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Contemporary Research Methodologies in Technical Communication

TL;DR: At the time of publication B. McNely was at The University of Kentucky, C. Spinuzzi was atthe University of Texas at Austin, and C. Teston was at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.
Abstract: At the time of publication B. McNely was at The University of Kentucky, C. Spinuzzi was at The University of Texas at Austin, and C. Teston was at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

Summary (8 min read)

Jump to: [Introduction][2. Plant Transport][4. Generic Brand][5. Brownies][6. Train or Bus][7. Computer][9. Coupons][An old friend has invited you to spend the weekend with him at his summer home some ways up the coast from where you are. You intend to travel there by car, and there are two routes that you can take: the highway and the coastal road.][12. Investment Offer][13. Broken VCR][14. Choosing Classes][15. Raffle][16. Jogging][18. Shower][If you shower before you do your yard work you will have to take another shower before][1. Standard Trolley Mean emotion rating: 5.3][2. Standard Fumes Mean emotion rating: 5.5][If you do nothing the fumes will rise up into the room containing the three patients and cause their deaths.][3. Vaccine Policy Mean emotion rating: 1.1][4. Sculpture Mean emotion rating: 3.1][5. Speedboat Mean emotion rating: 3.0][6. Guarded Speedboat Mean emotion rating: 3.0][7. Resume Mean emotion rating: 2.8][8. Taxes Mean emotion rating: 2.7][9. Stock Tip Mean emotion rating: 2.6][11. Lost Wallet Mean emotion rating: 2.9][1. Country Road Mean emotion rating: 5.4 Low-conflict][2. Plane Crash Mean emotion rating: 6.6 Low-conflict][3. Hired Rapist Mean emotion rating: 6.5 Low-conflict][4. Infanticide Mean emotion rating: 6.7 Low-conflict][5. Architect Mean emotion rating: 6.2 Low-conflict][6. Hard Times Mean emotion rating: 5.8 Low-conflict][7. Transplant Mean emotion rating: 6.0 Low-conflict][8. Smother for dollars Mean emotion rating: 5.9 Low-conflict][He explains further that his father has a substantial life insurance policy that expires at midnight.][9. Sacrifice Mean emotion rating: 6.7 High-conflict][10. Crying Baby Mean emotion rating: 6.8 High-conflict][11. Footbridge Mean emotion rating: 6.0 High-conflict][A viral epidemic has spread across the globe killing millions of people. You have developed two substances in your home laboratory. You know that one of them is a vaccine, but you don’t know which one. You also know that the other one is deadly.][It is wartime and you and your two children, ages eight and five, are living in a territory that has been occupied by the enemy. At the enemy’s headquarters is a doctor who][14. Lifeboat 2 Mean emotion rating: 5.1 High-conflict][15. Ecologists Mean emotion rating: 6.1 High-conflict][17. Euthanasia Mean emotion rating: 5.5 High-conflict][20. Bomb 2 Mean emotion rating: 5.3 High-conflict] and [21. Preventing the Spread 2 Mean emotion rating: 4.3 High-conflict]

Introduction

  • The psychological and neurobiological processes underlying moral judgement have been the focus of many recent empirical studies1–11.
  • Patients with VMPC lesions exhibit generally diminished emotional responsivity and markedly reduced social emotions (for example, compassion, shame and guilt) that are closely associated with moral values1,2,12–14,16, and also exhibit poorly regulated anger and frustration tolerance in certain circumstances20,21.

2. Plant Transport

  • You are bringing home a number of plants from a store that is about two miles from your home.
  • The trunk of your car, which you’ve lined with plastic to catch the mud from the plants, will hold most of the plants you’ve purchased.
  • You could bring all the plants home in one trip, but this would require putting some of the plants in the back seat as well as in the trunk.
  • By putting some of the plants in the back seat you will ruin your fine leather upholstery which would cost thousands of dollars to replace.

4. Generic Brand

  • You go to the pharmacy with the intention of buying a particular name-brand headache medicine.
  • When you get there you discover that the pharmacy is out of the brand you were looking for.
  • The pharmacist, whom you’ve known for a long time and in whom you have a great deal of trust, tells you that he has in stock a generic product which is, in his words, “exactly the same” as the product you had originally intended to buy.

5. Brownies

  • You have decided to make a batch of brownies for yourself.
  • You open your recipe book and find a recipe for brownies.
  • The recipe calls for a cup of chopped walnuts.
  • You don’t like walnuts, but you do like macadamia nuts.
  • As it happens, you have both kinds of nuts available to you.

6. Train or Bus

  • You need to travel from New York to Boston in order to attend a meeting that starts at 2:00 PM.
  • You can take either the train or the bus.
  • The train will get you there just in time for your meeting no matter what.
  • The bus is scheduled to arrive an hour before your meeting, but the bus is occasionally several hours late because of traffic.

7. Computer

  • At the moment the computer that you want costs $1000.
  • A friend who knows the computer industry has told you that this computer’s price will drop to $500 next month.

9. Coupons

  • You have gone to a bookstore to buy $50 worth of books.
  • One of these coupons gives you 30% off of your purchase price.
  • The other coupon gives you 25% off your purchase price, and this coupon does not expire for another year.

An old friend has invited you to spend the weekend with him at his summer home some ways up the coast from where you are. You intend to travel there by car, and there are two routes that you can take: the highway and the coastal road.

  • The highway will get you to your friend’s house in about three hours, but the scenery along the highway is very boring.
  • The coastal route will get you to your friend’s house in about three hours and fifteen minutes, and the scenery along the coastal road is breathtakingly beautiful.

12. Investment Offer

  • You are at home one day when the mail arrives.
  • You receive a letter from a reputable corporation that provides financial services.
  • They have invited you to invest in a mutual fund, beginning with an initial investment of one thousand dollars.

13. Broken VCR

  • You have brought your broken VCR to the local repair shop.
  • The woman working at the shop tells you that it will cost you about $100 to have it fixed.
  • You noticed in the paper that morning that the electronics shop next door is having a sale on VCR’s and that a certain new VCR which is slightly better than your old one is on sale for $100.

14. Choosing Classes

  • You are beginning your senior year of college.
  • In order to fulfill your graduation requirements you need to take a history class and a science class by the end of the year.
  • During the fall term, the history class you want to take is scheduled at the same time as the science class you want to take.
  • During the spring term the same history class is offered, but the science class is not.

15. Raffle

  • You’ve decided to buy a raffle ticket to support a local charity.
  • They are separately raffling off two different cars: Car A and Car B.
  • You have decided to buy one raffle ticket.
  • You are a serious and knowledgeable car enthusiast, and you think that these two cars are equally good.
  • Since more people have bought tickets for the Car B raffle, your chances of winning are better in the Car A raffle than in the Car B raffle.

16. Jogging

  • You intend to accomplish two things this afternoon: going for a jog and doing some paperwork.
  • In general you prefer to get your work done before you exercise.
  • The weather is nice at the moment, but the weather forecast says that in a couple of hours it will start to rain.
  • You very much dislike jogging in the rain, but you don’t care what the weather is like while you do paperwork.

18. Shower

  • You are planning to attend a luncheon this afternoon, and before you go you will need to take a shower.
  • You have some yard work that you would like to do before then, and doing this yard will cause you to perspire a fair amount.

If you shower before you do your yard work you will have to take another shower before

  • At the present time you could enjoy taking a shower.
  • At the same time, you have a very strong commitment to lowering your water bill and to showering no more than once a day.

1. Standard Trolley Mean emotion rating: 5.3

  • You are at the wheel of a runaway trolley quickly approaching a fork in the tracks.
  • On the tracks extending to the left is a group of five railway workmen.
  • On the tracks extending to the right is a single railway workman.
  • If you do nothing the trolley will proceed to the left, causing the deaths of the five workmen.

2. Standard Fumes Mean emotion rating: 5.5

  • You are the late-night watchman in a hospital.
  • Due to an accident in the building next door, there are deadly fumes rising up through the hospital’s ventilation system.
  • In a certain room of the hospital are three patients.
  • In another room there is a single patient.

If you do nothing the fumes will rise up into the room containing the three patients and cause their deaths.

  • The only way to avoid the deaths of these patients is to hit a certain switch, which will cause the fumes to bypass the room containing the three patients.
  • As a result of doing this the fumes will enter the room containing the single patient, causing his death.

3. Vaccine Policy Mean emotion rating: 1.1

  • You work for the Bureau of Health, a government agency.
  • You are deciding whether or not your agency should encourage the use of a certain recently developed vaccine.
  • The vast majority of people who take the vaccine develop an immunity to a certain deadly disease, but a very small number of people who take the vaccine will actually get the disease that the vaccine is designed to prevent.
  • All the available evidence, which is very strong, suggests that the chances of getting the disease due to lack of vaccination are much higher than the chances of getting the disease by taking the vaccine.

4. Sculpture Mean emotion rating: 3.1

  • You are visiting the sculpture garden of a wealthy art collector.
  • The garden overlooks a valley containing a set of train tracks.
  • A railway workman is working on the tracks, and an empty runaway trolley is heading down the tracks toward the workman.
  • The only way to save the workman’s life is to push one of the art collector’s prized sculptures down into the valley so that it will roll onto the tracks and block the trolley’s passage.

5. Speedboat Mean emotion rating: 3.0

  • While on vacation on a remote island, you are fishing from a seaside dock.
  • You observe a group of tourists board a small boat and set sail for a nearby island.
  • Soon after their departure you hear over the radio that there is a violent storm brewing, a storm that is sure to intercept them.
  • The only way that you can ensure their safety is to warn them by borrowing a nearby speedboat.
  • The speedboat belongs to a miserly tycoon who would not take kindly to your borrowing his property.

6. Guarded Speedboat Mean emotion rating: 3.0

  • While on vacation on a remote island, you are fishing from a seaside dock.
  • You observe a group of tourists board a small boat and set sail for a nearby island.
  • Soon after their departure you hear over the radio that there is a violent storm brewing, a storm that is sure to intercept them.
  • The only way that you can ensure their safety is to warn them by borrowing a nearby speedboat.
  • To get to the speedboat you will have to lie to the guard.

7. Resume Mean emotion rating: 2.8

  • You have been trying to find a job lately without much success.
  • You figure that you would be more likely to get hired if you had a more impressive resume.
  • You could put some false information on your resume in order to make it more impressive.
  • By doing this you might ultimately manage to get hired, beating out several candidates who are actually more qualified than you.

8. Taxes Mean emotion rating: 2.7

  • You are the owner of a small business trying to make ends meet.
  • It occurs to you that you could lower your taxes by pretending that some of your personal expenses are business expenses.
  • You could pretend that the stereo in your bedroom is being used in the lounge at the office, or that your dinners out with your wife are dinners with clients.

9. Stock Tip Mean emotion rating: 2.6

  • You are a management consultant working on a case for a large corporate client.
  • You have access to confidential information that would be very useful to investors.
  • The judge presiding over the trial happens to be someone you knew from law school.
  • The two of you were rather friendly back then, but now, decades later, it seems that your old friend barely remembers you.

11. Lost Wallet Mean emotion rating: 2.9

  • You are walking down the street when you come across a wallet lying on the ground.
  • You open the wallet and find that it contains several hundred dollars in cash as well the owner’s driver’s license.
  • From the credit cards and other items in the wallet it’s very clear that the wallet’s owner is wealthy.
  • You, on the other hand, have been hit by hard times recently and could really use some extra money.

1. Country Road Mean emotion rating: 5.4 Low-conflict

  • You are driving along a country road when you hear a plea for help coming from some roadside bushes.
  • The man explains that he has had an accident while hiking and asks you to take him to a nearby hospital.
  • Your initial inclination is to help this man, who will probably lose his leg if he does not get to the hospital soon.
  • If you give this man a lift, his blood will ruin the leather upholstery of your car.

2. Plane Crash Mean emotion rating: 6.6 Low-conflict

  • The only survivors are yourself, another man, and a young boy.
  • The three of you travel for days, battling extreme cold and wind.
  • The boy has a broken leg and cannot move very quickly.
  • His chances of surviving the journey are essentially zero.
  • The other man suggests that you sacrifice the boy and eat his remains over the next few days.

3. Hired Rapist Mean emotion rating: 6.5 Low-conflict

  • You have been dissatisfied with your marriage for several years.
  • It is your distinct impression that your wife no longer appreciates you.
  • You remember how she appreciated you years ago when you took care of her after she was mugged.
  • You will hire a man to break into your house while you are away.
  • This man will tie up your wife and rape her.

4. Infanticide Mean emotion rating: 6.7 Low-conflict

  • You are a fifteen-year-old girl who has become pregnant.
  • By wearing loose clothing and deliberately putting on weight you have managed to keep your pregnancy a secret.
  • One day, while at school, your water breaks.
  • You run to the girls locker room and hide for several hours while you deliver the baby.
  • You are sure that you are not prepared to care for this baby.

5. Architect Mean emotion rating: 6.2 Low-conflict

  • You are a young architect visiting one of your construction sites with your boss.
  • Your boss is a despicable individual who makes everyone around him miserable including you.

6. Hard Times Mean emotion rating: 5.8 Low-conflict

  • You are the head of a poor household in a developing country.
  • Your crops have failed for the second year in a row, and it appears that you have no way to feed your family.
  • Your sons, ages eight and ten, are too young to go off to the city where there jobs, but your daughter could fare better.
  • You know a man from your village who lives in the city and who makes sexually explicit films featuring small children such as your daughter.
  • He tells you that in one year of working in his studio your daughter could earn enough money to keep your family fed for several growing seasons.

7. Transplant Mean emotion rating: 6.0 Low-conflict

  • You have five patients, each of whom is about to die due to a failing organ of some kind.
  • The only way that you can save the lives of the first five patients is to transplant five of this young man’s organs (against his will) into the bodies of the other five patients.
  • If you do this, the young man will die, but the other five patients will live.

8. Smother for dollars Mean emotion rating: 5.9 Low-conflict

  • You are in hospital lounge waiting to visit a sick friend.
  • A young man sitting next to you explains that his father is very ill.
  • The doctors believe that he has a week to live at most.

He explains further that his father has a substantial life insurance policy that expires at midnight.

  • If his father dies before midnight, this young man will receive a very large sum of money.
  • He says that the money would mean a great deal to him and that no good will come from his father’s living a few more days.
  • He offers you half a million dollars to go up to his father’s room and smother his father with a pillow.

9. Sacrifice Mean emotion rating: 6.7 High-conflict

  • You, your husband, and your four children are crossing a mountain range on your return journey to your homeland.
  • You have inadvertently set up camp on a local clan’s sacred burial ground.
  • The leader of the clan says that according to the local laws, you and your family must be put to death.
  • He will let yourself, your husband, and your three other children live if you yourself will kill your oldest son.

10. Crying Baby Mean emotion rating: 6.8 High-conflict

  • Enemy soldiers have taken over your village.
  • They have orders to kill all remaining civilians.
  • You and some of your townspeople have sought refuge in the cellar of a large house.
  • If you remove your hand from his mouth his crying will summon the attention of the soldiers who will kill you, your child, and the others hiding out in the cellar.
  • To save yourself and the others you must smother your child to death.

11. Footbridge Mean emotion rating: 6.0 High-conflict

  • A runaway trolley is heading down the tracks toward five workmen who will be killed if the trolley proceeds on its present course.
  • You are on a footbridge over the tracks, in between the approaching trolley and the five workmen.
  • Next to you on this footbridge is a stranger who happens to be very large.
  • The only way to save the lives of the five workmen is to push this stranger off the bridge and onto the tracks below where his large body will stop the trolley.
  • The stranger will die if you do this, but the five workmen will be saved.

A viral epidemic has spread across the globe killing millions of people. You have developed two substances in your home laboratory. You know that one of them is a vaccine, but you don’t know which one. You also know that the other one is deadly.

  • Once you figure out which substance is the vaccine you can use it to save millions of lives.
  • You have with you two people who are under your care, and the only way to identify the vaccine is to inject each of these people with one of the two substances.
  • One person will live, the other will die, and you will be able to start saving lives with your vaccine.

It is wartime and you and your two children, ages eight and five, are living in a territory that has been occupied by the enemy. At the enemy’s headquarters is a doctor who

  • Performs painful experiments on humans that inevitably lead to death.
  • He intends to perform experiments on one of your children, but he will allow you to choose which of your children will be experimented upon.
  • You have twenty-four hours to bring one of your children to his laboratory.
  • If you refuse to bring one of your children to his laboratory he will find them both and experiment on both of them.

14. Lifeboat 2 Mean emotion rating: 5.1 High-conflict

  • You are on a cruise ship when there is a fire on board, and the ship has to be abandoned.
  • The lifeboats are carrying many more people than they were designed to carry.
  • The lifeboat you’re in is sitting dangerously low in the water—a few inches lower and it will sink.
  • There is an injured person who will not survive in any case.

15. Ecologists Mean emotion rating: 6.1 High-conflict

  • You are part of a group of ecologists who live in a remote stretch of jungle.
  • If you refuse his offer all the hostages including the children and yourself will die.
  • You are the leader of a mountaineering expedition that is stranded in the wilderness.
  • The only way to save the lives of the six members of this family is to remove one of this man’s kidneys so that the necessary vitamins may be extracted from it.
  • The man will not die if you do this, but his health will be compromised.

17. Euthanasia Mean emotion rating: 5.5 High-conflict

  • You are the leader of a small group of soldiers.
  • You are on your way back from a completed mission deep in enemy territory when one of your men has stepped in trap that has been set by the enemy and is badly injured.
  • If the enemy finds your injured man they will torture him and kill him.
  • He begs you not to leave him behind, but if you try to take him with you your entire group will be captured.
  • The only way to prevent this injured soldier from being tortured is to shoot him yourself.

20. Bomb 2 Mean emotion rating: 5.3 High-conflict

  • You are negotiating with a powerful and determined terrorist who is about to set off a bomb in a crowded area.
  • Your one advantage is that you have his teen-age son in your custody.
  • There is only one thing that you can do to stop him from detonating his bomb, which will kill thousands of people if detonated.
  • To stop him, you must contact him over the satellite hook-up that he has established and, in front of the camera, break one of his son’s arms and then threaten to break the other one if he does not give himself up.

21. Preventing the Spread 2 Mean emotion rating: 4.3 High-conflict

  • You overhear one of your customers say that he is about to go to jail and that in his last forty-eight hours of freedom he plans to infect as many people as possible with HIV.
  • You know him well enough to know that he is telling the truth and that he has access to many potential victims.
  • You happen to know that he has a very strong allergy to poppy seeds.
  • If he eats even one he will go into convulsions and have to be hospitalized for at least forty-eight hours.

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Contemporary Research Methodologies in
Technical Communication
Brian McNely
University of Kentucky
Clay Spinuzzi
University of Texas, Austin
Christa Teston
Ohio State University
Published in Technical Communication Quarterly 24(1), (2015), pp. 1-13; DOI:
10.1080/10572252.2015.975958

Many tools, technologies, spaces, and practices of technical communication today bear little
resemblance to those of the late 1990s, when Technical Communication Quarterly published
its last special issue on research methods and methodologies. On the surface, this seems
significant, for in the life of writing as a technology 15 years is not so long. As Schmandt-
Besserat (1986) illustrated, 5,000 years transpired between the first appearance of symbolic clay
tokens and their impressed and incised signs in written systems of accounting and commerce
(pp. 32–34). Similarly, humans have used various combinations of ink and paper for around
5,000 years (Fischer, 2011). Pen and paper persist for contemporary technical communicators,
but new writing technologies have developed dramatically over the last two decades. The
workflows of today’s technical communicators are mediated by conditions that either did not
exist or were not prevalent in the late 1990s: by new tools (always connected smartphones and
touch screen devices, widely available eye-tracking systems for usability research, inexpensive
and expansive digital storage); by new technologies (instant=text=multimedia messaging, social
media, real-time collaborative document editing, nimble content management systems, Darwin
information typing architecture); by new spaces (hybrid work locations, co-working venues,
virtual offices); and by new practices (contextual design, user centered design, interaction
design, single sourcing).
Recent special issues of this journal have explored many of these developments (Ding &
Savage, 2013; Kimme Hea, 2014; Pullman & Gu, 2008; Spinuzzi, 2007; Swarts & Kim,
2007). Although advances in technical communication research methodologies and methods
have been substantial, the last special issue devoted to methodologies was published in 1998. In
her introduction to that issue, Goubil-Gambrell argued that ‘‘defining research methods is a part
of disciplinary development’’ (p. 7). We agree that methodological approaches act as markers
for disciplinary identity and changes to practices and theories of technical communication since
the late 1990s serve as powerful exigencies for this special issue on contemporary research
methodologies. Goubil-Gambrell claimed that articles in the 1998 special issue illustrated
‘‘where we are now’’ (p. 7); the work of authors in this special issue provide indicators of where
we are in 2015, and how we are responding to substantive change in our field.
More important, the articles in this special issue not only respond to these changes but
innovate and map future methodological approaches to technical communication. Since their
work looks forward, we briefly look back—to some of the key methodological developments
that have shaped our field’s current research identity. We begin with sociocultural theories of
writing and communication that were coincident with the 1998 special issue on research
methodologies. This body of work inspired and built from qualitative studies of communicators
in context. Next, we explore associative theories and methodologies that developed in parallel,
but that carried alternative assumptions, methods, values, and aims about communicative actors,
tools, and contexts. This body of scholarship and methodological practice changed ways in
which researchers of communication explored and theorized human agency and mediation. We
then consider recent work in the new material turn, a related but diverse set of approaches that is
changing the ways that technical communication researchers study and understand contexts,
distributed work, and collective labor. Last, we touch briefly on evolving adaptations of
traditional qualitative methodologies; mixed methods approaches; and reconciliations of
increasingly large technical communication data sets with situated, contextual research methods.
We do all this as a way to situate the methodological contributions made by the articles in this
special issue.
Published in Technical Communication Quarterly 24(1), (2015), pp. 1-13; DOI:
10.1080/10572252.2015.975958

SOCIOCULTURAL THEORIES
Scholars such as Bazerman (1988, 1994, 1997, 2013) Prior (1998, 2006, 2009), and Russell
(1993, 1995, 1997a, 1997b, 2009, 2010) have been strong proponents of sociocultural theory
in a variety of communicative contexts, and their work has influenced approaches in technical
communication. ‘‘Sociocultural theory,’’ according to Prior, ‘‘argues that activity is situated
in concrete interactions that are simultaneously improvised locally and mediated by
prefabricated, historically provided tools and practices’’ (2006, p. 55; emphasis in original).
Sociocultural theory has clear implications for methodologies and methods, influencing what
objects and practices—beyond texts—are germane to researchers. Bazerman, Prior, and Russell
draw on traditions of scholarship in social psychology, symbolic interactionism, and learning
theory. For Prior (2006), attention to local contexts of situated activity is thus foundational to
sociocultural theories. Writing is a protean form of situated activity, mediating and
communicating abstract knowledge, practical know-how, and ways of being in the world. In
sociocultural material surroundings of communicators matter because everyday activities
are carried out and mediated by heterogeneous artifacts and tools (Prior, 2006).
In technical communication and related fields such as human–computer interaction (HCI)
and computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW), similar methodological and theoretical
approaches to contexts, artifacts, and human activity have been deployed. For example, situated
action models (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Lave, 1988; Suchman, 1987) were grounded in
contextual theories of learning and everyday practice. Nardi (1996) argued that a focus on
practical activity and its epistemic effects in this approach ‘‘deemphasizes study of more durable,
stable phenomena that persist across situations’’ (p. 72). In theories and studies of distributed
cognition (see, for example, Norman & Hutchins, 1988, and Hutchins, 1991, 1995), however,
the focus extends to tools, artifacts, and concepts that move across design problems (Nardi,
p. 78). In distributed cognition, attention to the coordinative roles of tools, artifacts, and
cognitive constructs stretch beyond particular situations and are reused and adapted to new or
ongoing challenges (Nardi, p. 86). Scholars in rhetorical genre studies, also influenced by
sociocultural theories, have explored such typification and durability in the form of genres
(Artemeva & Freedman, 2007; Bawarshi & Reiff, 2010; Miller, 1984). The more recent
synthesis of rhetorical genre studies and activity theory (known as writing, activity, and genre
research or WAGR; see Russell, 2009; Spinuzzi, 2010) brings the durability and nomothetic
potential of genres together with situated and ideographic explorations of specific contexts.
Indeed, Nardi (1996) argued that activity theory is a sociocultural approach that allows
researchers in HCI and CSCW to study complex, situated contexts while producing findings that
are generalizable (p. 70). Activity theory, which was introduced to professional communication
via Bazerman (1988), Russell (1995, 1997a), and Berkenkotter and Huckin (1993), has been
widely used in technical communication to study how genres are durable, suasive, and mediatory
within specific activity systems (Fraiberg, 2013; Kain & Wardle, 2005; McCarthy, Grabill,
Hart-Davidson, & McLeod, 2011), across linked activity systems (Gygi & Zachry, 2010;
McNair & Paretti, 2010), and in broader networks (Ding, 2008; Propen & Schuster, 2010;
Sherlock, 2009; Spinuzzi, 2008, 2012). (For more detailed overviews of studies involving genre
and activity theory, see Russell, 1997b; 2009.) Activity theory posits a clear asymmetry between
communicators and their tools and technologies. In technical communication, activity-theoretical
approaches have emphasized the motives and intentionality of individuals or collectives,
Published in Technical Communication Quarterly 24(1), (2015), pp. 1-13; DOI:
10.1080/10572252.2015.975958

positioning human subjects and material objects as distinct, yet interoperative. As Nardi argues,
a key emphasis of activity theory is consciousness and motive, ‘‘which only belong to humans’’
(p. 86). Spinuzzi (2008) detailed another foundational perspective of activity theory that has
particular methodological salience: Grounded in the work of social psychologists such
as Vygotsky and Leontiev, activity theory is fundamentally genealogical and its accounts
of human actions and intentions are therefore developmental.
Within those developmental parameters, sociocultural theories such as activity theory
have anchored various methodological approaches in technical communication. For example,
Mirel (1998, 2004) drew on sociocultural theory to outline her approach to interaction design,
and Spinuzzi (2003, 2013) developed genre tracing as a methodology for information design.
More recently, Sun (2012) drew on activity theory, genre theory, and articulation theory to
develop Culturally Localized User Experience. In a 2006 interview with Zachry published in
TCQ, Nardi described that in her article ‘‘Objects of Desire’’ she was trying to stay ‘‘really close
to the data’’ (p. 493) and, to do so, paired activity theory with grounded theory (GT). Grounded
theory approaches (Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Farkas & Haas, 2012; Glaser & Strauss, 1967=2007;
Strauss & Corbin, 1990) afford analytic granularity and generalizable, formal theory building
(for additional examples of GT approaches in technical communication, see Cooke, 2003; Mirel,
Barton, & Ackerman, 2008; Schuster, Russell, Bartels & Kelly-Trombley, 2013; Scott, 2008;
Spafford & Schryer, 2010; Teston, 2009, 2012; Whithaus, 2012). Some of these approaches tend
to draw on variations of interventionist methods and methodologies popularized in sociology,
anthropology, cultural psychology, and computer-supported cooperative work. Yet,
developmental approaches have their limitations. In particular, they assume a purposeful
human actor who retains agency during processes of technical communication. However, this
outlook is not the only productive one; other approaches have explored how agency, similar
to cognition, can be understood across humans and nonhumans that have become associated
in a system.
ASSOCIATIVE THEORIES
Associative theories analyze humans and nonhumans as parts of intersubjective systems across
which agency and motives are stretched. Such theories do not necessarily deny individual agency
or cognition, but they deemphasize the roles of individual human beings to avoid over-
determining human agency and underdetermining roles played by other parts of the system
under consideration. By the 1990s, technical communication scholars had begun drawing in
earnest from associative approaches such as articulation theory (Johnson-Eilola, 1997; Slack,
Miller, & Doak, 1993), rhizomatics (Selfe & Selfe, 1994), distributed cognition (Freedman &
Smart, 1997; Winsor, 2001), and actor–network theory (Winsor, 1994). Of these, actor–network
theory (ANT) has had perhaps the most uptake in technical communication and rhetoric, being
used in a range of studies with various methodological commitments (Fleckenstein, Spinuzzi,
Rickly, & Clarke Papper, 2008; Fraiberg, 2013; McNely, 2009; Potts, 2009; Jeff Rice, 2009,
2012; Spinuzzi, 2005, 2008; Swarts, 2009, 2011).
Like other associative theories, ANT takes the position of symmetry—a methodological
stance that ascribes agency to a network of human and nonhuman actors rather than to specific
human actors. Methodologically, therefore, researchers focus on associations among nodes in an
actor–network. And since associations themselves are the focus, things that they associate are
Published in Technical Communication Quarterly 24(1), (2015), pp. 1-13; DOI:
10.1080/10572252.2015.975958

considered network effects. Symmetry does not involve anthropomorphizing nonhumans or
seeing humans as agentless media; instead, it involves focusing on how associations among them
generate new possibilities.
This stance has implications for technical communication research methodologies that
have been developed in different ways. For example, Jeff Rice (2009, 2012) applied ANT
descriptively, tracing associations across networked and offline media to explore how identities
emerge from these networks. Swarts (2009, 2011) focused on aspects of translation and network-
building in writing environments, and demonstrated how everyday issues such as technological
literacy and reuse are developed rhetorically. Liza Potts (2009, 2014; see also Potts, Seitzinger,
Jones, & Harrison, 2011) took a modeling approach by mapping different actants and how they
relate in networks across social media. Last, scholars such as Fleckenstein and colleagues (2008)
and Spinuzzi and colleagues (2006) used an ecological approach that provided a holistic
examination of texts-in-use and compared different moments of that use. These strands are not
exclusive, and they draw on different methodologies to apply ANT insights in different ways.
THE NEW MATERIAL TURN
Associative approaches such as actor–network theory expand not only technical communication
contexts but potential actors involved in such work. Latour (1992) suggested that nonhuman
actors, in particular, are among the ‘‘missing masses’’ of collective life that participate in
and shape experience (p. 152). Recent research across several disciplines (namely science and
technology studies, political science, rhetoric, and philosophy) has extended associative and
relational approaches to more directly engage the missing masses of nonhumans, taking
seriously their potential role in affecting human work, and effecting ostensibly human activities
and outcomes. In contrast to sociocultural theories, these approaches share a radically
symmetrical perspective on relationships between humans and nonhumans—between people and
things, whether those things are animal, vegetable, or mineral. Agency, from this perspective, is
a function and emergent property of collectives: It is distributed and interdependent. Latour’s
(2013) term for this phenomenon is interagentivity—the capacity of humans and nonhumans to
affect and effect one another beyond a subject–object bifurcation (p. 5). The development of
these theories, we argue, will affect technical communication theory and methodology in years to
come.
Emerging from a broad body of work in philosophy and political science (Barad, 2007;
Bennett, 2010; Coole & Frost, 2010) and scholarship often collected under the umbrella known
as object-oriented ontology (not to be confused with object-oriented programming; see Bogost,
2012; Bryant, 2011; Harman, 2002, 2005, 2011; and Morton, 2007, 2013) these approaches
constitute a new material turn. This scholarship is labeled ‘‘new’’ materialism because it
considers materiality as something much more than the simple substrate upon which human
designs and activity play out. In new materialisms, then, ‘‘things are not simply projections by,
containers for, or artifacts of human activity: not fetishes but actors’’ (McNely & Rivers, 2014).
Although some have called this brand of materialism new, others (in particular, those who align
themselves with feminist materialism) would suggest there is nothing new at all about it. Yet,
although research in technical communication and rhetoric has often focused on discursive
relations and effects they generate among human actors, the radical symmetry of new
materialism explores interagentive potentials by asking how things relate and produce effects as
Published in Technical Communication Quarterly 24(1), (2015), pp. 1-13; DOI:
10.1080/10572252.2015.975958

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TL;DR: The Discovery of Grounded Theory as mentioned in this paper is a book about the discovery of grounded theories from data, both substantive and formal, which is a major task confronting sociologists and is understandable to both experts and laymen.
Abstract: Most writing on sociological method has been concerned with how accurate facts can be obtained and how theory can thereby be more rigorously tested. In The Discovery of Grounded Theory, Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss address the equally Important enterprise of how the discovery of theory from data--systematically obtained and analyzed in social research--can be furthered. The discovery of theory from data--grounded theory--is a major task confronting sociology, for such a theory fits empirical situations, and is understandable to sociologists and laymen alike. Most important, it provides relevant predictions, explanations, interpretations, and applications. In Part I of the book, "Generation Theory by Comparative Analysis," the authors present a strategy whereby sociologists can facilitate the discovery of grounded theory, both substantive and formal. This strategy involves the systematic choice and study of several comparison groups. In Part II, The Flexible Use of Data," the generation of theory from qualitative, especially documentary, and quantitative data Is considered. In Part III, "Implications of Grounded Theory," Glaser and Strauss examine the credibility of grounded theory. The Discovery of Grounded Theory is directed toward improving social scientists' capacity for generating theory that will be relevant to their research. While aimed primarily at sociologists, it will be useful to anyone Interested In studying social phenomena--political, educational, economic, industrial-- especially If their studies are based on qualitative data.

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Her research sites include complex, collaborative, technologically mediated workplaces wherein scientific and medical decision making takes place. 

He studies everyday genres, technologies, objects, and practices of communication using qualitative methodologies and visual research methods.