Posted by: soniahs | August 16, 2010

Exam reading: “Network”

Back to my exam readings in this post… “Network,” by Clay Spinuzzi, is an account of the operations of a telecom company: its development, problems, how it operates successfully, and how work that seems simple from the outside is really quite complex. A large part of the book is dedicated to exploring two theories describing networks (about which, more below).

While not long, it is definitely a dense book- not excessive repetition, but it did take longer for me to finish than I had estimated. I’ll read some short texts next so I can feel better about crossing things off my list…

Summary: In this book, Spinuzzi uses two theories to describe the structure and function of a telecommunications company: Activity Theory (AT) and Actor-Network Theory (ANT). He chose a telecom company as an example of the highly decentralized type of knowledge work that is becoming more common in modern organizations. AT is a theory of learning and development through interaction, based largely on Marxist dialectics; ANT is a descriptive theory that focuses on how shifting relationships among actors in a network help define those actors, based largely on rhetoric. Spinuzzi spends a lot of time exploring both similarities and differences in these two theories, and giving examples of how they apply to situations at the company. Four characteristics of highly-networked organizations are: members have heterogeneous skills/tasks, members are multiply linked, transformative shifts can change the goals of the network, and certain processes within the network are “black-boxed” (appear to be simple from the outside when they are, in fact, not). Texts help connect the different actors within the network in three ways: they are stable traces of (ephemeral) ideas, the structure of genre helps organize unfamiliar information into familiar patterns, and they act as boundary objects among actors operating within the network in different contexts. According to Spinuzzi, each of these theories can be used to describe different aspects of “net work,” although he concludes that AT (with its developmental focus) is most appropriate to use in similar future studies, if dialogue and rhetoric (strengths of ANT) are taken into account.

Comments: Although there are some interesting political implications of knowledge work here (e.g., worker segregation by education, the “homework economy,” the necessity of continual retraining), the most immediately useful aspects of this book for me will probably be the focus on learning in networks and how texts can function in shaping networks. There is a lot of material in this book, and it’s also useful as an introduction to AT and ANT that is grounded in specific examples.

Links to: Tomlinson (theoretical aspects of networks); Haraway (cyborg identity, workers’ need for constant learning); Brown & Duguid (information networks)


  1. […] to: Spinuzzi (network-based learning); some of my subject reading list […]

  2. […] (technology design), Feenberg (applied case of design with technical and social ends in mind), Spinuzzi (objects & network formation?), Johnson-Eiola (design for a purpose, though T. specifically […]


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