7 September 2011

Cognitive Ethnography and Memory

Studies in cognitive ethnography (Hutchins, 1995, 2010; Williams, 2006) have been applying traditional ethnographic methods (Taylor, 1994; Toren, 1996) to investigate cognitive and interactive processes between participants engaged in multimodal interactions in real-world activities (Hutchins & Nomura, 2011). Among these methods, cognitive ethnographers employ participant observation, interviewing and artifact analysis (Williams, 2006). These studies have been specially focused on exploring collaborative processes in activities of knowledge construction between experts in organization and professional settings (e.g. classrooms, flight decks, scientific laboratories and ship navigation). Thus, cognitive ethnographers examine how material (e.g. tools, technological devices) and social environments (e.g. co-workers) are coordinated in meaningful cultural activities (e.g. flying a commercial plane). Williams claims that ‘cognitive ethnography looks at process: at the moment-to-moment development of activity and its relation to sociocultural (often institutional) processes unfolding on different time scales’ (2006: 838). The advantages of this method of inquiry for memory research are multiple. Cognitive ethnography may provide the proper analytical tool to explore the multimodal and cognitive dimension of collaborative processes of memory-making in real-world settings

 This approach constitutes an ecological valid method in the cognitive sciences to investigate practices of remembering. Most of the studies in cognitive ethnography have been conducted in institutional settings where the cognitive, material and social activities had been previously determined by the social and cultural practice (e.g. navigation, teaching and flying). Few studies in memory research have explicitly employed cognitive ethnographic
methodologies to explore processes of remembering. Computer scientists and neurologists (Wu et al.,  2008) have investigated the cognitive strategies that families create to struggle with amnesia in real-world activities.This study involved the recruitment of ten families which some of their members had severe memory problems. This very interesting study explores the communicative strategies that families create to compensate the memory impairment of one of their members. These communicative strategies include the use of technological devices (e.g. calendars, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and journals) as well as discursive practices. 

The final aim of the investigation was to show how by means of distributed cognitive processes across participants and technological devices families may work as cognitive systems coping with amnesia (Wu et al., 2008: 833). Notwithstanding, little attention has been paid to either how family members actually discursively interact when jointly reconstruct shared memories (Harris et al., 2011) or how the incorporation of technological devices trigger extended cognitive processes (Sutton et al., 2010) - apart from providing evidence about how beneficial such cognitive couplings across family members and technological devices may be.

Harris, C, Keil, P., Sutton, J, Barnier, A. & McIlwain, D. (2011). We Remember, We forget: collaborative remembering in older couples. Discourse Processes 48 (4), 267-303.
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Sutton, J., Harris, C., Keil, P. & Barnier, A. (2010). The psychology of memory, extended cognition, and socially distributed remembering. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 9 (4), 521-560.
Taylor, M. (1994). Ethnography. In P. Bainster, E. Burman, I. Parker & C. Tindall (eds.), Qualitative Methods in Psychology: A Research Guide. Buckingham, PA: Open University.
Toren, C. (1996). Ethnography: theoretical background. In J.T.E. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of Qualitative Research Methods for Psychology and the Social Sciences (pp. 102-112). Leicester: BPS Blackwell.
Williams, R.F. (2006). Using cognitive ethnography to study instruction. In S.A. Barab, K.E. Hay & D.T. Hickey (eds.), Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Learning Sciences (vol. 2, pp. 838-844). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Wu, M., Birnholts, J., Richards, B., Baeker, R. & Massimi, M. (2008). Collaborating to remember: a distributed cognition account of families coping with memory impairments. In Proceedings of the ACM CHI 2008 Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems (pp.825-834). Florence, Italy.

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