1995). These genres, however, then become susceptible to changes in technology. The transition from paper memo to email, for example, presents different affordances and therefore changes the structuration process of creation and recreation. The control or prediction of these societal changes caused by technological systems is difficult to articulate. This theme will be continued later.

In exploring the two forms of consciousness—discursive and practical—we can split out the formalized structures of text based interaction and the tacit structures of everyday-interaction. Commentators such as McLuhan, Innis, Ong, Eisenstein, Weber, Chandler, and most notably Foucault have addressed the role of texts and articulated discourse at length. The rest of this piece will address the thornier issue of practical consciousness.

One approach for interpreting practical consciousness is to use Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. Bourdieu uses the analogy of an athlete to describe both the nature of the societal game we all play and the type of societal norms that are conditioned into us from an early age:

“Nothing is simultaneously freer and more constrained that the action of the good player. He quite naturally materializes at just the place the ball is about to fall, as if the ball were in command of him—but by that very fact, he is in command of the ball. The habitus, as society written into the body, into the biological individual, enables the infinite number of acts of the game—written into the game as possibilities and objective demands—to be produced; the constraints and demands of the game, although they are note restricted to a code of rules, impose themselves on those people—and those people alone—who, because they have a feel for the game, a feel, that is, for immanent necessity of the game are prepared to receive them and carry them out.” (Bourdieu, 1990)

Bourdieu is quite clear that the societal game that we play is shaped by our habitus and may be completely invisible to people from different societies our cultures. Practical consciousness is therefore limited to particular practices that have stabilized in very particular local settings.

It should be noted that both Bourdieu and Giddens eschew functionalist or structuralist approaches typical of sociologist such as Marx, Durkheim, or Weber. Instead, their theories rest in the actual practices of everyday life. The work of Berger and Luckman presages much of the later work of Bourdieu and Giddens with a focus on practice, “typifications” of interpersonal encounters, and language. According to the authors, “…the sociology of knowledge must first of all concern itself with what people 'know' as 'reality' in their everyday, non- or pre-theoretical lives. In other words, commonsense 'knowledge' rather than 'ideas' must be the central focus for the sociology of knowledge.” (Berger & Luckmann, 1966 p. 14) They also indicate the primacy of language for interpreting and understanding social functions:

“The common language available to me for the objectification of my experiences in grounded in everyday life and keeps pointing back to it even as I employ it to interpret experiences in finite provinces of meaning. Typically, therefore, I 'distort' the reality of the latter as soon as I begin to use the common language in interpreting them, that is, I 'translate' the non-everyday experiences back in the paramount reality of everyday life.” (p. 25)

This focus on language and daily practice could be described as “social constructionism”.

While the discursive and the practical seem to occupy different realms, there are times when the two seem to approach a common vanishing point where it becomes difficult to distinguish between them. Harre and Langenhove, for example, discuss positioning theory as a means of understanding direct social interaction using discursive structures:

“Within such a persons/acts referential grid, the social realm can be pictured as composed of three basic processes: conversations and other close-order symbolic exchanges, institutional practices and the uses of societal rhetorics; all forms of discursive practices.” (Harré & Lagenhove, 1999 p. 15)

These direct interactions are exercises of power and just as ballplayers negotiate for strategic location, so we all search for discursive position. This discursive collision is inherent in much of the work on social constructionsim. Burr, for example, states: “Discourses are not simply abstract ideas, ways of talking about and representing thing that, as it were, float like balloons far above the real world. Discourses are intimately connected to the way that society is organized and run.” (Burr, 1995 p. 54) Integrating this fission between social and discourse, or practical and discursive represents a major challenge to LIS.

One approach of overcoming this shoot-out between practical and discursive while simultaneously incorporating physical artifacts that have a crucial role in structuration is actor-network theory (ANT). A creation of Latour, Law, and Callon, ANT suggests that a variety of different actors constantly interact within a particular network. They extend their framework beyond just human actors but to all material “actants” within a system. According to Law, ““…actor-network theory may be understood as a semiotics of materiality. It takes the semiotic insight, that of the relationality of entities, the notion that they are produced in relations, and applies this ruthlessly to all materials—and not simply to those that are linguistic. This suggests: first that it shares something important with Michel Foucault’s work; second that it may be usefully distinguished form those versions of post-structuralism that attend to language and language alone; and third (if one likes this kind of grand narrative) that it expresses the ruthlessness that has often been associated with the march of modernity…” (Law, 1999 p. 4)

ANT, of course, isn’t without its limitations. Fox (2000), for example, argues for greater unification between the theories of Foucault, ANT, and the notion of “communities of practice” (COP) as espoused by authors such as Wenger (1998). Inherent in Fox’s discussion are two different vectors of argument. The first posits that ANT incorporates a fairly static notion of the network in which actors exert influence over one another through various tactics. From a COP perspective, however, positions within the network are dynamic and depend on issues like apprenticeship and tenure. From the ANT perspective, however, is the notion of enteressement or recruitment. ANT does little to articulate this process. While the discursive processes of recruitment have been articulated by authors such as Star and Greisemer (1999 [1989]) and particularly Fujimara (1992), COP provides an avenue for understanding the practical aspects of enteressement.

As noted earlier, there could be non-human actants—such as genres—within a particular ANT. These actants are themselves the result of a particular process of creation involving any number of different actants. Understanding these issues is the task of sociotechnical systems (STS) theory.

While I won’t discuss STS in this space, van House (2004) provides a thorough review of STS that discusses such concepts as ANT, social construction of technology (SCOT), epistemic cultures, feminist epistemology, and symbolic interactionism. Van House recounts some common themes in these studies: knowledge is social, knowledge is situated, knowledge is material and the means of representation are deleted, the research takes an activist stance. She also recounts some information science aspects of STS: social informatics, information systems as heterogeneous networks, infrastructure, boundary objects, classification systems, and “configuration of the user”.

STS itself, however, has limitations. Having developed out of functionalist and structuralist approaches of sociology that tended to blackbox various aspects of a sociotechnical system, STS has similarly been accused of constructing (smaller) black boxes. As noted by Kaghan and Bowker (2001), the functionalist approaches often produce constructs that mask the type of articulation work or heterogeneous engineering required to keep these systems together. ANT offers a way of understanding these various relations and interpreting how the different actants use articulation to “act at a distance.”


Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). From rules to strategies. In In other words : essays towards a reflexive sociology (pp. 59-75). Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Burr, V. (1995). An introduction to social constructionism. New York: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish : the birth of the prison (2nd Vintage Books ed.). New York: Vintage Books.

Fox, S. (2000). Communities of practice, Foucault and actor-network theory. Journal of Management Studies, 37(6), 853-867.

Fujimara, J. H. (1992). Crafting science: Standardized packages, boundary objects, and "translation". In A. Pickering (Ed.), Science as practice and culture (pp. 168-211). Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press.

Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society : outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Polity Press.

Harré, R., & Lagenhove, L. v. (1999). Positioning theory : moral contexts of intentional action. Oxford ; Malden, Mass: Blackwell.

Kaghan, W. N., & Bowker, G. C. (2001). Out of machine age?: complexity, sociotechnical systems and actor network theory. Journal of Engineering and Technology Management, 18(3-4), 253-269.

Law, J. (1999). After ANT: complexity, naming, and topology. In J. Law & J. Hassard (Eds.), Actor network theory and after (pp. 1-14). Oxford [England] ; Malden, MA: Blackwell/Sociological Review.

Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. R. (1999 [1989]). Institutional ecology, "translations" and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. In M. Biagioli (Ed.), The science studies reader (pp. 503-524). New York; London: Routledge.

van House, N. A. (2004). Science and technology studies and information studies. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 38, 3-86.

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

Yates, J., & Orlikowski, W. J. (1992). Genres of organizational communication - a structurational approach to studying communication and media. Academy of Management Review, 17(2), 299-326.


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