First up, my condolences to all those who have been affected by Hurricane Katrina. It's hard to imagine what it must be like to experience something like that. It is incredible too, to see the range of human responses to the disaster, the inventiveness and resilience, the loving acts of kindness and generosity and also the acts of complete disregard and selfishness. People never cease to amaze me.
You would think I'm doing my PhD on dogs by the many entries about dogs in this blog... No, but talk of dogs is such a therapeutic aside to the day to day practice of reading, writing and thinking something so 'serious' as a PhD that I really do enjoy just writing about dogs from time to time on the ol' blog. Excuse the self indulgences...
Well, today I have two dogs. My partners parents are away for the weekend and so their little foxy has come to visit. By my feet are two warm mounds of fur, one with short hair; white with black spots and the other with medium length coarse hair; white with ginger spots. They are curled up next to each other on the same bed which is next to the heater and are dozing lightly. Occasionally a dog with human walker or parent with squeaky pram (I almost wrote pram with squeakly parent!) walks past and both dogs wake instantaneously and simultaneously from their slumber and lunge for the front door in a frenzy of barks and flying fur.
On the PhD front, I happened upon a very exciting find yesterday. A book by Julian E. Orr called "Talking About Machines: An Ethnography of a Modern Job". Julian studied a group of Xerox Photocopier Technicians as they went about their work in the late eighties. He wrote up his findings in his dissertation (1990) and it was then published as a book (1996). Oh geez. I think he has written my PhD - a point both exhilirating and dreadful to discover. Exhilirating because every word I have read so far I recognise and have thought about as important to articulate and he has done it so elegantly. Dreadful because I also recognise how much work - thinking and hard research, has gone into the final opus and my thoughts and articulations seem so unformed in comparison and of course I have to come up with something fresh and different. Aargh.
The book is all about how the work of technicians is constructed and improvised in practice and largely through narratives of 'sensemaking' by triangulating with the machines and the customers. Their work practice is not, as you might expect much technical service work to be, the routine and rote following of instructions and procedures but as Orr writes,
"Technicians' practice is...a response to the fragility of available understandings of the problematic situations of service and to the fragility of control over their definition and resolution. Understanding is fragile in that accurate information about the state of the machine is only sometimes available, and the meaning of available information cannot always be found. Control is fragile both because the technicians come to work when the relationship between the customer and machine is already askew and because the technicians cannot keep the machines working and the customers satisfied; they can only restore that state after the fall. Work in such circumstances is resistant to rationalization, since the expertise vital to such contingent and extemporaneous practice cannot be easily codified." (Orr, 1996, p2)
He goes on to explain how the process of narrative gives form and definition to the problem which then enables diagnosis. The work involves making coherent that which has no sense (initially) and it is through talking about the problem as it perceived by them, the customer and what the machine is telling them, that the technician gains mastery over the machine. These narrative accounts also have another function. The circulation of such stories and information make up the discourse of the community of technicians. It is this discourse that makes up the body of knowledge of the community giving definition to the technicians job and a sense of identity through participation (p2-3).
I have a strong emotional response to his descriptions because they resonate so much with my own experience of being a computer technician and also in my role as trainer of computer technicians. I have not read enough of his book to identify what some of the experiential differences might exist between his group of photocopier repairers and say a group of computer support workers but I'm sure there will be some. For instance, I imagine one might be working with photocopiers as singular machines versus computers as part of a network, and another might be the remote aspect of much computer support work resulting from the integration of the telephone based help desk model into computer support and the capacity to provide remote support over networks. Oh well, read on...