published quarterly by the university of borås, sweden

vol. 24 no. 4, December, 2019

Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science, Ljubljana, Slovenia, June 16-19, 2019

Materiality, contextuality, representation and agency: examining the mediating artefacts of decision-making

Sally Irvine-Smith

Introduction. Practice and sociocultural theories suggest that human sociality is fundamentally mediated by tools and artefacts. This paper investigates the role one such artefact – the document - plays in the actions of decision-makers in local government.
Method. Decision-makers in local government - council employees, elected officials and members of a community panel - have been interviewed to determine how they generate and share knowledge. The interviews have been designed to develop a rich picture of routine and normative information activities.
Analysis. Four concepts central to the exploration and investigation of mediation in practice and sociocultural theories have been identified and defined: materiality, contextuality, representation and agency. Data relating to the information activities of the participants in the study have been analysed in relation to these concepts to examine the role documents play in the daily activities of the decision makers.
Results. The research finds that documents are essential artefacts of decision-making, and are integral to the activities of the participants. Their use is routine, normative and, often, unremarked. Materiality determines working practices, context provides meaning, and documents are representations of work done, sometimes having a performative aspect which confers a certain agency.
Conclusions. In this study documents are more than simple mechanisms for transmission of information: they are essential tools without which the actions of decision-making cannot take place. They represent work done, given meaning by – and giving meaning to - the practices in which they are enmeshed.

Material objects in human practices

Current social theories suggest that material objects have a key role to play in the activities of those who use them. Materiality and mediation are central to practice theories which propose that human practices are mediated in the first instance by language, but also by tools and artefacts. Most contemporary practice theorists acknowledge materials and artefacts help constitute human sociality, and that practices are by definition materially mediated webs of activity ( Nicolini, 2009, p. 1394; Schatzki, Knorr Cetina, & von Savigny, 2001, p. 20).

In conceptually centring artefacts as integral to all human endeavours, practice theories owe much to sociocultural theory. Originating with the work of Vygotsky, who argues that humans react and interact with their environment only through a variety of tools, sociocultural theories are based on the notion of mediated action. For Vygotsky tools are largely psychological, and the most important of them is language, but subsequent theorists take a more explicit approach. They note a shift in emphasis from talking about means of mediation to talking about mediated action; recognising that humans play an active role in using and transforming these tools. Human action is inherently linked to mediating tools which are essential for human dealings with the social and physical world (Wertsch, 1994, p. 204; 2017, p. 59). Conceptually, mediators allow a non-deterministic account of how individuals act upon - and are acted upon by – social, historical and cultural factors (Daniels, 2015, p. 36). Artefacts, being simultaneously symbolic and physical, are the fundamental constituents of culture. They enable us to engage and co-ordinate us with the material world and each other in a way that combines the properties of tools and symbols (Cole, 2017, p. 94).

Practice theorists conclude that mediation anchors practice, making past practice visible (Pickering, 2001, p. 174) and providing a mechanism for accessing that past practice and incorporating it into present action, thereby expanding our current practice (Nicolini, 2012, p. 107). Artefacts and historical practices provide actors with the resources with which to act on next occasions (Lave, 1993, p. 21). In this way practice theory ascribes objects the role of carriers and generators of knowledge, and it is this which makes practice a particularly apposite lens through which to study information (Huizing & Cavanagh, 2011). Mediating artefacts play an important role in transmitting knowledge and information activities are especially interwoven with and enacted through them.

While the interpretation of mediating tools in sociocultural theories is open to some debate (see Wertsch, 2017) and practice theories do not take a single uncontested position on the role of artefacts, four themes emerge in discussions of mediating objects.

Materiality is a such a theme, arising in part from Vygotsky’s proposal of psychological and material tools (Kallinikos, Leonardi, & Nardi, 2012, p. 10). Materiality is not to be confused with physicality: a paper diary and an electronic diary are both accessed via physical objects, for example a bound volume or a mobile phone, but they differ materially. Leonardi argues that materiality refers to those properties of the artefact that do not change through time or in different locations; properties which are not only intrinsic to the artefact but which affect how people act and interact with the object (Leonardi, 2012, pp. 29, 32).

So, in a study of mechanisms for guest feedback on hotels, Orlikowski & Scott found substantial differences between the material enactment of guests’ feedback on physical comment cards – confined, private, directed, filed away - to that given on on-line forums where feedback was visible and continuously available. The cards would prompt hotelliers to fix issues, and the on-line reviews resulted in more informed guests asking for, and expecting better or different services. Materiality, they argue, matters (Orlikowski & Scott, 2015).

Contextuality That mediating artefacts have purpose only because they are given meaning by the context in which they are formed is a central premise of practice theories (c.f. Schatzki, 2002). Practice reaches this position in an effort to coherently combine two competing notions of context - ‘that-which-surrounds’ and ‘that which weaves together’ (Cole, 2017, pp. 88-89). An artefact does not have meaning only within the mind of the actor and, regardless of any independent material existence, becomes a mediating object by virtue of the activities and practices in which it is used. Knorr Cetina illustrates contextuality by means of the easily understood notion of a commodity – something which, by definition, is not valued for any of its intrinsic properties, but rather for what it buys (Knorr Cetina, 1997, p. 11).

In this way documents can only be understood as part of the practices that documents, in turn, help to constitute. Thus files, such as those relating to psychiatric patients, can only be interpreted correctly by those who have the necessary knowledge of the people and situation to which they refer. They have meaning only if understood in terms of the procedures and activities which go into their making, and it is an error to view them as a mere description of patients’ behaviours (Hak, 1992).

Representation: Sociocultural theory posits that mediating artefacts capture and represent practice and activities so they can be shared among participants in those activities (Conole, 2009). Information needed to co-ordinate work is represented in a variety of media and documents which are coordinating representations intended to mediate a point of coordination between collaborating actors. Vygotsky argued that artefacts have both a tool and a sign function – a tool making it easier to accomplish a task and a sign affecting how we view the task – but in a coordinating representation the sign and tool function coincide (Alterman, 2007, p. 832).

In an organisational setting, representations of work, such as documents, do not signify the independent existence of work processes, but are rather an inextricable part of the ‘fabric of meanings’ by which all working practices are made. An airline schedule, for example, is taken as a spatial and temporal representation of the work the ground staff have done. While working practice is a lived experience only partially available for representation, working practices can be captured and revealed by being made explicit - documentary representations make work visible, allowing it to be available for future actions (Suchman, 1995, pp. 58-60).

Agency: Some practice theorists argue that artefacts do not simply facilitate human interactions or dealings with the world; they are in some way transformative, shaping us and our actions to something different from, and greater than, either the tool or the act. For example Pickering, whose field is the sociology of scientific knowledge, is a particular advocate of non-human agency. Pickering argues that attributing material agency makes possible a truer representation of science by acknowledging that 'instruments, devices, machines, and substances...act, perform, and do things in the material world' (Pickering, 1993, p. 563).

In practice-related theories such as actor network theory (ANT) human and non-human entities have equal agency, each operating to continually transform the other ( Pickering, 1993, pp. 563-565). Artefacts are considered as equivalent participants in these networks of human agents and non-human agents - actants - that align, albeit temporarily, to achieve particular effects (Orlikowski & Scott, 2008, p. 456). Buckland notes that using ANT’s ‘broad definition’ of agency you can consider documents as agents (Buckland, 2018, pp. 429-430). A small body of scholarship demonstrates documents have a constitutive capacity to form ideas and concepts into agential entities that can affect change (Frohmann, 2008, p. 166; Irvine-Smith, 2015).


An examination of the day-to-day activities of decision-makers in the local sphere

This paper examines the role of artefacts in the routine activities of three groups of decision makers in local government to ascertain the extent to which they are mediators of action in information practices. This analysis is undertaken in relation to the four themes central to discussion of mediation from practice and sociocultural theories, described above, using a sub-set of data obtained in a project investigating wider information practices of decision-makers in the local sphere.

The activities of three types of decision-makers in local government have been identified to determine how they discover, obtain and disseminate information and how they generate and share knowledge. Twenty nine decision-makers took part in the project: fifteen employees of two local councils, eight elected councillors, and six members of a community panel convened by a local council. All the councils are in the greater metropolitan area of Sydney, Australia.

Semi-structured interviews designed to build a rich and detailed picture of routine actions and activities were conducted with all participants. Firstly, the council employees were asked to provide details about their work in general; councillors were asked to describe activities relating to their role as an elected representative; and community panellists provided a description of actions and activities relating to their participation on the panel.

Council employees and elected members were also asked to select a decision they were currently making or had recently made. This decision was treated as an external object and closely examined to identify the actions that had gone into its making. The community panellists were asked to bring the folder of documents which had been provided to them for the panel to the interview. In an interview technique adapted from educational and childhood health research where external objects are introduced to substitute for real-life stimuli and situations (LeCompte, Preissle, & Tesch, 1993; Savenye & Robinson, 1996), the decision and the document folder were used to elicit the participants’ opinions and reaction enabling the researcher to determine patterns of activity. The interviews were designed as a practical substitute for physical observation, and a rich picture of participants’ actions was developed. The participants are coded according to type: employees are shown as ‘E_n_’, councillors as ‘C_n’_ and community panellists as ‘P_n_’.

This paper deals with one particular type of information artefact – the document. If, as Brown and Duguid assert, one of the essential distinctions between a performance and a document is that the latter can be revisited (Brown & Duguid, 2000, p. 200), then documents must surely be the mediating tools theorised by both practice and sociocultural thinkers. Even Vygotsky, who chiefly conceptualised mediating tools as psychological formations, when enumerating examples thereof gave special mention to ‘works of art, writing, schemes, diagrams, maps, blueprints….’ (Vygotsky, 1997, p. 85).

While compelling arguments have been made to broaden the concept of the document to include any object where there is an assertion or a perception of evidence of some belief or which does, or could, signify something (Buckland, 2018, pp. 427-428), this research takes a more prosaic view. Herein a document is defined simply as a written record in all its manifestations: physical, electronic and graphic. It will therefore include papers, files, reports, spreadsheets, electronic files, web pages, pages of data returned from on-line databases via a graphic user interface, maps, plans and other textual objects. These documents, including the digital objects from the world-wide-web or computer systems, are conceived as material objects. That is, they endure across differences in place and time and retain a form that makes them fit for a common purpose (see Leonardi, 2012, pp. 26-31). For this paper, only those research data relating to actions and activities involving documents are reported and analysed.


The ubiquity of documents in decision-making practices

Documents and every-day organisational practices of council employees

The local level of government in Australia comprises an elected council – a group of popularly elected representatives – who make decisions relating to infrastructure such as local roads, parks and recreational services, certain community services and planning and development matters. This group is serviced by an administrative body of paid officials. These officials support the councillors by providing information on matters before council – information which may relate to any aspect of council business: community expectations, legal requirements, finance and funding, service provision, and so on. Of the fifteen council employees interviewed, one is a team leader and one a senior executive - the remaining thirteen are senior managers or senior professional officers. These are the officers responsible for providing information to the elected members, so it is unsurprising that the documents which are the mechanisms for this are central to their activities.

All but two of the participants described routinised enmeshed activities involving identifying, requesting, writing, reading, checking, revising, re-writing and compiling reports for senior officer or for council. E15 describes how she will use a spare hour between meetings to write some reports; E14 talks of ‘refining’ a report; E13’s staff do research which they often provide verbally, leaving him to write it up in a report; E12 learns of issues at the child care centres under her control via the reports from the centre co-ordinators; and E11, like other managers, prepares reports on his activities which he presents at the formal meetings of his peers. E10 calls herself a mediator because she collects ‘feedback on core activities’ from other council officers and compiles it into reports for the executive leadership team or the council. E9 ‘hates systems and paper work’ and is very proud of a tool he has devised to reduce a report which was formerly seven pages to one.

If reports are the stock-in-trade of these organisational participants, email is ubiquitous. Only one participant does not mention email, for the remainder of the participants they are a constant feature of daily routine – ‘embedded in daily life’ as E9 says. Several participants explain their systems for managing and dealing with email in great detail: for example E14 goes through them chronologically, actioning any that can be quickly dispatched and deleting those that don’t require action, leaving him with the high priority and important ones. For many participants emails book-end their day – they check them as the first activity of the morning and it is the last thing they do as they leave for the night. E13 likes the fact that technology enables him to check his emails at home at night and believes this to be a great time-saver, but the majority of the participants appear to find them a necessary evil to be dealt with when there is time.

Documents and the decision making of elected members

The elected members – councillors – represented five different local government areas, including inner-metropolitan, suburban and peri-urban areas. They include two current mayors, a former mayor and two former deputy mayors. As described above, the representatives elected to local councils are provided information about their responsibilities, legal and regulatory requirements, finances and the provision of services to the community by the employees of their local authority in the form of reports. The reports form the basis of council business and are generally communicated to the councillors prior to the council meeting via briefings. These briefings are often accompanied by graphic presentations such as slides.

But the participants in this research clearly considered the reports and other briefing documents provided to them by council officers to be only one part of a trinity of essential information artefacts. Councillors, who are after all elected community representatives, require information about that community – their expectations, recurring issues and current concerns. The participants in this research obtained this information in two ways: from the local media and from interested members of the community. Six of the seven councillors interviewed professed to be keen consumers of local news, most often in the form of reading the local newspaper. It is with some amusement that C5 describes how, when she first was elected, she carefully cut items of interest out of the local paper and put them in a plastic box. The practice soon ceased as the box ‘quickly got full’. The councillors do not confine themselves to local news – several take national papers as well and if C4 is in another area and sees their local paper he will ‘pick that up as well’. C7 easily spends an hour per day reading press clippings and press releases forwarded by the staff.

The third documentary source of great interest to councillors is the communications received from local residents. Textual communication from their constituents is in the form of emails – all participants advertise their email address on the council website – and they make certain to respond to each email received from a member of the community. Both mayors interviewed assessed the importance of an issue to the community on the number of emails they received: receiving no emails on an issue clearly indicates it is not one in which there will be a great deal of community disquiet.

Documents provided to members of a community panel

The six members of the community panel – panellists – interviewed in this project are from a jury of thirty five randomly selected citizens convened as a participative democracy project by a local council in Sydney, Australia. The panel was convened for six Saturdays over a three month period.

The panellists were provided with a large folder of documents to provide them with background information about the local council’s existing services, finances and strategic direction. It contained a selection of documents such as operational, community and action plans and publications relating to the council’s resourcing and advocacy strategies. All but one of the documents had been prepared for and published to the wider community and were publicly available at the time the panel was convened.

P6 calls the folder ‘cumbersome’ several times and her first words about it are ‘I can tell you I didn’t use this very much!’ She appears quite gleeful when she sees the ring binder mechanism is broken, exclaiming ‘Oh look, I’ve broken that’. P6’s antipathy to the folder appears to have resulted from the purpose of the documents therein; they were published to tell residents and rate-payers of the service council is providing and as such were well-produced and designed, with colour photographs and charts. On initially opening the folder, P6 chanced on a photograph of a leafy park – this annoyed her intensely, as one of her main concerns is the lack of tree cover in her local parks.

In addition to the folder, panellists had access to an on-line forum to which they could post comments and load their own documents. One of those interviewed was an active poster to this forum, and two others read it extensively, but the remaining three did not show much engagement with it. P6 and P4 both looked twice and the latter ‘just found people arguing’. He is the only participant to note that the posts on the forum were printed out and provided to the panel at the next session, so use of it between sessions was not really necessary. Four of the six panellists interviewed did actively seek more information on-line outside of the panel sessions.

During the sessions the panellists were given other documents, but recollection of these is patchy among those interviewed. P4 describes one session devoted to the review of submissions from the general public in great detail - this is scarcely mentioned by the others. P6 found a bag of tourism-related documents they were handed at one session to be far better than the folder itself. Nevertheless all of the participants did place additional documents in their folders – either their own handwritten notes, or items which had been printed off and provided to them by the organisers.


Documents as mediating tools in information practices

It is evident that various types of documents are essential mediating tools to the participants in this research. However, not much understanding is to be gained from stopping at the assessment of a documentary artefact as a tool (Cole, 2017). To allow a more thorough examination of the use of mediator, and to provide greater insight into their role and importance in every-day activities, the research data were analysed in relation to the four thematic concerns described above.

Materiality: Participants in this research were concerned with materiality. Some people described idiosyncratic practices which they clearly felt set them out of kilter with their colleagues. For example C4 will always skim the soft copy of the business paper when it is sent to him, but he prints a copy out so he can keep it in his car to review in his lunch break and keeps them in a cupboard at home. He believes himself to be unique in using the hard copy.

E4 compiles a ‘to-do’ list to supplement her emails - a piece of paper with a list of actions. She tries hard to limit the document to a single page and, if forced to start a new page, will re-write the list to put outstanding items on the second page. E4 also checks the reports provided to her by own staff in hard copy and notes wryly that she ‘still’ uses a red pen to make corrections. She clearly feels that this activity will cast her in a poor light with colleagues and is at pains to assert that she is ‘technically capable’, always using computer-assisted functions to track changes on reports coming from other departments. E7 prints out his reports so he can organise them into coloured folders and E2 has a folder on her desk filled with ‘emails and paperwork’ that she reviews each evening to see what she got done during the day.

E6 is a team leader in records management implementing a disposal instrument and after questioning does say that she uses a hard copy print-out of this document. E6 refers to the recordkeeping authority’s website for all other information about records disposal as ‘it’s easier than looking up the book’.

Materiality is certainly recognised as something effecting working practices by the participants in this research, but there is little indication that it makes any real difference to outcomes or actions for the participants in this research. It appears that people exercise choice in relation to the materiality of documents based on physical efficiency – handiness or ease of access – and operational efficiency - utility and the purpose to which they are put. There is no indication that any of the participants see any difference in information value based on the materiality of the object.

Contextuality: The business paper prepared for council meetings both represents the business of council, and helps enact it, but only because it is understood in terms of how councils operate. The councillors in this project all stated that their reception of official advice and recommendations was based on the knowledge of and feeling towards the council officers who had written the report. Council officers can happily incorporate content provided by their more junior staff into their reports without rigorous checking processes because they know the employees, understand their abilities and knowledge specialisation, and have general trust in their competence. These things are all known and understood because they share work practices and operate in contextual vicinity.

Some of the community panellists struggled with the information presented to them in their folder of documents because of lack of context – and understanding of exactly what a local authority can do and what it is responsible for. As P2 says ‘you are coming to it blind’. Of particular importance is the necessity to understand the relationship between State government and local government responsibilities. This is something mentioned by all the participants from this cohort, who also say one of the major things they have taken away from the panel is a better understanding of the levels of government functioning and responsibility. Conversely, the panellists also evince a slight mistrust of - or perhaps reservation about – the documents in the folder. This is because they see the documents as essentially advertising the councils operations. They arrive at this assessment because of the highly polished presentation of the documents, with professional graphic design and a profusion of colour photographs.

Representation: It is obvious that the reports, emails and other information artefacts used by council officers and elected members in this project are, in the first instance, representations of work done (c.f. Suchman, 1995). Not only do the reports and business papers compiled for council present information gathered, they represent opinions formed and decisions made material. They represent the detailed work of knowledgeable, professional, competent people, subject matter experts, who can be trusted to provide the councillors with accurate and complete information on all aspects of the legal, operational and financial factors affecting the matter on hand. These artefacts may contain survey results, or feedback obtained from residents, and consequently represent community aspirations. What they do not represent, as far as the councillors are concerned, is the capriciousness of public opinion; the indication that a certain issue may become a flashpoint for community disapproval. For this, the councillors seek other documents such as news reports, or emails from aggrieved citizens.

The large folder given to the members of the community panel is an interesting example of representation. It contains official council documents which do represent the work done by the council employees in planning, strategising, costing, deciding and explaining. But this representation is not very important to the panellists. So, for example, P6 doesn’t display a lot of trust in the documents in the folder, describing it as ‘5,000 pages of blah, blah, blah’. But P6 nevertheless says of the folder: ‘I love it’. This is typical of those interviewed; the folder, more than representing a trusted source of information, represents the panel experience itself - an overwhelmingly positive one for all the participants.

This outcome of the panel’s decision-making was written up in the form of a report by two panellists, both of whom took part in this research. The writing of the report was a seminal and defining activity for both these participants, and the report was a source of great pride to them - it represented their friendship, and their ability ‘to get it done’. To all the panellists interviewed, including the two who compiled it, the report was an important representation of their commitment to the panel process and, more importantly, their capacity to decide. It represents the coming together of diverse interests and opinions, the satisfying ultimate agreement to disagree, and the culminating success in reaching a common position accepted by all.

Agency: Seven of the organisational employees described the importance of their diary. Diaries can be conceived as agential if it is argued that they contain instructions for action and consequently operate on the human to make them act in a certain way. But this appears to me a somewhat disingenuous argument: E13 attended a meeting that just ‘popped’ into his diary, but it could not be said that the diary made him attend this meeting – the diary entry is a prompt and his reason for attending came from a range of other contextual factors such as the purpose of the meeting and who arranged it. Their importance to the participants cannot be denied – over half the organisational employees and councillors checked the diaries on their phone to aid their memories as to their recent or forthcoming activities during the course of their interview. But they appear, at least for the participants in this study, to be more properly considered as mechanisms for ‘keeping track’ (c.f. McKenzie, Davies, & Williams, 2014) than having any real agential effect. The owners and users of the diary may or may not choose to act in accordance with instructions in the diary, and any consequences of failures to comply obviously do not come from the diary itself.

But if we look instead at the business paper prepared for council meetings we see a document governing the way in which the meeting is run. It determines the order of proceedings, it acts as a guide for discussion, and it provides recommendations that may, or may not, be acted upon. The business paper therefore has a performative aspect which confers a certain agency.

The information practices of the participants in this research are enmeshed in – and inseparable from - the use of documents. Conceptualised in this way, artefacts have an agency which , while not completely equal with that of human agents, is nevertheless integral to their embodied understanding of the object (Reckwitz, 2002, p. 214).


Enmeshment, agency and the inseparability of artefacts

Sociocultural theory, following the work of Vygotsky, contends that humans deal with the world and each other by means of tools or artefacts. In Vygotsky’s original work, tools are both psychological, such as language, and material artefacts. Other streams of social theory have taken this idea and incorporated it into their own theoretical frameworks. Practice theorists, in particular, have developed ontologies with mediated action at their centre. Most scholars agree that a common thread uniting practice theories is a conception of human existence as nexuses of practices and material arrangements – the latter being a set of interconnected external entities (Schatzki, 2010, p. 129).

This paper examines the role of a single type of mediating tool, the document, in the activities of decision makers in the local sphere. It analyses the role of documents using themes from sociocultural theory further developed in practice scholarship – themes of materiality, contextuality, representation and agency. The research finds that documents – in the form of reports, business papers, emails and web pages -are integral to the activities of the participants. Their use is routine, normative and, often, unremarked. But they are not simple tools for transmission of information – a mere transport mechanism into which information is loaded to be unpacked at the other end (Brown & Duguid, 2000). Rather, they play the central mediating role in the activities of these decision-makers.

These artefacts are constitutive of, and constituted by, the practices of decision making: they are entities that cannot be separate from, or separated from, the practices in which they are enmeshed. These practices, firmly situated and highly contextual, imbue the objects with meaning and thereby they become sites of shared understanding. They are representations of work done, thoughts gathered, events experienced and emotions shared. More than this, certain documents have an element of performativity that is integral to the decision making process and can be conceptualised as a type of agency. But more than this, documents are integral to, and inseparable from, the activities of the research participants. The human actor is incapable of meaningful action without the document and thus agency is conferred upon the artefact.


This research is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.

About the author

Sally Irvine-Smith is a doctoral student at Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia. She can be contacted at sally.b.irvine-smith@student.uts.edu.au


How to cite this paper

Irvine-Smith, S. (2019). Materiality, contextuality, representation and agency: examining the mediating artefacts of decision-making. In Proceedings of CoLIS, the Tenth International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science, Ljubljana, Slovenia, June 16-19, 2019. Information Research, 24(4), paper colis1906. Retrieved from http://InformationR.net/ir/24-4/colis/colis1906.html (Archived by the Internet Archive at https://web.archive.org/web/20191216154012/http://informationr.net/ir/24-4/colis/colis1906.html)

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