Communities of Practice & Related Boundaries: Part 4 of 4

This post sets the tone of current practice within academics for boundary objects. These empirical studies map back to the theories discussed in Part 2 and provides experiential relevance necessary to apply them in the real world. These posts are draft writing snippets of a systems thesis for adult education I am developing in my doctoral work.

If you wish to see a more detailed review of one of the articles referenced, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Boundaries and Boundary Objects: Empirical Studies & Practical Applications

Boundaries are a natural element for communities of practice, but it does not have a strong representation in research to better understand how to facilitate across the boundaries into other communities. Boundary objects are such a vehicle, and are represented in this essay to help evaluate the need for them within adult education and the learning process. Star and Griesemer (1989) explain how objects can be represented by several different types of artifacts. In an example that they used with the study of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in California, objects are represented as “specimens, field notes, museums and maps of particular territories. Their boundary nature is reflected by the fact that they are simultaneously concrete and abstract” (p. 408). As such, “boundary objects are thus a means of producing sufficient coherence to enable interaction” (Burman, 2004, p. 370).

The existence of boundaries and boundary objects means that multiple disciplines and communities are involved. While the difficulty for finding empirical studies for communities of service in relation to education was high, there was an even more of a challenge finding empirical studies for boundary objects for any community. Three empirical studies were located and represented three difficult disciplines, including psychology, technology, and education. Fox (2011) presents a historical case study that demonstrates the relevance of boundary objects to technological innovation and adoption. He expands on the boundary object categorization by Star and Griesemer (1989), which include four classifications (as cited by Fox, 2011, p. 72).

  • Repositories that are indexed to ensure multiple communities can access it.
  • Anything that is an ideal, representation, or abstraction that services multiple communities.
  • Something that has the same boundary for multiple communities, but has content that differs based on the specific community’s needs.
  • Standardization that can be related to by individuals from multiple communities.

This ability to classify boundary objects within communities of practice was to help individuals from multiple communities communicate effectively and experience knowledge transforming within their own community. Fox (2011) explained that boundary objects have a deeper impact that these classifications and can represent a much broader range. He made the point that boundary objects by their nature are meant to facilitate change, especially in the realm of technological innovation. The knowledge of utilizing boundary objects in such a manner allows improved stakeholder relationships in a variety of organizational communities, such as medical or science.

Fox (2011) provides an assessment of the nature of boundary objects and how they work effectively within communities of practice through the study of surgical sterility innovation during the Victoria era. The historical case study presented both the failure and success of boundary objects impacting sociological change through the use of unique boundary objects. The sociological change failure was when the thought leader was attempting to improve surgical sterility through a technology that serves as the boundary object. Unfortunately, the use of the boundary object, or technology, also psychologically suggested to the surgeons that they were the carrier of pollution and bacteria to the patient, which offended them as healers. The sociological change success was when another thought leader in the same time period also attempted to improve surgical sterility through boundary objects that were represented by sterile clothes, masks, correctly sterilized instruments. In this case, the use of these boundary objects were psychologically positive because they suggested to the surgeons that they were the carriers of cleanliness and healing, even identifying them as healers to a broader public audience than just the community of surgeons. The impact of these boundary objects, regardless of negative or positive results, demonstrate a practical way that boundary objects work, transforming a community’s knowledge. The extension of boundary objects beyond the simpler definitions promises methods for communities to recognize and implement technology adoption more effectively.

Burman (2004) performs an intense research on the impact boundary objects have in group analysis for psychoanalysis and social theory. The paper is strongly focused on the current knowledge between social theory and group analysis, thus impacting group-analytic practice within psychology. Burman looks at boundary objects as a vehicle to cross cultures with psychology and sociology. Meanwhile, a third discipline experienced an empirical study; education. This last study is especially relevant to the essay as it focused on adult education, and needs the insight of boundary objects from other educational experiences. Jahreie and Ludvigsen (2007) performed a case study based on several interviews. These interviews were developed from enthnographical observations of a university’s many subject domain communities of teacher’s collaboration effort for a reformed learning process. Boundary objects for the project of reformed learning were studied, especially in how the members of communities collaborated. Meetings and portfolio assessments were noted as major boundary cross-overs that represented strategic negotiation between the teachers. Activities that resulted from the boundary object development included “structures, attitudes, beliefs, norms, and roles [that] are put under pressure at the collective level and thereby create conditions for change” (Jahreie & Ludvigsen, 2007, p. 307). The challenge of this project was to take several sub-communities of teachers from various subject domains and collaboratively development both an assessment system and curriculum construction, which succeeded with the awareness of boundary objects and development of boundary-crossings.

Unfortunately, empirical studies on boundary objects in action across communities are not common. While these examples certainly do not provide a full picture of how boundaries work across disciplines and communities, they provide insight in how we can discover boundary objects to better connect with other communities, whether it be learning across disciplines or within an organization.

Burman, E. (2004). Boundary objects and group analysis: Between psychoanalysis and social theory. Group Analysis, 37(3), 361-379.

Fox, N. (2011). Boundary objects, social meanings and the success of new technologies. British Sociological Association, 45(1), 70-85.

Jahreie, C., and Ludvigsen, S. (2007). Portfolios as boundary object: Learning and change in teacher education. Research and Practice in Technology Enhanced Learning, 2(3), 299-318.

Star, S. L. (1989). The structure of ill-structured solutions: Boundary objects and heterogeneous distributed problem solving. In Huhns and Gasser (Eds.). Readings in Distributed Artificial Intelligence. Menlo Park, CA: Morgan Kaufman.

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About Marian

My passion is centered around ensuring effective learning experiences that improve people's lives. Developing a learning mindset is my ultimate goal whether working with academic programs or corporate training; formal or informal learning practices. It is my belief that our potential for agility is limited only by our capacity for learning.

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