Representing the user: a sociological study of the discourse of human computer interaction

Cooper, Geoff (1991). Representing the user: a sociological study of the discourse of human computer interaction. PhD thesis The Open University.



The discipline of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) was established in the early 1980's on the foundations of cognitive psychology, computer science and ergonomics. In recent years however, claims have been made for the relevance of forms of sociology to this avowedly multidisciplinary field, and a number of sociologists have attempted to contribute to the general enterprise of developing a deeper understanding of the computer user and thereby informing, and improving, software design. This thesis is, in one sense, a continuation of this emerging body of work. However, my contention is that little, if any, critical attention has been given within this work to questions that would seem to be of fundamental importance to attempts at collaboration between disciplines: how is the disciplinary organization of knowledge to be understood, and more specifically, can HCI be adequately described in the simple pluralist terms in which it tends to characterise itself? The primary focus then is on the discipline of HCI. Utilising a theoretical model which considers disciplines as distinctive discourses which constitute their own domains of objects, I analyse the discourse and practice of HCI in order to explicate some of its underlying premises and assumptions, and to argue that it has, unavoidably, set many of the parameters within which contributing disciplines must operate. Texts, audio and video tapes, and ethnographic observation of instances of HCI practice form the empirical basis of the thesis. In addition, an analysis of some recorded human-computer interactions, which like the study as a whole, exemplifies an approach that differs from the prevailing sociological models within the field, is used to support the argument.

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