Study title
The intertwining of collaborative practices in a complex environment: a situated study on a research team
Ref study 9589
Study language English
Contributing institutions
  • Teamwork
  • Ethnography
  • Research group
  • Situated learning
  • Phd students' socialization
Geographical space
Switzerland - Università della Svizzera italiana, USI (University of Lugano), Faculty of Informatics.
This project, thanks to an one-year long field study, investigates how collaboration and communication practices in an university research team develop and how they support the socialization of PhD students. The study of team work and collaboration in real settings is a central interest of practice-based studies (Corradi et al. 2010; Gherardi 2009; Zucchermaglio & Alby 2006; Luff et al. 2000; Engeström & Middleton 1998), but research teams are not their usual field of interest, since they are traditionally the focus of laboratory studies, a discipline of sociology of science. On the other hand, laboratory studies are more concerned with epistemic practices than with team collaboration in terms of communication and socialization issues (Doing 2004), even if these dynamics are recognized to be relevant in research (Levine & Moreland 2004). Situated studies on research teams with the aim of investigating communication and socialization processes are rare; Ludvigsen and Digersen (2009) and Jacoby and Gonzales (1991) represent two exceptions. As far as it concerns PhD students’ socialization, despite the importance of the issue, this is not a major theme in sociology of science and the most well-known researches addressing it do not study it as it unfolds in the real context (Gardner 2010; Austin 2002; Boyle & Boice 1998).

More specifically, this project aims to understand: (1) how mutual engagement, as conceived by Wenger (1998), is built and reshaped in a heterogeneous research team; (2) how team meetings evoke mutual engagement; (3) how these meetings support PhD students’ socialization, as defined by Golde (1998). In investigating these research questions, it will be assumed that mutual engagement is constitutive of teams, it can be evoked by various activities (meetings, for example), and that PhD students’ socialization is generated by specific practices.

The framework of situated learning theory (Lave & Wenger 1991), especially the concepts of “community of practice” and of “legitimate peripheral participation” (Wenger 1998), are particularly useful for understanding communication and socialization dynamics within the team. As far as it concerns how communication is treated in this project, a dialogic approach is followed (Krauss & Fussell 1995): discourse is always situated, it permits the creation of joint projects (Clark 1996) and the constitution of an interpersonal reality where joint commitments are established (Carassa & Colombetti 2011).

Data are collected throughout a year of participant observation of team meetings, recorded and documented with field notes; two waves of individual semi structured interviews; two group discussions; careful review of the mailing list and of the website of the group. Comparison among these sources permits triangulation of data and offers a full picture of how the team members collaborate. The empirical phase encompasses two main steps: first, establishing a contact with the leader of the team and a first analysis of the team website; then, the entrance into the field with the attendance of team meetings and a group discussion on the project. These first steps constitute the background ethnography. Subsequently, a first round of interviews is organized; then, data collection focuses on meetings; finally, a second round of interviews and a group discussion close the most important part of the empirical phase. Actually, after the analysis of the data, a feedback session with the team is planned.

As far as it concerns the analysis, it is constituted by two phases: all the data gathered during the empirical phase helps to build a full picture of the collaborative practices in the team and to understand how mutual engagement is built and reproduced; then, for understanding how meetings support PhD students socialization, the attention is focused on the meetings, and a discourse analysis approach is used (Silverman 2006). For this purpose, a corpus of selected meetings is built following theoretical sampling approach (Eisenhardt 1989).

This study should contribute to add an important piece both to practice-based studies and to sociology of science: in fact, it provides practice-based studies with a better understanding of how collaboration can be fostered in teams in high knowledge-density contexts; then, it provides sociology of science with a picture of how daily communicative practices and socialization of PhD students can better support epistemic work.
Methods (description)
One-year long field study on a specific research team, following an ethnographic approach.

The methods are:
- observation of weekly team meetings (videorecorded and documented with field notes);
- individual semistructured interviews (recorded and transcribed), to be organized at the beginning and towards the end of the empirical phase;
- group discussions, to be organized at the beginning and before the end of the empirical phase;
- review of the web site and of the meiling list of the team.

Methods (instruments)
Replicated study No
Financed by
Ethical approval No
Study type
Data availability
Source (Updates) Web
Date created 16.02.2009
Date modified 16.02.2009
Start - End date 01.10.2008 - 28.12.2011