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Boundary Objects: A Field Guide

Sveta Stoytcheva, Author

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Boundary Objects (cont'd.)

Star revisits the idea of boundary objects in her book (co-authored with Geoffrey Bowker) on classification, Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences (Bowker and Star, 1999). This text focuses on the classification systems employed by different “communities of practice” or social worlds. Within a community of practice, certain objects become “naturalized.” They are routinely used by members of a community of practice in such a way that their function becomes transparent, meaning that it is taken for granted by members of the community. As such, these naturalized objects serve as markers of belonging within social worlds. In this context, boundary objects can be understood as objects that are not fully naturalized by any one community of practice. Instead they arise from situations where “two or more differently naturalized classification systems collide” (ibid, p. 297). Boundary objects become necessary to negotiate areas of overlap between multiple social worlds. Both discussions of boundary objects evoke the concept of marginality: boundary objects, like marginal people, exist at the intersection of two (or more) disparate social worlds without fully belonging to any of them (Star and Griesemer, 1989, p. 411). 

Of course, all people and objects can and do participate simultaneously in multiple social worlds. Star and Bowker acknowledge this complexity by coining the term “boundary infrastructures.” Boundary infrastructures are complex networks of boundary objects that remain relatively stable enough to be useful, but exist at the intersection of multiple infrastructures (Bowker and Star, 1999, p. 313).
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