Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Dissertation: new thoughts

Every once and awhile I feel that I have to reorient myself within my dissertation direction. This is one of those times. I need to figure out where I am and where I’m going.

Q1: What is my dissertation topic?

I’m studying how technical handbooks came to be. The reaction I get to my topic is often: “why on earth would you want do study that? Who cares!?” At this point I have to suppress my anger and go through the whole justification. The first point that I bring up is that my study of handbooks has less to do with a static history of books than with the interaction of people and documentary forms. People often react and mention that books are books. I would say that this sort of response is quite uninformed. Recent movements in physical anthropology have pushed aggressively against this stance and have emphasized how important it is to understand how particular material forms get stabilized through the actions and behaviors of people. This notion seems to be lacking in LIS. Sure, we discuss the importance of social forces in constructing that much bandied term “information” but when it comes to documentary forms, we’re mum. Even in the tradition of the history of the book, we look at cycles of production in which books are situated like some sort of non-dynamic volleyball passed back and forth among various actors. My position is that we need to subject this volleyball to greater scrutiny; the actual cycle of the ball isn’t as of much interest as how the ball actually came to be.

Technical documentation is an interesting topic of study for a number of other reasons. One of the problems with studying books is our notion that books sit on shelves and act as repositories of knowledge. Through the use of bibliographic tools, this knowledge can be called back from the edge of oblivion and put into some sort of use. I’m thinking of a different understanding of documentary forms, one that mixes humans and non-humans together. For example, to write I basically need a computer. Sure, I can write in long hand if pushed but it’s a completely different experience. Similarly, there are any number of documentary forms that act as technologies that are deeply embedded in practice. Workplace studies researchers have focused on the air traffic control chart or the doctor’s chart but both of these documentary forms still have some bibliographic aspect i.e., a patient’s chart is stored and requires recall. Technical handbooks, on the other hand, are often an instrumental part of practice. There are a number of accounts describing how a work such as Architectural Graphic Standards actually gets worn out with use. So that’s the first idol that I’m attacking: the notion that document use is part of a bibliographic cycle.

The second idol I’m attacking is the notion of truth. In discussing technical handbooks people immediately turn to that body of research known as science studies and to researchers such as Latour and Knorr-Cetina. Much of their work is about the creation of “truth” and the importance of the documentary forms for establishing and maintaining claims. Frohmann has recently used this body of literature to “deflate” the LIS concept of information. As part of his argument he notes that much journal literature goes completely unnoticed and unread. This idea of the unread journal article stands in stark contrast to the account of the technical manual that is falling apart from over-use. Furthermore, it could be argued that technical hand books actually make no claims at truth at all. Either they information they contain is so black-boxed and such a part of practice that there is no discussion regarding whether it is truthful or not; it just is. Other representations clearly are not truth in that they obviously don’t exist. An idealized representation of the forces in a beam or of the components of a foundation quite clearly doesn’t represent a real thing. Rather, it represents a potential thing. And the interpretive community is okay with this. Indeed, they seem to expect this. So this notion of documents that get worn out with daily use, live on the desk top and not on the shelf, and that don’t make claims of truth seems to be a new entity for LIS studies.

Technical handbooks have one more interesting feature. They are largely visual in that they make use of highly visual forms such as technical drawings and illustrations and abstract forms such as nomographs, tables, and graphs. Interpreting these forms requires knowledge of the particular genre. The genre is not, however, literary. Rather, it is visual. My focusing on documents created using a primarily visual genre I can avoid much of the heated rhetoric surrounding “literacy” and our ongoing Victorian hangover with the pre-eminence of the word.

Q2: How are you going to do it?

So my research question is: “How did these things come to be?” This is a question of stabilization of a particular material form. I intent to use the theoretical approach of SCOT. I’ll go into greater detail about SCOT at a later date. My basic approach will be to study two very different epochs of technical handbooks bookended by major advances in literary technology namely the introduction of the printing press and the advent of the Internet. I will explore the technical handbooks of the 16th century and one of the most popular handbooks of our own day: Architectural Graphic Standards. Splitting my research across these two era evokes Latour’s metaphor of the Janus face of science: the messy and contingent image of science currently in the making, and the refined and sterile image of science that has been made as demonstrated by the journal literature. SCOT involves attention to the various interpretive communities that interact with a particular material artifact and act to stabilize the artifact’s form. There’s one problem with discussions of community and that’s the problem of classification. As so thoroughly demonstrated by Bowker and Star, carving up the world into communities is a pretty difficult task. SCOT is susceptible to this criticism in two ways. As demonstrated by [some guy who wrote about mountain bikes], it is exceedingly difficult to apply SCOT to technologies that are too recent to have developed a stable discourse. While the material form itself may be relatively stable, the discourse communities that SCOT employs are difficult—if not impossible—to determine. Similarly, determining the discourse communities of a past era is equally difficult. As demonstrated by Darnton’s Great Cat Massacre, it is difficult for us to determine the structure and communities of historical book production from our vantage in the twenty-first century. My intention is to establish robustness in my finding my comparing and contrasting these two eras in order to pull threads of commonality. My hope is that hypotheses established from the study of one period can be tested against the findings from the other period.

SCOT doesn’t completely address the question of how. It only touches on the meta-how. Traditionally, SCOT had been used along with narrative history to establish insights. While I certainly support the use of history my intention is also to turn to the actual documentary forms—or at least high quality reproductions with all of their limitations—to explore the changes. As demonstrated by physical anthropology, material forms emerge for a reason. Admittedly, some changes are due to random or blind variation but those forms that stabilize do so because they work. In addition to general historical work, I will look at the commonalities and differences in the documentary forms to see what works in hopes of explicating the reason. By splitting my interest across two periods I have access to a fairly long period of evolution. To actually study the documents I will use a method that Rose has called “Discourse Analysis I”.

Q3: Is that it?

Yeah. That’s it. I’m amazed that the months of anguish that I’ve squeezed into this topic has left me with such a short statement. Go figure.

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