Posted by: soniahs | November 24, 2010

Exam readings: diagrams as boundary objects

For today, two takes on the concept of “boundary objects:” concepts, texts, machines, diagrams, etc. that serve as meeting points between different social worlds.These focus on diagrams (natch): infrastructure schematics and Gantt charts.

Lucy Suchman. “Embodied Practices of Engineering Work.” Mind, Culture, and Activity 7(1&2): 4–18, 2000.

Summary: Uses ethnomethodology (EM) and activity theory (AT; doesn’t use the triangle) to describe design practices in civil engineering. Her focus is the use of CAD and paper diagrams in planning; these diagrams connect EM & AT. EM is phenomenological & descriptive of artifacts in use and work practices; it’s not used to build generalizable theory. AT focuses on how tools mediate and are in turn created by social work practices; it’s also ultimately not generalizable b/c of its focus on specific situations (framework, not theory). Her research comes from conversations with/tutorial of the process of designing a road by an engineer. The CAD display is complex: 2-D and 3-D views, puts plans onto 3-D topographical layer than lets engineers take viewing sections through it, and includes natural and built infrastructural features (old infrastructure, new project, and temporary elements needed to support construction). Engineers also use paper: maps (taking collective notes, getting sense of big picture) and notes. Two key practices bring together these elements: “professional vision” (mental simulation of the project site, as aided by the CAD tools), and embodiment of engineers (gestures, hand motions to indicate third dimension, etc.). Paper and CAD have different affordances, so engineers use both. Concludes by describing similarities/differences between EM and AT.

Comments: This paper touched on AT, but was not strictly an AT analysis (more an EM-based description). Point seems to have been to use her case study as a way to draw parallels between the two methodologies.

Links to: Roth (AT description); Sharples et al. (more standard? AT analysis)

Elaine K. Yakura. “Timelines as Temporal Boundary Objects.” The Academy of Management Journal. 45(5): 956-970, 2002.

Summary: Yakura looks at timelines (Gantt charts) in work environments as “temporal boundary objects:” they render time concrete and serve as points of synthesis and negotiation among different groups in a business (e.g., programmers, managers, clients). They also embody elements of narrative (beginning, middle, end) that helps people envision milestones as well as project completion. They are “monotemporal” (mechanistic & standardized view of time), in contrast to “pluritemporal” (multiple cultural/occupational groups mark time with different activities), and serve as sites of negotiation and translation among different groups. Three functions of timelines are for scheduling, synchronization, and time allocation for various tasks; these categories are not interpreted the same by all groups involved in a project, so the timeline is a site of discussion. Presents a case study of timeline use, discussion, and renegotiation (as unforeseen events required updating it); the case study illustrates pluritemporalism & use as a boundary object.

Comments: Example of a visualization as a boundary object between different groups. Timelines aren’t intended as permanent artifacts, but Yakura points out that they’re treated as reality even while undergoing revision; they also symbolize a tangible work product between milestones/when tasks are in process.

Links to: Suchman (paper maps as boundary objects in engineering)

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