EEE Pori Session 02: Introduction to Boundary Objects

Ma 14.09.09: 11-12

Introduction to Boundary Objects

(presentation by: Andrew Paterson)

Boundary Objects..

“a class of artifacts that have been theorized to facilitate communications among diverse communities and promote the externalization of tacit and experiencial knowledge” (Diaz)

Particularly within computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) research.

Because of its “interpretive flexibility” (boundary object has become a boundary object) as a mediation in coordination processes..

“building bridges between different types of knowledge and fields”

That carries infrastructures and knowledge models.


I think they are interesting and useful in this EEE course for a couple of reasons..

Words: Engagement & Environment

can/do mean different things to different people from different backgrounds/disciplines/professions/
depending upon background and experience..

Projects: Case 1 (by Jussi Matilainen) & Case 2 (by Mikko Lipiäinen)

can unpacked/mapped from different interpretations and (fieldwork) developments imagined also so.


Susan Leigh Star & James Griesemar


“The notion of boundary object is part of the “grounded theory” model in the sense that it emerges and is constructed as an element of theorisation for authors in their confrontation with their field materials.

Star and Griesemer indeed, introduced the notion within the framework of an ethnographical study of scientific work coordination mechanisms inside a natural history museum.

The problem of authors was

to describe and characterise the process through which actors from different social worlds - called upon to cooperate - manage to coordinate with each other in spite of their differing points of view:

how do they create common understanding without losing the diversity of their social worlds?

Those involved in areas where knowledge is not yet stabilised come up against the need to reconcile different meanings given to objects upon which they are attempting to reach agreement.”

note: The term “Social worlds” refers to activity groups which have neither clear boundaries nor formal and stable organisations. They develop through the relationship between social interactions which move away from the primary activity and the definition of pattern and reality. The notion derives from the symbolic interactionism tradition.

In their case:

Actors (administrators, managers, researchers, amateurs, foundations, politicians), organised around
shared objectives (promoting the protection of species, drawing up a guide to fauna and flora),
succeeded in cooperating over a long period (1907-1939) in creating a zoology museum

in spite of their diverging points of view, in particular concerning the importance afforded to research and the categorisation plan of certain species.

Those involved succeeded in coming to an understanding by working around objects.

The process allowed them to maintain a plurality of points of view.

Each of the parties was able to keep its identity and its targets and was able to carry on its work whilst articulating with others.”

Star and Griesemer questioned the asymmetric interpretation of translation operations,
as deployed in the works of Callon, Law and Latour, where such operations are compared to the
almost imperialist action of the innovator or scientific entrepreneur, who seeks to enrol other actors via, in particular, the creation of an obligatory passage point.

[Everyone must understand the meaning in the same way as the innovator or entrepreneur to go forward]

Star and Griesemer propose a more ecological approach to the situation which makes no concession to the points of view present and which takes into account the coexistence of several translation processes of which the overall coherence constitutes the nub of the problem.

[Works with the multiple, the 'fuzzy', the overlapping]

The solutions invented by actors in context would seem to be of two types: the standardisation of methods and the development of boundary objects.

And this concerns abstract or concrete objects,
whose structure is sufficiently common to several social worlds
to ensure minimum identity in terms of the intersection
whilst being sufficiently flexible to adapt to the specific needs and constraints of each of these worlds.

These boundary objects are supposed to maximise both the autonomy of these social worlds and communication between them.

The notion is therefore closely linked to issues of shared meaning and interpretation.

It supposes the existence of a minimal structure of knowledge which is recognised by the members of the different social worlds, which can take very diverse forms:

the malleable object which can be shaped by each and every one;

the library object from which each individual can take what he or she needs;

the object which can be either simplified (abstraction), allowing us to ignore properties we do not need;

and finally, the interface or exchange standard.

In the case of the research activities of the Natural History Museum in Berkeley, Star and Griesemer identify objects as specimens, field note and maps which are both concrete (material) and abstract (codifi ed, symbolic and a component of categories).

(Trompette & Vinck)



"… are those 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. These objects may be abstract or concrete…

Such objects have different meanings in different social worlds 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)


“certain objects or configurations – or even organisations – materialise and transport an invisible infrastructure made up of standards, categories, classifications and conventions that are specific to one or more social worlds.”

(Trompette & Vinck, p.i)

Revisiting the notion of the Boundary Object..

“The notion of boundary objects itself consitutes a boundary concept, as it seems to emerge at the crossroads of different 'sociological [science] worlds'.. deploying an 'ecological' perspective on situations (the town, work, etc.) [including transport & communications as a factor in orgisation: ref:Parks], attentive to the material component and to the diversity of actos and roles who are stakeholders in that activity.”
(Trompette & Vinck, p.f)

“In it [Susan L. Star's followup research with Geoffroy Bowker] she deploys an ethnography which is sensitive to the way in which individuals and groups produce and manage information, including the activity’s material basis as the central mediation in the construction of knowledge.”
(Trompette & Vinck, p.i)


“Boundary objects are both adaptable to different viewpoints and robust enough to maintain identity across them.”

Star & Griesmer (1989) defined different types:

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. An example of a repository is a library or museum. It has the advantage of modularity. People from different worlds can use or borrow from the ‘pile’ for their own purposes without having directly to negotiate differences in purpose.

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. An example of an ideal type is the species. This is a concept which in fact described no specimen, which incorporated both concrete and theoretical data and which served as a means of communicating across both worlds. Ideal types arise with differences in degree of abstraction. They result in the deletion of local contingencies from the common object and have the advantage of adaptability.

Coincident boundaries
These are common objects which have the same boundaries but different internal contents. They arise in the presence of different means of aggregating data and when work is distributed over a large-scale geographic area. The result is that work in different sites and with different perspectives can be conducted autonomously while cooperating parties share a common referent. The advantage is the resolution of different goals. An example of coincident boundaries is the creation of the state of California itself as a boundary object for workers at the museum. The maps of California created by the amateur collectors and the conservationists resembled traditional roadmaps familiar to us all, and emphasized campsites, trails and places to collect. The maps created by the professional biologists, however, shared the same outline of the state (with the same geo-political boundaries), but were filled in with a highly abstract, ecologically-based series of shaded areas representing ‘life zones’, an ecological concept.

Standardized forms
These are boundary objects devised as methods of common communication across dispersed work groups. Because the natural history work took place at highly distributed sites by a number of different people, standardized methods were essential, as discussed above. In the case of the amateur collectors, they were provided with a form to fill out when they obtained an animal, standardized in the information it collected. The results of this type of boundary object are standardized indexes and what Latour would call ‘immutable mobiles’ (objects which can be transported over a long distance and convey unchanging information). The advantages of such objects are that local uncertainties (for instance, in the collecting of animal species) are deleted.


“The boundary object is “multiple”:

abstract and concrete, general and specific, conventional and user-adapted, material and conceptual (a database, a protocol).

It is a partial and temporary bridge which is fairly unstructured when used jointly and highly structured when used within one of the worlds involved.

It has different meanings in the different worlds, but those meanings are sufficiently structured to be recognised by the other.

The notion is used to describe how actors maintain their differences and their cooperation, how they manage and restrict variety, how they coordinate in space and time.

It qualifies the way in which actors establish and maintain coherence between interacting social worlds, without making them uniform or transparent from one to the other.

Actors in these social worlds can, thanks to the boundary object, negotiate their differences and establish agreement on their respective points of view.

Revisiting Star and Griesemer from the point of view of the knowledge management and associated communities of actors, Etienne Wenger (2000) specifies that the notion of boundary object can be broken down into four dimensions:

  • Abstraction: it facilitates dialogue between worlds
  • Multi-tasking: several activities or practices are possible
  • Modularity: different parts of the object can serve as a basis for dialogue between actors
  • Standardisation of the information contained in the object: rendering the information interpretable.”

(Trompette & Vinck, p. d)


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

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

Brian Marick: Analogy Fest: software development and something else..

“An analytical concept from science studies: does it apply to (agile software programming) acceptance tests”

A community of practice is a group of people who do a certain type of work, talk to each other about their work, and derive some measure of their identity from that work (refs).
Programmers are a community of practice. Accountants are another.

A community of interest involves members of distinct communities of practice coming together to solve a particular problem of common concern (Arias and Fischer 2000).
A team of programmers and accountants replacing a company's accounting system is a community of interest.

A community of interest can expect to face more communication problems than a community of practice.

As Arias and Fischer (2000) write,

"Fundamental challenges facing communities of interest are found in building a shared understanding of the task at hand (which often does not exist upfront, but is evolved incrementally and collaboratively…).

Members of communities of interest need to learn to communicate with and learn from others who have a different perspective and perhaps a different vocabulary for describing their ideas.

[They need to] establish a common ground and a shared understanding."


“In agile projects, the community of interest always includes members of two communities of practice. There are the programmers, and there is one or more representative business experts (variously called "customers", "goal donors", and the like). Agile projects assume high-bandwidth, highly iterative, face-to-face conversation is the best way to guide a project.

But conversation about what? In agile projects, there are at least two topics of conversation, two semi-physical objects that programmers and business experts can gesture toward while talking. One is working software: an intermediate version of the final product whose operation the business expert can observe and judge. The other is some list of future tasks, such as XP story cards (ref) and Scrum backlogs (ref). I believe these topics of conversation are what Star and Griesemer (1989) call boundary objects.”

(Marick, 2003)



Denham Grey writes..

“Boundary objects are not necessarily physical artifacts such as a map between two people: they can be a set of information, conversations, interests, rules, plans, contracts or even persons.”

“Boundary Objects are an important class of knowledge artifacts. They are centre stage in the dynamics of knowledge exchange. Boundary objects are also know as CISs (common information spaces).”
[Common] Information spaces where participants gather to exchange information, coordinate activities and create knowledge.. for example, library catalogue, forms..

Mapping Boundary Objects

“When identifying boundary objects, Be aware of issues around translation, closure, context, shared meaning.
Boundary objects are associated with process, meaning, participation, alignment and reification.

Gather the name (this may change from community to community)
describe and record the roles, activities, authorities and responsibilities around the boundary object
map the workflow, the path and sequence from node to node
look for sign-offs, trigger events, deviation heuristics and handoffs [?]
check for learning points

“Some of the dynamics that boundary objects help structure..

knowledge sharing triangle
Bold: top: Collaboration / bottom-left: Discourse / bottom-right: Inquiry
invert edges: top-edge: practices – relationships / left-edge: language – dialogue / right-edge: search – reflection
invert points: (language – practices)(relationships – search)(dialogue - reflection)

(Denham Grey, 2003):


“If x is a boundary object, people from different communities of practice can use it as what Chrisman (XXX) calls a COMMON POINT OF REFERENCE for conversations. They can all agree they're talking about x.

But the different people are not actually talking about the same thing. They attach
DIFFERENT MEANINGS to x. For example, a story card that says "allow alpha chars in customer ID field" might be, to a programmer, a reminder to change class definitions and update a database schema. To the business expert, it might represent an enabling step in merging the operations of two companies.

People use boundary objects as a MEANS OF COORDINATION AND ALIGNMENT (Fischer and Reaves 1995). Story cards are a tool XP projects use to align what the
programmers build with what the business expert wants.

Despite different interpretations, boundary objects serve as a MEANS OF TRANSLATION. If it becomes important that the programmer understand more about business operations being merged, the story card can be used to smooth the process of explanation (for example, by delving more deeply into the meaning of the words on the card).

Boundary objects are PLASTIC enough to adapt to changing needs. And change they do, as communities of practice cooperate. Boundary objects are WORKING
ARRANGEMENTS, adjusted as needed. They are not imposed by one community, nor by appeal to outside standards (Bowker and Star 1999).

The boundary object must satisfy DIFFERENT CONCERNS SIMULTANEOUSLY. In agile projects, the brief task descriptions and the conversation around them satisfies the business expert that something of actual business value will soon be produced while also satisfying the programmers that they are not committing to do more than they can.”

(Marick, 2003)
A museum's goal (Star and Griesemer 1989) as described by Marick..

“Star and Griesemer originally wrote about Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Biology in the period 1907-1939. Much as with the "allow alpha chars in a customer ID field" example, a goal was used as a boundary object. In this case, the goal might be stated as "preserve the natural fauna of California". To Grinnell (the curator), this goal was a means to the end of elaborating Darwinian theory – specifically, seeing how change in the environment drove natural selection. That end required the collection of a vast amount of detailed information about fauna and the environment they lived in. California was the boundary of his natural laboratory.

The museum's collection was enabled by conservationists who saw the flora and fauna of California disappearing and felt that it needed to be preserved while there was still time. They provided both funding (one, Annie Alexander, paid for the museum) and amateur collecting services. To them, the goal meant a quite different thing. However, Grinnell was able to use the boundary object to motivate them and guide their collecting – he could use it to explain things in their terms while using it for his own purposes (for example, to decide what data should be collected along with a specimen).

At the same time, Grinnell had to work with the University administration. To them, preserving the fauna of California had yet another meaning. It fit into their mandate of serving the people of California. It also fit into their goal of competing with elite eastern universities in terms of funding and prestige. The Berkeley Museum would beof the same class as eastern museums, though of a different type because of its focus on covering a delimited region with better data. So the boundary object was suited to enlisting their support.”

(Marick, 2003)


by Martin Sharman, Biodiversity Sector, Natural Resources Management and Services, European Commission Directorate General for Research

“So what "is" biodiversity?
Biodiversity is not just what it says in the CBD [Dictionary] definition. It goes beyond, and is more far reaching and ambiguous, than that already rather complicated formula.

The definition belongs among the set of ideas, beliefs, feelings, objects, relationships between objects, documents and vocabulary that allows people from different backgrounds and perspectives to agree that they are working towards a common understanding of biodiversity.

Those different perspectives all contribute to a working arrangement between very different ways of thinking and doing business. The term, and the concept, allow people to co-operate.

Geneticists, taxonomists, sociologists, ecologists, modellers, economists, bio-chemists, conservationists, policy makers, TV documentary makers and many other groups interpret "biodiversity" differently. But they all agree they're talking about biodiversity.

This encourages us to interact across communities. And as we interact, our perspectives shift and our own interpretation of the concept evolves. Boundary objects are flexible if the person thinking about the object is willing to accept new angles, flux, and even ambiguity.

But boundary objects are resilient, too, since each community will see valuable elements in their own view that are not included in the perspective from another community.

People waste effort when they try to get others to agree to their definition of biodiversity. While I may (possibly) be able to explain it, I cannot impose my vision of biodiversity on you.

At best you may like some aspect of my vision, and adopt it as part of your own - but there may well be aspects of my vision that you really dislike, or simply do not understand.

Thus a geneticist and an economist, for example, will probably never share the same vision of what biodiversity "is" - not for lack of good will, but simply because their backgrounds and training bring them to the boundary object from different points of the compass. What is most important about biodiversity to the geneticist may be something that the economist legitimately regards as a trivial detail from her perspective.

From a philosophical point of view, it should not concern us that we all understand biodiversity differently. This is is a characteristic of a useful boundary object. But the characteristics of a boundary object, particularly the difference in understanding about what is important about biodiversity, is one of the reasons that it is so hard to get agreement on indicators. What are we measuring? That depends on the details, about which different communities tend to have fundamentally different opinions.

As we change scales from a single-discipline view of biodiversity to a multi-disciplinary one, we are obliged, therefore, to change our understanding of biodiversity in a qualitative way.

To do so properly we must absorb a new set of concepts and adopt a new vocabulary, which is part of the reason that it is so hard to find effective multi-disciplinary co-operation.

Summary: Biodiversity means different things to different communities. Co-operation between disciplines requires acceptance that biodiversity is big enough for both of us.”



'Role Playing and Collaborative Scenario Design Development'

Example of a storyboard in multi-discipinary film-making “to coordinate the workflow, as well as promote a common understanding, or shared context”:

Animator uses storyboard to anticipate movement of character and camera in a particular film sequence;
Computer programmer uses a storyboard to understand how to create a software tool to perform a special effect;
Production manager looks at storyboard to determine complexities in scheduling and expeditures needed to produce a film sequence;

“Boundary Objects seem to provide an interface that affords the emergence of common understanding. They seems to faciliate collaborative processes whereby individuals both avow and learn about their differences whilst focusing on their knowledge into the objective of the activity of task in hand”

“Our hypothesis has questioned whether this notion of boundary objects can also be used to create artifacts that 'stand for' representation and meaning when performing design activity”.

“In the context of user-centred design, a scenario is a narrative description of a system, using visual or textual format or a combination of both. Scenario narratives can be told from diverse points of view, describing how activities are organised around a system and how they unfold in time”

“A layer of representation in the form of a Claims Analysis argumentation.. to expose weaknesses of particular design ideas that were proposed in these scenarios. Claims analysis is a structured form of dialogical “What-If?” reasoning used to highlight the casual relationships between system features and system responses as experienced by the user and described in the scenario”

(Diaz, Reunanen et. al)


The 'Where did the green gem come from?' Story

The 'Rautatieasema' Workshop

The 'Storytelling with Older People' Workshop

Happihuone and its different owners/producers



Arias, E. G. and Fischer, G. (2000) Boundary Objects: Their Role in Articulating the Task at Hand and Making Information Relevant to It. International ICSC Symposium on Interactive and Collaborative Computing (ICC'2000), December 2000.

Bowker, G.C., Leigh Star, S. Sorting Things Out, Classification and its Consequences,
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999.

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.

Carroll, J.M., ed. Scenario-based Design: Envisioning Work and Technology in System
Development, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1995.

Diaz, L., Reunanen, M. And Salmi, A. Role Playing and Collaborative Scenario Design Development, Int. Conference on Engineering Design ICED'09, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA.

Gal, U., Yoo, Y., Boland, R.J. (2004). "The Dynamics of Boundary Objects, Social Infrastructures and Social Identities," Case Western Reserve University, USA . Sprouts: Working Papers on Information Systems, 4(11).

Grey, Denham (2003), Boundary objects and KM [Knowledge Management]

Leigh Star, S. The Structure of Ill-Structured Solutions: Boundary Objects and Heterogeneous
Distributed Problem Solving. Distributed Artificial Intelligence (Vol. 2), 1989, pp. 37 – 54.

Marick, B. Boundary Objects, 2003.

Sharman, Martin (2005). Multi-disciplinaryity and biodiversity as a boundary object

Trompette P. et Vinck D., Revisiting the notion of Boundary Object, Revue d'anthropologie des connaissances 2009/ 1, Vol. 3, n° 1, p. 3-25.

Wenger, Etienne. (2000), Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems, Organization, Volume 7(2): 225-246

Bianca Malvasia. (2009), A Taxonomy of Boundary Objects (Agile Programming)

P2P Foundation entry on Boundary Objects

Edutechwiki entry on Boundary Objects

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