Chapter 13: Taxonomies of epistemic tools and infrastructures

“There are a whole bunch of frameworks. They’re like acronyms. I call it the ‘acronym game’ … In the end, it’s a bit, like I’ve said before, they walk out with certain messages. We think they walk out with a sophisticated scholarly knowledge after six weeks, and they don’t. What they try to remember is ‘What did Andrew [lecturer] say?’ Well he might have said ‘Where are we going? How am I going? Where to next?’” (Education Lecturer, edited for clarity)

The power of tools in making and changing practices and professions is well acknowledged. As Ravetz (1971) argues,

“as new tools come into being, and are judged appropriate and valuable by people in the field, they alter the direction of work in the field.” (93)

Surprisingly, the dynamic properties of these tools, and the capacities they exercise within the work, have rarely been the focus. In fact, as Clarke and Fujimura (1992) observe, two rather different views of tools have emerged in the literature:

  • While the creation of new tools – particularly tools for knowledge work, such as theories, models, and techniques – is seen as a messy and complex process, once such tools are created, they become “black boxes” – taken for granted and no longer examined, questioned or modified by those who use them. They are seen as stable, fused with tacit skill and deployed by professionals almost automatically in the right, familiar circumstances.
  • However, it is only occasionally that professional work presents professionals with the “right” circumstances. In order to accomplish their work, in many complex situations, professionals have to construct “doable problems” (Fujimura, 1987). This often involves actively manipulating and articulating various elements of the situation, and pulling various tools together, in order to construct the “right” configurations of tools, and deploy them at the “right” times, and in the “right” sequence. This construction of doable problems involves tinkering –

“using what is at hand, making-do, using things for new purposes, patching things together, and so on.” (Clarke & Fujimura, 1992, 11)

Nevertheless, the knowledge and skills that underpin “tinkering” have usually been seen as tacit, taken for granted and invisible (Clarke & Fujimura, 1992).

Two approaches to researching tools in work have yielded two contrasting ways of looking at tools: one that focusses on tools themselves, their intrinsic features; another that looks past these features and focusses on the construction of doable problems and tinkering. In the first case, the focus is on the major classes, elements and standard configurations of tools and their powers; in the second case, the focus is on processes of crafting and tinkering – how tools get entangled in human agency.

Neither extreme feels quite right. If one wants to understand both what tools are, and also how tools function, what human skilfulness looks like, and also what underpins this skill to use tools in diverse situations, then understanding both the properties of tools and their emergent capacities becomes important.

Looking at properties and capacities of tools is different from looking at isolated elements (De Landa, 2011). Properties and capacities link what a tool can do with human capacities and intentions, in any specific situation.

Consider a knife. The knife has certain elements (e.g., a handle, a blade), and certain properties (e.g., sharp vs. blunt, long vs. short, made of steel vs. plastic). It also has certain capacities (e.g., to cut bread, to spread butter). Some of these capacities may become actual only if the knife is used for this purpose and interacts with other entities (e.g., bread, butter). Nevertheless these capacities are real. The knife may never be used for cutting bread, yet its capacity to do so is still real. In human practices, the capacities of tools interact with human capacities and intentions. A craftsman may be able to carve a spoon from a piece of wood with a sharp knife if he has such an intention, but not everyone will be able to do this even if they have the same sharp knife. Most importantly, capacities of tools depend on properties, and properties and capacities shape functions of tools in skilful human activity. A plastic knife could have the capacity to cut bread, but not wood, and even a craftsman will not be able to carve a spoon with a plastic knife and will not use such a knife for this function.

What kinds of properties do epistemic tools have and what kinds of capacities and functions of these tools emerge in human activity? This understanding of what epistemic tools can do, and what they can’t, and how they function, is important if one wants to become skilful at creating “doable problems” and knowledgeably choosing the right tools for the job.

This chapter falls into three main parts. Section 13.1 describes the main kinds of epistemic tools that we have discerned during our empirical work; then, section 13.2 does the same for epistemic infrastructures. Our focus is the main properties, capacities and functions of various tools and infrastructures in professional work. Section 13.3 brings the different aspects together and discusses how the professional skill needed to master diverse epistemic tools and infrastructures is learnt – bringing us back to the question of constructing doable problems.

Source: These are extracts from Chapter 13 of Markauskaite, L., & Goodyear, P. (forthcoming, 2015). Epistemic fluency and professional education: innovation, knowledgeable action and actionable knowledge. Dordrecht: Springer. This is a close-to-final draft. Please check the final published version if you are going to quote it. The book  is available from Springer’s e-shop.

Your comments: Please, leave your questions and comments about this chapter in the field below. If you want to keep your comment private, say this in your message. (We will read it, but won’t publish.)

One response to “Chapter 13: Taxonomies of epistemic tools and infrastructures

  1. Pingback: Epistemic fluency, interdisciplinarity and expertise | epistemic fluency

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