Friends and colleagues will attest that I'm often the first to write on the white board during a meeting or sketch out ideas on scrap paper during a chat. Apparently, all this time I have been pulling a power move!
Last week, in the program I'm taking in research methods, we explored the secret powers of documentation... including, how the act of writing can be an act of claiming power. Taking a close look at documents has been surprisingly interesting. The process of creating influential documents turns out to be incredibly political and the act of authoring can be a sensemaking tool. Below, I dig into these and other reflections.
1. A document is powerful in and of itself.
The mere existence of a document can be powerful. In government, a policy doesn’t exist until a file exists.
Documents can stand in as shorthand for the set of ideas, perspectives, orders, or recommendations that make up its contents. For example, white papers and policy documents simultaneously weave a set of ideas into a cohesive narrative while (hyper)linking out to other pieces of writing. And by mentioning such a document, you invoke the set of ideas that are contained within its pages.
Khizr Khan—father of a fallen Muslim US soldier—provides a great example of the power of a document at the US Democratic National Convention last month. In his speech, Khan condemned Trump by invoking the United States Constitution. Because we already know that the US Constitution is the foundational text about citizens' rights and freedoms, and the values by which the US operates, Khan's message is powerful. We don't need to go out to read the Constitution at that moment, its mere mention is enough to tap into a set of values around human rights.
That’s the funny thing about a document. It can be filed away and never read. By existing, it has power.
2. Documenting equals sensemaking.
Writing is a way to discover what one thinks, rather than simply a way to record previously conceived meanings or decisions. This analogy from the literature says it well:
Why policy makers produce documents may be something like why architects draw.
When creating plans for a new building, an Architect must consolidate a ton of different view points, ideas, agendas—the city inspector's, the police officer's, teacher's, a young family's, retiree's, and whoever else has a stake in the building. Only by putting pencil to paper (or stylus to bamboo) is the Architect able to work through these interests in order to arrive at a working draft. Similarly for influential documents, like policy documents, it is by beginning to write that the author works through how to select and order the elements that will make up the text.
Thus, it is the act of writing, editing, and re-writing that enables us to organize thoughts and form our stance. This certainly rings true for me; it's why I started writing a blog.
But this notion becomes interesting when we consider that most researchers and policy makers are positivists: meaning that they believe there is one "truth". As opposed to the constructivist view I describe above that believes we are carving out the "truth" that is fit for purpose out of the many truths out there. Still chewing on this and it's implications - other than that positivists may miss out on a lot of nuance around group dynamics and power relationships.
3. Documents build communities and spread ideas.
Communities come together around documents and spread its messages through documents. The obvious example is religious communities, who are joined by the bible or Torah or Quran or Kojiki or other religious text.
But the same holds for communities of practice. For example, user research community has it's own set of influential texts: AIGA's ethnography primer, this article from NCRM, HDL's ethnographic fieldguide, Business Anthropology, Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, Doing Anthropology, Research Methods in Anthro, Practical Ethnography, and the list goes on.
Members of the community are familiar with the content of the texts, speak the jargon of the texts, and actively discuss, critique, and spread the ideas held within the texts. There are conferences and meet-ups and workshops and webinars and gatherings. We write responses to each others discussion papers and blog about ideas in reports. The collection of documents acts as a sort of boundary for the community.
And, the release of a new document or book is often accompanied with a launch party, serving not only to bring it's community together but also in hopes that the community will read and spread its messages - for with greater readership, the document has greater power.
4. Authors hold power and can be the focus of research.
"While the reader follows the text, the autonomy is with the writer" - Freeman & Maybin
The Author selects and prioritizes information to include in the document, weighing what is pertinent, strategic, and appropriate - depending on the intent of the document. The Author has the power to promote, exaggerate, downplay, or leave out information. This power is amplified in the case of influential documents.
For example, in the early days of building Kudoz (a learning exchange platform for adults living with a cognitive disability), we learned that a person's IQ has a major influence on whether this person receives government disability funding or not. That's because the sector uses the definition of disability defined in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, written by American Psychiatric Association. The way disability is framed within this text has profound implications on people’s lives. Yet, someone wrote this manual. In fact, there was likely a committee, via lengthy and numerous meetings, and many drafts. For such an influential text, not just anyone gets to be the author - the decisions around what is included or excluded has it’s own politics.
And so, researchers also study the process of creating influential documents, not only the content of said documents. The study of the process and politics behind document creation falls under the practices of institutional ethnography or organizational sociology. And focussing research on documentation is not so unlike other social research. Its still about the dynamics, interactions, practices at play, only the focus on the research is the artifact: the document.
This to me was the ultimate sign of power and influence; that a document could be important enough to be the subject of study!
For more, my seminar lead recommended this book: Documents: Artifacts of Modern Knowledge.