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Unraveling Hogwarts: Understanding an Affinity Group through the Lens of Activity Theory

  • Author(s): Pfister, Rachel Cody
  • Advisor(s): Cole, Michael
  • et al.

This dissertation uses the framework of activity theory to understand the development and evolution of Hogwarts at Ravelry (H@R), an online group devoted to the interests of Harry Potter and fiber crafting (knitting, crocheting, weaving, and spinning yarn). The organization and practices of H@R are inspired by the popular Harry Potter book series, and members role-play as students of their own fiber crafting version of the magical school of Hogwarts. They take classes on Harry Potter topics, write reports, take tests, and craft items to submit as assignments.

I argue that H@R is both an affinity group and a wildfire activity. It is an interest-driven community with particular characteristics that foster learning and production. It has a membership that is diverse in members’ individual needs and goals, but who are united through the shared values and collective object of the group. A core value of H@R is supporting individual members as well as the shared collective object.

The dissertation takes as its moment of departure a series of events in H@R’s fifth school year, when participation declined and H@R leaders used role-play to reorganize the group’s practices and rules. Drawing from three years of participant observation, interviews, and archival research, I then trace H@R’s development from its creation through the end of its seventh school year. I argue that the participation problems of Year 5 were due to underlying contradictions that gradually shifted the system of activity away from the group’s original collective object to a new object that failed to support all members. Collective discussions about this shift resulted in an expansive cycle of learning, through which leaders and long-term members successfully analyzed and rectified the accumulating contradictions that were destabilizing and threatening the future of the group.

Researchers have become increasingly interested in the possibilities and outcomes of affinity groups such as H@R, but there is little understanding of how these groups develop and are sustained. I address this gap by making visible the process by which H@R's developed, evolved, and was sustained over several years despite tensions and changing members and needs.

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