Boundary object theory

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Boundary object theory

Boundary objects theory comprises the standardization of interfaces between different social worlds - as described in the original paper by Star and Griesemer (19089). 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.



Alternate name(s)

Main dependent construct(s)/factor(s)

Main independent construct(s)/factor(s)

Concise description of 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.

Diagram/schematic of theory

Originating author(s)

Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer

Seminal articles

Boland, R.J., and Tenkasi, R.V. 1995. "Perspective Making and Perspective Taking in Communities of Knowing," Organization Science (6:4), pp. 350-372.

Bowker, G. C.; & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting things out: classification and its consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 

Carlile, P.R. 2002. "A Pragmatic View of Knowledge and Boundaries: Boundary Objects in New Product Development," Organization Science (13:4), pp. 442-455. 

Carlile, P.R. 2004. "Transferring, Translating, and Transforming: An Integrative Framework for Managing Knowledge Across Boundaries," Organization Science (15:5), pp. 555-568. 

Dodgson, M., Gann, D.M., and Salter, A. 2007. "“In Case of Fire, Please Use the Elevator”: Simulation Technology and Organization in Fire Engineering," Organization Science (18:5), pp. 849-864. 

Eaton, B. et al. (2015) ‘Distributed Tuning of Boundary Resources: The Case of Apple’s iOS Service System’, MIS Quarterly, 39(1), pp. 217–243. doi: 10.25300/MISQ/2015/39.1.10.

Ghazawneh, A. and Henfridsson, O. (2013) ‘Balancing platform control and external contribution in third-party development: The boundary resources model’, Information Systems Journal, 23(2), pp.173–192. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2575.2012.00406.x.

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

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. doi:10.1177/030631289019003001. ^ Bowker, G. C.; & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting things out: classification and its consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

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

Yakura, E.K. 2002. "Charting Time: Timelines as Temporal Boundary Objects," The Academy of Management Journal (45:5), pp. 956-970.

Originating area


Level of analysis

Group, Firm

IS articles that use the theory

Doolin, B., and McLeod, L. 2012. "Sociomateriality and boundary objects in information systems development," European Journal of Information Systems (21:5), pp. 570-586.

Gasson, S. 2006. "A genealogical study of boundary-spanning IS design," European Journal of Information Systems (15:1), pp. 26-41.

Henderson, K. 1991. "Flexible Sketches and Inflexible Data Bases: Visual Communication, Conscription Devices, and Boundary Objects in Design Engineering," Science, Technology, & Human Values (16:4), pp. 448-473.

Karsten, H., Lyytinen, K., Hurskainen, M., and Koskelainen, T. 2001. "Crossing boundaries and conscripting participation: representing and integrating knowledge in a paper machinery project," European Journal of Information Systems (10:2), pp. 89-98.

Levina, N., and Vaast, E. 2005. "The Emergence of Boundary Spanning Competence in Practice: Implications for Implementation and Use of Information Systems," MIS Quarterly (29:2), pp. 335-363.

 Mark, G., Lyytinen, K., and Bergman, M. 2007. "Boundary Objects in Design: An Ecological View of Design Artifacts," Journal of the Association for Information systems (8:11), pp. 546-568.

Nicolini, D., Mengis, J., and Swan, J. 2012. "Understanding the Role of Objects in Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration," Organization Science (23:3), pp. 612-629.

Pawlowski, S.D., and Robey, D. 2004. "Bridging User Organizations: Knowledge Brokering and the Work of Information Technology Professionals," MIS Quarterly (28:4), pp. 645-672.

Rosenkranz, C., Vranešić, H., and Holten, R. 2014. "Boundary Interactions and Motors of Change in Requirements Elicitation: A Dynamic Perspective on Knowledge Sharing," Journal of the Association for Information Systems (15:6), pp. 306-345.

Winter, S.J., and Butler, B.S. 2011. "Creating bigger problems: grand challenges as boundary objects and the legitimacy of the information systems field," Journal of Information Technology (26:2), pp. 99-108.

Links from this theory to other theories

External links

Original Contributor(s)

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