Leigh Star (sometimes also known as L*) had a huge influence on my work back in the early 90’s. I met her when she was in the UK, at a time when there was a growing community of folks at Sussex, Surrey, and Xerox Europarc, interested in CSCW. We organised a series of workshops on CSCW in London, at the behest of the UK funding councils. Leigh spoke at the the workshop that I chaired, and she subsequently contributed a chapter entitled “Cooperation Without Consensus in Scientific Problem Solving” to our book, CSCW: Cooperation of Conflict. Looks like the book is out of print, and I really want to read Leigh’s chapter again, so I hope I haven’t lost my copy – the only chapter I still have electronically is our introduction.
Anyway, Leigh pioneered a new kind of sociology of scientific work practices, looking at the mechanisms by which coordination and sharing occurs across disciplinary boundaries. Perhaps one of her most famous observations is the concept of boundary objects, which I described in detail last year in response to seeing coordination issues arise between geophysicists trying to consolidate their databases. The story of the geologists realizing they didn’t share a common definition of the term “bedrock” would have amused and fascinated her.
It was Leigh’s work on this that first switched me on to the value of sociological studies as a way of understanding the working practices of scientists, and she taught me a lot about how to use ethnographic techniques to study how people use and develop technical infrastructures. I’ve remained fascinated by her ideas ever since. For those wanting to know more about her work, I could suggest this interview with her from 2008, or better yet, buy her book on how classification schemes work, or perhaps read this shorter paper on the Ethnography of Infrastructure. She had just moved to the i-school at U Pittsburgh last year, so I assumed she still had many years of active research ahead of her. I’m deeply saddened that I didn’t get another chance to meet with her.
Leigh – we’ll miss you!