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This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
As a sociologist, Angela Garcia routinely fits together how and why people do things. What unfolds when someone calls 911? Takes part in a divorce mediation session? Visits an Internet chat room? Lately she has fixed on a real conundrum: process and motivation in the construction of jigsaw puzzles.
Her study of the centuries-old pastime is turning up insights on the nature of . . . work.
The topic presented itself as Garcia worked on a puzzle at the office, to diffuse stress and “remind myself not to be so Type A,” says the associate professor of sociology, who joined the Bentley faculty in 2008.
“I started noticing, well, how is it that I figure out which piece goes where?” she recounts with a rueful smile. “Which strategies are efficient and which are not?”
Work and Play
Garcia decided to do some fieldwork, beginning with a self-study or “auto-ethnography.” She would work on the puzzle – a fall scene with pumpkins – then pull over her laptop to record actions, thoughts and feelings.
Seven puzzles later, she had 500 pages of notes that showed some striking parallels between doing a puzzle and doing a job.
Both may require “searching for things, categorizing things, labeling things,” explains the professor, whose research was funded through a fellowship at Bentley’s Valente Center for Arts and Sciences. “I got the idea to use the puzzle as a metaphor for work – not just in the tasks involved, but in every aspect of the process.”
Phase 2 of the project, now underway, is interviewing other puzzle devotees about their techniques and experience.
“Everybody’s different,” Garcia says of approaches that include sorting pieces by color or shape, starting construction at the corners, and using the box cover as a constant pictorial reference. “But everyone is deeply and emotionally wed to their own strategy, method, and perspective on what’s good about doing puzzles.”
The concepts of motivation and incentive figure into jobs and puzzles, but in different ways.
“In studying what motivates people to do work, researchers focus on global things like salary, rank, benefits and working conditions,” says Garcia. “But with puzzles, the payoff is small things about the experience.”
Examples of what she calls “micro-motivation” are the tactile pleasure of handling a puzzle piece, the beauty and emotional resonance of the finished scene, the jolt of satisfaction when a piece fits.
Next up: examining puzzles as a collaborative activity, by videotaping groups of two to four people engaged in construction. Garcia’s questions center on how participants interact and coordinate their actions, given differences in strategy and motivation. She also plans to interview people who are puzzle-averse, to assemble the fullest possible picture of the pursuit.
One of the professor’s early conclusions concerns the interdisciplinary area of workplace studies, where observation and interviews are the go-to tools for research. Garcia believes that auto-ethnographic approaches merit more play.
“If you ask people how they do a jigsaw puzzle, what would they tell you – and what would be left out?” she notes. “Anyone proposing changes in the organization of work has to understand how jobs are actually accomplished. Auto-ethnography adds detail and precision to that understanding, by revealing what cannot be observed: the mental and emotional components of tasks.”
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Bentley University is named one of the country’s best institutions for undergraduate education in the just-published 2016 edition of The Princeton Review Annual college guide, “The Best 380 Colleges,” (Random House/Princeton Review).