Re: [xmca] A Culture of Safety at Work

From: Andy Blunden <ablunden who-is-at>
Date: Fri Jan 18 2008 - 00:22:28 PST

Gary Fine's paper may serve to show why I have emphasised the role of
"material culture," that is to say the mass of artefacts, in the formation
of activity and consciousness. I am certainly not criticising the findings
of this paper, which are extremely interesting, just its methodological

Fine uses the word "culture" in the usual sense derived from anthropology,
and "idioculture" is a neolog using "idio-" in the sense of "idiom," that
is idiosyncratic, local culture. The question, from whence does this
idioculture arise and how is it sustained?

In the opening section of the paper, Fine says that:

           "Cultures are ultimately grounded in interaction."

which is the axiomatics of what is now known as "intersubjectivity" and so
far as I can see dominates sociology and social philosophy, at least in the
US. He goes on:

           "It is essential to conceptualise culture as grounded in
           interaction ... through focus on a group's idioculture,
           a system of meaning that arises from and contributes
           to group dynamics. ... Idioculture, as used here, signifies
           a system of knowledge, beliefs,. behaviours, and customs,
           shared by members of an interacting group to which members
           can refer and serves as the basis for further interaction."


           "Group culture incorporates traditions and routine
           practices, that is tied to background knowledge, common
           values, group goals, and status systems ... but also
           serves as a space in which new _cultural items_ are
           created that complement previous traditions."

He does not explain what is meant by "cultural items," only "moral tales"
are mentioned at this point, and it has to be said that in this
methodological introduction this is the only mention of "material culture"
or artefacts.

But when we move on to the substance of the research we find that the
following are used by people to create and maintain the relevant idioculture:

               * Nicknames
               * a food store for shared snacks
               * a staff member's dog
               * "public" computer passwords
               * selected ambient music from the radio
               * the title "Doctor"
               * laughter
               * magazine pages on science stuck to the wall
               * a staff member's garage and a microwave
               * a scorched rabbit named Sparky
               * NCPR business cards
               * a "training video"
               * a "mad scientist" web page
               * a collection plate
               * altered lettering on the building's name plate
               * monocles and black-rimmed glasses
               * a fish belonging to a female employee,
                 - referred to as a "boundary object"
               * electrodes placed in this fish tank
              * the locality in which the office is located
               * the warning and reports issued by the office, including
                   their size and the statistics of their accuracy
               * the spatial layout of the offices, windows, etc.

That is, a whole host of artefacts, all with publicly available meaning,
are used by the individuals involved, together with the idiosyncratic
interpretations and usages to which the artefacts are subject, in order to
create and sustain the idiocultural consciousness and activity.

The writer then concludes with some further methodological remarks on the
work of George Simmel.

           "... culture is not merely a set of collective
           representations, but an enactment based on social
           coordination. For Simmel and the small group
           tradition, culture is always grounded in action.
           ... the Symbolic Interactionist tradition
           proposes that culture derives from the active
           creation of meaning and interpretations by social
           actors. ... Groups ... are arenas of action,
           incorporating situated meaning, embodies action
           and the power of copresence."

Now what is remarkable is that in his methodological introduction, Fine
claims that culture is created by interaction and there is virtually no
mention of the use of material culture or symbols. This is in complete
contrast with the body of the research where it turns out that the
participants in these group cultures use 22 distinct material artefacts not
to mention the normal spoken words and gestures which constitute so much of
any culture.

The body of the research is really interesting and would be of immediate
interest to anyone in the CHAT tradition, drawing attention, as it does to
the creation, use and redeployment of so many "tools-in-use" )symbols,
artefacts, signs or material culture or whatever you want to call them).

The concluding methodological reflections cite _Symbolic Interactionism_
without any attention being given to the central idea of Symbolic
Interactionism, originating from the work of GH Mead, that individuals draw
upon a repertoire of publicly available, symbols which are subject to
differing interpretation in the course of use.

The quote that Steve Gabosch has drawn off the internet accurately
represents what Fine has done in the body of this research, viz.:

          "... the meanings of cultural items in a small
           group must be considered in order to comprehend
           their continued existence as communication. ...
          "Cultural forms may be created and continue
           to be utilized in situations if they are
               * known to members of the interacting group,
               * usable in the course of group interaction,
               * functional in supporting group goals and individual needs,
               * appropriate in supporting the status hierarchy of the
group, and
               * triggered by events which occur in group interaction.
          "These elements have impact only through the
           interpretations of group members of their situations."

So Fine does excellent research, but when he describes his own methodology
he omits the role of "material culture" - what he calls "cultural items" or
we would call "artefacts" which are in fact and in the view of others
describing Fine's work of central importance.

So when we move to Helena's issue of the "culture of safety" this is not a
secondary question which can be glided over - these "cultural items" may
be dangerous machinery or warning signs which can be either ignored or
taken note of with severe consequences. It is to a large extent only the
material culture which managers and owners have direct control over, and
management relies on the manipulation of material culture in order to
control the activity of workers.

On the other hand, as Steve pointed out, when unions are removed from the
picture, and workers lose power, and the power of workers to subject
written procedures to their own independent interpretation is reduced, a
loss of safe practice results. Fine's article also reflected the fact that
independence and social power allows people to subject the material culture
to their own interpretation and control social practices accordingly.

So the question of how "cultural items" or "material culture" used in
social practice (and not just interaction!) are effective or not in
contributing to the regulation of social practices is absolutely central,
and must be made explicit in our methodology. If the "cultural items" (such
as a dangerous machine or a guard rail or a warning sign) are to be taken
for granted, as if they contained nothing other than what the partners to
an interaction take them to mean, then we are sorely mistaken. The meaning
and material impact of a cultural product is subject to contestation, and
it carries quite objective affordances and constraints.

So, let's all agree that Gary Fine's paper is really interesting and good
research, but if his work is to be replicated, recognition has to be given
to the materiality of the culture.

At 10:44 PM 17/01/2008 -0500, you wrote:
>Dale, your thinking on workplace "personality" seems to be closely
>related to Gary Alan Fine's concept of workplace and small group
>"idioculture." See what you think. I found the article in Wikipedia
>on Gary Fine helpful in grasping where he is coming from - check it
>out (google Gary Alan Fine). His focus is on looking at the
>"idioculture" or perhaps "personality" of small groups.
>Here is a passage from an intro I drew off the net to one of his
>articles (he also has a book on his studies of Little League culture,
>among other kinds of groups he has studied). This passage offers a
>summary of his concept of what constitutes a small-group
>"idioculture." I bolded some phrases and created separate lines for
>them for quicker reading and (hopefully) increased clarity. Fine's
>thinking about "idioculture" seems to deserve some careful reflection
>from a CHAT perspective. What do you think?
>Small Groups and Culture Creation: The Idioculture of Little League
>Baseball Teams
>Gary Alan Fine
>American Sociological Review, Vol. 44, No. 5 (Oct., 1979), pp. 733-745
>This article consists of 13 page(s).
>Following interactionist theory, this study argues that
>cultural creation and usage can be examined by conceptualizing
>cultural forms as originating in a small-group context.
>Those cultural elements which characterize an interacting group are
>termed the idioculture of the group.
>This approach focuses on the content of small-group interaction, and
>suggests that the meanings of cultural items in a small group must be
>considered in order to comprehend their continued existence as
>Five characteristics of cultural items affect which items will become
>part of a group culture.
>Cultural forms may be created and continue to be utilized in
>situations if they are
>known to members of the interacting group,
>usable in the course of group interaction,
>functional in supporting group goals and individual needs,
>appropriate in supporting the status hierarchy of the group,
>and triggered by events which occur in group interaction.
>These elements have impact only through the interpretations of group
>members of their situations. Support for this approach is drawn from a
>participant observation study of Little League baseball teams.
><end of modified quote from Gary Alan Fine>
>- Steve
>On Jan 17, 2008, at 3:37 PM, Dale Cyphert wrote:
>>Would it be useful to distinguish between a workplace "personality"
>>and a more pervasive social "culture" within which that group
>>operates? I work with this two-layer notion quite a bit when I try
>>to explain that any organization has an idiosyncratic set of norms,
>>behaviors, and expectations of how people ought to think, act, and
>>communicate. At the same time, business organizations in general
>>conform to a set of norms that is different from engineering
>>firms...and neither is ever played out exactly within any one
>>organization (or even within any one work-group in an organization.)
>>Businesses themselves, in fact, reflect the social norms of the
>>region in which they generally do business.
>>Which doesn't really answer Helena's question directly, but I think
>>it's easy to get hung up on what a "culture" is, when the real
>>question is probably closer to "what are the behavior patterns and
>>priorities that direct folks toward or away safe behaviors as they
>>engage in day-to-day activities?" If the analogy were with
>>psychological constructs, that sounds more like a personality than a
>>result of culture.
>>Dale Cyphert, Ph.D.
>>Associate Professor and Interim Head
>>Department of Management
>>University of Northern Iowa
>>1227 W.27th Street
>>Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0125
>>(319) 273-6150
>>Mike Cole wrote:
>>>Its always difficult to interpret non-responses on XMCA, but the
>>>note that
>>>Helena sent in the middle
>>>of the culture discussion growing out of discussion of Andy's paper
>>>not to have been given
>>>much attention. Its a practical issue for Helena and for the
>>>workers and
>>>company involved.
>>>I sent the note re "web culture" in hopes of moving discussion in the
>>>direction of consideration
>>>of Helena's message, but also to doubtful effect.
>>>So, let me take a stab at being useful and thereby providing people
>>>invitation to lend a hand.
>>>In my intermittent thinking about the question, my thoughts have
>>>often to the idea of "cultural
>>>styles" because, as in that literature, there appears to be a claim
>>>there is some shared pattern of
>>>meaning and associated practices that apply, more or less, to
>>>condition all
>>>of the interactions among
>>>people in a common social group living in more or less common
>>>"Culture of the classroom"
>>>and DIFFERENT "cultures of the classroom" may be at this level of
>>>generality. Perhaps "culture of machismo"
>>>in some societies or parts of societies?
>>>I also thought about the pilot's in Ed Hutchin's aircraft who have
>>>check lists and routines for going
>>>through them, and routines for ensuring that the routines are gone
>>>and rules about how to go
>>>through those routines, and sanctions for not going through those
>>>A preliminary guess about how to talk about such group-specific, but
>>>presumably within-group pervasive
>>>phenomena in the case of a factory or workplace. In such cases
>>>refers to a combination of values
>>>and their associated practices which members recognize, recognize
>>>others recognize them, and can be
>>>referred to with the expectation that they will be understood by
>>>others, so
>>>they are tools for constructing joint activity,
>>>a "shared reality." Gary Alan Fine in more elaborated treatments
>>>this sort of cutlural system an idioculture.
>>>(Fine's definition can be interpreted a la Geertz, as an
>>>idealistic approach to culture. This is not my
>>>reading; I prefer, a s n the parts of Geertz I use, to use it as
>>>a way to
>>>keep both material and ideal aspects of
>>>culture in mind).
>>>Perhaps this way of looking at things could prove useful, Helene.
>>>I got to
>>>thinking that if ALL that constituted the
>>>"Culture of the workplace" you were studying was safety, people
>>>would enter
>>>the building, sit down in a chair, and
>>>not move a muscle all day to be sure they were safe. Absurd, of
>>>They are engaged in productive activity
>>>and earning their livings, so they must, like Hutchin's pilots, do
>>>that are not guaranteed safe. So as part
>>>of many of the practices constituitive of the particular activity
>>>safety is a value that gets included, with
>>>others, in what people do.
>>>If this is approximately correct, the place to start may be with the
>>>explicit practices where safety is named and
>>>included. And then work to ferret out implicit practices where
>>>it is
>>>present, although perhaps not explicitly
>>>named. And , passim Yrjo, look for the contradictions that arise
>>>this value and its associated practices
>>>and shadings of practices conflict with other, co-existing cultural
>>>features of the setting.
>>>A glance at google suggests that there is a n existing literature
>>>to workplaces where some such approach
>>>as I am gesturing toward may live.
>>>xmca mailing list
>>xmca mailing list
>xmca mailing list

  Andy Blunden : tel (H) +61 3 9380 9435,
mobile 0409 358 651

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Received on Fri Jan 18 00:24 PST 2008

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