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Boundary Objects: A Field Guide

Sveta Stoytcheva, Author
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Boundary Objects

Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer introduce the concept of “boundary objects” in an article discussing the formation of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California-Berkeley during the first half of the twentieth century (Star and Griesemer, 1989). This article takes as its starting point the acknowledgement that scientific work is heterogenous and requires cooperation between multiple actors in order to be successful. In the case of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, these actors included the museum director, its primary patron, university administrators, and amateur collectors and trappers who provided specimens for the collection. Each actor came to the project with different concerns, motivated by the social world they inhabited. For example, the museum director was interested in advancing scientific understanding of evolutionary theory, while amateur collectors were motivated by conservation concerns or by the potential to profit. Star and Griesemer posit that the ability for these disparate actors to cooperate on the museum project hinged upon two things: the development of standards and the creation of boundary objects (ibid).

A boundary object is any object that is part of multiple social worlds and facilitates communication between them; it has a different identity in each social world that it inhabits (ibid, p. 409). As a result a boundary object must be simultaneously concrete and abstract, simultaneously fluid and well-defined. Star and Griesemer write:

“Boundary objects are objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites” (ibid, p. 393).

Some of the examples of boundary objects cited in the context of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology include specimens, field notes, standardized forms, and the state of California itself (ibid, p. 408-409). Additionally, Star and Griesemer describe four different kinds of boundary objects found in their study of the museum: repositories, ideal types, coincident boundaries, and standardized forms (ibid, p. 411). These examples, all drawn from the particular context of the museum project, are indicative of the broad range of things that can be considered boundary objects. Extending the concept of boundary objects beyond this particular context yields a vast array of potential boundary objects, as well as boundary object types.

This article focuses on the possibilities inherent in boundary objects to bridge gaps between social worlds. Since boundary objects must be used by members of multiple groups, they need to reflect the concerns of each group, which could potentially conflict with one another. Star and Griesemer define boundary objects in oppositions to other means of resolving conflicts of interest, including “imperialist imposition of representation, coercion, silencing, and fragmentation” (ibid, 413). The implication is that the creation of boundary objects is a more egalitarian mode of intergroup communication.
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