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methodological framework

This section includes a brief discussion of the theories and frameworks that have shaped our perspectives toward this research study. The first examines calls from the library and information science community for research that uses "ethnomethodologically-informed" research practices to construct richer, more complex models for understanding search practices. The second discusses work in cultural-historical activity theory, an approach used (with variations) by Paul Prior (1998), David Russell (1997), and others, which attempts to identify the ways that research into particular practices-in-context can be used to enhance understanding of how reading/writing activities work. Although we cannot articulate these theoretical frameworks fully here, we intend this brief outline as a statement of the theories and perspectives that shape our design and the significance we attach to our findings.

Since the early 1990s, the term ethnomethodologically informed research (EM) has been used by researchers in several disciplines connected to the production and use of online knowledge resources. EM, as presented in 2000 by Crabtree, et al., is a type of ethnography that focuses on the reasons and methods that individuals within a group develop in order to accomplish particular activities. This focus differs from other research approaches in several important ways. First, it shares with ethnographic methods generally the attempt to examine human practices rather than the attributes of a particular system. In the case of online research, this means that observation of individuals or groups actually at work is as important, or even more important, than the results/products of that work. This approach, however, also entails the use of an interactive research method that seeks to obtain information about what participants think or believe about what they are doing and how they categorize or describe their own processes. A second way in which EM differs from other types of ethnographic work is by deliberately avoiding use of external theoretical frameworks to define or compartmentalize the practices the researcher observes. We are particularly interested in drawing from this last concept. However, our more activist stance creates a difference in our own approach, since we are concerned with creating a research environment that not only produces a "thick description" of users' activities and motivations, but also provides a space for participants to examine their practices against idealized standards for search behavior and allows us to assist them in developing "best practices" for their research.

Ethnomethodologically-informed research shares some similarities with activity theory as described by David Russell (1997). The foremost of these is that activity theory also seeks to avoid the use of applied frameworks to describe or categorize activity. The following quote from David Russell helps to illuminate this similarity:

Like dialogism, activity theory does not posit some underlying conceptual scheme or deep structure for explaining behavior (including writing), and it looks at the reciprocal mediation of behavior in mutual, intertextual exchange and negotiation. The object of analysis is neither texts nor minds nor conceptual schemes per se, but what is in between, the social intercourse. (p. 3)

The key advantage to activity theory as a methodological framework is that the idea of "interaction" allows the researcher to consider not only the acts themselves (in our case, what people are doing as they search) but the interactions between users, their tools, and the objective or motive of the interaction. This idea has deeply informed our own research, although again, our activist stance somewhat alters our research goals.

Paul Prior and Jody Shipka's 2003 article, "Chronotopic Lamination," offers an even more complex variation of activity theory, using the term "Cultural-Historical Activity Theory" (CHAT).Their description of and interest in a range of activity surrounding textual production and reception is more multi-faceted than Russell's, most specifically in their work on the ESSP's (Environment Selecting and Structuring Processes) of their study participants. Prior and Shipka define ESSP's as the, "intentional deployment of external aids and actors to shape, stabilize, and direct consciousness in service of the task at hand " (p. 219). What is particularly important for us in the work of Prior and Shipka is the attention they pay to the use of particular tools and environments as part of the process of shaping activity and experience. According to Prior and Shipka the importance of paying attention to "the agency of actors, to the production of environments, and finally to consciousness itself as a historied practice" is something that has not been traditionally addressed with effectiveness by much activity theory research:

CHAT has tended not to address these questions in its research. It has often treated tools and toolkits as givens, as cultural inheritances, as black boxes (Latour, 1987) that people use or fail to use depending on their learning, the current interaction, and their own preferences. (p. 219)

Prior and Shipka explain that researchers of literate activities need to attend to "... the interanimation of the many concrete and figured (Holland et al., 1998) worlds that subjects have available to them at every moment." In other words, for us, the use of specific kinds of tools and environments online, in combination (and perhaps in competition) with physical tools and environments, work interactively to shape the research concept of each study participant as a researcher, along with the specific activities he or she engages in throughout the research process. Prior and Shipka explain that, "the problem of consciousness in this perspective is not a question of identifying the operation of some transcendent mentality, but rather of defining some very human, very mundane ways of being in the world" (p. 219).

We have drawn from the work of both Russell (1997) and Prior and Shipka (2003) in our attempt to acknowledge and trace complex activities that intertwine with each other and with personal and socially structured research identities, although this preliminary study was limited in its ability to see behaviors-in-action. While our interviews often included discussion of practices and the use of illustrative technologies, we did not, at this point, make a systematic examination of researching behaviors in digital spaces. However, we wish to make two notations to this admission: first, the second stage of this research will capture actual search sessions by these participants with video screen capture software and speak-aloud protocol; second, our use of additional peer group discussions following these captured research sessions will incorporate our more activist research goals of enabling participants to reflect on and potentially adapt their research practices, and ultimately to offer suggestions for the improvement of library search tools.

On the whole, the frameworks of ethnomethodologically informed research and cultural-historical activity theory have helped us to define both our attitude towards the study and our goals for our research. We have used them to develop our own methodological framework, which includes the following attributes:

  1. To focus on individual practices, providing both observations of user behavior and user self-descriptions of behavior.
  2. To avoid pre-defining user activities through external theories.
  3. To consider not only explicit activities, but also the interaction of the user, the tool, and the goals of the search activity.
  4. To provide multiple locations for users to reflect on and even to alter search practices.

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