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Air Force Office of Scientific Research Cognitive Modeling-Software Engineering Workshop
Conferences & Talks

21 July 2008 - 22 July 2008
Arlington, Virginia, USA



Certainly, software engineers require abstractions of objects in the world and the processes that animate them when designing and developing computer systems. Indeed, a design is an abstraction, a formal representation or model that serves as a kind of plan for the builders. But does this mean that when the objects of interest are human beings and their behavior – the social order nicely described by SEI as the ‘ecosystem’ for any and all computing – that researchers who study humans, social scientists in particular, ought to then have similar kinds of abstractions and formal models as their own goal, as a basic requirement of their science? Most social and behavioral scientists would answer in the affirmative, arguing without an analytically stipulated conceptual scheme or model from which to proceed (and to which to return), any orderliness in the vast plentitude of human beings’ lived experience cannot be found (seen), let alone explained. The social science tradition that informs my work, ethnomethodology, provides a different answer, however, one based on a rather different perspective on the organization of human behavior. This alternate perspective also directs our attention to humans’ own understandings of their actions: How do they make sense of their world, display this understanding to others, and produce the mutually shared social order in which they live – and in which the computer systems we design and build for them must operate? In addressing these questions, I very briefly describe the ethnomethodological approach, discuss the problem of representation and abstraction in the analysis of behavior, and argue about why this matters for system design.