CAIRN.INFO : Matières à réflexion

1In the first 2009 issue of the Anthropology of Knowledge Review (Trompette and Vinck, 2009), we gave an extensive overview of the origins of the notion of boundary object as well as its uses since the term was first published in the article entitled “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’, and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals” by Susan L. Star and James R. Griesemer (Star and Griesemer, 1989). The notion placed thinking about collective action and innovation in an ecological perspective by staging various artefacts involved in distributed knowledge theorisation.

2This second return to the conceptual scope of the boundary object aims to compare its multiple and diversified uses, which have led to the birth of a whole range of “conceptual” descendants (boundary work, boundary spanning, boundary organisation, etc.), with the content and conceptual power invested in them by their main authors, Jim Griesemer, Geof Bowker and, above all, Susan Leigh Star. The idea, of course, is not to apply a rigid academic definition to the concept in order to sort out the “right” uses from the “wrong”. It is more a question of re-investing the boundary object with its full heuristic potential, which at times tends to be diluted by the concept’s excessive flexibility. This thinking has led us to reinstate the strong conceptual link established by Leigh Star and her co-authors in their many publications (notably Bowker and Star, 1999) between boundary object and infrastructure. This stems from the observation that many of the notion’s uses strive above all to identify objects or devices subject to “interpretive flexibility” and thus to multiple translation possibilities within cooperative arrangements. In fact, a number of the dimensions of the original notion have been forgotten. This especially applies to the invisible infrastructures to which boundary objects contribute via the conventions and standards they channel.

3These “forgotten” infrastructures were behind our invitation to the social science community to put forward their analyses and thinking on the matter. This led to several articles being published in 2009. These documented the analysis of coordination between worlds in scientific activity (see the articles by Gilles Tetart and Didier Torny, and Martin Remondet), in museology (see the article by Morgan Meyer) or in situational ecology (see the article by Céline Granjou and Isabelle Mauz). These articles reinvested in the notion of boundary object focusing on the original articulation between interpretive flexibility and infrastructure.

4This major point is this time recalled by Leigh Star. In her cover page article of this special issue, based on the lecture she gave in Grenoble in 2007, she reminds us that the notion of boundary object initially comprised three components: interpretive flexibility ; arrangements in terms of information structure and work processes ; and the dynamics at play between highly or poorly-structured uses of objects. The selective use of the first component does not allow us to take into account the entire conceptual model. And so, after having had 25 years to think about it, Leigh Star challenges her readers with a provocative title (“This is not a boundary object!”) and, by going back over the initial concept, suggests we reconsider its architecture. Leigh Star first returns to the link between boundary object and the research questioning underpinning its scientific trajectory, inviting us to think about cooperative activity beyond the boundaries between heterogeneous worlds, and to seize on the “intersections” beyond the requirement for consensus. This questioning therefore suggests that boundary objects and infrastructure are closely tied to research objects: scientific work activities, cooperative processes and organisation of labour, with its share of “invisible labour” or “delegated” labour. This link between the conceptual device and the objects for which it has been developed suggests the scale to be used when thinking about the role of infrastructures, i.e. that of the organisation.

5In this article Leigh Star also offers us a useful lesson in methodology, in a register designed to bring out the full force of the symbolic interactionism tradition on this question. From the archives of the Royal College of Medicine in London to those of the Royal Society or of the Bancroft library, she takes us through what seems to be a series of field accounts but which in fact progressively turn out to be an epistemological conquest in the access to certain hidden, if not invisible, places in different social worlds. In the author’s wake, boundary objects and infrastructures are built up from inside the field study itself, like so many heuristically dissonant “anomalies” revealed.

6In this issue, we thus pursue this reinvestment in the notion of boundary object focusing this time on innovative and original situations, and comparing these to the sociology of science tradition in which the contribution of Star and Griesemer is rooted. Hence, when Céline Verchère and Emmanuel Anjembe work on the design activities of new technological objects, they take a special look at the visions (scenarios, mock-ups, prototypes) produced by actors in order to articulate the most heterogeneous types of worlds like those of expert technologies, on the one hand, and those of “simple citizens” and everyday users, on the other. Faced with the injunction to innovate and design manufactured objects destined to be successful on the market, product designers strive to find a way to materialise their knowledge in the form of objects that are as tangible and significant as the scenarios of use where these possible future objects are staged. Here, films and scenarios act as boundary objects and their authors show how difficult it is to develop them given the uncertainty of share prices and the diversified forms of objects. Their analysis sheds light on the dynamics of design processes by emphasising the tensions linked to the weakness of infrastructures of expression.

7Using the concept of boundary object to describe innovation networks is also one of the avenues explored by Stéphanie Peters, Daniel Faulx and Isabelle Hansez as they study the transfer of a stress diagnosis tool and the knowledge associated with it from a university social science laboratory to professional environments. This article shows how the diagnosis tool acts on the temporal and social breakdown of what, at the end of the day, is a service innovation. It reports on the circulation of the tool and its associated knowledge, underlining its role in the process to reduce uncertainty (between hazardous paths and planned management of the innovation trajectory, and the creation of irreversibility around specific objects) and in the building of an innovative service offer bringing together heterogeneous actors (the mediating role of objects between financial backers, concurrent laboratories and users). The authors highlight the involvement of users in the construction of the boundary object considered. This case study basically describes a relatively conventional use of the notion of boundary object, which is especially meaningful in the field of training or design: here boundary objects are like the translation devices linking the universe of designers to that of customers/users.

8In a no less playful universe, Emmanuel Boutet looks at the “Views” created by the players of an online game as he observes the participants experimenting with different interfaces from the official one. He shows that the notion of boundary object is conceptually relevant for addressing this kind of innovation-by-use situation. He reports on the players’ experimenting. In this study, the boundary object is less an operator of contact between initially disjointed worlds than an operator of evidence underlining the differences between normally undifferentiated players. The boundary object thus contributes to structuring a complex ecology within which the participants strive to find their bearings and make headway. The article acts as a contribution to the study of the genesis of new socio-technical forms, on the internet. These socio-technical forms have a history, that of the co-evolution of communities and individuals, alongside that of digital artefacts and infrastructures.

9Finally, in order to contribute to the circulation of and capitalisation on the thinking of Leigh Star, we have decided to include in this issue the translation of a little-known article by Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder (1996). This article formalises the elements of an ecological analysis of large scale infrastructures, especially information and digital infrastructures. The authors focus their attention on collaborative software designed for the community of genetic engineers. They highlight the difficulty of developing an infrastructure with different levels of complexity, subject to large scale modifications and local changes.


  • Bowker G., Star S.L. (1999), Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA : MIT Press.
  • En ligneGranjou C., Mauz I.. (2009), Quand l’identité de l’objet-frontière se construit chemin faisant. Le cas de l’estimation de l’effectif de la population de loups en France. Revue d’Anthropologie des Connaissances, 3(1), 29-49.
  • En ligneMeyer M. (2009), Objet-frontière ou projet-frontière ? Construction, (non-)utilisation et politique d’une banque de données. Revue d’Anthropologie des Connaissances, 3(1), 127-148.
  • Remondet M. (2009), Objet-frontière à l’épreuve. La trajectoire du collectif autour de l’essai de thérapie génique DICS-X. Revue d’Anthropologie des Connaissances, 3(1), 103-126.
  • Star S.L., Griesemer J. (1989), Institutionnal ecology, ‚Translations‘ and Boundary objects: amateurs and professionals on Berkeley‘s museum of vertrebate zoology. Social Studies of Science. 19(3), pp. 387-420.
  • En ligneStar S.L., Ruhleder K. (1996), Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces, Information Systems research, 7(1), 111-134.
  • Star S.L. (2007), “The History and Boundaries of Boundary Objects”, Conference at the workshop “Boundary Object, Boundary work”, Grenoble University, 13 septembre 2007.
  • En ligneTetard G., Torny D. (2009), « Ça pue parfois mais ce n’est pas dangereux ». Injonction institutionnelle et mobilisation scientifique autour d’un pathogène émergent, Bacillus cereus. Revue d’Anthropologie des Connaissances, 3(1), 73-102.
  • Trompette P., Vinck D. (2009), Back to the notion of boundary object. Revue d’Anthropologie des Connaissances, 3(1), a-v.
Pascale Trompette
Pascale TROMPETTE is a CNRS Research Director, a member of the PACTE Politique - Organisations Laboratory (CNRS/Grenoble University). Her research works focus on the field of economic sociology and more particularly the sociology of markets. Today she is working on the articulation between innovation and emerging markets. She recently published a work entitled Le marché des défunts (Presses de Sciences Po, 2008).
ADRESSE : PACTE Politique - Organisations
Université de Grenoble
Le Patio, BP 47
38040 Grenoble cedex 9 (France).
COURRIEL : Pascale. Trompette@ upmf-grenoble. fr
Dominique Vinck
Dominique VINCK is Professor of Sociology at Grenoble University. He is a member of the PACTE Politique - Organisations Laboratory (CNRS/Grenoble University) for which he heads the “Sciences – society” stream. His research concerns the sociology of sciences and innovation, particularly in the micro- and nano-technology fields. He recently published Everyday Engineering. Ethnography of Research and Innovation (MIT Press, 2003), Pratiques de l’interdisciplinarité (PUG, Grenoble, 2000) and The Sociology of Scientific Work. The Fundamental Relationship between Science and Society (Edward Elgar, 2010)  ; English version, Edward Elgar, 2010), L’équipement de l’organisation industrielle. Les ERP à l’usage (Hermes, 2008), Les nanotechnologies (Le Cavalier Bleu, 2009) and Comment les acteurs s’arrangent avec l’incertitude (EAC, 2009)
ADRESSE : PACTE Politique - Organisations
Université de Grenoble
Le Patio, BP 47
38040 Grenoble cedex 9 (France).
COURRIEL : Dominique. Vinck@ upmf-grenoble. fr
Dernière publication diffusée sur ou sur un portail partenaire
Mis en ligne sur le 01/07/2010
Pour citer cet article
Distribution électronique pour S.A.C. © S.A.C.. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Chargement en cours.
Veuillez patienter...