Ethnography of Information Systems - LIS 450EI
Teachers: Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star (GSLIS)
Tuesdays, 12-3 Spring Semester
Speech and Hearing 119
Room 124 LIS Building 501 East Daniel MC-493
Room 123 LIS Building
Ethnographic research is becoming increasingly important at key points in the design,
testing, and evaluation of new information systems. Since approximately 1980 a number of
collaborations have arisen between ethnographers (fieldworkers: anthropologists,
ethnomethodologists, and qualitative sociologists of organizations and science) on the one hand,
and designers, library and information scientists, engineers and computer scientists on the other.
Early work focused on philosophical and epistemological divergence, with a critical edge and
somewhat arms' length relationships (e.g. Suchman, 1988). Since the mid-1980s, especially in
Britain and Scandinavia and increasingly in the US, full-fledged partnerships have grown. The
nature of these partnerships differs with domain, national emphasis, and team skills. Yet all
have in common the goal of analyzing the contingencies of information-based work practice as
situated in particular times and places, and using that analysis to inform user-sensitive
information systems design.
Students with a "bilingual" background in ethnography and information systems will be
increasingly in demand in research and teaching settings which emphasize design of information
systems, computer-supported cooperative work, organizational aspects of HCI, studies of the
Internet and virtual communities, information-related policies, and the impact of advanced
information systems, including on and in libraries and large text projects. There are also many
emerging basic research opportunities on "virtual culture", the culture of the Internet, cyberspace,
In this course, we propose to survey the rapidly growing body of ethnographic analyses
of information systems, to extend the basic principles of ethnographic research and to lead
students in the development of projects modifying these principles for the emerging electronic
environment. Students will be expected to carry out a series of fieldwork exercises (which may
be integrated into a single project), and discuss notes and results in class. The projects may be
chosen from a range of domains and sites: libraries, business and scientific organizations,
computer design laboratories, social action projects such as PrairieNet, or computer centers.
Part or all of the projects may be carried out on-line.
Students may approach the course in one (or both) of two ways. First, if you are
planning on doing ethnographic research of an information system as part of your doctoral thesis,
then this semester can be used for locating, gaining access to, and undertaking a pilot project at
your research site. You will be guided through the basic steps of ethnographic research in order
to do this. Your final work will be a project description. Second, you may choose to do the
series of exercises at different sites, and concentrate on the social and theoretical issues raised by
the texts being studies. In this case you will be expected to turn in a theoretical essay discussing
general issues in the social analysis of information systems.
The classic principles of ethnographic research must be modified in order to take into
account specific features of the emerging electronic information environment. In particular,
new information systems are frequently highly distributed (requiring study in more than one
work setting, and shared by many parts of a single organization), infrastructural (emerging in the
workplace as background tools only) and are furthermore rapidly changing. The class will face
this challenge together as a further methodological dimension, especially of data collection.
The basic analytic tools will rely on the grounded theory method of Glaser and Strauss,
the interpretive interactionism of Denzin, and actor network theory from sociology of
technology. Students who wish to pursue complementary analytic/theoretical techniques such
as ethnomethodology, conversation and video analysis are encouraged to do so.
The course will be especially useful for advanced graduate students who wish to conduct
dissertation research in this interdisciplinary area.
40% Four exercises during the semester, each worth 10%.
60% Final theoretical paper or project description.
Value of Course:
This course will be especially useful for advanced graduate students wishing to pursue
ethnographic dissertation research on the design, use or evaluation of complex information
Set Books and Readings:
There are two set books:
Susan Leigh Star (ed.), Cultures of Computing, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
Edwin Hutchins, Cognition in the Wild, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.
Related Research Work
Ethnographies of Design
Some of the strongest work in ethnography of design is based in England, at Lancaster,
Manchester, Oxford, Surrey, and Rank Xerox EUROPARC (Cambridge). The Lancaster Group
(Hughes, Shapiro, and Rodden) are examining real-time software systems requirements for air
traffic control, using ethnomethodology to inform the requirements analysis. Manchester's work
is centered in the psychology department (Bowers, Lea, Church, and Lee) who use analysis of
discourse and workplaces to study communication and design organizational communication
systems. Oxford's Programming Requirements Group, headed by Goguen, is using video
analysis and conversation analysis for requirements analysis in finance and medicine, and for
very large-scale projects such as the development of European-wide protocols for medical data
transfer. The Surrey group (Heath and Luff) have examined workplace conversations and
interaction in the London underground, which in turn is informing safety-critical systems
improvements in computer-controlled scheduling. EUROPARC's work (Anderson, Sharrock,
Button, Harper, McKay) has focused on organizational communication and the feasibility of
"smart badges" for video enhancement in workplaces. The work of Wagner at Vienna
Technical University, Center for CSCW who has worked extensively with ethnographers on
studies of nursing work and designed a number of systems for nurses, surgeons, and medical
In the US, research work by ethnographers on technical design and engineering is
growing, including the work of Henderson at Texas A&M on visual practices of CAD engineers;
Forsythe at Pittsburgh who collaborates with Buchanan on medical expert systems; Downey on
CAD engineers at Virginia Polytechnic; and the work of Kiesler (CMU) and Sproull (BU) on
networks for scientists and industry. The Irvine Center for Research on Information
Technologies and Organizations (Kling, King, Kraemer, Grudin, Ackerman) has a long tradition
of use of ethnography to inform computerization in government and industry, and has lately been
applying this to the development of CIM. Ira Monarch and his team at the Software
Engineering Institute, CMU, have been developing conceptual tools for combining ethnography,
history and software engineering; they are interested in moving into the medical domain and
exploring patient-centered records. Scacchi at USC has used a similar approach in the Software
Factory. Gasser, also at USC in the Safety and Systems Management Institute, has applied
ethnography to distributed AI and is currently working with an ethnographer on requirements
analysis for manufacturing at a number of US firms.
Partnerships between computer and social scientists, and ethnography of technology, are
richly represented here at UIUC as well. To name a few: The Digital Library Initiative,
Designing the Interspace, includes a substantial sociology team under the direction of Ann
Bishop. Chip Bruce and Jim Levin in the College of Education have investigated collaborative
writing and learning technologies, as has the Center for Writing Studies. Patty Jones and Penny
Sanderson, MIE, employ a multi-disciplinary approach including ethnography to real-time
systems, in collaboration with Nosh Contractor and Barbara O’Keefe, Speech Communication.
Initially developed in Scandinavia as a result of national legislation requiring workplace
assessment of new technologies, participatory design (or co-design) represents a strong
interdisciplinary set of studies of workplaces, originating with the work of Nygaard. The work
of Bødker and Markussen at Aarhus, Ehn (now at Lund), Pedersen at Interval Research, and
Thoresen, Beck, Hanseth, Bratteteig and others at the Norwegian Computer Center have
developed systems for graphic design, nursing support, and banking, among other applications.
This approach has been partially adopted by the Xerox PARC Workplace Project (Suchman,
Trigg, Orr, Blomberg) and various projects at the Institute for Research on Learning in Palo Alto
(Jordan, Linde, Clancey, Kahn) investigating workplace learning technologies and Internet tools
for education and training.
Five years ago NSF/CISE sponsored an initiative to support interdisciplinary
development of "Coordination Theory and Collaboration Technology" (CTCT), called the
Collaboratory initiative. A number of projects within it combined ethnography with the design
of collaboration systems. For example, Schatz' biology electronic library (Worm Community
System) at Arizona and Illinois was developed in collaboration with Star and Chen and Ruhleder
(organizational analysts). The Olsen's project at Michigan employs fieldworkers in several
cities under the direction of Finholt. Boland's "Spider" MIS system at Case Western uses
ethnographic data. European interest in collaboration technology informed by
ethnography has centered around cooperative writing tools (the Sussex group); digital libraries
(Turner's group at CERESI/CNRS, Meudon, France), manufacturing control and communication
systems (Schmidt and the Risø group in Denmark) and advanced email support (Lea, Bowers,
and Church in the Manchester group). Some work in distributed artificial intelligence is also
important here, especially in France (Poitou at Aix; Ferber at Paris VII) in the use of
ethnographic data to model distributed work. In general, the growth of CSCW has
incorporated ethnography as an important partner. The work of Bannon (Limerick), Schmidt
(Risø), Robinson (SAGEFORCE, England), Rodden, Hughes and Shapiro (Lancaster), among
others, is important here theoretically.
Weekly Schedule and Readings
Week 1 (1/16): General Introduction to the course
Week 2 (1/23): Fundamentals of the ethnography of information systems (1)
John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, “Borderline Issues: Social and Material Aspects of Design”
in Human-Computer Interaction, 9, 1994, 3-36.
Rob Kling and Walt Scacchi, “The Web of Computing: Computer Technology as Social
Organization” in Advances in Computers, 21, 1982, 1-90.
Carl Hewitt, “Offices are Open Systems” in ACM Transactions on Office Information Systems, 4
Kjeld Schmidt and Liam Bannon, “Taking CSCW Seriously: Supporting Articulation Work,”
Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), 1 (1992), 7-40.
Recommended: Liam Bannon, “A Pilgrim’s Progress: From Cognitive Science to Cooperative
Design,” AI and Society 4 (1990): 259-275.
Hewitt, Carl. 1985. “The Challenge of Open Systems,” BYTE (April), 223-242.
Week 3 (1/30): Fundamentals of the ethnography of information systems (2)
Joseph Goguen, “ Requirements Engineering as the Reconciliation of Social and Technical
Issues,” Pp. 165-199 in M. Jirotka and J. Goguen, eds. Requirements Engineering: Social and
Technical Issues. London: Academic Press, 1994.
Jonathan Grudin, “The Computer Reaches Out: The Historical Continuity of Interface Design,”
Technical Report, DAIMI PB -299, Computer Science Department, Aarhus University,
Denmark, December 1989.
Susan Leigh Star, “The Structure of Ill-Structured Solutions: Boundary Objects and
Heterogeneous Distributed Problem Solving” in M. Huhns and L. Gasser (eds), Distributed
Artificial Intelligence 2, Menlo Park, CA: Morgan Kauffman
Nancy Leveson and Clark Turner, “An Investigation of the Therac-25 Accidents,” IEEE
Computer (July, 1993): 18-41.
Gasser, Les. “The Integration of Computing and Routine Work,” ACM Transactions on Office
Information Systems 4 (1986): 205-225.
Brooks, Frederick, “The Mythical Man-Month,” Chapter Two of his, The Mythical
Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1975.
Kari Kuutti, “The Concept of Activity as a Basic Unit of Analysis for CSCW Research,”
European Conference on CSCW (ECSCW ‘90), Amsterdam.
Kari Kuutti, “Identifying Potential CSCW Applications by Means of Activity Theory Concepts:
A Case Example,” Proceedings of CSCW 92 (NY: ACM): 233-240
Week 4 (2/6): Cognition in the Wild (1)
Edwin Hutchins, Cognition in the Wild, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995. Chapters 1 and 2.
Jean Lave, “The Values of Quantification,” Pp. 88-111 in John Law, ed. Power, Action and
Belief. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.
Recommended: Jean Lave, Cognition in Practice : Mind, Mathematics, and Culture in
Everyday Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Week 5 (2/13): Cognition in the Wild (2)
Edwin Hutchins, Cognition in the Wild, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995. Chapters 3 and 4.
Charles Goodwin, "Professional Vision," American Anthropologist. 96(1994): 606-33.
Eevi Beck, “Changing Documents/Documenting Changes: Using Computers For Collaborative
Writing Over Distance,” Pp. 53-68 in Cultures.
Dianne Hagaman, “Connecting Cultures: Balinese Character and the Computer,” Pp. 85-102 in
Week 6 (2/20): Cognition in the Wild (3)
Edwin Hutchins, Cognition in the Wild, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995. Chapters 6-9.
Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, “Situated Learning : Legitimate Peripheral Participation,”
Technical Report No. IRL90-0013, Institute for Research on Learning, Palo Alto, 1990.
Robert Jones and Rand Spiro, “Contextualization, Cognitive Flexibility, and Hypertext: The
Convergence of Interpretive Theory, Cognitive Psychology, and Advanced Information
Technologies,” Pp. 146-157 in Cultures.
Week 7 (2/27): Medicine and classification
Yrjö Engeström, “When is a tool? Multiple Meanings of Artifacts in Human Activity” in Yrjö
Engeström, Learning, Working and Imagining, Helsinki: Orienta-Konsutit Og, 1990, 171-195.
Diana Forsythe, “Blaming the User in Medical Informatics,” Knowledge and Society: The
Anthropology of Science and Technology 9 (1992): 95-111.
Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, “Knowledge and Infrastructure in International
Information Management: Problems of Classification and Coding” Pp. 187-216 in Lisa
Bud-Frierman (ed), Information Acumen, London: Routledge, 1994,.
Ina Wagner, “Women’s Voice: The Case of Nursing Information Systems” in AI and Society, 7(4),
Marc Berg, “Formal Tools and Medical Practices: Getting Computer-Based Decision Techniques
to Work” in Geoffrey C. Bowker, Susan Leigh Star, Bill Turner and Les Gasser (eds), Social
Science, Technical Systems, and Cooperative Work, Princeton, NJ: L.J. Erlbaum, forthcoming
Bonnie Kaplan, “Objectification and Negotiation in Interpreting Clinical Images: Implications
for Computer-Based Patient Records,” Artificial Intelligence in Medicine 7 (1995): 439-454.
Recommended: Bonnie Kaplan, “Combining Qualitative and Quantitative Methods in
Information Systems Research: A Case Study,” MIS Quarterly 12 (1988): 571-56.
Week 8 (3/5): Standards, accounting and information systems
Richard Boland and Ulrike Schultz, “From Work to Activity: Technology and the Narrative of
Progress,” Pp. 308-324 in Wanda Orlikowski et al (eds), Information Technology and Changes
in Organizational Work, Proceedings of the IFIP WG8.2 Working Conference. London:
Chapman and Hall, 1995.
Ole Hanseth and Eric Monteiro, “Social Shaping of Information Infrastructure: On Being
Specific About the Technology” Pp. 325-343 in Wanda Orlikowski et al (eds), Information
Technology and Changes in Organizational Work, Proceedings of the IFIP WG8.2 Working
Conference. London: Chapman and Hall, 1995.
Susan Leigh Star, “The Politics of Formal Representations: Wizards, Gurus, and Organizational
Complexity,” Pp. 88-118 in Susan Leigh Star, ed. Ecologies of Knowledge: Work and Politics
in Science and Technology. Albany: SUNY Press.
Rogers Hall and Reed Stevens, “Making Space: A Comparison of Mathematical Work in School
and Professional Design Practices,” Pp. 118-145 in Cultures.
Week 9 (3/19): Participatory design and workplaces
Susanne Bødker and Ellen Christiansen, “Scenarios as Springboards in the Design of CSCW” in
Geoffrey C. Bowker, Susan Leigh Star, Bill Turner and Les Gasser (eds), Social Science,
Technical Systems, and Cooperative Work, Princeton, NJ: L.J. Erlbaum, forthcoming 1996.
Louis Bucciarelli, “An Ethnographic Perspective on Engineering Design,” Design Studies 9
Dave Randall, John Hughes and Dan Shapiro, “Steps towards a Partnership: Ethnography and
System Design,” Pp. 241-258 in M. Jirotka and J. Goguen, eds. Requirements Engineering:
Social and Technical Issues. London: Academic Press, 1994.
Lucy Suchman, “Making Work Visible,” Communications of the ACM 38 (September 1995):
Recommended: Lucy Suchman, Plans and Situated Actions : the Problem of Human-Machine
Communication, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Special issue of Communications of the ACM on participatory design, June, 1993.
Mike Hales, “Information systems strategy, a cultural borderland, some monstrous behaviour, “
Week 10 (3/26): Libraries, Information Work and CSCW
Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O’Day, “Intelligent Agents: What We Learned at the Library,”
Manuscript courtesy of author, Apple Computer Corporation, Advanced Technology Group,
Judith Weedman, “The Structure of Incentive: Design and Client Roles in Application-Oriented
Research”, Paper presented at ASIS, Chicago, 1995.
William L. Anderson and William Crocca, “Engineering Practice and Codevelopment of
Produce Prototypes,” Communications of the ACM 36 (1993): 49-56.
Randi Markussen, “Constructing Easiness-Historical Perspectives on Work, Computerization,
And Women,” Pp. 158-180 in Cultures.
Week 11 (4/2): Libraries - User Studies
General overview with discussion papers of Allerton ‘95 Conference:
Marcia Bates, Where should the person stop and the information search interface start?
Information Processing & Management, 26, 575-591, 1990.
Marcia Bates, The Design of Browsing And Berrypicking Techniques For The Online Search
Interface. Online Review, 13, 407-424, 1989.
Twidale, Michael, “How to Study and Design for Collaborative Browsing in the Digital Library,
Discussion Document for: How We Do User-Centered Design and Evaluation of Digital
A Methodological Forum, 37th Allerton Institute, Graduate School of Library and Information
Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, October 29-31, 1995.
David Levy and Catherine Marshall, “Washington’s White Horse? A Look at Assumptions
Underlying Digital Libraries,” Paper presented at Digital Libraries ‘94.
Week 12 (4/9): Information Centers and Electronic Communities
Wanda Orlikowski and JoAnne Yates, “Genre Repertoire: The Structuring of Communicative
Practices in Organizations,” Administrative Science Quarterly 39 (1994): 541-574.
Sherry Turkle, “Constructions and Reconstructions of Self in Virtual Reality: Playing in the
MUDs,” Mind, Culture and Activity 1 (1994): 158-17.
Karen Ruhleder, “`Pulling down' books vs. `pulling up' files: textual databanks and the changing
culture of classical scholarship,” Pp. 181-195 in Cultures.
Nancy Baym, “From Practice to Culture on Usenet ,” Pp. 29-52 in Cultures.
Margaret Riel, “Cross-classroom Collaboration in Global Learning Circles,” Pp. 219-242 in
Allucquere Rosanne Stone, “Sex and Death among the Disembodied: VR, Cyberspace, and The
Nature Of Academic Discourse,” Pp. 243-155 in Cultures.
Paul Edwards, “Cyberpunks in Cyberspace: The Politics of Subjectivity in the Computer Age,”
PP. 69-84 in Cultures.
Recommended: JoAnne Yates and Wanda Orlikowski, “Genres of Organizational
Communication: A Structurational Approach to Studying Communication and Media,”
Academy of Management Review 17 (1992): 299-326.
Week 13 (4/16): Using visual material in the ethnography of information systems
Harper, Doug. (1979) "Life on the Road," Pp. 25-42 in Jon Wagner, ed. Images of Information:
Still Photography in the Social Sciences, Beverly Hills: Sage.
Kathryn Henderson, “The Visual Culture of Engineers,” Pp. 196-218 in Cultures.
Medical imaging articles, to be announced.
3rd International Conference on Electronic Library and Visual Information Research:
Week 14 (4/23): Student presentations
Week 15 (4/30): Student presentations
Conclusion and future work.
Detailed instructions will be covered in class.
1. Due Date: 30 January
Carry out a passive observation at a computer laboratory or kiosk. Locate a terminal where
several people are working together and observe and comment on their patterns of interaction
and their use of the technology (turn taking in mouse control etc). What design implications
2. Due Date: 20 February
Carry out an analysis of a set of videotapes depicting safety work in a nuclear power plant.
Look particularly for the performance of social computations, in Hutchin’s sense of the term.
3. Due Date: 26 March
Carry out a series of user interviews and produce a set of requirements for an upgrade to the
system you are interviewing users about.
4. Due Date: 9 April
Observe and analyze the development of an electronic community. Any kind of distributed
computing is valid here - you might think of a Usenet group or a MUD, but also the distribution
co-ordination of work at a site you are studying. Analyze kinds of social interactions that occur,
paying particular attention to technical mediation.
5. Due Date: 20 May
Final paper - either your project description or theoretical paper, as negotiated with the
Jeanette Blomberg, Lucy Suchman and Randy Trigg, “Notes on the Work-Oriented Design
Project in Three Voices”, In Bowker, Geoffrey, Susan Leigh Star, William Turner, and Les
Gasser, eds. (1993) Beyond the Great Divide: Socio-Technical Systems and Cooperative
Work. Proceedings of a Symposium, Centre CNRS, Paris, March.
Bowers, John. (1992) “The Politics of Formalism”, In Martin Lea, ed. In Contexts of
Computer Mediated Communications. Hassocks: Harvester/Wheatsheaf.
Bowker, Geoffrey. (In press) “Information Mythology and Infrastructure,” In L. Bud, ed.
Information Acumen: the Understanding and Use of Knowledge in Modern Business. London:
Bowker, Geoffrey. (1994) Science on the Run: information management and industrial
geophysics at Schlumberger, 1920-1940. MIT Press
Bowker, Geoffrey, Susan Leigh Star, William Turner, and Les Gasser, eds. (1993) Beyond the
Great Divide: Socio-Technical Systems and Cooperative Work. Proceedings of a Symposium,
Centre CNRS, Paris, March. (In preparation as an edited volume, submitted to MIT Press.)
Ehn, P., & Kyng, M. (1987) “The Collective Resource Approach to Systems Design.” Pp. 17-58
in G. Bjerknes, P. Ehn, & M. Kyng (Eds.), Computers and democracy - a Scandinavian
challenge. Aldershot, UK: Avebury.
Greenbaum, J. & Kyng, M. (Eds.) (1991) Design at Work.: Cooperative Design of Computer
Systems. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Grudin, J. (1991) “Interactive Systems: Bridging the Gaps between Developers and Users.”
IEEE Computer, (April), 59-69.
Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar. (1979) Laboratory Life. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.
Lave, Jean and Etienne Wenger. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Myers, Greg, (1991a) “Politeness and Certainty: The Language of Collaboration in an AI
Project,” Social Studies of Science, 21: 37-51.
National Research Council, Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, (1993)
National Collaboratories: Applying Information Technology for Scientific Research.
Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Orr, J. (1990) “Sharing knowledge, celebrating identity: War stories and community memory in
a service culture,” pp. 169-189 in Middleton, D.S. and D. Edwards, eds. Collective
Remembering: Memory in Society. London: SAGE.
Ruhleder, Karen and John King, (1991) “Computer Support for Work Across Space, Time and
Social Worlds,” Journal of Organizational Computing, 1: 341-355.
Schmidt, Kjeld and Mike Robinson. (1993) Developing CSCW Systems: Design Concepts EC
COST11 Report of CoTech WG4. Riso National Laboratory, Cognitive Systems Group,
Star, Susan Leigh. (1991b) "Invisible Work and Silenced Dialogues in Representing Knowledge"
Pp. 81-92 in Women, Work and Computerization.: Understanding and Overcoming Bias in
Work and Education. Ed. I.V. Eriksson, B.A. Kitchenham, and K.G. Tijdens. Amsterdam:
Star, Susan Leigh. (1993) "Cooperation without Consensus in Scientific Problem Solving:
Dynamics of Closure in Open Systems," Pp. 93-105 in Steve Easterbrook, ed. CSCW:
COOPERATION or CONFLICT? London: Springer-Verlag.
Star, Susan Leigh. (1989a) Regions of the Mind: Brain Research and the Quest for Scientific
Certainty. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Star, Susan Leigh. (1983) “Simplification in Scientific Work: An Example from Neuroscience
Research,” Social Studies of Science, 13: 205-228.
Star, Susan Leigh and E.M.Gerson (1986) “Analyzing Due Process in the Workplace,” ACM
Transactions on Office Information Systems, 4: 257-270.
Taylor, Jeanie, Cheris Kramarae and Maureen Ebben. Women, Information Technology and
Scholarship. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Woolgar, S. (1985) "Why Not a Sociology of Machines? The Case of Sociology and Artificial
Intelligence." Sociology. Vol. 19 No. 4 pp. 557-572.