Sunday, March 27, 2005

Moving to method

After spending some time considering why I want to do the dissertation thing that I want to do, it’s time to start shifting to the how. There are two aspects to the how—as there probably is to most things. There is the big how, and the little how. The big how relates to methodology and the little how to method. The importance of separating methodology and method has been recognized for qualitative research in general (Potter, 1996) and particularly for LIS studies (Wilson, 2002).

The big how is related to my belief that material artifacts bear within them traces evident of the social system in which they were produced. A book, therefore, bears within it not just inscriptions for conveying some sort of information. It also contains the traces of all the other books that have come before it. Furthermore, the features and characteristics of the modern book exist for a reason. From an evolutionary view of technology, if the features hadn’t been beneficial, they would have disappeared. In addressing the big, we have to first open up the black box of the book.

Traditional studies on the history of the book have viewed the book as a black box. Darnton’s (1983) depiction of the book, for example, features the book as an artifact that is passed around between various actors (i.e., the author, the publisher, the reader, etc.) It these studies we get detailed accounts of the backgrounds of the various actors and we get some sense of the interaction between them. In a sense, it’s like watching a rugby game. But instead of actually seeing the movement of the ball, we only get the commercial breaks where the commentators talk at length about the backgrounds of the players. We never actually get to see the game play. When we do get to see the ball being passed around, the camera zooms in unbearably close so that we can learn a great deal about the stitching on the ball and the particular manner in the way it was constructed. Either way, we miss the game.

Recent movements in physical anthropology would suggest that our rugby players don’t solely dictate the outcome of the game. Notions of “material agency” have leaked into our perspectives so that not only the players, but also the ball, the field, and the weather all have an important role to play (as every good bookie knows). The interaction between these actants determines not just the outcome of the game but also the ensuing development of the game. In the case of rugby, the players change as the ball changes, and the dimensions of the field may adjust to accommodate the features of particular players.

The scenario is no different when it comes to documents. Not only have documents adapted to the requirements of individuals (e.g., codices, chapbooks, typographic characteristics, etc), but humans adapt given the affordances of documents (e.g., air traffic control, engineers and drawings, options traders, etc.). While as individuals we may not have evolved to accommodate print by sporting third arms specialized for page turning, our social practices certainly have. The prime example of a human social practice adapted to documentation is science and it’s primary centralizing practice: the creation of documentation.

In our studies it becomes important to look beyond just the document to the practices of document creation. While this point has been made quite thoroughly by Frohmann (2004a; 2004b) for LIS, there is a similar body of work emerging in physical anthropology and archaeology. Marcia Anne Dobres (2000), for example, maintains that the study of documentation must move beyond just the classification of artifacts to embrace the “social agency” inherent in document production:

"In essence, (the study of social agency) requires developing conceptual, methodological, and interpretive ways to look past objects, artifact patterns, and activities in order to bring into focus subjects, artifice, and agency." (1)

Central to Dobres’s thesis is the notion of practice. She claims that in order to breakdown the black box of artifacts and to move beyond blunt descriptions of material culture we must embrace the complete cycle of artifact creation, use, and destruction. If she was to study our rugby game she would encourage us to explore not just the histories of the players but how their histories were effected by other changes in the various actants in the game. Instead of just describing the stitching of the ball, she would attempt to explore the social reason for the changes in the stitching. For books, she might explore not just Darnton’s cycle of production in narrative terms but the notions of social agency that explain the changes in the production of the artifacts. Dobres claims that our studies of process and material culture simply create the black boxes that distort perception and frustrate further growth of science:

“To put this bluntly: the conceptual erasure of the process of becoming is what enables the conceptual transformation of human subjects and their technological practices into inert and reified objects of study (entities) by seemingly dispassionate, objective observers (be they materials scientists or archaeologists).” (pg. 82)

Of key importance to the work of Dobres is the material artifact. Dobres moves beyond simply assigning each artifact a place in a particular classification schema and attempts to position it within a particular “chain of operations”. It is this chain that demonstrates the social function of each artifact by providing the required context.

Technical artifacts, however, are very different from natural objects. While Dobres clearly demonstrates that the “chain of operations” imposes a type of evolutionary pressure on artifacts, the process of evolution is highly different from a natural process. Instead of nature determining the evolutionary fitness landscape, technical artifacts are subject to a set of evolutionary forces imposed by man. Similarly, the process of change and evolution isn’t necessarily one of blind variation but is imposed by the whims and creativity of homo faber. Man does not just live in his environment but he creates it. His environment, in turn, creates him in a constant process of becoming. In this way, all technical artifacts bear the traces of those that have gone before. As noted by the historian of science, George Basalla:

“Any new things that appears in the made world is based on some object already in existence.” (Basalla, 1988 pg. 4)

Books are no different from other made things. Each book has a history and each genre has a pedigree from those documents that have gone before it. While my primary focus is not on those documents that we store in archives but rather on those that we wear out with use, the human predilection for locking up documents in libraries has certain advantages. When it comes to technical manuscripts and handbooks, we know have a great wealth of material object that contain within them the vestigial traces of the social practices that created them and came before them. My position is that the technical handbooks of the late Renaissance—the works of Besson, and Ramelli—contain features that were driven by the social processes of their time. Their “chain of operations” is still inherent in their features. Furthermore, as progenitors of the genre, the features that they introduced and popularized are still buried within our current technical handbooks.

The purpose of my study is to explore how technical handbooks stabilized as documentary forms. My intention is to explore handbooks from two distinctive eras—immediately after the introduction of the printing press and in the last fifty years prior to the popularization of the Internet. The handbooks of question are the works of Jacques Besson and Augustino Ramelli, and the various editions of Ramsay and Sleeper’s Architectural Graphic Standards. The reason for using artifacts from two specific eras is described in additional detail in section xxx.

The artifacts themselves will be subject to analysis to determine commonalities and unique features of each specific document. By comparing the features of documents from two eras, I can develop hypotheses through the analysis of documents from one era and test them against the documents of another era. I intend to use an iterative process of analysis to establish how the documentary for of the technical handbook has been stabilized.

The specific method to be used for analyzing the document is a particular form of discourse analysis for visual materials developed by Gillian Rose (2001). Her approach calls for paying close attention to various features of visual representations such as the ways in which a group of images addresses complexity or contradictions, and what aspects are inherently missing from the representation. Rose’s approach is complimentary to the position of other researchers such as Bijker or Dobres since Rose sees discourses as fundamentally rooted in social practices:

“Since discourses are seen as socially produced rather than created by individuals, this type of discourse analysis is especially concerned with the social modality of an image site. In particular, discourse analysis explores how these specific views or accounts are constructed as real or truthful or natural through particular regimes of truth.” (pg. 140)

Discourse analysis is typically applied to explore how documents are used to create “truth”. The study of technical handbooks presents a unique extension to such an application of discourse analysis. Unlike the discourse of science, technical handbooks aren’t necessarily about constructing truth so much as constructing the possible. Some of Besson’s figures, for example, clearly do not represent an invention that has already been realized. Instead, Besson represents an artifact that possibly could be. Besson used the various tropes of visual rhetoric of a medium in order to create this sense of naturaleness or possibility. The reasons for Besson’s behavior are within the purview of this study.

In summary, Rose provides a number of strategies for those wishing to use a discourse analysis method on visual materials:

  1. Looking at your sources with fresh eyes.

  2. Immersing yourself in you sources.

  3. Identifying key themes in your sources.

  4. Examining their effects of truth.

  5. Paying attention to their complexity and contradictions.

  6. Looking for the invisible as well as the visible.

  7. Paying attention to details. (pg 158)

While discourse analysis may be a valuable technique for analyzing resources, the researchers must always be conscious of reflexivity. Not only is the research analyzing a discourse—and perhaps creating a discourse simply through the process of naming it one—they are also creating a new meta-discourse that is susceptible to the same sorts of criticisms and concerns. To address this concern, Rose also supplies a “list of things to consider” for writing up a discourse analysis based on visual material:

  1. Using detailed textual or visual evidence to support your analysis.

  2. Using textual or visual details to support your analysis.

  3. The coherence the study gives to the discourse examined.

  4. The coherence of the analysis itself.

  5. The coherence of the study in relation to previous related research.

  6. The examination of cases that run counter to the discursive norm established by the analysis, in order to affirm the disruption caused by such deviations. (pg. 161)

By splitting my analysis across two specific temporal periods, the method presented herein addresses not only the limitations inherent in studies of scientific processes—i.e., the “Janus-face” of science described by Latour—and the criticisms of SCOT as a research method, but provides opportunities for assessing the coherence of the study. Aspects of discourse discovered through the study of one period can be assessed through study of the second time period. Study of the two periods may reveal both discrepancies and commonalities that must be accounted for.

A limited amount of study has been conducted on the periods in question. The theatrum machinarum, for example, have been subject to a great deal of study using narrative approaches but very little has been done on their discursive role. In contrast, several studies have explored the discourse of Architectural Graphic Standards (Hosey, 2001; Johnston, 1988), but this work is primarily limited to how the works construct gender. Indeed, most of the extant work relates primarily to the plates on the dimensions of the human body. Combining research on these two eras represents a rigorous way of gaining insights into the ways in which technical handbooks stabilized as technical objects.


Basalla, G. (1988). The evolution of technology. Cambridge [England] ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Darnton, R. (1983). What is the history of the book? In Books and society in history, Papers of the Association of College and Research Libraries Rare Book and Manuscripts Preconference, 24-28 June, 1980, Boston, Mass.

Dobres, M.-A. (2000). Technology and social agency : outlining a practice framework for archaeology. Oxford, UK ; Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers.

Frohmann, B. (2004a). Documentation redux: Prolegomenon to (another) philosophy of information. Library Trends, 52(3), 387-407.

Frohmann, B. (2004b). The multiplicities of documentation. Paper presented at the DOCAM 2004, Berkeley, CA.

Hosey, L. (2001). Hidden lines : Gender, race, and body in Graphic Standards. Journal of Architectural Education, 55(2), 101-112.

Johnston, G. B. (1988). Gardens of architecture: Relections on the plates of Architectural Graphic Standards. In R. Miller (Ed.), Implementing architecture. Atlanta GA: Architecture Society of Atlanta.

Potter, W. J. (1996). An analysis of thinking and research about qualitative methods. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Rose, G. (2001). Visual methodologies : an introduction to the interpretation of visual materials. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.

Wilson, T. D. (2002). Alfred Schutz, phenomenology and research methodology for information behaviour research. The New Review of Information Behaviour Research, 3, 71-81.


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