Re-re-reading Lucy Suchman’s Plans and Situated actions

I recently read Lucy Suchman’s Plans and Situated Actions again. Actually I re-re-read it. When reading, I add a little year number to new notes and I saw that it had notes from 2016 and 2020 already. I though it was time to write some lines about the book and my relation to it if it is important enough to read it three times by now.

My research interest and its relation to Plans and Situated Actions

A lot of my academic journey is connected to the idea that there are “ways to do something” that can be written down or otherwise expressed.Yet these prescribed ways of doing something are often different than what one needs to do in practice and the people using the methods and best practices methods often know this (or at least act as if).

Specifically, I noted this in design methods and design research methods. They often did not make sense in practice or only very partially. This is nothing new, a lot of people have researched this and found out that yes, people do not closely follow methods: If at all, they use the methods opportunistically [^designMethods]. It is also unclear how much the methods help designing and how much they are needed to claim rationality in one’s actions to get recognition from fellow designers and particularly other professionals – rationality is a powerful value, everybody wants some and work with others to have it.

For my PhD work, I moved away from the use of methods in organizations or universities towards instructions, tutorials that people use for themselves for learning new skills. Thus, concern for claims of rationality smaller and the concern if the instructions “work” to reach a result (whatever that means) got larger.

Plans and Situated Actions core contradiction is very similar to what I started with: It's claimed that there is a prescribed way people should act like but people do something else and they have a reason for it. It is unsurprising that I found the book sooner or later: It is a well known work in both human computer interaction and science and technology studies. A part of its attraction to human computer interaction researchers might be that Suchman’s empirical work in the book studies interactions of people with a photocopy machine that is supposed to provide an expert support system to help to use the advanced functions of the machine. Researching how people use a machine is familiar to human computer interaction researchers. Also, both human computer interaction and cognitive science share parts of their  history, so even the more theoretical part of the book criticizing cognitive science was probably interesting for human computer interaction researchers.

A lot of works that I came to love are cited in Suchman’s book, including Phil Agre, Susan Leigh Star, David Turnbull, Tim Ingold and Donna Haraway.I am not sure if this was the book that pointed me to these authors, but it is very plausible. I think the only person whose name I heard at university in the introductions to media studies was Donna Haraway 5.

What are the plans the book is about?

The title might suggest (as it did not me, initially) that the book is about “plans” as referred to in everyday language: “What is your plan for today?” or “what is the plan to launch this product?”. Such plans get mentioned but this is in service for criticizing another idea of plan, that of cognitive sciences. This argument may be summarized as “In cognitive science plans are like [… ] but thinking and communicating towards future actions of people is very different”.

So what are plans-in-cognitive-science? Plans were to-be-executed future actions. There is an analysis of the situation and a plan for action which is then done. There might be some changes, but these are special cases. Suchman provides an alternative to this idea of execution-of-a-plan like actions with the concept of situated actions: “That term [Situated Actions] underscores the view that every course of action depends in essential ways on its material and social circumstances.” (p70). This concept builds upon the philosophy of Mead and Blumer and Garfinkel’s Ethnomethodology.

To understand the argument better, both the second-edition introduction as well as the discussion of the book and the reactions to it by Sharrock/Button (2003) 3 and Duguid (2012) 4 were helpful.

My research is not much concerned with plans-in-cognitive-science but it’s “other” – everyday thinking and acting towards the future. It is not concerned with criticizing plans-in-cognitive-science. If there is critique, it is directed at the assumption that there are right ways of doing something outside of a particular situation and value context, more similar to Jean Lave’s critique of the taught-in-school math which is useful mainly to claim rationality in situations that call for it. 

Thus, I had some trouble thinking along with Suchman’s book: While the concerns share some similarity, the plans and prescriptions I am concerned with are different from hers. In the second edition, Suchman added a chapter on “Plans, Scripts and Ordering Devices” (p.187) which discusses later research around “…artifacts involved in social ordering”, directing the focus away from plans-in-cognitive-science – however, what is and is not an “artifacts involved in social ordering” remains confusingly wide.

Analysis focused on language

Another aspect that limited my enthusiasm is its focus on language, specifically, language-transcribable into text in the form of Ethnomethodology/Conversation Analysis. Maybe due to being trained as a designer I often find myself wondering about all the other non-language aspects in a situation: How are the tools or machines like people use, what is their posture, what is thought (if the researcher directly participates) etc. Conversation analysis is not a bad method, but at the moment, not mine 6 .

What I like a lot about Suchman’s method (again, very subjectively) are the chronologically ordered tables that detail the interactions of users of a photocopy machine. There are four columns: of what parts of conversation and interaction are (1) and are not (2) available to the photocopy machine, what the machine shows to users (3) and the design rationale for the respektive step (4) which are important to make the argument that the richness of interaction was one sided, as if the machine is “…tracking the user’s actions through a very small keyhole 7.

Until the next read

The book has been a large influence on my work – despite the (for me) difficult-to-understand position of plans in it and Ethnomethodology/Conversation Analysis as its research method. While I have been more enthusiastic about the arguments in books that it cites than about the argument that it makes, it still provides enough stuff for thought to have read it three times by now and I guess I will get back to it again.


  1. I always read the expanded second edition from 2006, titled “Human Computer Reconfigurations”, so some of the authors might not have been cited in the original work from 1987. 

  2. See Methods might not improve designs, but are still useful for design professionals 

  3. Sharrock, Wes, and Graham Button. 2003. “Plans and Situated Action Ten Years On.” Edited by Lucy Suchman. The Journal of the Learning Sciences 12 (2): 259–64.] 

  4. Duguid, Paul. 2012. “On Rereading Suchman and Situated Action.” Le Libellio d’AEGIS 8 (2): 3–11. 

  5. Whose Cyborg Manifesto I found strange at that time, wondering about something presented as academic that did not “look like academia” for me. What is that thing?! (I guess that was not an entirely wrong nor unintended reaction) 

  6. Often, Ethnomethodology/Conversation Analysis (“EMCA”) is treated as one package. However, this is not mandatory: Many of Garfinkel’s works do not work with conversation analysis; Sudnows detailed learning analysis are often praised by ethnomethodologists, yet focus much on action/material/senses as in how he moves his hand to create the sound to hear. 

  7. Also (since it fits the discussion of text), the second edition engages critically with another use of text in science and technology studies, that is the text as metaphor for interacting with technology and the user (reader)/designer (author) relation, as in the texts of Woolgar 8 and Akrich 9

  8. Woolgar, Steve. 1990. “Configuring the User: The Case of Usability Trials.” The Sociological Review 38 (1_suppl): 58–99. 

  9. Akrich, Madeleine. 1991. “The De-scription of Technical Objects.” Shaping Technology/Building Society. Studies in Sociotechnical Change, 205–24.