Friday, 6 January 2012

That Zengestrom post - scholarship or just 'sociality'?

Some colleagues and I at IET spent an hour yesterday discussing Jyri Engeström's six-year-old posting about 'object-centred sociality' (nb: my earlier posting on this). (I include some of the notes I made about the post itself below).

I introduced this as a topic for our (face-to-face) reading group partly because I'm interested in the theory of object-centred sociality but also because I wanted to see whether talking about a blog post would be different from discussing a journal article, which is what we usually do in the reading group. This seemed to me to be relevant to our ongoing consideration of what is involved in digital scholarship.

In the event, I thought it was a different kind of discussion, although I'm not sure my colleagues agreed with me.

For a start, the presence of the text itself was ambiguous. Usually everyone prints out the article & sits around in a circle holding it in front of them. In this case, one or two people had printed it out, a couple had it on their laptops  (although not necessarily open in front of them), another had it on his phone, another didn't have it at all (although they said they had read it.)  It all felt a bit ephemeral to me, with some of the more extended features of the text (its links out,  its later follow-up postings etc.)  not present at all even when they were being discussed.

And then, I felt that the discussion was more reflexive than usual – with people talking more about their own experiences with social media rather than about what Engestrom might be saying about Knor Cetina's theory, or what the commenters might be saying about Engestrom's views.

Lots of interesting points were raised however: the relation between links in a blog post and references in an academic article; the effects on the persistent text of its links becoming broken over time; knowing where the boundaries of a blog text actually finish...    

On the issue of digital scholarship, it seemed to down to whether we see Engestrom's post as a kind of  mini-example of 'good ' conventional scholarship (well-researched, concisely structured and expressed, appropriately referenced etc.)  or whether we are prepared to take the whole set of connected texts (comments, linked sites follow-up texts) as representing a different kind of, more collaborative, scholarship.

Whilst I'm broadly in favour of the latter view, my problem with it in this case is what has happened to Knorr-Cetina's principled notion of 'objects of sociality' in the translation from Engestrom's invoking of it to account for the failure of some social networking practices in 2005 (45 citations in Google scholar), to, for example, Hugh McLeod's distinctly non-scholarly appropriation of it to publicise his artwork 2 years later (2950 hits on Google).

Reading through the 100 comments on Engestrom's post I only managed to find two  that referred back to Knorr-Cetina.  Most of the other constructive ones ran with the issue of  what makes social networking successful or otherwise, without really bothering whether it might be evidence of a 'post-social' turn  in contemporary social life or not!  Understandable it may be, but rather more digital than scholarly I thought.


Some notes  on Engestrom's post:

This was prompted by a blog post from Russell Beattie explaining that he had decided to close his LinkedIn account because he had too many contacts and nothing to say to any of them, and the system would have required him to delete them individually.
E. claims there is a 'profound confusion about the nature of sociality' due to the use of the term social network to refer to a 'map of the relationships between individuals’.
He proposes an alternative approach to social networks – based on Knorr Cetina - and sets out to explain how this approach accounts for why some social networking services succeed while others don't.
Summary of comments:
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Content topic

No. of comments

Google Maps, Flickr and Camera Phones as an infrastructure for new location-centred social software


Open question/development of original topic


General approval/re-blog


Own site/blog/talks/promotions










Responses from JE

Google search: Jyri Engeström "the case for object-centered sociality"
Approx 2760 results (in all languages), 1930 in English
 Approx 45 citations found by Google Scholar including articles in: - British Journal of Educational Technology, Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management, Interactive Learning Environments, Open Learning, Annual Conference of the Australian Computer-Human Interaction Special Interest Group, Computers and Composition…
 Subsequent posts on on the theme of sociality:
 June 10, 2005 –announcing his talk on object centred sociality at Reboot conference in Copenhagen (links to summaries on David Weinberger's blog, Bohellz blog, PowerPoint and PDF no longer work).
December 3, 2006 – announcing his talk at the MSN-sponsored Innovate event in Stockholm, on social objects (link broken).
3 comments on this post:
September 17, 2007 – comment on cartoonist Hugh MacLeod on wine as a social object with reference to a label created for Microsoft and its employees. Link to MacLeod's website (May 18, 2008)  'Free cartoons as social objects
 August 15, 2008 –  comment relating object centred sociality to Google Readers updated Shared Items functionality. Chat conversation as a social object.
February 13, 2010 – another message about Hugh MacLeod on social objects for beginners (from 2007) (


  1. Interesting. I'd like to understand more about:
    "the whole set of connected texts (comments, linked sites follow-up texts) as representing a different kind of, more collaborative, scholarship"

    Hasn't what you describe always been a feature of academic texts albeit less immediately visible, although some have explicitly made the different texts and voices of others visible in their published work? I also wonder how far academic blog postings generally are examples of collaborative scholarship or more commonly spaces for individuals to lay claim to academic authority, sadly not infrequently, spuriously.

  2. Yes it's true that most conventional academic texts have networks of other texts behind them, sometimes visible (through references), sometimes not. I think the 'aggregated' nature of knowledge constructed like this is one of the most important features of scholarship.

    I suppose what I meant by a 'different kind of, more collaborative, scholarship' was a more evidently multi-voiced effort - initiating post, comments, linked posts, follow-up posts etc. all available at the same time.