[ NB: “Annotations” are occasional posts that explore selections from my research reading—articles or books—in rhetoric, technical and professional communication, and related fields. ]
Read, S. (2011). The mundane, power, and symmetry: A reading of the field with Dorothy Winsor and the tradition of ethnographic research. Technical Communication Quarterly 20(4), 353–383.
This is a rather interesting article in terms of genre—Read draws on an interview she conducted with Dorothy Winsor in 2009, using that conversation to frame her exploration of ethnographic research in technical communication. In this sense, the article is part interview, part conceptual lit review, and part discussion of ethnography as methodology for studying writing within organizations.
When I saw this article, I immediately jumped in; I’m a big fan of Winsor’s work, and I know I’m not alone there. I think, too, that Read’s article offers much to our field, as it creatively weaves Winsor’s interview into a broader discussion of an important methodology for studying writing work.
Read’s article moves through three topoi: the mundane, power, and symmetry. These themes emerged from Read’s interview with Winsor, and they constitute a frame through which Read considers the maturation and future of methodological and theoretical approaches to the study of technical communication. In fact, Read contends that “Winsor’s words, career, and scholarship serve as a productive interpretive lens through which to read the development of the field” (p. 354).
Read begins by recounting Winsor’s distinguished career, focusing in particular on the latter’s skillful incorporation of theory. Read suggests that Winsor’s timely theoretical appropriations complemented (rather than disrupted) the developing identity of the field. Read then details the three topoi I noted above and argues that the sections corresponding to each theme frames “a set of assumptions or choices that have become tacit knowledge in the field” (p. 356).
In her exploration of the mundane, Read describes the influence of Latour on Winsor’s work. Latour (specifically Latour and Woolgar, 1986) helped Winsor see how workplace writing may be “understood as implicated in the functioning of the workplace,” where everyday writing work might be seen “as constitutive of both the organizational contexts and its products” (p. 357). Crucial too is the understanding of the social in workplace writing, and the complex activities and practices that mediate the socially situated nature of writing work. In this section, Read skillfully makes a broader argument about how Winsor’s work helped drive the field toward/during the social turn, and how Winsor’s field-based approach helped “powerfully chang[e] the object of and the methodology of research on writing” (p. 359). In this section, Read—through Winsor—shows how the mundane and regularized are significant to the production of documentation, and how attending to the mundane necessitates a shift in methodology, away from static texts alone and towards “the social context[s] of textual production” (p. 361).
In her second major section, Read considers issues of power in Winsor’s work and in the field. Calling on Winsor’s long history of work in engineering communication, Read describes how “Winsor’s research adopts the view that engineering knowledge is the product of power relations in hierarchical for-profit organizations, and although power has the capacity to constrain and harm, it is also productive” (p. 364). This brings to mind Foucault, but also Faber (2002). Not surprisingly, Read explores three ethnographic accounts of power relations in nonacademic settings, beginning with Faber. His study is juxtaposed against Winsor’s Writing Power: Communication in an Engineering Center (2003), and Smart’s Writing the Economy: Activity, Genre and Technology in the World of Banking (2006).
“For both Winsor and Faber,” Read argues, “power relations operate through discourse, whether the unit of study is image, identity, text, or genre” (p. 366). Where they differ “is in the implications of the functioning of power,” and in how each is positioned within their respective research sites. “If Faber is the ethnographer as activist,” Read claims, then “Winsor’s stance is more accurately understood as that of the ethical disciplinary outsider” (p. 366). With this statement, Read explores the heart of this section: the ethical issues attendant in field research and the power relationships between researcher and participant.
Personally, I found the final section on symmetry to be the most compelling; judging by my marginal notes alone, this was clearly the section with which I was most engaged. Read argues that Winsor’s research “suggests a symmetry between the human and the material” (p. 371), and so begins a wide-ranging discussion of agency and writing work. Granting agency to materiality “opened, and is still opening, new ways to understand the increasingly complex and unstable relationships among authorship, technology, information, and social and organizational contexts,” Read argues (p. 372).
This discussion leads Read into an exploration of posthumanist frameworks, particularly ANT, distributed cognition, and genre field analysis (p. 373). Read does a good job in this section of placing Winsor’s work (and interview responses) in conversation with Latourian perspectives on agency. A key moment in the follow-on discussion of epistemic rhetoric is Read’s quoting of Winsor (1990, p. 59): “‘even this field [engineering], which seems so tied to physical reality, is necessarily accomplished through language’” (p. 374). The mechanical engineer that was Winsor’s primary participant in this study “found that writing, both his own writing and the writing of others, was an essential means by which he generated knowledge about an engine” (p. 374). This perspective is perhaps taken for granted in our field, but I think it can’t be stated enough, especially when it is yoked to field research.
Read briefly discusses distributed cognition before moving on to a conclusion which considers the role of ethnographic research in the field of technical communication. Because of the work of Winsor and others in bringing field-based methods and methodologies to technical and professional communication, it is now “difficult to imagine a methodology that might aim to isolate documents from their environment or the perspective or actions of a single worker from the context that shapes them and that they also constitute” (p. 377).
That’s well said.
And Read may not remember this, but she and I were actually on a panel together at CCCC in 2007; I was impressed with her work then, and was encouraged by her perspective in this article. ↩