A use of linguistic analysis in design

15 July 2006 (Saturday)

Seeing a reference to Skinner & Behaviourism (about which I have to admit I know very little) in Animals in Translation, I began thinking about the notion that “all that can be studied is behaviour” and that any reference to internals is problematic. I find this a non-starter for any meaningful study or account of human behaviour. I wonder if you could try to argue that this approach is merely an extension of the attitude of Ethnomethodology (EM), which I respect, already has towards cognitive science and other forms of abstract theorizing – the rejection of up-front in-advance modeling of unstudiable phenomena like ‘mental processes’. However what you are doing with an EM-inspired approach to the study of human and social phenomena is (I think) to engage in a form of practical reasoning – what kind of an account can I give of this.

So let’s say someone says “I want to investigate memory”. A (cod, stereotyped) cognitive approach might start by postulating various mental models for memory and then start to devise some tests to test which of these different mental models is closest to ‘the actual mental model’. A behaviourist might reject the postulation, but would still focus on tests that might help to describe in highly objective terms “what’s going on”.

The problem with this formulation of the investigation is not just “what’s being missed” in the investigation but rather, what is being implied – or imputed. An EM approach on the contrary would begin with a critically important process of “Respecification” – calling into question the very subject in the first case.

One way of approaching respecification could be entirely linguistic. ‘What is “memory” anyway’ – it’s not like a chair or a table (and even those are very hard to study when you get to edge cases) which you run into – instead it is an implied phenomenon – it’s not even like “waving to a friend who you’ve spotted over the road”- which is a highly observable phenomenon. Instead it is an idea which carries lots of undisclosed baggage with it. “Memory” itself is can be studied as a word (“she has a good memory”, “I have a wonderful memory of that holiday” – shockingly different uses you must notice) – or wider as some form of concept – (especially in the negative: “I can’t remember where I put my keys” “I can remember meeting him but I can’t picture what he looks like” “I have no recollection of that conversation” “I forgot to put out the milk bottles”)… but again – what is it that is observable as a phenomenon?

At the core of this linguistic respecification will be transforming the object of study into a description of some observable studiable social phenomena – at this point so much so behaviourist. So suddenly we may be studying “people describing their favourite childhood memories to a group” or perhaps “people gathering their things as they leave their house or workplace (and perhaps forgetting, or just evidently making sure not to forget, some things)”.

Then if we go out and study (observe) these things (ethnographically, linguistically) we aim (and here a large degree of purely ethnographic/anthropological training comes in) not to be bringing to bear a large body of external presumptions, but instead aim to be in the situation long enough to use the same terms of reference that any individual in that situation might use (the so-called members’ competence). At this point the reasoning used to explain social phenomena is “simply” an unpacked version of the reasoning (the account) an individual might use to themself (if, it has to be said, one could come up with a locally valid reason for such a display of reasoning, accounting – in the somewhat playful term of EM – account-ability).

So coming back to the original question, the motivationg driver in EM is not a desire to be objective and external – rather the aim is to remain within the bounds of the social phenomenon itself and explain it for itself*. The crucial feature is the respecification, in which highly over- and pre-determined concepts (within the subject of investigation) are replaced with potentially observable phenomena – and a situation is prevented where the study starts to invent unsubstantiated phenomena because they are simply implied by the terms of research (a form of ‘begging the question’).

So how is this relevant to design of techologies and in particular what is done at Soda? In many cases we (designers, soda people) design and develop based on extrapolations of what people are already doing, most often using some form of iterative development- so there isn’t recourse to an external set of justifications and reasonings. Also we tend to focus on developing open ended tools with somewhat ruthless simplifications where we’re giving over a large degree of the working out not just how to use, but what to use, to the first set of users…

At the same time computational research is littered with people trying to do something such as “devices to give meeting support” or “a technological memory aide” – and it’s clear that in these research projects the notion of what meetings are is always always presumed, and the research then is focused on trying to come up with how we could support that work, including doing observational/ethnographic studies, and/or co-design/participatory design activities.

The key problem here is that even worse that the researcher who goes out to study “memory” without having respecified what “memory” might be as an object of investigation, there might be a designer who goes about to support a “meeting” and focus on the design activity so much that noone notices that the very notion of a “meeting” and the kinds of problem it might have is all taken for granted.

So my small insight here is that linguistic analysis may be a relevant and practical tool for designers and innovators. This insight helps me justify myself (BA Linguistics UC Berkeley 1986) to myself (Software designer/developer 2006).

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