Policy relevant science: the unreasonable effectiveness of boundary objects

In a recent post on policy-relevant science I talked about boundary workers and boundary organizations. The boundary I am talking about is between science and policy and the notion of the boundary between scientists and policy-makers is something receiving increasing attention by social scientists. Briefly (read the last post if you want more), the idea originated with people who span between inside and outside of a company, mutated to be the boundary between scientists and others, and led to adding a new concept – boundary organizations (e.g. conservation NGOs, land trusts, etc).

But today, I want to talk about another idea that emerges from thinking about the boundary: the boundary object. As the name implies a boundary object is a thing, not a person or group of people, that helps to span the boundary. In the original corporate model, things like price lists and user licenses were boundary objects. In the science policy boundary, there are many possibilities – maps and models being two of the most commonly cited, but many many other objects can (should?) be thought of as boundary objects as well.

To be a good boundary object, an object needs several properties:

  1. Spans/lives in two worlds/translates – this is the most obvious point. It needs to have genuine uptake of the language and concepts of the scientists but also genuine uptake of the language and concepts of the policy makers. It probably needs to be enough of a compromise to maks both sides a bit uncomfortable. A bit too certain for scientists. A bit too quantitative for policy makers. An ANOVA table or regression table does not span (full comfort for scientists, all the discomfort for the policy makers). A bar graph of standardized coefficients is a bit better. A decision (regression) tree is a lot better (and it makes both groups stretch their comfort zones)..
  2. Central – a good boundary object needs to get to the heart of the matter and show the key variables enough to stimulate discussion and yes, provoke disagreement, or it is not doing its job. Just a map of the area without any layers is not a boundary object. A map that identifies existing resources, existing practices, proposed regulatory zones is a good boundary object.
  3.  Highly public – a boundary object needs to be easily available to everybody on both sides of the boundary – probably on the internet in this day and age. A drawing on a cocktail napkin from a discussion between two people is not a boundary object. But if it is scanned and put on the internet (or emailed to a group) it could be.
  4. Credible – a boundary object needs to be reasonably credible as objective and neutral. If it is seen as a tool for one side to win, it won’t be used. Indeed, even if it is unintentional (e.g. bad initial parameters in a model), just being perceived as biased can be the kiss of death to the life of a boundary object.
  5. Changeable/editable – boundary objects need to be changeable. As the discussion across the boundary changes and moves, the boundary object needs to capture and reflect. In some cases, a boundary object can become the centerpoint of negotiation.

I stated earlier that both maps and what-if (scenario-driven) models are great boundary objects.  Assuming they map or model the right variables it is pretty clear how they meet the five criteria. Especially maps. The ideal model to serve as a boundary object has a number of clear input parameters that can be changed to see how the outcomes change. This is especially powerful when the model is fronted on the web where anybody can tweak the parameters and play with the model. A model is also powerful when the assumptions can be written down clearly (although just making clear the what the inputs and outputs are is useful).

As the title of this post suggests, boundary objects can be extraordinarily, surprisingly successful in invoking boundary spanning. I’m sure almost any ecologist who has put themselves in a policy context (hearing, forum, etc) has seen the power of a map. I saw it a couple of weeks ago in my town – there was a public hearing on building a giant student apartment complex in close proximity to some wetlands. The whole conversation centered on the architectural drawings (which were mounted on a 3×5 poster board). And when a scientist got up and started talking about why he thought the soil survey was wrong, he didn’t just say it, he took the time to hook up to a projector and show soil maps. Maps just change the whole conversation. They don’t make people magically agree (of course!). But they make the conversation much more concrete, much less talking past people and not being heard, and ultimately much more productive.

Models are used much less often in environmental policy in my experience (but still frequently). They can also be game changers. It doesn’t mean people agree with the model. But they do mean people can start to understand what the most important variables are. And they can start to have concrete dialogues about what the right assumptions are. A great example where maps and models interesect is the diagrams being produced of sea level rise in response to climate change. To a large degree the map aspect dominates. But in more nuanced conversations outside of the press, they start to lead to error bars (whats that map look like if the seas only go up 20 cm or up 1m), they start discussions about what we do and don’t know about ice melt, etc. My whole job before I returned to academia was building models to be used as boundary objects in the business world. I spent 5 years of my life modelling the changes to mail sorting that would happen with automation (optical character readers and bar code sorters).  These models served as a focal point for launching 100s of discussions from the impacts for unions, to change in the number of facilities needed to what types of machines to buy and what types of mail to incentive in the future.

Maps and what-if models aren’t the only useful boundary objects. I already mentioned decision trees (output from a regression tree). While a single regression tree might be less trendy and statistically proper than a random forest, it is a WAY better boundary object. Managers intuitively get regression trees and can immediately start discussing limitations of the statistical model, matching the model vs their mental model of reality, and see policy implications. Another boundary object is forcing a quantitative weighting of priorities. This can be done with techniques as simple as voting for rank order. Or as complex as using analytical hierarchical process. Having a discussion to conclude that genetic diversity deserves 27.2% of our attention, taxonomic diversity 37.8%, and functional diversity 35% is totally arbitrary and inherently wrong by being so one dimensional – but it is a fantastic way to have a constructive conversation! (again that theme of a good boundary object takes everybody out of their comfort zones). Similarly a “health of nature in Maine” index combining different factors with arbitrary weights would be stupidly oversimplified from the reality ecologists know, but a great boundary object. Even reports serve as boundary objects – think of the just released IPCC report (of course the many maps, charts and models are each boundary objects) but the wording of the report itself stirred great debate and discussion on what we know, how certain we are, etc. Scenario generation (sensu this paper) is another less-quantitative boundary object.

As a slightly more detailed case study … even just simple access to data can serve as a boundary object so long as the effort is made to genuinely put the data in the middle of the boundary, not just in the scientist’s world.  I’m working on a project for the Maine Sustainability Solutions Initiative to take a mix of freely available, but technically complex data (e.g. shapefiles) and new data (e.g. model projections) produced by our researchers and just put it in a simple, map and trend chart interface in a web-browser. I keep getting told – well those GIS layers are already available or you’re missing the complexity behind the forecasts, but they’re kind of missing the point of a boundary object. Its about putting conversation starting information out in a genuine spanning (lives in two worlds) context. The average state legislator or town councilor is not going to pull out a GIS layer. But they will spend 5 minutes on the web. And if they do they will be able to get a trend chart of climate change in their town or a map of land cover change over the last 20 years in their town or the changing economy of their town (part of the appeal of maps and part of the spanning is people always want to look at where they live) . And they will start putting patterns together. Start comparing past to projected future. Start looking for more information on assumptions behind the models. And have a lot of conversations they wouldn’t have had. Time will tell if this specific project serves its purpose, but if past experiences with boundary objects are any guide, my money is that it will. This ties into the theme of how to make sure research gets across the boundary and doesn’t just mold away in journals – which will be the topic of my next post on boundaries.

But my bottom line experience is that getting a bunch of people in a room with different opinions and “just talking about it” or “letting everybody be heard” is vastly less effective than getting a bunch of people in a room with different opinions with a boundary object at the center of the discussion. It focuses things in very concrete ways and towards negotiation and compromise and increases the level of understanding and minimizes the amount of talking past each other between the sides.

One could speculate for a long time about the psychology of why boundary objects work (an irrational belief that anything coming out of a computer is correct, the ability to find “my house” on the map, focusing people in a constructive direction, genuine success at translation and spanning, and etc). These are interesting topics of study in their own right (and are being studied), but not my own field of research. I just notice how well they DO work. Its almost like its magic (except of course the reality is its a lot of hard work behind the scenes). Hence the title of “unreasonable effectiveness”

What boundary objects have you used in your work? Were they effective? What made them effective? Any experiences with what made them more effective?



11 thoughts on “Policy relevant science: the unreasonable effectiveness of boundary objects

  1. Nice piece Brian. Effective boundary workers need effective boundary objects. This is my experience of applying connectivity science to improve the design of the Montreal greenbelt. When we produced a map of the region that ranked the importance of ‘every’ forest fragment (no matter how small) to the network’s biodiversity we got a phenomenal response from government (provincial, municipal), NGOs, and business. Different maps for a range of reasonable scenarios for future land use change and climate change in this area gave extra credibility to our science, even if we are outside our scientific comfort zone. Being open about the limits of this comfort zone also brought added credibility. This was a strange but satisfying realization for an academic.

    There are some additional challenges associated with creating effective boundary objects when you are dealing with two or more languages (cultures) in the same region. Objects that span both require extra work, especially on the outreach side.

    Here is the webpage we are building for Montreal network project. It is under construaction but it is intended for stakeholders and the general public.

    • Your project is a fantastic example of boundary objects. Thanks for the link! And having worked in Montreal, I can well imagine how the boundary is that much more fraught with two languages and cultures. I’m sure there are social scientists who would love to document that in more detail.

      • This is a narrower context than communicating with policymakers/stakeholders, but as an (anglophone) student working on this project, I found that boundary objects like maps and diagrams were all the MORE helpful in the context of language barriers during my MSc. During fieldwork I regularly interacted with farmers/landowners, and while I often struggled to get across what I wanted in words, a quickly sketched map or diagram often worked wonders for explaining something!

  2. Interesting post, Brian.

    It reminded me about this interesting paper :
    Nicolson et al 2002. Ten heuristics for interdisciplinary modeling projects . Ecosystems 5: 376-382.

    While the paper is about modeling, I think it also applies to other types of boundary projects/workers/objects.


    Heuristic 1. Know what skills to look for when recruiting an interdisciplinary team.
    Heuristic 2. Invest strongly in problem definition early in the project.
    Heuristic 4. Allow the project’s focus to evolve by not allocating all funds up front.
    Heuristic 5. Ban all models or model components that are inscrutable.
    Heuristic 7. Maintain a healthy balance between the well-understood and the poorly understood components of the system.
    Heuristic 10. Approach the project with humility.

    Personally, I think Heuristic 5 is possibly the most important prerequisite for a useful boundary object.

    So, while I agree with you that any boundary object (whether a map or model) can help folks from diverse backgrounds have productive discussions, I would add that this is especially true if everyone understands – in a general sense – how that object came into being and how it works. Not only will this increase understanding, I also believe that it will boost the confidence in the boundary object itself and, possibly, increase the trust between all the people involved.

    • Thanks – great paper. I completely agree with your points. I think you see some echos of this in Andy’s comment above too. Cash (a paper I cited in my previous post) talks about the need for boundary work to have saliency, credibility and legitimacy (which is a lot of what you are getting at). Humility and a desire for genuine dialog are obviously important traits for boundary work.

  3. HI Brian
    Interesting stuff. Though we use different language I can see many parallels with the forest conservation and planning work we have done with local people in various remote parts of the tropics. I often highlight that this work has two stages 1) building trust and shared understanding (the basis for joint research) and 2) actually doing the joint research (generating outputs). I guess these all produce boundary objects in your terminology. It is certainly meant to be practical and policy relevant, so underlines your point more generally I think.
    We put a lot of time into stage one: basic tasks include developing and labelling maps with community members (satellite images and aerial photos help explain maps if people are unfamiliar), and developing a clear understanding of the terms and labels that people use in their language (e.g. a primary forest versus a regrowth forest). That way we develop a shared frame and language.
    We have a nice video of some of the Borneo work here; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVIsN5-C1AA. Where people (locals and researchers) explain what they think about it and its effectiveness.
    The methods I value most is the mapping work, and joint exercises using scoring (in which we ask what matters to what degree see, http://www.cifor.org/mla/download/publication/Scoring%20the%20Importance%20of%20Tropical%20Forest%20Landscapes%20with%20Local%20People%20Patterns%20and%20Insights%20.pdf) to develop a reasonable shared understanding to work with. We have also tried more sophisticated approaches with mixed success, see, e.g. http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol12/iss1/art5/
    I guess these are all boundary objects in your terminology.
    Not surprisingly in tropical conservation much of the concern is about power and control … and maps can be a useful way for local people to claim more control for themselves, though it is not always without risks. But see, e.g. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=
    For those interested in this type of work we have a lot of resources online at http://www.cifor.org/mla/_ref/publications/journal.htm

  4. Great discussion of a powerful tool for making sense of the policy-science interface. My own research is on marine spatial planning off the coast of Oregon. Participatory GIS and expert driven GIS has been the primary mode of debate for how to manage the ocean. I initially have approached the products of these analyses as boundary objects. In part because a key part of the definition of boundary object is the interpretive flexibility they inherit from their intellectual predecessors in “interessement” from Latour and Callon. Though for Latour and Callon, the object tended toward singular expression at some point in the process (passage). Star and Griesemer sought to build on the idea and provide room for more voices in boundary objects. This multivocality is a powerful addition to the concept. In the work I have been focusing on, it seems that there are cases where the boundary objects actually proliferate at a rapid pace – and groups can start to multiply boundary objects, repurpose them and then try to reinsert them in the policy process.

    For example, in Oregon participatory GIS created fishing effort maps from the commercial and charter fleets. This centered the debate and was truly a functioning boundary object as you’ve described. But then other interests noted the efficacy of this object, and more participatory datasets flooded into the policy space – causing confusion on how the objects all interact. This process suggests in some cases, boundary objects can be destabilizing influences. The literature on boundary objects and even boundary organizations tend towards stories of stabilization, convergence, or closure. But are some able to be used for disruptive activity? Its an interesting area to explore.

    Thanks for the post – great to see this.

    • Some great comments and experience. Clearly you have read the academic literature on the theory of boundary objects. I’m curious if you found it helpful to your life on the boundary? Personally, I’ve found other academic work on boundaries useful, but not so much the literature on boundary objects, but it seems you may have a different experience?

      And you raise some really interesting points about how if people start to bring in competing boundary objects, the clarity can be lost.

      • Boundary objects are useful, but there are limitations to the idea. Over decade since boundary objects were introduced, Star wrote a piece, “What is not a boundary object?” Here, she challenged the seeming over application of the concept to many things in the world. She stressed that the interpretive flexibility is key, but also that its materiality or organizational structure also matter. Also, objects differ a scales and that they tend to “tack back-and-forth” in settings. This more fluid idea is great. Though I run into trouble trying to understand why it tacks as it does! Some other subsequent models to consider are Lejano and Ingram’s “Ways of Knowing” – a more narrative based model where ideas capture identities in the decision making process and create new joint identities. Their piece on the CALFED water project explores this idea very well. Though, the mechanics of the narrative are still a little obscure analytically. There are other efforts out there in material semiotics. Its a rich area to work in!

        For my applied research I find boundary objects helpful but primarily explanatory theories (like the boundary object predecessor Actor Network Theory). They help assemble histories of policy interactions. But are not generalizable – and not that they should be. So for the more deductively inclined among us they can feel like weaker theories as they apply in one-off type of cases.

  5. Pingback: Friday links: zombie ideas in evolution and psychology, a world without statistics, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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