Chapter 14

CSCW and social issues

14.1 In Section 14.3.2, we discussed the highly contextual nature of the spoken word, including the use of deictic reference and indexicals, and the (officially) ungrammatical and fragmentary use of sentences. Try listening to social chat over cups of tea - collect examples of different forms of contextual utterance.


There are often objects of shared attention during social chat, perhaps a notice board, or magazines on a coffee table. These will be one obvious source of context. When students record statements such as 'I like that', they should also record whether the indexical refers to a previous utterance or to something external. They should try to observe exactly how external references are made: for example, whether people point to a notice, refer implicitly to the article someone else is reading or use the direction of their own gaze.

In a small group, students should listen particularly carefully for the use of the pronoun 'you'. Does it refer to the whole group (excluding the speaker), or to a particular person. If the latter, then how is it made explicit -- eye gaze, body position? Other pronouns like 'we' or 'she' can be equally contextual.

Students should also look out for implicit context, for example 'a longer tail would improve the aerodynamics', spoken when the listener is looking at a picture of a kite. Although the sentence has no pronoun there is an implicit subject 'of the kite you're looking at'. This form of contextual statement can become arbitrarily obscure, for example as one person meets another: 'it's in your pigeon hole' - referring to an overdue report. As students become more adept they can listen more carefully, looking for the shift in conversational focus, and breakdowns where the context is not successfully negotiated.

14.2 Go into an office or other place where several people are working together. Try to note down in as much detail as possible what they are doing and when. Do this with different foci: focus on the direct interpersonal communications, focus on the shared objects (e.g. a calendar or document), or focus on one worker at a time. Whilst collecting data and when ordering your notes, look for breakdowns and misunderstandings, and for implicit communication through objects. Look also at a particular task over a period of time, and note the number of interruptions as a worker performs the task, or the way a single task is contributed to by several workers.


This exercise is similar to Exercise 7.5. However, whereas the task analysis in 7.5 is quite structured, this exercise is not intended to produce the same form of precise task sequences, etc. The intention is to expose students to the vast range of social situations within a typical work environment. Recording techniques such as those described in Chapter 11 might well be used.

In particular, this exercise is a good chance to introduce the use of video or audio recording equipment if it is available. Students will soon learn how difficult it is to position a microphone so that it picks up more than one worker and so that recordings are not dominated by the sound of a typist. Similarly, they can gain first-hand experience of the problems of static camera positioning. If you are lucky, you may have access to multiple cameras and split-screen recording equipment.

Although such equipment can be useful, its lack is not a disaster. Many ethnographic studies use only a pencil and paper, with perhaps some audio recording. However, developing appropriate shorthand then becomes essential (see Suchman [230] for examples of appropriate notation).

Some forms of communication in the office can be quite subtle, perhaps 'overhearing' of conversations, or noticing when something is being written on a wall calendar. Developing an observant eye for such subtleties is largely a matter of practice.

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