Article Thoughts: Interaction Analysis, by Jordan and Henderson (1995)


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After reading Simon’s Sciences of the Artificial last week, my advisor recommended I read Interaction Analysis, a classic Learning Sciences article by Brigitte Jordan and Austin Henderson, published in 1995. It takes stock of the way that video recordings are being used in qualitative research to study the interaction amongst people and with their work/life/learning artifacts. It draws on a number of different fields, but particularly from health care, education, and the computer industry.

I was particularly looking for ideas of artifacts and representation, primed from Simon, and made notes throughout about how I could use this in the research design of my dissertation. I had intended to take a couple notes in my new “dissertation reading notes” Google document, but ended up with a long list of quotes and thoughts!

As an overall thought for this, I think IA is at a more micro level than I want at the moment. I’m more interested in the design narratives that leaders and teachers tell about particular aspects of their practice. But it gave me a lot of ways to think about searching for discrepant evidence in my data, where to look (like when events start and stop, times outside the “official” schedule), and what to pay attention to (like where people are positioned in the room, not just who is present). (The challenge of course is doing this through fieldnotes rather than video. Unfortunately, video is quite difficult to get permission for in schools, both from IRB and from parents, for good reasons.)


Here are some notes:

  • Ground conclusions in the data – not interpretive from what the viewer might read into the interaction
  • Look for multiple instances of occurrences to know whether it is a pattern or outlier
  • Multiple people looking at the same segment
  • Don’t allow too long to interpret
  • Transcriptions as a representation of someone’s talk
  • “How adequate is this transcript for the purposes of the analysis to be performed?” (p.48)
  • “Instead of interviewing designers about their practices (or, even more removed, asking them to fill out a questionnaire) one might ask them to look at a videotape of themselves or of other designers at work and ask questions about that work as they arise from the activity being view. Data elicited in this manner are likely to have greater ecological validity, that is to say, are more readily applicable to real conditions of work than data generated under more artificial circumstances” (p.50).
  • If writing down observations or asking in interviews, “the event of interest … is re-presented in a processed form. It is reconstructed.” (p.51) in which case, the analysis done is of these reconstructed representations, and any interpretation is a property of the representational systems that reconstruct it.
  • “Transformations are always less rich than the original events” (53)
  • “Events are stretches of interaction that cohere in some manner that is meaningful to participants” (p.57). Then there are also “ethnographic chunks” which are shorter, identifiable behavioral units
  • Significant interactions tend to happen at the junctures when events start and end. Pay attention to what is turned on, brought in, taken out, or rearranged. Verbal and nonverbal prep activities.



Interesting question to look for in my case, in terms of studying the master schedule, is how much people actually follow it? It may be the formal, externally imposed structure, but do students and teachers follow this? What if a kid wants to work on his business project in a science block? What are the exceptions? What goes on in between the formal schedule?

  • Look for both repetitive/routinizing aspects of work and variability
  • “the appearance of constant task orientation” (p.63) – such as for students – invites them to find ways to get around it, like reading comic books under the desk

This looks at interaction between people, and there is also a section about the organization of talk in instrumental interaction. It occurs to me that this situation could also be analyzed from a distributed cognition lens, like Hutchins, but that is not the focus here.

  • Participation frameworks: “fluid structures of mutual engagement and disengagement characterized by bodily alignment (usually face-to-face), pattern eye-contact, situation-appropriate tone of voice, and other resources the situation may afford” (p.67)

Interesting follow up studies from my dissertation could be interaction analysis of the participatory design work of leaders and students. This would continue my scholarship down the crossover between education leadership and learning sciences.

  • “The analysis of visible breaches of the local rules for social interaction is one of the best methods for coming to an understanding of what the world looks like from somebody else’s point of view” (p.69)
  • Yet “hitches in interaction are often invisible to the casual observer because participants are very good at fixing them on the fly, without missing a beat” “Much of this knowledge [to solve typical hitches] is not written down anywhere, nor does it lend itself to writing down, but resides in the community of practice that forms up around new technologies” (p.71)

For the physical spaces – some provide more interactional resources and others provide less. This is a really interesting point to consider for flexible learning environments that increase interaction, which is a fundamental way to build community.

  • “Another issue that is often relevant in Interaction Analysis is who owns the territory on which interaction takes place. Interestingly, ownership of territory affects the mobility of participants – whether they can move around at will or have to ask for permission. It also affects rights to structure the event, to initiate the beginning and end, and probably other aspects as well” (p.74)
  • From Eric Bredo’s work: “Differential mobility often indicates asymmetrical power relations” (p.74)
  • “Of particular interest to Interaction Analysis is how these physical setups affect possible participation structures, that is to say, how they encourage or hinder certain kinds of interaction between people in the scene. Furniture and technology can have a major effect. A group of students arranging themselves for collaborative problem-solving in front of a single computer differs notably from one positioned around a flat work table. Interaction Analysis thus considers to what extent the spatial layout of the setting is fixed or allows choices; that is to say, to what extet physical configurations and spatial arrangements are imposed and to what extent they are under the immediate control of participants. Facilities layout and technology design always provide specific constraints on what kind of interaction is possible within a given setting and what kinds of activities and interactions particular material objects engender and support. Interaction Analysis investigates how those constraints influence what participants actually do and how what gets done is negotiated” (p.75).
  • “Artifacts are ubiquitously present in all human endeavors. They structure interaction, generate problems, and provide resources for the solution of difficulties as they arise. Sometimes they constitute the focus of an interaction .… Sometimes they are coincidental to it…. In Interaction Analysis, the basic premise is that artifacts nad technologies set up a social field within which certain activities become very likely others impossible, and still others very improbable or impossible. One of our central interests lies in understanding what kinds of activities and interactions particular material objects engender and support and how these change as different artifacts and technologies are introduced” (p.75).
  • “material objects as special kinds of participants” (p.75).
  • “An important issue in regard to artifacts and tools is their ‘ownership.’ It is often possible to tell from tape who owns an object because the owner has rights to touch, to manipulate, to display, which are not shared by other participants” (p.78).
  • “Public information displays compellingly structure interaction. We find it useful to make a distinction between restricted displays, which can be seen only by one or two persons at a time, and unrestricted displays, which are available to a whole group” (p.79)

Maybe I could look at what is public on the online platforms and what is private? This changes the interaction people have with it. Things like who has access to the competencies the student has completed, like at one personalized learning school where the Google sheet is shared with the student and teacher. There might be different accountability and interactions around it when both student and teacher have transparent access to it. (Is it actually transparent? Can/do kids know where it is and what it means?)

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