Thursday, March 11, 2004

Engaging Men in Preventing Family Violence: An Information-centric Approach

I have been putting considerable thought into a particular topic: how to engage men in the cause of preventing domestic violence. I'm not talking about those guys who have run afoul of the legal system but regular guys who pay their taxes and like a few beers on the weekends. What can we do to get them off the couch?

My interest in this topic is a bit different from those of psychologists and sociologists. While I have a personal interest--I volunteer at the organization Changing Ways--my interest is also professional and I'm particularly concerned with the information we use in our attempts to engage men. Instead of using the individual (i.e., psychology) or social group (i.e., sociology) as my unit of study, I intend to use information.

Many of the existing models for engaging men in this cause depend heavily on information. The White Ribbon Campaign and the Family Violence Prevention Fund both offer a resources on engaging men. These resources largely consist of pamphlets. In our information science lingo, these pamphlets are certainly "information-as-thing" and the assumption in the violence community seems to be that if we inject enough pamphlets into the lives of everyday guys that they will become infected with a desire to become really involved in preventing domestic violence issues. I suspect, however, that most of these guys have already been culturally inoculated by years of feminist rhetoric that blamed men for... well, everything.

Before I get flamed mercilessly about being a misogynist, I want to say that I am a feminist and that I believe in social equity. I also feel, however, that our education campaigns have done a disservice in that men now often assume that fighting domestic violence is a women's issue and that they have no place in the discussion. Indeed, some of the education materials seem to address men as if their sex is a pathology that has caused domestic violence. While this pathology may exist, the rhetorical style does little to overcome the cultural inoculation many men may now experience.

To engage men, we have to meet them where they are. Part of this is understanding where this location actually is. How can we create materials that will establish cognitive authority if we don't know what the everyday experience of men really is? Unfortunately, determining this everyday experience is incredibly tough. As Michel de Certeau said: "At some point we're all minorities."

My thinking gets a bit fuzzy at this point but I want to lay out a brief outline of my ideas:

1- Understand the social rituals of men and create appropriate materials that are consistent with this world view. Many of the existing materials treat men as deviants. People want to associate themselves with normalcy (whatever that is) so we must determine this normal condition in order to establish the cognitive authority of our materials.

2- With cognitive authority established, we can begin to label and construct the typical male identity, the male as minority.

3- With a dogma and identity established, we can begin a process of deconversion. As noted in the theological literature, deconversion is often more important than conversion to.

4- I suspect that as part of this deconversion process, men will experience a "critical moment" when they embrace a different sort of belief structure i.e., like a religious conversion or coming out of sexual identity.

5- Following conversion, there is another process of establishing and maintaining cognitive authority.

Somehow, this all seems to map onto Prochaska's Trans-Theoretical Model. I'm just not sure how. Perhaps the best approach is to try to determine the context of the critical moments experienced by men involved in these sorts of issues.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Plastic vs. plastic

There are a few sites that I make a point of checking regularly: Resource Shelf, Wired News, Slashdot, and—my favourite—Plastic. Plastic’s tagline is “Recycling the Web in Real Time” and their combination of erudite critique and discussions make for an interesting reading experience. The best description of this new reading experience was provided by Roland Barthes in an essay about… er, plastic:

“So, more than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation; as its everyday name indicates, it is ubiquity made visible. And it is this, in fact, which makes it a miraculous substance: a miracle is always a sudden transformation of nature. Plastic remains impregnated throughout this wonder: it is less a thing than the trace of movement.” (Barthes, [1957] 2002 pg. 306)

The transformation of the medium inherent in blogging makes for a truly unique reading experience. Through reprocessing and commenting, Plastic makes the news interesting and inherently relevant.

Of course, the malleability of the medium also presents limitations. With a nod to Baudrillard, blogs are incredibly ephemeral due to the semiotic morass of the Internet. Barthes again provides relevant commentary in his discussion on plastic:

"But the price to be paid for this success is that plastic, sublimated as movement, hardly exists as a substance. Its reality is a negative one: neither hard nor deep, it must be content with a 'substantial' attribute which is neutral in spite of its utilitarian advantages: resistance, a state which merely means an absence of yielding. In the hierarchy of the major poetic substances, it figures as a disgraced material, lost between the effusiveness of rubber and the flat hardness of metal; it embodies none of the genuine produce of the material world: foam, fibers, strata. It is a 'shaped' substance: whatever its final state, plastic keeps a flocculent appearance, something opaque, creamy and curdled, something powerless ever to achieve the triumphant smoothness of Nature." (Barthes, [1957] 2002 Pg. 306)

One aspect missing from Barthes’s discussion is the historiography of plastic. He treats plastic as if it has always existed and is a fundamental part of human existence. The history of plastic, however, yields some interesting insights into the formation of any technological structure, even Plastic.

Wiebe Bijker has written extensively about the earliest plastic: Bakelite. In his discussion he stresses the importance of factors that Barthes would consider incidental to the actual material of plastic, namely the social structure and technological paradigm required to stabilize the artifact of Bakelite:

"Synchronously with the stabilization of the artefact Bakelite and the formation of a social group of producers, a technological frame came into being. Thus the system of artefact, social group, and technological frame gains technological momentum." (Bijker, 1987 pg. 176)

So while plastic—and Plastic—may be a disgraced material with little semantic relevance in our modern simulacra, the social structures and technological frames in which it’s embedded may be considerably more relevant… or not.


Barthes, R. ([1957] 2002). Plastic. In B. Highmore (Ed.), The everyday life reader (pp. 305-307). London ; New York: Routledge.
Bijker, W. E. (1987). The Social Construction of Bakelite: Toward a Theory of Invention. In W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes & T. J. Pinch (Eds.), The Social construction of technological systems : new directions in the sociology and history of technology (pp. 159-187). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

A Manifesto For Information System Design

Upon rereading a particular paper, I realized that the pull quotes seemed like a manifesto for system development.

“Because they are invented and developed by system builders and their associates, the components of technological systems are socially constructed artefacts.” Pg. 52

“Because components of a technological system interact, their characteristics derive from the system.” Pg. 52

“Because organizational components, conventionally labelled social, are system-builder creations, or artefacts, in a technological system, the convention of designating social factors as the environment, or context, of a technological system should be avoided.” Pg. 52

“Over time, technological systems manage increasingly to incorporate environment into the system, thereby eliminating sources of uncertainty, such as a once free market.” Pg. 53

“Technological systems solve problems or fulfill goals using whatever means are available and appropriate; the problems have to do mostly with reordering the physical world in ways considered useful or desirable, at least by those designing or employing a technological system.” Pg. 53

“Technological systems are bounded by the limits of control exercised by artifactual and human operators.” Pg. 54

“Inventors, industrial scientists, engineers, managers, financiers, and workers are components of but not artefacts in the system.” Pg. 54

“A crucial function of people in technological systems, besides their obvious role in inventing, designing, and developing systems, is to complete the feedback loop between system performance and system goal and in so doing to correct errors in system performance.” Pg. 54

“In a large technological system there are countless opportunities for isolating subsystems and calling them systems for purposes of comprehension and analysis. In so doing, however, one rends the fabric of reality and may offer only a partial, or even distorted, analysis of system behaviour.” Pg. 55

“During invention and development inventor-entrepreneurs solve critical problems; during innovation, competition, and growth manager-entrepreneurs make crucial decisions; and during consolidation and rationalization financier-entrepreneurs and consulting engineers, especially those with political influence, often solve the critical problems associated with growth and momentum.” Pg. 57

“Because radical inventions do not contribute to the growth of existing technological systems, which are presided over by, systematically linked to, and financially supported by larger entities, organizations rarely nurture a radical invention.” Pg. 57-58

“Radical inventions often deskill workers, engineers, and managers, wipe out financial investments, and generally stimulate anxiety in large organizations. Large organizations sometimes reject the inventive proposals of the radical as technically crude and economically risky, but in so doing they are simply acknowledging the character of the new and radical.” Pg. 59


Hughes, T. P. (1987). The Evolution of Large Technological Systems. In W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes & T. J. Pinch (Eds.), The Social construction of technological systems : new directions in the sociology and history of technology (pp. 51-85). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.