13.0431 how to find out what we need, interpreted

From: Humanist Discussion Group (willard@lists.village.virginia.edu)
Date: Wed Feb 23 2000 - 07:18:14 CUT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 13, No. 431.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Wed, 23 Feb 2000 07:04:01 +0000
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: another go at interpreting semi-coherent grumbles

    In Humanist 13.427 Norman Hinton declares he is able to make no sense from
    the quotation I gave criticising efforts to find out what we computing
    humanists need by way of better software. Since I didn't have that trouble,
    I'll comment on the passages he identified.

    > > . Apart from lack of time and money,
    > > >these attempts have been flawed by seriously underestimating even the
    > > >sociologically ordinary difficulties in extracting ideas reliably from
    > > >actual practice.
    >I'm sorry, but I have no idea what on earth this sentence means or intends to
    >mean. What are "sociologically ordinary difficulties" ? The words don't
    >seem made to go in the same phrase. And what is the 'actual (or even
    >'virtual') practice from which ideas are somehow extracted ? (and how does
    >one extract an idea ??) If I knew what it meant, I might respond to it.

    What I thought the quoted quotation meant was that the attempts to find out
    what we need 'have seriously underestimated the difficulties ordinarily
    encountered and dealt with by social scientists when they do this kind of
    research' and that this research if properly conducted would consist in
    'discovering through disciplined observation of their behaviour what it is
    that people in fact need by way of better software'.

    I confess that I share the implied respect for social science methods,
    which I've also argued elsewhere we really do need to know about and be
    trained in if we are going to undertake such studies. In more colloquial
    terms, what I think the above is trying to say is, 'find out how to do the
    job properly before you do it'. I guess the implied question here is, have
    ALL the efforts to find out -- as the quotation sweepingly declares -- been
    flawed by lack of such training?

    > > More specifically, they have not been framed to separate
    > > >the operations of scholarly research from habits formed by existing
    > > >software and so have boxed in the imaginations of those questioned
    > by the
    > > >limitations of the tools we need to outgrow.
    >Where else does one get things except from things that already exist ? I know
    >the "outside the box/envelope" cliche's but they mean little or
    nothing. Does
    >the author really expect something new under the sun ?

    I don't know what an "outside the box/envelope" cliche is. What I took this
    to mean was, 'a well designed survey/study should be able to separate what
    people do in computer-unaided research from what they do when using a
    machine' -- so that you are not simply getting back answers whose scope has
    been predefined by whatever software the subjects of the study are using.

    Does that make sense? Is it in fact true that existing studies are thus flawed?

    I know that in the area defined by the overlap of computer science and
    sociology, studies of working patterns have been done -- of office-workers
    I would assume -- in order to find out about what software would suit the
    kind of work being done? I would assume that the practice called 'usability
    testing' would bear on the question raised here, though of course usability
    has quite another aim.

    As well as reactions to the above it might be useful to have some pointers
    to central work in the area where CS overlaps with social science methods.
    I'd assume that we err as much or more if we uncritically accept those
    methods than if we reject them outright or proceed in ignorance of them. I
    for one would appreciate having a reference or two to a critical
    methodological survey of what happens in the social sciences -- something
    that sets out (1) the difficulty of the problems; (2) the aims and
    techniques; (3) where and how they go wrong. Does anyone know C. Bell and
    H. Roberts, eds., Social Researching (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984)?

    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
    voice: +44 (0)171 848 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 848 5081
    <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/>
    maui gratia

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