Boundary object (BO) theory

Compiled by Lars Miikki 27.2.2023

Definition in Information systems IS Research Wiki: ”Boundary objects theory comprises the standardization of interfaces between different social worlds – as described in the original paper by Star and Griesemer (1989). Due to the variety of actors – each with a different interest, commitment and perception of the world, it is given that social reality has different interpretations for each group of actors. The idea of boundary objects connects these actors – similar as language does – by providing objects that contain elements from each actor’s ”world”. That does not mean that the understanding is the same – but the common interface for communication between actors is.”

The original BO article: Star SL & Griesemer JR (1989). ”Institutional Ecology, ’Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39”. Social Studies of Science 19 (4): 387–420. Download the article from here:

Key figures in the article

”Our approach thus differs from the Callon-Latour-Law model of translations and interessement in several ways. First, their model can be seen as a kind of ’funnelling’ – reframing or mediating the concerns of several actors into a narrower passage point (see Figure 1). The story in this case is necessarily told from the point of view of one passage point – usually the manager, entrepreneur, or scientist. The analysis we propose here still contains a managerial bias, in that the stories of the museum director and sponsor are much more fully fleshed out than those of the amateur collectors or other players. But it is a many-to-many mapping, where several obligatory points of passage are negotiated with several kinds of allies, including manager-to-manager types (see Figure 2).” (Star and Griesemer 1989)

”The coherence of sets of translations depends on the extent to which entrepreneurial efforts from multiple worlds can coexist, whatever the nature of the processes which produce them. Translation here is indeterminate, in a way analogous to Quine’s philosophical dictum about language. That is, there is an indefinite number of ways entrepreneurs from each cooperating social world may make their own work an obligatory point of passage for the whole network of participants. There is, therefore, an indeterminate number of coherent sets of translations. The problem for all the actors in a network, including scientific entrepreneurs is to (temporarily) reduce their local uncertainty without risking a loss of cooperation from allies. Once the process has established an obligatory point of passage, the job then becomes to defend it against other translations threatening to displace it.” (Star and Griesemer 1989)

Our interest in problems of coherence and cooperation in science has
been shaped, in part, by trying to understand the historical development
of a particular type of institution: natural history research museums.


Concise description of Boundary object theory

A boundary object is a concept in sociology to describe information used in different ways by different communities. They are plastic, interpreted differently across communities but with enough immutable content to maintain integrity. The ideas was introduced by Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer in a 1989 publication: /1/

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.

Within this publication, they illustrate the meaning and the aspects of boundary objects through their work with the California based Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley. They explain the curation process of the museum, which involved also different actors- and how the resulting objects displayed in the museum are boundary objects: No matter if one was a research scientist, professor or amateur collector, they all considered it important to show - to name one example - the species of mammals and birds living in Californian nature. These elements were of interest to scientists, amateur collectors, non-scientists and the general public - despite their different backgrounds and interpretations of it. Boundary objects theory does not state that the perception of these objects is standardized or the same. It aims to highlight the meaning of standardized interfaces to convey information, despite its varying interpretation.

/1/ Star SL & Griesemer JR (1989). "Institutional Ecology, 'Translations' and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39". Social Studies of Science 19 (4): 387–420.