Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Object Handling with Contemporary Craft Objects: An Observational Study of an Embodied, Social and Cognitive Process

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Object Handling with Contemporary Craft Objects: An Observational Study of an Embodied, Social and Cognitive Process

Article excerpt


Art museums (1) are places where people encounter each other and cultural objects. Depending on professional practices at particular venues, object handling sessions may be a regular part of a museum's public engagement practices. The ways in which people interact with each other and with cultural objects in these settings is a topic of ongoing interest to researchers working in museum visitor studies and to researchers interested in embodied interaction.

Prior work on visitor interactions in museum settings emphasised the importance of attending to verbal and bodily aspects of the interactions (Heath, Luff, vom Lehn, & Hindmarsh, 2002). These studies built on work in conversation analysis (CA) which itself emerged out of the ethnographic tradition. Originally, CA focused on spoken interactions (Stevanovic & Monzoni, 2016). Researchers in CA attend to the structure of an interaction and highlight how participants orient themselves to that structure and each other (Goodwin, 2009). Furthermore, that structure is skilfully co-produced (vom Lehn, 2006); participants in a conversation attend to each other's behaviour to understand what is happening between them, and the meaning of an interaction unfolds through the interaction (Deppermann, 2013). This observation leads researchers in CA to assert that the interaction does not have representative content and that interaction should not, therefore, be interpreted in the light of external constructs such as mental states or intentions (Heath & vom Lehn, 2004).

Other approaches to embodied interaction exist which also view interaction as being skilfully co-produced but which employ different approaches to the analysis of the data. Pragmatics draws on much of the same foundational research as CA but treats language as a communicative act and words as bearing representational meaning (Bavelas, Gerwing, & Healing, 2014; Clark, 2006; Recanati, 2006; Yasui, 2013). However, recent work in this field appears to blur the distinction between the two disciplines (Fitzgerald, 2012; Hazel & Mortensen, 2014).

The field of gesture studies emerges out of the same ethnographic position as CA and work in this area seeks to retain the rigour that comes from a focus on observable behaviour. Nonetheless, researchers have found that analysing the social function of gesture when participants can understand and respond to gestures without any explicit, verbal reference to what they mean, requires a recourse to cognitive and intentional terms (Streeck, 2013).

Other researchers have studied embodied interaction from a more psychological perspective and argue that interaction should be understood as emerging from both cognitive and social factors (Cienki, Bietti, & Kok, 2014; Hirst & Echterhoff, 2012; Kendrick, 2017) and can be interpreted in those terms (Bietti, 2012; Pickering & Garrod, 2014; Streeck, 2013).

This study primarily draws on this latter theoretical perspective to reconsider the behaviour of visitors in an art museum setting as a social and psychological process. Considering psychological processes as a factor in interaction means that findings from experimental psychological research considering action and perception can be drawn upon to inform analyses of behaviour. Such studies posit action as involving a predictive element (e.g., Thill, Caligiore, Borghi, Ziekmke, & Baldassarre, 2013) which suggests that people are anticipating the object before they handle it. These studies provide potentially valuable insights, which are generally lacking from much of the work on interaction.

The current study uses video observation on pairs of people in an art museum setting to focus on the way they explore and talk about a selection of these contemporary craft (2) handling objects. However, they are used not because they are contemporary craft objects per se but because they are unfamiliar and/or ambiguous (i. …

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