The main goal of this chapter is to explain the concept of boundary work, the properties that boundary work consists of, and the situations where boundary work is applicable. Boundary work in this chapter is further subdivided into why we need it, boundary objects, and boundary organizations. A case study showing an example of boundary work is also given. It is important to note that these concepts are a part of boundary work, but every situation is unique and may not consist of everything mentioned in the following chapter. 

What is Boundary Work and Boundary Spanning?

Before we can understand what boundary work or boundary spanning is, we first need to understand what a boundary is. A boundary is a gap in knowledge or communication that prevents stakeholders from finding a solution to a problem. This barrier could be between several different kinds of stakeholders, including scientists, researchers, community members, or town planners. Boundaries occur often because academics and community members have different ways of communicating, interpreting information, and have different sources of knowledge that often aren’t tapped into. Boundary work is the practice of bridging barriers between different disciplines and to mediate the transfer of information between all stakeholders and parties involved. A common misconception is that boundary work simply occurs at academic barriers due to a gap in knowledge, but in actuality, boundary work can bridge the gap between a majority of the issues transdisciplinary projects face. These issues consist of facilitation and management, to relaying information among group members and the general audience.

Boundary spanning is work between multiple parties to establish better communication and respect among stakeholders to create an environment more conducive to creating solutions. Boundary spanning creates understandable knowledge that is mutually beneficial to all participants while also contributing to the development of projects and solutions. A successful way to ensure boundary spanning is done correctly is to have boundary spanners conducting the process. Boundary spanners are individual people or organizations that help create greater understanding between stakeholders during the exchange of knowledge and information. Boundary spanners recognize the fact that conveying information more eloquently to the public is not the most productive part of knowledge production. They also acknowledge the concept that “applied science” is not a sufficient solution for solving a problem. Boundary spanners go more in depth by integrating the information, whereas typical researchers or facilitators do not possess the necessary time or skills required. When researchers neglect to translate their findings into action and incorporate stakeholders outside the academic community, the information often goes unused. This is where boundary spanners can intervene. These are only a few examples of the ways boundary spanners work to improve communication and comradery many additional methods exist. 

Why Do We Need Boundary Work?

The goal of boundary work is to provide a knowledge bridge between boundaries, rather than breaking the boundary between knowledge disciplines. This helps to form a common language between disciplines to understand the problem at hand while preserving the integrity of each discipline involved. Boundary work is often used to create new co-produced knowledge between disciplines and further advancements in both disciplines. It also deals with wicked problems. A wicked problem is an issue that requires diverse resources to resolve due to incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people involved, economic constraints, and/or the interconnected nature of these problems. Sustainability in general deals with wicked problems and their immense complexities. In order to create solutions to these problems, experts across disciplines need to collaborate with local stakeholders to ensure that all forms of knowledge and information are communicated effectively and that everyone’s voice is heard. This is easier said than done. This is why having individuals and organizations capable of boundary spanning is key to finding problem-specific solutions. It ensures all types of legitimate knowledge are used in all 3 phases of transdisciplinary research. Without it voices are left unheard, information is dispersed incorrectly or not at all, and communities that require solutions are left to deal with problems by themselves. 

As mentioned previously, boundary organizations assist with mediation. Boundary organizations are groups that specialize in facilitating the exchange and co-production of knowledge across the science-policy interface. These organizations provide important techniques and experiences which can be utilized by policymakers, scientists, businesses, or other parties when trying to solve complex problems that often involve multiple disciplines. The chosen approach is context-specific, and it addresses the aspect of boundary spanning that the participants most critically need in order to progress. The nature of this demand is primarily influenced by interactions between existing stakeholders and the problem being addressed. One method of approach is through the assessment of existing power and knowledge gaps in the exchange process. To assist with the knowledge flow, this is followed by assignment of roles and tasks to various departments. In other cases, boundary organizations are relied upon to determine research most demanded for by users and supply this to the co-producers. An aspect of this process is the identification of what users find to be true and trustworthy. One organization with this approach is called COMPASS, USA, which aims to connect scientists with the local public on discussions about the environment. Relationships are established during these networking opportunities, and knowledge transfer is successful. Boundary organizations also work to understand the diverse incentives of the participants, their views of each other, perspectives on the problem and proposed solution, or limitations in enacting the solution. Depending on the context-specific situation, the boundary organization will have a varying degree of involvement. Boundary organizations may deem the members of a situation to be self-sufficient, which can only occur if the co-produced knowledge is relevant, correct and unbiased. In this case, there is no need for the involvement of boundary organizations throughout the entire process. The overarching motive is to ensure that information is co-produced and integrated more smoothly. 

Boundary organizations are most greatly valued for the level of productive communication stimulated between stakeholders, which is enabled by establishing trust. Communication is often hailed as the most important step in linking disciplines and co-producing knowledge. During this process, boundary organizations refrain from influencing the views or information of the stakeholders; they act as an impartial member who simply facilitates. When attempting to understand the role that boundary organizations play, it is most useful to compare them to consultants. As consultants, they do not advocate for a certain result or lobby for certain political interests. They provide multiple options and leave the final outcome up to the discretion of the parties involved. 

Though boundary spanning does not necessarily require boundary organizations, it often improves the interactions and positively influences the ultimate outcome. This is because boundary spanning encompasses a great deal of work, which can be overwhelming and is compromised when paired with the responsibilities of another position. Overall, boundary organizations are a powerful tool in collaborative processes due to their expertise in creating a common ground between stakeholder’s interests, as well as their ability to mediate between the parties involved.

What are Boundary Objects?

Boundary objects are a physical representation of a specific issue such as drawings, maps, or graphs, that allow different types of stakeholders to collectively interpret information easily and intuitively. They are the result of co-produced knowledge; ideally, multiple participants with different views contribute to create the object. They allow for collaboration between parties without a complete agreement. Often, this process involves the work of boundary organizations, which ensure that both users and producers are collaborating. Utilizing this method guarantees that the most relevant boundary object will result.

Boundary objects do not have any specific form that they need to fit; they take the shape of whatever conveys the concept most efficiently, where all participants can gain an understanding. Boundary objects often are developed through trial and error, with parties giving feedback and redesigning the object until it functions properly. This was exemplified in the Tides to Storms Case study when the flood risk mapping took place. University of New Hampshire researchers began this process by modeling sea level rise and storm surge for the community-specific maps. Next, the Rockingham Planning Commission (RPC) GIS technicians utilized this data in combination with data provided by the municipalities. The RPC planner then provided these maps to the townspeople, who gave their input of local knowledge and suggested edits for the map. After the slightly modification of the maps by the GIS technicians, they were displayed for the public with continued explanations about the impacts of the flooding.

 To each party that looked at the map, it signified a different idea according to their interests.For example, to the local community, the map began a series of informed conversations on how they should adapt to certain parts of the town flooding. The conversations and perspectives of the maps also varied between each town, based on the specific areas of the town that were being threatened. For the RPC, this information was useful for making educated decisions on future town establishments. In contrast, for those who are more removed from the direct effects of the flooding, climatologists and researchers view it as simply an assessment of sea-level rise and may combine this assessment with others around the world. Ultimately, this image allowed for each party to interpret the findings differently, in a way that was relevant to their primary concerns. 

Figure 2. Projected flood map of Portsmouth created during Tides to Storms project (Source: Rockingham Planning Commission www.therpc.org)

Boundary objects should represent a shared understanding of a situation; if the boundary object was produced by a singular party, it will most likely not be useful for this purpose. Thus, as long as the boundary object is co-produced and relevant to all participants, it can be properly defined as a method of boundary spanning. After all, it is only defined as a boundary object because of how it is used. Boundary objects act as the intersection of ideas and shared understanding between multiple groups, while also reflecting the priorities of each group involved. 


What is the importance of boundary work in transdisciplinary research?

Transdisciplinary research (TDR) is the primary mode of finding solutions to complex problems in sustainability science. TDR is defined by collaboration between academic and non-academic stakeholders carrying out a collaborative research process as they approach a tangible solution. Boundary spanners’ primary goal is to create what is basically a collaborative equity within the group. That is to say, the facilitator should account for power differences and other disadvantages of each stakeholder and find ways to compensate for them in order to make all stakeholders as equal as possible, rather than simply treating everyone the same. Someone with a non-academic background may have difficulty making an informed decision based on raw data from research, at which point it is the duty of the boundary spanner to explain that data in a way that the non-academic stakeholder may draw reasonable conclusions from it. Knowledge from each stakeholder is translated by the boundary worker into a form that everyone can understand and respect, often using boundary objects to graphically communicate concepts. The boundary worker mediates discussion between members as well and evaluates the dynamics of the group; they account for differences in power to ensure that all members have a voice in the research and decision-making process. They also must be mindful of potential motives that may dissuade a stakeholder from prioritizing the optimal solution to the problem at hand. 

These are all important considerations in transdisciplinary research because boundary spanning not only makes the process significantly easier, it makes it more likely to succeed. When inequities between stakeholders are addressed properly, the stakeholders are more likely to participate and also respect the outcome of the work. The mediated facilitation greatly increases the legitimacy of the information coproduced. When power inequalities and biases are addressed properly, there is a better opportunity for social cohesion among adverse groups that otherwise might not choose to interact. This establishment of common language and understanding may lead to more collaboration in the future whether the current project succeeds or not. Trust among stakeholders also creates a sense of credibility, in which groups accustomed to specific types of knowledge may trust different types of knowledge from a stakeholder they’ve built up social capital with. In other words, there will be fewer arguments about what is valid information when collaborating individuals respect one another.


Case Study: Transdisciplinary Land And Water Management Research In Uzbekistan

In Uzbekistan, a transdisciplinary research project centered around restructuring irrigated agriculture, sought to alter the economic and ecological goals of cotton farming. The main goal of this project was to become more sustainable. The initial research of the project was conducted and used until about five years later when a new component of transdisciplinary research was added. In order to implement innovation in land and water resources management, teams of people across different disciplines were formed. Despite this immense amount of new information difficulties arose due to barriers between stakeholders in the

project. This allowed each individual group to span the gaps between information and create a comprehensive solution to the problem they were assigned. When their solution was complete the group would pitch the idea to the entire organization. In Uzbekistan, they developed a “follow the innovation” approach to develop boundary objects to explain the new implementations to stakeholders and the desired audience. This led to the project creating staffed position for facilitators that acted as what we know as boundary spanners. These people were professionally employed and were sourced from what we call a boundary organization. These facilitators would guide each team through team building exercises to increase group cohesion. They also were in charge of translating all of the information developed in groups further so stakeholders outside of the project team could understand the innovations being implemented. Externally these facilitators met with stakeholders to understand and integrate their needs into the scope of the project as well. Maintaining the balance of power was also a critical part of these facilitators duties because of the vast power dynamics found in the scope of this project. They had to externally balance an authoritarian government, and internally manage small farmers, Ph.D researchers, and other supervisors of the project. The boundary workers managed to maintain individual stakeholders identities despite the massive power disparity due to the government. The very nature of this project was a wicked problem both in the aspect of natural resource management and managing the parties involved. The reason why boundary work was so essential is due to all the moving parts involved in this project a majority of this information would be lost in translation, hence emphasising the importance of boundary spanners. Boundary spanners specifically helped prevent the power imbalance from getting out of hand and prevented stakeholders from being underrepresented.



Chapter Summary

In summary, boundary spanning is a key practice applied in transdisciplinary research. It not only creates a common language for information exchange but also ensures that participants have an equal opportunity to influence the solution. Boundary workers and organizations can be designated to better facilitate these conditions, while boundary objects are graphical representations of concepts formed by the group to solidify overall understanding and should be made by everyone in the group. These concepts and practices are particularly effective in fields such as sustainability science, where transdisciplinary research is common. Boundary spanning facilitates a better work environment in which participants from contrasting backgrounds are capable of forming a solution around a common understanding of the problem at hand.


Comprehension Questions

  1. What is an example of a boundary object?
  2. Name 2 objectives of a boundary spanner
  3. What is a boundary organization?
  4. Why is boundary spanning important in the Transdisciplinary process?
  5. Give 3 examples of how boundary work was important in the case study




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