Boundary object

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1 Definition

The term "boundary object" is attributed to Susan Leigh Star who used it to describe the translationary function of objects between CoPs.


Boundary objects are objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual-site use. They may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is key in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting social worlds.
Star & Griesemer (1989).

The enTWIne project at Univeristy of Boulder Colorado defines boundary objects as:

Artifacts, Documents and perhaps even vocabulary that can help people from different communities build a shared understanding. Boundary objects will be interpreted differently by the different communinities, and it is an acknowledgement and discussion of these differences that enables a shared understanding to be formed. (from the enTWIne project)


Wenger (2000:236) presents three categories of boundary objects.

  1. Artifacts: tools, documents, models shared by CoP's.
  2. Discourses: a common language that can be shared across CoPs
  3. Processes: shared processes, routines, procedures that facilitate coordination of and between CoPs

Star and Greisemer (1989) differentiate four types of boundary objects and classify objects as follows:

  1. Repositories: These are ordered ‘piles’ of objects, which are indexed in a standardized fashion. Repositories are built to deal with problems of heterogeneity caused by differences in units of analysis.
  2. Ideal type: This is an object such as a diagram, atlas or other description which, in fact, does not accurately describe the details of any locality or thing. It serves as a means of communicating and cooperating symbolically – a ‘good enough’ road map for all parties.
  3. Coincident boundaries: These are common objects with common boundaries but different internal contents.
  4. Standardized forms: These are boundary objects devised as methods of common communication across dispersed work groups. The result of these types of boundary objects are standardized indexes and what Latour is calling ‘immutable mobiles’ (objects which can be transported over a long distance and convey unchanging information). The advantage of such objects is that local uncertainties are deleted.


2 Links

3 Bibliography

  • Star, Susan Leigh, Griesemer, James R. (1989. Institutional Ecology, 'Translations' and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, Vol. 19, No. 3, pp. 387-420
  • Wenger, Etienne. (2000), Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems, Organization, Volume 7(2): 225-246