This dissertation develops a number of analytical categories for investigating what people know about the world in which they live. It is an attempt to open up a universe of discourse about learning that does justice to the social character of human life. The argument of the dissertation is developed in the context of an ethnographic study of a claim processing center in a large insurance company.
The basic argument is that knowledge does not exist by itself in the form of information, but that it is part of the practice of specific sociocultural communities, called here "communities of practice." Learning then is a matter of gaining a form of membership in these communities: this is achieved by a process of increasing participation, which is called here "legitimate peripheral participation." Learning thus is tantamount to becoming a certain kind of person.
Visible objects such as artifacts, symbols, language, gestures, also belong to the practice of these communities. Therefore, seeing the cultural significance of these objects, something I call "cultural transparency," requires access to the practices to which they belong. This in turn requires membership in the relevant communities. The relation between artifacts and persons, which one may describe as understanding or not understanding, is therefore never a direct relation between them, but one that is mediated by a person's specific forms of membership in specific communities and by an object's being part of the social practices of some communities, which may or may not be the same. To the extent that these communities are different, such an object can be called a "boundary object" that mediates the articulation of these communities. This dissertation investigates the nature of one such object and analyzes both the relations that it can mediate and the forms of knowledge and senses of self that can result.
The availability of an analytical discourse such as the one explored here is important because technological advances and the division of labor imply that we deal more and more with objects that do not primarily belong to our communities of practice. This is especially relevant to the design of computer systems.