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Last update: 25th July 2008

Background: Spaces and Identities

Research comes from somewhere. My current research comes from investigations of how groups of people work together by exploiting the space around them. It also comes from research on individual perspectives on what it means to manage one's identity in a group.

Understanding and collaborating in spaces: Participating in joint action

The way I look at it, there are two broad ideas that frame my research. These are the psychological spaces (defined by perception and experience) within which people come together, and the dynamics of joint action. The principle dynamic of joint action that has characterised my work for a good ten years now is 'participation'.

My previous work has examined how people are brought together by various forms of interactive technology. It has evolved from examining person-to-person video-mediated communication to looking at relationships between people and artefacts in and between places of interaction. A consequence of this is an interest in aspects of physical spaces occupied by the various parties as they interact with one another. Many of these, such as the presence of a document or even other people, are instrumental in the communicative acts performed within conversation.

Knowing that other people know about one's own space is extremely important. It allows assumptions to be made about the things that can be said that make implicit references to this space. A reasonably well known example of such a physical-interactive media mix is given by the so-called 'media space'. In essence, a media space uses networks of communications and information technologies to link together a number of physical locations. In this way, the people who occupy each separate location can see and or hear what one another are doing and also the things, physical or virtual, that they use.

A key aspect of most media spaces is that they are designed to be permanently active. In other words, those who share space with media space technologies are constantly known about, to some extent, by other people with access to media space transmissions. What does this mean for their patterns of living and working? How accustomed might they become to each other's whereabouts and availability? Does their idea of privacy change, or level of comfort with publicising their day-to-day activities? Is the 'tone' or atmosphere pervading the imaged spaces transmitted along with the objective content of the images?

Another example of a mix of physical space and information technology can be found in some surgical operating theatres. Keyhole surgery allows an image of the surgeon's operations on the patient to be made visible to all members of the surgical team. How might we conceive of their working space, both physical and virtual, to consider how they might know about and support one another in their individual responsibilities?

Visibility and Identity

There are two ways in which I've deepened my involvement with the 'psychological impact of visibility'.

The primary thrust of my work has been to adapt relevant psychological theory to improve the effectiveness of in the design of collaborative systems. In particular, I have tried to bring together the evidential nature of Social Identity Theory and Common Ground (see below) understanding and designing all Computer-Mediated Communication technologies.

The other, more practice-focussed thrust of my work has concerned the the knowledge we gain of one another through existing technologies, as a result of the design and development practices that drive current systems work. For example, together with Linda Macaulay and in collaboration with the UK Office of the Information Commissioner, I examined the implications of the 1998 Data Protection Act for designing any system.

My research looks at communications media that do not convey information from the physical world. The concept of mutual knowledge based on awareness of physical spaces has far-reaching implications for the design of, for example, email systems. In Computer-Supported Co-operative (sometimes 'collaborative') Work, or CSCW, a great deal of work has been done that asks questions of this kind. Very little, however, has been motivated by psychological theory.

Communication and action

Behind the technologies that are identified with my research, I have been informed by three distinct theoretical accounts of human action and communication. These are Distributed Cognition developed by Jim Hollan and Ed Hutchins, the Grounding Theory of communication as a joint activity, invented by Herbert H. Clark and Susan Brennan, and the activity theory school of Soviet psychology, especially as articulated in the work of Alexei N. Leont'ev. Taking one step further back, my work takes inspiration from the concerns of J.J.Gibson, in his formulation of an ecological psychology, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his account of human perception and understanding based on physically embodied existence.