A language action perspective on the design of cooperative work

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Citation: Terry Winograd (1986) A language action perspective on the design of cooperative work. Proceedings of the 1986 ACM conference on Computer-supported cooperative work - CSCW '86 (RSS)

doi: 10.1145/637069.637096

Tagged: Computer Science (RSS)


(Title: A language/action perspective on the design of cooperative work)

This article offers a perspective on design for cooperative work systems called the language/action perspective. The language/action perspective builds on a rough consensus around theory for cooperative work, including an agreement that structure "determines" the possibilities for action, that design is ontological (participates in a larger design of an organization and practices, that systems design necessarily includes a perspective, and that perspectives can be chosen and applied to work. The language/action perspective is "based on understanding language as the primary dimension of human cooperative activity" (p. 203). Alternative perspectives include focusing on information processing, systems of rules, authority structures, competition, and personal relationships. Language/action takes up linguistic perspectives on interaction, including examining the syntax, semantics, and pragmatics of language use. Pragmatics include types of statements (performatives, assertive, directive, commissive, declaration, expressive). These types can be used to label steps in an interaction (e.g. the diagram on p. 206); possible interaction types include conversations for action, for clarification, for possibilities, and for orientation. Interpreting these pragmatics includes context: consideration of individuals, roles, professions, and locations. Semantics include tracing distinctions, including establishing a background context, new distinctions emerging, indicating distinctions, and using metaphors. Syntax includes patterns and flows. The paper shifts gears to an example of how nurses communicate as part of providing care, and applies the theory to interpreting this case study. The article closes by describing what the language/action perspective doesn't provide: very little understanding of equipment considerations, or physical issues of resources and locations, or an analysis of power and authority, or insight into conflict, or a deeper study of interpersonal relations.

Theoretical and practical relevance:

This article offers a thorough description of both the language/action perspective and its alternatives, then applies the perspective to an example; the article closes by describing the limitations of the perspective.