Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW)

, Volume 1, Issue 3, pp 123–141 | Cite as

From ethnographic record to system design

Some experiences from the field
  • John A. HughesEmail author
  • Dave Randall
  • Dan Shapiro


This paper explores the issues involved in moving from ethnographic explorations of work in context to a practical contribution to system design. It does so using the example of an interdisciplinary research project involving sociologists and computer scientists in the domain of air traffic control systems. It forms a pair with another paper (Sommerville et al., 1992) exploring these questions from the perspective of our computer science partners. We characterise ethnography as a research method, and consider the differences between undertaking it for strictly sociological or anthropological purposes by contrast with interdisciplinary and design purposes. We summarise some of our results in ethnographic explications of the work of air traffic controllers, and the sociality which it manifests. We describe the dialogues involved in rendering these observations ‘informative’ for systems design, and the mutual translations implied in attempting to reconcile sociological with software engineering questions about supporting the work. We conclude by specifying some features of cooperative work which an engineering approach is in danger of overlooking; the ways, and limits, in which ethnographers can form a ‘bridge’ between users and designers; and some of the conflicts of interest entrained in generating technical change.


Air traffic control Command and control CSCW Ethnography HCI Interdisciplinary design Social organisation of work Sociality of technology System design Teamwork 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of LancasterLancasterUK
  2. 2.Center for Research in CSCW at LancasterUniversity of LancasterLancasterUK

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