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Critical Power Tools: Technical Communication and Cultural Studies

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2008. Book review: Critical power tools: technical communication and cultural studies. Technical Communication 55(1):81–82.

J. Blake Scott, Bernadette Longo, and Katherine V. Wills, eds. 2006. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. [ISBN 978-0-7914-6776-3. 293 pages, including index. $24.95 USD (softcover).]

Cultural studies is a theoretical framework for studying how communication contexts shape communication processes and results, and encourages both criticism (reflection upon the ethics of the communication) and action (ethical transformation). The contributed chapters in Critical power tools were written for academics, for whom the book comprehensively and clearly summarizes the theoretical background for cultural studies, current trends, and the field’s role in communication research and teaching. To do full justice to the book, I’ve explored it in more depth in the KnowGenesis journal (Vol. 2, No. 3, September 2007;

[You can also read this article on my Web site.]

Critical power tools is worth your time even if you’re a practitioner like me, because it provides a more realistic image of modern cultural studies and clear implications for our work. You would do well, however, to skip the “Introduction” and “Theory” sections, which might discourage you from reading further. Start with “Research” and “Pedagogy,” and return to “Theory” later to deepen your understanding.

“Theory” addresses hegemony (control of information) and legitimation (determining who can create and disseminate knowledge)—not just theoretical issues, as we realize whenever we document unusable products created by designers who don’t value (legitimate) knowledge provided by the product’s users. Such power games are also evident in our changing role as communicators: once perceived as invisible conveyors of information created by others, we’re now seen as translators between experts and audiences or even as authors who create wholly new meaning. Only the latter roles earn us respect, workplace status, and the power of agency, the ability to become user advocates and change things. The power of prevailing practice may also lead us to expedient, oversimplified, and rote best practices (“extreme usability”) rather than more flexible, human-centered views of usability. Focusing on needs of the audience frees us from such hegemony and ensures the voices of users are heard in product design. Technology also robs us of agency when we becomes its slaves, but can empower us to do things the technology’s designers never imagined.

“Research” shows how cultural studies inform research. Problems with knowledge legitimation arise whenever we’re denied access to designers or the ability to act as user advocates. The space shuttle Challenger might still be in service and its crew alive had Morton Thiokol’s engineers been granted agency; instead, their managers prioritized avoidance of a costly delayed launch. The Challenger disaster reveals how misunderstanding the managerial audience prevented engineers from making a persuasive case. We sometimes dismiss audience analysis as less important than writing, but this dismissal can clearly have severe consequences. Research also reveals the institutions within which organizations work; hospitals, for example, function within the institution of Western medicine. Institutions develop unquestioned assumptions, but what seems common sense may be neither common nor sensible. Cultural studies can identify and challenge assumptions, revealing more ethical and effective ways to accomplish an organization’s goals.

Agency also affects research. Researchers focusing on the ethical goal of making products more usable sometimes forget that research participants, who may have different goals, can express agency by reshaping the research process to address their goals. Researchers and the “researched” must thus seek consensus to ensure that research is meaningful to both. “Living documents”, which evolve in response to changing conditions (just as product documentation is endlessly revised as new versions are released), illuminate this challenge. Consensus is crucial in the context of risk management. For example, scientists and engineers who develop mine safety regulations strive to define risk objectively so they can establish effective regulations, but may fail to account for the subjective definitions of risk used by those who actually face the workplace risks. Safety regulations can only succeed when the two definitions align.

“Pedagogy” critically examines teaching. Focusing on “product” and “process” (manuals and how we develop them) is important for practitioners, since we’re judged on our ability to produce these deliverables, but ethnography (studying organizational culture) reveals the stories of those who live within that culture. Autoethnography (examining our own workplace) expands our understanding from the product to how our actions fit within the organization’s wider context, thereby revealing opportunities for agency. Comparisons with stories from other workplaces reveal our blind spots and how we’re excluded from influencing decisions.

Teachers increasingly recognize that traditional approaches, focused on designing information and communication for audiences, assume we know more about their needs and how to meet them than they do. But if their knowledge is legitimate, we must design communication in cooperation with our audience, increasing opportunities for agency (empowering them to shape our deliverables) and engagement (dialogue between us, developers, and audiences). Communication expertise then lies in working with audiences to discern effective and acceptable solutions; each new audience requires adaptation of our “best practices” by changing how our skills should be applied. Teachers must produce students who are capable of functioning in the workplace yet can challenge the status quo and the narrow emphasis on producing documentation more efficiently. When classroom exercises are stripped of workplace context, they lead to stereotypical approaches that fail to meet real needs. Workplace experience provides the missing context and teaches how classroom “best practices” change in real-world communication.

Service learning (participation in community-service projects) illustrates how this works: it emphasizes “doing good,” but the need to complete workplace and school assignments may conflict with the need to serve the community. Engagement with sponsors and teachers reveals their needs, but not necessarily the community’s needs. Engagement with the community must inform the project from the beginning so the overall goal is clear and must continue throughout the project so we can progressively refine the communication, and must continue afterwards, particularly for large projects that extend beyond the academic semester. Such projects can continue in future semesters, improved by what we learned in previous stages. In the rush to complete documentation before a product ships, we have little time to engage with developers and audiences, but service learning reveals a solution: do so in the down time between releases. Cultural studies asks “where do we go from here?” and “what can we do better next time?”—questions every practitioner should ask when a documentation project ends.

Cultural studies sometimes focuses too narrowly on theory, blinding theorists to the real world when it doesn’t fit their preconceptions and leading to simplistic, nuance-free views of communication. This transforms criticism from its cultural studies meaning (analyzing and questioning received wisdom) into condemnation, violating a central tenet of the field: legitimating all voices and forms of knowledge and sharing agency in shaping how knowledge is created and used. Early chapters seem to distrust competing worldviews, notably capitalism, science, and pragmatism. These worldviews certainly have limitations, but only late in the book do we see clear calls to merge these disparate views—to legitimate non–cultural studies knowledge so theorists and practitioners can benefit from each other’s insights. Each worldview offers a thesis, opposing worldviews offer antitheses, but only when we strive for consensus can we attain a synthesis larger than the sum of its parts.

For academic readers, the book is clearly important. For practitioners (in fairness, not the target readers), the answer is less clear. Critical power tools strives for synthesis but fails to speak clearly and openly to practitioners. To achieve synthesis, theorists must repackage this knowledge in a form that is clearly relevant and palatable to practitioners, thereby legitimating both worldviews and enriching us all.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved