Thursday, September 22, 2005

practically understanding Understanding Practice

Understanding Practice is the first text on this course that I have managed to get my hands on and read. Since I am new to the class, I want to use this posting to formulate my initial ideas about the kind of theories that we will be exploring this semester by explaining my evolving relationship with this collection of essays.

I read the book in a roughly sequential manner, reading some chapters in depth, others with an overview of content and methodology in mind. Lave’s opening chapter on “The Practice of Learning” provoked responses that would frequently recurred as my reading deepened. I found the thesis that “theories of situated everyday practice insist that persons acting and the social world of activity cannot be separated” (4-5) generally stimulating. Yet, it was difficult to parse the different elements of the argument by the end of the chapter; the theories seemed to collapse into one another, and a trajectory of the field’s development remained unclear. Simply put, I felt that the same point was being made again and again. I felt that I either don’t grasp the subtleties of the arguments presented, or that I do not fully understand the applicability of this interdisciplinary movement.

My experience of the other chapters reflected my initial reaction. I found many of them stimulating (Hutchins and Keller & Keller in particular), but I also found them lacking. As descriptions of detailed social practice, they were well researched and presented with a high degree of nuance and sophistication. But the ultimate goal of some pieces remained unclear: are these researchers attempting to use theories to develop more integrated knowledge sharing and production, or are they merely applying theories to highly particularized situations? I was baffled by some conclusions. Engestrom’s use of interviews in a medical practice was interesting, and his placement of the situation within the historical context of changing medical practices enlightening. Yet, his conclusions about the corporatization of medicine and the breakdown of communication between practitioner and patient were simply, well, common sense. How the theories elucidated actually could work to either clarify the situation or change it remained opaque.

It was not until I reached Chaiklin’s conclusions that I could contextualize the preceding chapters. As Jim rightly pointed out in his posting, Chaiklin’s piece is an important piece because of it reflectiveness: he situates how these disparate pieces work toward a common theoretical goal; the development of this interdisciplinary movement and its growth out of previous theoretical traditions is clearly mapped; how it does (or does not) contribute to social change is honestly and provocatively presented.

It is one of the best theoretical pieces I have read in a long while and I am already beginning to “situate” these readings differently because of it. The relative infancy of the field (if you can call it such) makes sense of the provisional nature of some of the conclusions. To this novice reader, how important this theorizing may actually be is beginning to sink in: the synthesis of different disciplines that engage with an idea as complex and protean as shifting contexts is, I now realize, a massive undertaking.

Finally, I would like to applaud all the bloggers. All are stimulating in their own fashion; some made me feel comfortable in my own confusion (!) while others made me rethink what I was reading. I apologize for the length and lateness of this posting, but I would just like to say that I look forward to working with you all this semester.


Blogger Jim said...

I felt much the same as I worked through this book and LPP, and I'm still not entirely free of my "common sense" readings of these texts. I will say, however, that your point about drawing together people from different disciplines is right on - just getting everyone on the same page seems to be a big problem for this field.

The other issue might be that we've already come to agree with some of these premeses. That is, maybe this work has seeped out into the rest of the world. Or, maybe this work is part of a larger "structure of feeling" (Raymond Williams) that we are more "in touch with" than readers from 10-15 years ago?

3:33 PM  

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