Readings' list

Paul Dourish, What We Talk About When We Talk About Context, Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 8(1), 19-30, 2004.

One main research issue in ubiquitous computing in HCI is how computation can be made sensitive and responsive to the setting in which it is harnessed and used.

The concept of context plays a central role and its uses vary.

The main way in which context has entered the realm of computational design has been largely in the form of a set pf design challenges, sensors fusion, parameterizations and so on.
But social scientists argued that system should respond to special settings, in the style of Suchman and situated actions.
But the actual technical directions of dealing with context is not what social scientist mean.

The social and technical notions of context don't really match.

The dual view of context

In the social sciences there are two main theories related to the issue we are discussing


Positivist theories derive from rational, empirical scientific traditions. Positivist theories seek to reduce social phenomena to essences or simplified models that capture underlying patterns. They are often quantitative in nature.


Phenomenological theories are subjective and qualitative in orientation. "Social facts do not have objective reality beyond the ability of individuals and groups to recognize them." The world, as we perceive it, is essentially a consensus of interpretation. Categories are imposed on the world rather than things that exist within it.

So, engineering approach to context inherit from Positivism, while the social approach inherit from Phenomenologist, therefore there is a basic incompatibility. Therefore the concepts of "context" put forward by the two traditions are incompatible.

Context: Positivist: representational problem

Embodied Action

Embodied interaction, where context and activity are mutually constituent, is not about physical reality, but rather about availability for engagement. Therefore system don't need to be mobile devices

  1. context is a form of information
  2. context is delineable, we can define what counts as context
  3. context is stable, they do not vary from one instance to another of an activity.
  4. Context and activity are separable. Activity happens within a context.

Context: Phenomenological: interactional problem

  1. Contextuality is a relational property between objects or activities. It may or may not be context depending on some particularly activity.
  2. The scope of contextual features is defined dynamically.
  3. Context is an occasional property, relevant to particular settings, actions and parties.
  4. Context arises from the activity: it is not just there, but it is actively produced by the action at end.

So the author wants to reconsider context as an interactional problem instead of a representational one:
"how and why, in the course of their interactions, do people achieve and maintain a mutual understanding of the context for their actions?" Context isn't something that describe a setting, it's something people do.


Particular approach to the analysis of social conduct. The central problem of social science is the problem of social order. There are two approaches to the sources of this orderliness:

  1. The orderliness of a social action derives from a set of rules, expectation, norms and conventions.
  2. The orderliness arises from within the action itself. Parties to an activities find find the means to render the action meaningful and orderly. Finding the social world orderly and meaningful is a practical problem that people solve, endlessly and unproblematically, as they go about their business.

Ethnometodology supports the second approach, and its approach to examining how orderliness of action arises from within has been applied to a wide range of forms of social actions.

One subfield is "Conversational analysis": it analyses the naturally occurring conversation, it seeks to understand how the organization and meaningfulness of a spoken conduct is achieved, in real time, by the conversational partecipants.

  1. Ordinariness is something that we do. It is actively managed and achieved in the course of interaction.
  2. It is a mutual achievement.
  3. it is relative to particular communities and activities.


What is the link between action and meaning of user's activity?

Practice in HCI and CSCW is "the detail of what people actually do".

Etienne Wenger, in "communities of Practice", gives a richer description: "practice is what people experience in the doing. Practice is a process by which we can experience the world and our engagement with it as meaningful."
the world may be experienced differently according to our knowledge and what we can do with the world. Practice is about finding the world meaningful in term of the actions it affords.
so practice unites action and meaning. Practice is a dynamic process, so for technologist our concern should not to support practice, but to support the evolution of practice.

So how to support the evolving of practice?

Practice and technology

How can ubiquitous computing support the process by which context is continually manifest, defined, negotiated, and shared?

Systems that display their status

User of computer systems need to form interpretation of the state of the machine. They must display their own context.
ex a laptop connected in WI-FI should be notified of the different security level while traveling in different area.
Systems display aspects of their own contexts for interpretation by end-users.

Architecture for adaptation

Tailorability and Adaptation: systems are incorporated in different setting and acquire different meaning in the course of their use.

Structures in information Spaces

In information work, the meaningfulness of information for people's work is often encoded in the structures by which that information is organized.

Ex Spatial hypertext: the user interact with the info directly and the user incrementally builds information structures. The system is specifically designed to allow forms of practice to emerge and evolve.


What people are doing when they adopt and adapt technologies, incorporating them into their own work, is creating and communicating new meanings though those technologies as their working practices evolve.

Users, not designers, determine the meaning of the technologies they use. This should be the focus of design.