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Reading Notes #4: Spinuzzi and Information Design

Taking Genre for a Spinuzzi Quick Summary: Clay Spinuzzi’s text Tracing Genres through Organizations: A Sociocultral Approach to Information Design was surprisingly accessible. After readings on technology, Foucault, and genre systems, Spinuzzi was a breath of fresh air.  Spinuzzi’s aim in this text is to expand the user-centered approach to information design. Spinuzzi begins the […]

Reading Notes: A New Spinuzzi on Genre


This is a book about operationalizing understandings of genre. Spinuzzi is interested in practical, user-friendly applications of genre theory and activity theory in professional contexts. He introduces genre tracing as a methodology “for studying these ephemeral, invisible, ubiquitous innovations” (p. x) — workplace innovations, practical solutions to work-a-day problems that arise in an organization. He pits genre tracing methodology against what he calls “fieldwork-to-formalization methods” of information design: centralized, idealized methods he critiques for the way they pair “abstract work models” with “divergent local practices” to develop user-centered designs (p. 11). His goal is to develop organization-wide methods for information design that enable individual users to customize workflows and tasks in order to accomplish specific, localized objectives. Spinuzzi offers genre tracing as the methodology that can accomplish this goals, and three chapters of the text are devoted to an operationalized example of the methodology using traffic accident data recorded by the Iowa Department of Transportation. (Check out the current status of ALAS: SAVER - Safety, Analysis, Visualization and Exploration Resource & CMAT - Crash Mapping Analysis Tool.)

Scope and Context

Genre tracing is based on activity theory and genre theory. Its methods study “the dynamic tension of centripetal and centrifugal impulses” (p. 22) of workplace information design.

  • Centripetal impulses are centralized, generalized, official, and static methods and outcomes of information design, while centrifugal impulses are decentralized, localized, unofficial, and dynamic methods and outcomes of information design.
  • Centripetal forces generate official versions of information design that are expected to be followed in workflow development and management in localized offices, while centrifugal forces generate unofficial workarounds to generalized design that does not work effectively or efficiently in specific localized environments.

Spinuzzi claims that “genre tracing provides a way to highlight users’ experience with official and unofficial genres and to compare them across communities and workplaces” (p. 22). I visualized the relationship between centripetal and centrifugal impulses on a continuum, including Bakhtin’s (1981, 1986) ideas on centripetal impulses metaphorically drawing things inward and centrifugal impulses metaphorically flying away toward chaos.

Communication impulse visualization (diagram)

Google Drawing visualization of the communication continuum presented in Spinnuzi (2003, 20)

The central concern of Spinuzzi’s text and method is to avoid the pitfalls of “designer-as-rescuer” assumptions made in fieldwork-to-formalization user-centered design methods. Spinuzzi frames workers as innovators who develop genre- and hierarchy-crossing methods for solving problems of centralized information design. Spinuzzi develops an integrated research scope for examining localized workplace innovations in terms of three “layers”: activity, actions, and operations (p. 27). This integrated scope examines genre operations that coconstitute “cultural activities and goal-directed actions” (p. 27). This scope does not treat individual layers as a singular focus (a downfall he finds among most user-centered design methods, (p. 30)), but as “integrative perspectives” following concepts introduced by activity theorists Kari Kuutti and Liam Bannon (1991, 1993), among others (p. 29). Spinuzzi uses the terms macroscopic, microscopic, and mesoscopic to describe these three integrative layers that work together to coconstitute activity and actions (pp. 31-36). The macroscopic layer focuses on organizational activity systems (p. 31). The mesoscopic layer focuses on “the detailed tool-mediated structure of work” (p. 33), often related to how small groups and individuals execute routine tasks with specific tools. And the microscopic level focuses on operationalized actions, operations that “begin as conscious, goal-directed actions that are then operationalized or made automatic” (p. 34).

Spinuzzi’s theory builds on theories of genre as social, community action, as system and set, and as boundary and activity system presented by Bazerman (1994, 2004), Miller (1984, 1994), and Popham (2005) among others. He recognizes the important memory role genre plays in “traditions of producing, using, and interpreting artifacts, traditions that make their way into the artifact as ‘form-shaping ideology’” (Spinuzzi 2003, 41). Regarding the practical, active role genres play, Spinuzzi notes that “people develop genres so that they can accomplish activities. As those activities change, the genres also change” (p. 42). Bakhtin (1981, 1986) contributes much to the sense of genre as “remembering” the past; this concept of genre plays an important role in identifying significant issues that keep workers from accomplishing their goals using the tools provided by central authorities (Spinuzzi 2003, 42).

At each level, Spinuzzi addresses the tension between centripetal and centrifugal impulses by seeking system destablizations. At the macroscopic, or activity, level, Spinuzzi seeks contradictions between genre connections. At the mesoscopic, or action, level, he seeks discoordination within genres, groups, and/or tools. At the microscopic, or operation, level, he seeks breakdown in operationalized actions (p. 55). The rest of the text is an extended, detailed demonstration of the genre tracing methodology in action.

Analysis and Application

Spinuzzi’s genre tracing methodology is a time-consuming affair that requires a great deal of field research and data analysis. However, the results are remarkable in that they identify specific, microscopic breakdowns in workflow and operationalized action that need to be addressed by information design. The resulting analysis suggests specific ways in which user innovations that overcome breakdowns can be implemented at the macroscopic, mesoscopic, and microscopic levels. The analysis provides a remarkably cogent analysis of genre contradictions that occur between GIS-centered and database-centered information designs, one that capitalizes on Bakhtin and others’ understanding of genre as encoded memory and tradition in addition to methods and innovation. And the closing chapter’s recommendation of open system design seems positively prophetic in its prediction of designs that enable, even encourage, user innovation and alteration — I created a Google Map mashup a couple of days ago using Google Maps Engine, a relatively new tool that encourages localized (centrifugal) solutions built on the framework of the centralized (centripetal) system.

I found the reading enlightening and engaging, so engaging that I might recommend that members of my own team read and contemplate at least some of the chapters. The book offered remarkably cogent summaries of difficult concepts, like genre, activity theory, Bakhtin, and more. Page 41 starts a section on genre that’s positively enlightening. Bakhtin gets summarized in meaningful and highly useful ways in these pages and earlier (starting on page 20) too. Activity theory gets this tidy definition: “Activity theory posits that in every sphere of activity, collaborators use instruments to transform a particular object with a particular outcome in mind” (p. 37). There are traces of Miller and Bazerman in genre as activity and genre as system, along with traces of Popham in boundary genres. This text deserves a second read and more carefully taken notes that are searchable and scannable.


Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays. Austin, Tex: University of Minnesota Press.

Bakhtin, M. M. (1986). Speech genres and other late essays. Austin, Tex: University of Minnesota Press.

Bazerman, C. (1994). Systems of genre and the enactment of social intentions. In Freedman, A., & Medway, P. (Eds.), Genre and the new rhetoric (pp. 79-104). London, UK: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

Bazerman, C. (2004). Speech acts, genres, and activity systems: How texts organize activities and people. In Bazerman & Prior (Eds.), What writing does and how it does it: An introduction to analyzing texts and textual practices (pp. 309-340). New York, NY: Routledge.

Miller, C. R. (1984). Genre as social action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70(2), 151-67.

Miller, C. R. (1994). Rhetorical community: The cultural basis of genre. In Freedman, A., & Medway, P. (Eds.), Genre and the new rhetoric (pp. 67-78). London, UK: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

Popham, S. L. (2005). Forms as boundary genres in medicine, science, and business. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 19(3), 279-303. doi:10.1177/1050651905275624

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: a sociocultural approach to information design. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[Tracing Apple Genres: Apple Evolution Product (updated 2009). Creative Commons image from Flickr user Oswaldo Rubio]