Monday, May 01, 2006

A great new book

I recently read a very interesting book by Silvia Gherardi, Organizational Knowledge: The Texture of Workplace Learning. Gherardi is an Italian sociologist at the University of Trento. The book is part of a body of work known as practice-based research in which analysis of cognition and mind are displaced by analysis of “practice.” Practice is a slippery concept, and definitions vary, but it has to do with stable routine enactments in which human and non-human elements interact.

In a moment I will say why I think the practice-based approach is problematic, but first I want to say how extraordinarily nuanced and insightful Gherardi’s analysis of workplace learning is. She studied safety practices in the Italian construction industry, focusing primarily on tradesmen, but also discussing organizational approaches to safety. She chose an in-depth case study methodology, collaborating with a young male researcher who could apprentice in the industry (which as a female she could not readily do).

Gherardi developed the idea of the “situated curriculum” by which she means learning as a localized practice in which “content is closely related to the specific set of local, material, economic, symbolic, and social characteristics of the field of practices and work activities.” She contrasts this view with Lave and Wenger’s “learning curriculum” which is a more generic concept having to do with the learning practices of a profession at large.

Gherardi states that “The situated curriculum…exhibits an erratic, context-dependent, redundant, event-based and largely non-linear sequence where what to do, how to do it (and how to do it skillfully) are taught on an experiential basis and the novice ‘learns the ropes’ of the trade by imitation and contact with practitioners.” The key words for me here are “event-based” and “contact with practitioners.” It is in the minutiae of specific work events enacted in contact with practitioners that workplace learning happens.

This understanding nicely undercuts the illusion of “knowledge management” that attempts to bottle knowledge up in databases. As corporations lay off workers or outsource operations to less experienced and more isolated workers they hope to cash in on the expertise workers have built up over years of learning in the situated curriculum. Gherardi shows this is no more realistic than a cargo cult in New Guinea (although she does not use this analogy).

Gherardi’s analysis contains the surprising revelation that many senior workers did not want to reveal their expertise within the situated curriculum! And one novice was given same task over and over again limiting his learning. This realism was a breath of fresh air. Much of the analysis from the various “situated” camps deletes such dislocations, endorsing informal learning as superior to other forms. Gherardi shows how the formal training of the construction workers was a complement to the informal and became a critical resource. Gherardi presents the situated curriculum honestly, warts and all, making the concept much more useful for application as well as theory.

That’s the part of the book that was most most valuable for me. The larger project of advancing a practice-based sociology seems less useful. In the service of slaying the demons of the “rational decision maker” and AI, the practice approach eschews concepts of mind and subject. This is pretty drastic surgery for a non-fatal condition.

Gherardi says that practice-based analysis gives priority to practices over individuals, that even a collective subject is no good but we must attend to “sets of seeing, doing, and saying.” The concept of intentionality is rejected – perhaps it is too much like the rational decision maker? Gherardi advises that with the practice approach we need not worry about what’s going on in people’s heads or what they intend. We are also supposed to give up communication and language in favor of “discursive practices” which are identifiable patterned verbal interactions.

In practice-based theory we have lost our minds but gained our bodies, which are made visible in the theoretical discourse. For example, Gherardi says, “Craft trade requires trained bodies – ones, that is, which have incorporated an expertise or connoisseurship. It is through the body that ‘an eye’ for something [is developed].” The trained body is seen as an antidote to cognitivism and rationality.

While I agree that craft trades require trained bodies, I have some problems with this statement. First, the mind and body are not separate. Except for processes such as digestion the mind is required for what the body does. Practice theorists are engaged with the level of human activity at which the mind virtually always comes into play in working inseparably with the body. The practice approach has, rather amazingly, introduced mind-body dualism as a core principle.

Second, an emphasis on the bodies of others on the part of scholars who clearly have a vibrant mental life unnerves me. Those of us in the chattering classes know well that it is our abilities to spin original-sounding utterances that are not just same old discursive practices that earn our bread and butter. And our bodies can be flabby sorry things (although let me say that Gherardi is a trim stylish Italian) with very little training in evidence. So another dualism seems to be inadvertently advanced – those whose bodies must be trained for work and those who work with their, er, minds. A theory that only attends to learning in one set of occupations is not the general theory of learning we need.

Third, Gherardi says we can’t know others’ intentions and therefore they should be outside analysis. But how can we know a trained body? Gherardi quotes construction workers who invoke the body in their descriptions of how they work, but one could just as easily do that with quotes about intentions. (I’ve done it myself many times.) The rejection of mind in the practice-based approach is something more fundamental than a methodological maneuver.

I can’t help but feel a sort of puritanism in the practice-based approach. Mind is a natural phenomenon yet we must give it up as though it were an unspeakable excess, along with subject, communication, and language. See Schatzki, The Practice-based Turn in Contemporary Theory for other practice-based analysis that asks similar sacrifices of us.

I find myself in the position I often find myself in upon reading a serious work such as Gherardi’s – wondering if maybe we should just stick to mid-range theories grounded in ethnographic observation. It is there that so much insightful work seems to be done such as Gherardi’s development of the concept of the situated curriculum. Though I disagree with the practice-based approach in many ways, I will nonetheless be using Gherardi’s more grounded concepts in my research on learning in online games.

I hope I have suggested some of the reasons for reading this excellent book despite my misgivings about its larger framing. Another reason to read Organizational Knowledge: The Texture of Workplace Learning is that Gherardi is extremely well-read and you can learn a lot by reading it. I found literature in the book that no one else seems to cite that Gherardi not only cites but explains and contextualizes. Gherardi’s courteous but critical analyses of many bodies of literature are woven through the text in a lovely pattern, providing insightful discussions of varied streams of research. She makes it look easy, but years of careful thought and reflection have gone into this book. Organizational Knowledge is itself as richly textured as the workplace learning practices Gherardi documents.


Blogger museumfreak said...

Hi Bonnie,

I've been wanting to talk with you at more length on the practice theory thing, so this provides an excellent moment to do it. I'm very exhausted, so take this for what it's worth.

I'm somewhat surprised to read this, because from my understanding practice theory and activity theory are not as far apart as they are apparently in yours. Granted, I've primarily read secondary texts and you have a much greater familiarity with the source texts (Vygotsky et al). I'm still struggling with many of the more theoretical aspects of activity theory--the applications make sense to me but not the core theory. After reading this I suspect that the part that is eluding me is the theory of mind aspect. Because most anthropological theory doesn't do much theory of mind and I wasn't initiated in cognitive science traditions, I'm sort of un-used to that kind of discourse.

My comments here refer to your post: I haven't read the book. I'm with you and Gherardi all the way on your critique of situated learning/situated curriculum. She's nailed it with this idea that the problem with situated learning is that learners and particularly teachers are often resistant to learning because of power dynamics that that particular theory has no real tools to handle. It is an idealized model that doesn't give us much room for thinking about a whole range of issues like disability and ability, race and gender, and even as you point out job security. Witness my graduate school experience . . . ;)

Coming from a viewpoint of linguistic anthropology, however, which has a lot of practice theory in it, I'm finding this "discursive practices" construct a little vague and kind of wondering where she got that idea from. The ONLY reason I would use that term is if I wanted to generalize to talking about both verbal and non-verbal communication. I certainly wouldn't use it to throw out fine-grained communicative practice analysis. Anyway, communities of practice were imported into linguistic anthropology specifically because the original model of speech community didn't allow for intra-group variation. Speech communities were a fine concept for linguists who wanted to use social phenomena to explain language, but didn't really work for linguistic anthropologists who are interested in using language to explain social phenomena, specifically in the realm of language and gender. Communities of practice, with their notions of core and peripheral participants, gave us more latitude to talk about the variation within speech communities. (See Penelope Eckert & Sally McConnell-Ginet's articles on this topic in AR Anth and Language in Society for a discussion at more length).

I personally really dig communities of practice for a nuanced qualitative approach to network analysis in online communities.

Surprisingly, you are going to get me to agree with you, at least for the moment, about the lack of a theory of mind being a drawback. Performance of identity through speech acts and other communicative practices is one of my pet theories, so this is surprising. To give a more concrete example; I have body mods, but they are almost never visible in daily living. I am thus a member of the body modification community of practice "internally," but my choice not to mark myself externally has consequences for me: namely, that I don't participate in the community in the same sense as someone with more visible mods might. Internally, of course, I do identify as a member of the community, and of course, because my reasons for participating in the community aren't essentially aesthetic. And I think you're right that this is a bit of a problem, because we have no way of tracking this sort of participation with this theory--or, really, I would like to point out, with traditional anthropological methods unless an informant makes us explicitly aware that there are people participating under this rubric. On the flip side of that, though, this raises the question of people who don't identify as participating in a particular community of practice and whether they are participants: for instance, is everyone with a medical condition disabled and thus required to participate in political action for PWDs? This is your classic "lurker" problem in internet research. CoP theory allows us to exclude unwilling participants; participation has to be active agency. So I'll totally buy that practice theory only allows us to think at the communicative practices, community, and metacommunicative practices level.

However, I'm still not entirely sure I can buy the external knowability of internal states . . . I've thought of myself as a diehard Wittgensteinian for years, and I'd love to see you give me a compelling argument for the other side. Every time I've seen an argument, it starts to veer off into assertions that can't be supported by data, and then we're not really practicing science or social science anymore.

What I DO NOT follow about your statements about giving up "mind" is that it then follows that we must give up subject, communication, and language. That seems to be a non sequitur and I'd appreciate explanation. I'm also not clear on your assertion that practice theory can't cover knowledge workers.

As an aside, I think the other serious drawback of both practice theory and as I understand it activity theory is that neither of them allows us to account for higher level things like moral, religious, and belief systems (which you could think of as individual mind on one level but as collective mind on another level) in community and in practice.

kathy mancuso

ps: janet kolodner is supposed to be teaching a topics course on Cognitive Science Foundations of Human Centered-Computing next year. i fired off an email to her asking if i could participate but haven't heard back. wish me luck! that would be so great.

12:04 AM  
Blogger Bonnie said...


Thanks for these great thoughts.

Mind is apparent in artifacts, interactions, body language, physical manifestations such as frowns or headaches, and just about everything. I don't think it's hard to study at all. Your post is clearly the result of a mind hard at work! The "internal states" argument is a red herring.

Gherardi said we have to give up subject, communication and language. It seems extreme, but sometimes theoretical positions are made clearer by being a little extreme. She is battling the rational decision make model.

Good point about moral and religious systems. Activity theory came out of work on work -- Marx et al. While "culture" is always part of the big picture, I don't see great conceptual tools in activity theory for dealing with it.

But I don't see great work on a theory of culture anywhere. I keep thinking if I understood Bourdieu better there might be something there -- any thoughts?

I'm not clear on how practice theory covers knowledge workers if the body is emphasized and the mind dowplayed. But please tell me what I'm missing!

7:17 AM  
Blogger museumfreak said...

Re "theory of culture": how are you defining culture here? Is this the old anthropologist's mainstay first-day-of-undergrad-class definition of culture, or is this culture in the sense of "culture and art"/"high culture," or is this culture in the sense of religion/moral constructs?

As for practice theory, you're picking on my anthropological "heritage," as it were, now. You're not going to like Bourdieu on practice, because he (with Mauss) is where the bodily association of the term habitus comes from. The problem with habitus as he defined it is that it ends up shutting down free will and agency, because practice configures habitus configures practice in this kind of eternal loop. A more productive route might be Sherry Ortner, then traced through some of the linguistic anthropologists who work in the field (Ochs, McConnell & Ginet, Schliefflin, Ahearn, Buchholtz). I think discussions of literacy practices, in particular, could be extended to cover knowledge workers because knowledge work is a specific kind of literacy practice. That brings us to my "direct lineage," to invoke the metaphor: Laura Ahearn. She published an article in the 2002 issue of AR Anth that covers agency and practice theory. There was also a Bourdieu article in AR Anth recently (like past two years).

As for the Wittgensteinian belief, my beliefs on that are partially informed by the way I'm wired. I've written about my wiring and about its relation to anthropology elsewhere, so I'm not going to go on that particular soapbox in your comments: I don't believe that the argument is a red herring--I need you to come up with better evidence than my post. Technically, you don't know anything about me. You can put together a vague idea--but for instance, do you even know if I have any kind of visible physical difference or marker of minority status (I'd be interested to know what your speculation is on that)? If I do, wouldn't that profoundly alter how I think? (Which I think is part of how to get out of Bourdieu's trap--habitus connects mind and body, but brain has ability to change body and body brain--just think about gender expression and how it can change as people move through subcultures!) But, if a visible physical disorder does, so does "different wiring" in the brain. I can almost guarantee you that your synapses don't fire in the same kinds of random patterns mine do. You don't know, and you can't assume, how wiring works.

Thank you so much for putting up this space. Seriously, I needed someplace (or at least a push) to discuss social theory.

12:35 AM  
Blogger Bonnie said...

Re theory of culture – yes, my undergrad days of Tylor et al.!


Culture ... is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. (p.1)

Or, try Boas:

Culture may be defined as the totality of the mental and physical reactions and activities that characterize the behavior of individuals composing a social group collectively and individually in relations to their natural environment, to other groups, to members of the group itself and of each individual to himself. It also includes the products of these activities and their role in the life of the groups. The mere enumerations of these various aspects of life, however, does not constitute culture. It is more, for its elements are not independent, they have a structure (p. 149)

K, sounds like Bourdieu is not going to work out for me.

By the way, I don’t want to eliminate the body – I want to keep it tied to mind. They are a unity.

Thanks for pointers to Ortner and Ahearn.

I know a lot about you because you are a good writer and I’ve read some of what you’ve written. I don’t know everything, I don’t know a lot, I don’t know much that is important. But I know something.

Re wiring, the issue is the way an individual’s psychology is expressed in the world and the way the world expresses itself in the individual’s psychology. Certainly wiring may come into play. Some of the old activity theorists were physiologists and very concerned with neurology.

Thanks for your great posts!

8:58 AM  
Blogger jenifer said...

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12:32 AM  

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