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It’s More than a Little Spinuzzi

Dr Clay Spinuzzi. Image hosted on Flickr
Dr Clay Spinuzzi. Image hosted on Flickr

“Mirel argues that no matter how fine the grain, ‘knowing and learning take place in a dynamic system of people, practices, artifacts, communities, and institutional structures,’ and that such dynamic systems coconstitute even the finest grains of human activity” (29)

Welcome to the wide world Spinuzzi and genre tracing. This text was a great deal more straightforward than I thought a text would be with a title like Tracing Genres through Organizations (it surprised me as much as how easy it was to understand Susan Popham’s article on medical forms as genre boundaries). The analogy of the heroes, tyrants, and victims made me laugh, but it also highlighted the stereotypical roles designers, systems, and users are believed to play in the workflow of organizations. Spinuzzi’s aim for the book is to break down the traditional idea that workers are victims of the information design set in the workplace and that the system designers are heroic as they swoop down to save the day, even when the workers themselves have come up with innovative “workarounds” or solutions to localized problems. Instead, Spinuzzi offers up the idea (and the methods, methodology, and case studies to back up his claims) that through genre tracing in organizations, workers will be able to reclaim their sense of agency within the organizations they work as designers, researchers, and other scholars will come to recognize that the workers have been “saving themselves” with their localized solutions.

"Superman Handbook" for the common man, superpowers not included. Image hosted on i09.

“Superman Handbook” for the common man, superpowers not included. Image hosted on i09.

Spinuzzi does seem quite taken with the analogy he puts forth, and it is not hard to see how the analogy works so well. I have heard more than enough people (myself included) complain about information systems we have to work with that we believe are too complicated, archaic, simplistic, etc for us to be able to do our jobs well. Instead, we come up with ways to work around the technology, sometimes to complement the system, and other times to just get away from having to use the system altogether. If we look to Spinuzzi’s text to explain our tendencies to come up with alternatives to the official system, we are, in effect, rescuing ourselves from “victimhood.” But, I am talking in the abstract here. One example in his book that I really liked was that of the police officer Barbara who, as he describes in the Introduction’s epigraph, was using her own, more informal, system of data collection “for locating and analyzing traffic accidents in a particular area” (1). While it seems outdated to use a physical map to mark out locations where accidents can happen (especially since the book was written in 2003 and technology has come a long way, though online maps can also be cumbersome), it does seem that Barbara’s method of using Post-It Notes to alleviate her dependence on an unwieldy map  was rather ingenious. His tracing of the evolution of accident data collection in “Chapter 3: Tracing Genres across Developmental Eras” was very interesting as it looked at how the information design altered and modified to adapt to new technologies, even if Post-It Notes could still end up being an efficient way to manage information.

Visual Ethnography

Post-It Notes are used in many fields, disciplines, and situations. They may seem old-school, but such notes are portable and people can physically rearrange them without having to use a cursor or share a document across multiple computers. Image hosted on Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

In order to better understand Spinuzzi’s ideas regarding genre tracing, I found it helpful to map out the three levels of scope that he talks about at length in the second chapter (I uploaded an image of the chart he uses as an example). While I am familiar with microscopic and macroscopic, it was the first time I had encountered the term “mesoscopic.” The word has a strange feel to it, reminding me more an archaeological course than something about information design. So, in honor of this new word of mine, I give you his distinctions between levels:

  1. Macroscopic, also known as the organization or contextual layer — “Kuutti and Bannon prefer to call this layer the ‘contextual’ layer because it reaches beyond organizations to the cultural-historical activity in which those organizations are involved. It involves ways workers, work communities, cultures, and societies understand, structure, collaborate on, and execute their evolving cooperative enterprises” (Spinuzzi 31-32).
  2. Mesoscopic — “is that of goal-oriented action – the tasks in which people are consciously engaged. Actions fulfill certain goals or localized objects as part of the general activity…Leont’ev concludes that these actions constitute human activity – ‘human activity does not exist except in the form of action or a chain of actions’ (p. 64)-but at the same time these individual actions are not explicable except in the context of the activity. Field studies that focus on the mesoscopic level of action tend to examine how individuals or small groups execute routine tasks with specific tools” (Spinuzzi 33). Another interesting quote that helped me to understand this new word came at the end of his section on mesoscopic: “A field study that functions at the mesoscopic level, such as Muller’s, focuses not on the work activity but on the local goals that users set for themselves and the tools and actions they use to accomplish those goals within a cultural-historical context. These goals, tools, and actions are often seen as the crux of usability problem” (34).
  3. Microscopic – it is the level “of moment-by-moment operations…which are the minute practices, reflexes, and habits on which workers draw as they carry out their labor. These operations respond to conditions –that is, specific configurations of the work environment. An operation is the mode of performing an act: an unconscious step in carrying out an action within certain conditions” (Spinuzzi 34).
"Three levels of scope." Chart taken from Clay Spinuzzi's book Tracing Genres through Organizations.
“Three levels of scope.” Chart taken from Clay Spinuzzi’s book Tracing Genres through Organizations.

After reading chapter two and sorting out how the three levels work (independently and in relation to one another), it took some time to process, but the idea that what happens on one level affects the others made sense, even though Spinuzzi points out that designers are constantly addressing local problems by designing universal solutions and that they “do not examine how to relate these macroscopic and microscopic levels” (Spinuzzi 29). His choice of a sociocultural approach through genre tracing made more sense after he pointed out that “sociocultural theorists and researchers argue that relationships among activities, actions and operations coconstitute each other…work activities constitute goal-directed actions, which in turn constitute habitual operations — but operations can reciprocally structure goals and actions and shape activities” (28-29). There seems to be a ripple effect from each level, where the structure, or even an element, of one cannot be changed without the others being impacted.

Everyone should have a "Heroine Handbook" when taking down their own tyrannically designed information system. Image hosted on i09.

Everyone should have a “Heroine Handbook” when taking down their own tyrannically designed information system. Image hosted on i09.

Vocabulary through Key Terms:

Genre Tracing  – is a sociocultural theory based in activity theory and genre theory that “draws on established methods that have been used with those theories…[and] provides a way to highlight users’ experiences with official and unofficial genres and to compare them across communities or workplaces” (22). Spinuzzi describes genre tracing as “dialogic” as it “draws on the metaphor of dialogue to examine how people interact with complex institutions, disciplines or communities; how they solve problems and disseminate solutions; and how their conversations and problem solving are instantiated in artifacts” (22)

Fieldwork-to-Formalization methodology“examples include contextual design…; the research stage of joint application…; client-led design…; and user-centered information design,” and the methods are “meant to guide system design through the stages of gathering data from customers, modeling and interpreting that information, and designing and implementing systems based on that information…they bridge field studies (including naturalistic work observations, unstructured interviews, and analysis of artifacts used in the work) and information design through models of through categorical and sequential descriptions of the work” (Spinuzzi 11). These methods “tend to be centripetal: they tend to normalize behavior and tools to produce centrally controlled, official solutions” 21)

Method vs Methodology – method is “a way of investigating phenomena” and a methodology is “the theory, philosophy, heuristics, aims, and values that underlie, motivate, and guide the method” (Spinuzzi 7)

User-centered design - “combine(s) a humanistic mission of advocating for the audience for the audience, new empirical approaches to the ancient art of audience analysis, and strong framework for translating audience insights into design suggestions”  and is “founded on social constructionist thought, which is ‘based on the concept that reality is mutable, that there are no certain truths, and that knowledge is constructed through communally created knowledge and action’…[and] technology ‘can be interpreted and reinterpreted depending on the people involved, the context or situation in which it is designed, developed, or deployed, and the historical moment it resides within’” (Spinuzzi 5 and 8)

Victimhood – “is conceived as coming from barriers to doing their jobs efficiently, and freedom consequently come through a process in which their is increasingly managed, regularized, and rationalized” (Spinuzzi 13)

Functional Empowerment  vs Democratic Empowerment functional empowerment allows workers to be “empowered to perform their tasks in a prescribed manner” whereas democratic empowerment is where workers “have a decision-making role in how their organization operates and how technology fits into their jobs” (Spinuzzi 13)

Normative Solution  – “a tool or set of work practices that, once codified and optimized, can functionally empower the worker-victims” (Spinuzzi 19)


Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing Genres through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. Print.

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