Overview

Boundary objects as locations to study individual practices in institutional arrangements was gradually developed by Susan Leigh Star, Geoffrey Bowker, and James Griesemer throughout the 1990s sociology projects focusing on post-normal science. While its use has extended significantly into other fields, boundary objects were originally defined as:

"[T]hose objects that both inhabit several communities of practice and satisfy the informational requirements of each of them. Boundary objects are thus 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.” (Bowker & Star, 1999 pg. 297)

Star and he colleagues stress that boundary objects are not necessarily artifacts produced in practice, but can also represent agreed upon languages and social standards, “These objects may be abstract or concrete…but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is a key process in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting communities." (Bowker & Star, 1999 pg. 297)

Boundary objects are useful in studying how communities of practice formalize, communicate, and define who and what remains part of their discursive community as opposed to expelled as irrelevant or threatening to their self-defined social world. As such, feminist critiques of science have found boundary objects additionally useful for identifying excluded and marginalized publics not included in dominating institutions and ideologies. An example of such use is illustrated by Michael Fischer who situates boundary objects as key elements of anthropological studies that seek to define the stakeholders of culture production, “constraints differ considerably in different countries because of differing cultural presuppositions or civic epistemologies (Jasanoff 2005), which in turn create different boundary objects, and coproduce regimes of knowledge and power.” (Fischer, 2007, pg.559)


Key Concepts

Common Points of Reference
A boundary object, when identified by multiple communities, serves as a common point of reference to facilitate conversation around contested issues. This, however, does not imply that these communities agree upon an object’s defining characteristics. Instead, boundary objects by definition have an array of meanings associated to them, each useful in individual situated practices. (Marick, 2002)

Translations
The ability of boundary objects to exist in multiple communities allows them to serve as translational devices between disparate articulations of practice. Furthermore, because practices in these communities are in constant transition, boundary objects are constantly developing new meaning. This goes against social constructionist views that artifacts eventually find closure – boundary objects never really “close” but instead produce new manifestations for other communities, even if these are not the ones that originally defined the original object. (see: Bikjer, et.al. 1987; Winner, 1999)

Standards
As boundary objects continue to be in play, stakeholders attempt to create measures of standardization to lock in their meaning, and thus aim towards the exclusion of “otherness” interpretations. This requires the regulation of collecting and distributing knowledge, and thus the creation of power systems to maintain those definitions.

In a retrospective article on boundary objects, “This is Not a Boundary Object: Reflections on the Origin of a Concept,” Star reflect upon the theory after 20 years of its use and reinterpretation. As a vehicle for this she describes a series of material encounters in archives of the National Academy of Sciences and elsewhere. With these she outlines a new way we might flesh out boundaries – namely that of “standardizations” and the then generation of “residual categories” or the miscellaneous. Between the negotiations of these two exists the artifacts that define liminal spaces. (Star, 2010)


Boundary Objects in Use

Gwen Ottinger in, “Buckets of Resistance: Standards and the Effectiveness of Citizen Science,” utilizes boundary object theory to describe how communities in Louisiana defined the effectiveness of air quality monitoring, and the spaces in which they must negotiate legitimacy with expert knowledge. The primary method used the importance of standards in creating boundary-bridging states of agreement and disagreement. According to Ottinger, standards, as “boundary-policing” strategies are capable of opening doors to citizen scientists who may have different practices, but are able to adapt to methods of analysis established by expert power and thus gain equal footing in scientific debate.

In this example, Ottinger explains that despite the fact that the buckets in use by citizens were stripped down versions of far more complicated and restricted EPA equipment, the laboratory procedures used to analyze findings and produce data are the same across both communities. Thus, the debate became not one of “should citizens be allowed a voice in monitoring” but one of “have they followed the proper procedure”. Here, the standards become the boundary-crossing device that allows for a shared definition of reputability in both social worlds. (Ottinger 2010)
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Air_Quality_Monitoring_Station.jpg
Bucket Brigade monitoring device
EPA air quality monitoring station

References

Bijker, W.B., Hughes, T., and Pinch, T. (eds.) (1987). The Social Construction of Technological Systems, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bowker, G., and Star, S.L. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fischer, M. (2007). Four Genealogies For A Recombinant Anthropology of Science and Technology. Cultural Anthropology, 22(4), 539-615.

Marick, B. (2002). Boundary Objects. In: I Can, 143(1989), 534-9. Retrieved from http://www.exampler.com/testing-com/writings/marick-boundary.pdf

Star, S. L., and Griesemer, J. (1989). Institutional ecology, ‘Translations’, and Boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals on Berkeley’s museum of vertebrate zoology. Social Studies of Science 19:387-420.

Leigh Star, S. (2010). This is Not a Boundary Object: Reflections on the Origin of a Concept. Science, Technology & Human Values, 35(5), 601-617.

Ottinger, G. Buckets of Resistance: Standards and the Effectiveness of Citizen Science. Science, Technology, and Human Values 35(2): 244 - 270.

Winner, L. (1999). Do Artifacts have Politics. In: D. MacKenzie & J. Wajcman (eds.), The Social Shaping of Technology: McGraw Hill.