Accounting for System Action: Ethnomethodology and the Reconceptualisation of Interactive Systems

Paul Dourish, Apple Research Labs

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University November 1, 1996


For the last ten years, social science perspectives have become increasingly important in the design of interactive systems; and, for a variety of reasons, ethnomethodology has become one favoured approach, especially in the domain of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work. However, the role of ethnomethodology in systems design has generally been limited to the early stages of design, focussing in particular on work setting and work practice analysis and requirements gathering. The relationship between ethnomethodology and systems design has been purely a practical matter -- an issue of process.

In this talk, I will outline an approach which takes the connection between the disciplines as a theoretical rather than practical matter, and which seeks to exploit foundational relationships between the conceptual bases of each discipline. I will discuss "accounts" as an example of this approach. Accounts are a re-reading of computationally reflective architectures as accounts which systems offer of their own actions -- drawing a relationship between the computational notion of abstraction and the ethnomethodological notion of the accountability of human social action.

Slides for the talk are available.


Paul Dourish is a senior research scientist in the Discourse Architecture Laboratory at Apple Research Labs in Cupertino, California, where he works on advanced computational architectures for interactive systems and computer-supported collaborative work. Before joining Apple in July 1996, he spent seven years at Rank Xerox EuroPARC in England, designing, building, deploying and studying technologies for workgroup collaboration, and media spaces in particular. His research interests include the relationship between ethnomethodology and systems design, emergent social behaviours in technologically-mediated settings, the influence of system architecture on interaction, reflective architectures and programming language design. He also has an inexplicable fascination with alchemy, the Knights Templar and ridiculous conspiracy theories. He holds a B.Sc. in Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science from the University of Edinburgh, and a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of London.


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