On communities of practice


·       Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999a). Sorting things out: classification and its consequences. Cambridge: MIT.
·       Star, S. L. (1999b). “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist (Nov/Dec) 43/3, 377-392.

"...understanding two sets of relationships: first and analytically, between people and membership, and then between things and their naturalization by communities of practice." (1999a 286)

"A community of practice (or social world)
is a unit of analysis that cuts across formal organizations, institutions like family and church, and other forms of association such as social movements. It is, simply put, a set of relations among people doing things together. The activities with their stuff, their routines, and exceptions are what constitute the community structure. Newcomers to the community learn by becoming 'sort of' members, through what Lave and Wenger call the process of 'legitimate peripheral participation....' Membership in such groups is a complex process, varying in speed and ease, with how optional it is and how permanent it may be.... People live, with respect to a community of practice, along a trajectory (or continuum) of membership that has elements of both ambiguity and duration. They may move from legitimate peripheral participation to full membership in the community of practice, and it is extremely useful in many ways to conceive of learning this way." (1999a 294)

MEMBERSHIP (1999a 295)
"Membership can thus be described individually as the experience of encountering objects and increasingly being in a naturalized relationship with them.... ¶ From the point of view of learning-as-membership and participation, then, the illegitimate stranger is a source of learning. Someone's illegitimacy appears as a series of interruptions to experience or a lack of naturalization trajectory. In a way, then, individual membership processes are about the resolution of interruptions (anomalies) posed by the tension between the ambiguous (outsider, naive, strange) and the naturalized (at home, taken-for-granted) categories for objects. Collectively, membership can be described as the processes of managing the tension between naturalized categories on the one hand and the degree of openness to immigration on the other."

BOUNDARY OBJECTS (1999a 297-8)
"Boundary objects are those objects that both inhabit several communities of practice and satisfy the informational requirements of each of them. Boundary objects are thus both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use and become strongly structured in individual site use. These objects may be abstract or concrete.... Such objects have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is a key process in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting communities. ¶ ...Boundary objects arise over time from durable cooperation among communities of practice....sets of boundary objects arise directly from the problematics created when two or more differently naturalized classification systems collide.... // ¶ The processes by which communities of practice manage divergent and conflicting classification systems are complex, the more so as people are all members in fact of many communities of practice, with varying levels of commitment and consequence...."

"Naturalization means stripping away the contingencies of an object's creation and its situated nature. A naturalized object has lost its anthropological strangeness. It is in that narrow sense desituated--members have forgotten the local nature of the object's meaning or the actions that go into maintaining and recreating its meaning.... ¶ Objects become natural in a particular community of practice over a long period of time. Objects exist, with respect to a community, along a trajectory of naturalization. This trajectory has elements of both ambiguity and duration. It is not predetermined whether an object will ever become naturalized, or how long it will remain so; rather, practice-activity is required to make it so and keep it so. The more naturalized an object becomes, the more unquestioning the relationship of the community to it; the more invisible the contingent and historical circumstances of its birth, the more it sinks into the community's routinely forgotten memory.... Commodity and infrastructural technologies are often naturalized in this way. In a sense they become a form of collective forgetting, or naturalization, of the contingent, messy work they replace...."

PROPERTIES OF INFRASTRUCTURE (1999b 5-7; see also 1999a 35):
·       Embeddedness (“sunk into and inside of other structures, social arrangements, and technologies”; don’t distinguish components but in them)
·       Transparency (not reinvented each time or assembled each task; or learned new)
·       Reach or scope (spatial or temporal; “beyond a single even or one-site practice”)
·       Learned as part of membership (“taken-for-grantedness of artifacts and organizational structures...member in a community of practice.” “Strangers and outsiders encounter infrastructure as a target object to be learned about. New participants acquire a naturalized familiarity with its objects, as they become members.” overcome strangeness; overcome naturalization.)
·       Links with conventions of practice (“shapes and is shaped by”)
·       Embodiment of standards (“takes on transparency by plugging into other infrastructures and tools in a standardized fashion.”)
·       Built on an installed base (eg. “optical fibers run along old railroad lines”; “new systems are designed for backward compatibility”)
·       Becomes visible upon breakdown
·       Is fixed in modular increments, not all at once globally (“big, layered, complex”; “it means different things locally”; “Nobody is really in charge”; “legacy systems.”)

“There have always been inherent scale limits on ethnography, by definition the labor-intensive and analysis-intensive craft of qualitative research, combined with a historical emphasis on single investigator studies, has never lent itself to ethnography of thousands.”

“several tricks I have developed..., helpful for “reading” infrastructure and unfreezing some of its features.”

1.    identifying master narratives and “others

2.    surfacing invisible work

·       identifying master narratives and “others”

·       master narrative=“a single voice that does not problematize diversity.” “speaks unconsciously from the presumed center of things”; its “encoding into infrastructure”;

·       “Listening for the master narrative and identifying it as such means identifying first with that which has been made other, or unnamed.”

·       devices representing master narratives:

·       “creating global actors,”

·       “turning a diverse set of activities and interests into one actor with ...monolithic agenda,”

·        “personification,”

·       “making a set of actions into a single actor with volition” (Science seeks...);

·       “passive voice,”

·       “deletion of modalities.” ie and eg. “the process by which a scientific fact is gradually stripped of the circumstances of its development, and the attendant uncertainties, and becomes an unvarnished truth.”)

·       surfacing invisible work

·       “Finding the invisible work...means looking for these processes in the traces left behind by coders, designers, and users of systems.”

·       “backstage...recovering the mess.”

·       “people whose work goes unnoticed or is not formally recognized”

·       leaving out what are locally considered to be nonpeople, counter-intutively to local interests, means that the system doesn’t work; “There is often a delicate balance of this sort between making things visible and leaving things tacit.” “work just visible enough for legitimation, but maintaining an area of discretion.”