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Akkerman, S. F., & Bakker, A. (2011). Boundary crossing and boundary objects. Review of Educational Research, 81, 132-169.

Review of Educational
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DOI: 10.3102/0034654311404435
April 2011
2011 81: 132 originally published online 19REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH
Sanne F. Akkerman and Arthur Bakker
Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects
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Review of Educational Research
June 2011, Vol. 81, No. 2, pp. 132–169
DOI: 10.3102/0034654311404435
© 2011 AERA.
Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects
Sanne F. Akkerman and Arthur Bakker
Utrecht University
Diversity and mobility in education and work present a paramount challenge
that needs better conceptualization in educational theory. This challenge has
been addressed by educational scholars with the notion of boundaries, par-
ticularly by the concepts of boundary crossing and boundary objects.
Although studies on boundary crossing and boundary objects emphasize that
boundaries carry learning potential, it is not explicated in what way they do
so. By reviewing this literature, this article offers an understanding of bound-
aries as dialogical phenomena. The review of the literature reveals four
potential learning mechanisms that can take place at boundaries: identifica-
tion, coordination, reflection, and transformation. These mechanisms show
various ways in which sociocultural differences and resulting discontinuities
in action and interaction can come to function as resources for development
of intersecting identities and practices.
Keywords: boundary, boundary crossing, boundary object, dialogicality, learning
I am conscious of myself and become myself only while revealing myself for
another, through another, and with the help of another. . . . [E]very internal
experience ends up on the boundary.
Bakhtin (1984, p. 287)
All learning involves boundaries. Whether we speak of learning as the change
from novice to expert in a particular domain or as the development from legitimate
peripheral participation to being a full member of a particular community (Lave &
Wenger, 1991), the boundary of the domain or community is constitutive of what
counts as expertise or as central participation. When we consider learning in terms
of identity development, a key question is the distinction between what is part of
me versus what is not (yet) part of me.
Boundaries are becoming more explicit because of increasing specialization;
people, therefore, search for ways to connect and mobilize themselves across
social and cultural practices to avoid fragmentation (Hermans & Hermans-
Konopka, 2010). The challenge in education and work is to create possibilities for
RER404435RER10.3102/0034654311404435Akkerman & BakkerBoundary Crossing and
Boundary Objects
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Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects
participation and collaboration across a diversity of sites, both within and across
institutions (Akkerman, Admiraal, & Simons, in press; Daniels, Edwards,
Engeström, Gallagher, & Ludvigsen, 2010; Ludvigsen, Lund, Rasmussen, &
Säljö, 2010).
Over the past decades, many scholars have come to study these challenges by
employing the term boundaries (e.g., Bernstein, 1971; Engeström, Engeström, &
Kärkkäinen, 1995; Star, 1989; Suchman, 1994). A boundary can be seen as a socio-
cultural difference leading to discontinuity in action or interaction. Boundaries
simultaneously suggest a sameness and continuity in the sense that within discon-
tinuity two or more sites are relevant to one another in a particular way.
An example of boundaries can be found in teacher education programs that
include periods of schoolwork (R. Edwards & Fowler, 2007; Tsui & Law, 2007).
Alsup (2006) showed how student teachers can face different pedagogical values.
Such sociocultural differences in values between a teacher education program and
a secondary school can cause discontinuity in the sense that the student teachers
experience role or perspective changes between sites as challenging. At the same
time, sameness and continuity reside in the fact that both sites are concerned with
pedagogy and with the learning process of the student teacher.
In response to challenges of facing boundaries, education scholars have become
interested in the ways in which continuity in action or interaction is established
despite sociocultural differences. Two concepts have been central in describing
potential forms of continuity across sites: boundary crossing and boundary objects.
Although boundary crossing usually refers to a person’s transitions and interac-
tions across different sites (Suchman, 1994), boundary objects refers to artifacts
doing the crossing by fulfilling a bridging function (Star, 1989). Examples of
boundary objects are a teacher portfolio as a means by which both the mentor and
the school supervisor are able to track the development of the student teacher in
teacher education and a patient record that is used by different departments and
institutes in medical care (Paterson, 2007).
According to Engeström et al. (1995), boundary crossing is “a broad and little-
studied category of cognitive process” (p. 321). Since 1995, however, the concepts
of boundary crossing and boundary objects have been used in complementary
ways by many scholars in educational sciences and educational psychology. In
ERIC and PsycINFO we found a total of 21 different works published in or before
1995 in which there is a reference to boundary object(s) and/or boundary crossing.
The years 2007, 2008, and 2009 show 101, 109, and 113 publications, respectively,
using the terms, indicating the current interest in the topic.
A review of the literature on boundary crossing and boundary objects seems
timely. The concepts have now become an explicit part of two well-known learn-
ing theories: cultural historical activity theory on expansive learning (Engeström,
1987) and situated learning theory on communities of practice (Wenger, 1998),
both stressing how boundaries carry potential for learning. The claims on boundar-
ies and learning made in the literature, although perhaps appealing, are often gen-
eral in nature, and the literature hardly explicates how or what kind of learning is
taking place. In this article we review literature on boundary crossing and bound-
ary objects to determine its current insights into learning potentials of boundaries.
To frame the review, we first describe how educational and related sciences came
to focus on boundaries and their learning potential.
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The Centrality of Boundaries
In the following we elaborate on the concepts of boundary crossing and bound-
ary objects, sketch how and why these concepts resonate with a broader movement
in the social sciences, and propose how this is a new strand of literature.
The Concepts of Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects
Education research mostly studies learning within boundaries of practices,
focusing on particular groups of people or on certain domains of expertise.
Along with new understandings of work, the emphasis on bounded and singular
domains has been challenged. Star (1989; Star & Griesemer, 1989), Suchman
(1994), and Engeström et al. (1995) found that various types of professional
work (science, technology design, and teaching) are heterogeneous in that they
involve multiple actors representing different professional cultures. In line with
studies of professional work, Phelan, Davidson, and Cao (1991) found how ado-
lescents cross boundaries, in their case among family, peers, and school. Hence,
working and learning are not only about becoming an expert in a particular
bounded domain but also about crossing boundaries.
The term boundary crossing was introduced to denote how professionals at
work may need to “enter onto territory in which we are unfamiliar and, to some
significant extent therefore unqualified” (Suchman, 1994, p. 25) and “face the
challenge of negotiating and combining ingredients from different contexts to
achieve hybrid situations” (Engeström et al., 1995, p. 319). Star (1989; Star &
Griesemer, 1989) introduced the concept of boundary object to indicate how arti-
facts can fulfill a specific function in bridging intersecting practices. Boundary
objects are those objects that
both inhabit several intersecting worlds and satisfy the informational require-
ments of each of them. . . . [They are] both plastic enough to adapt to local
needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust
enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly struc-
tured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual site use.
(Star & Griesemer, 1989, p. 393)
Star and Griesemer found that the work of scientists during the development of a
natural history museum required the collaboration of many actors (university
administrators, professors, research scientists, curators, amateur collectors, private
sponsors, members of scientific clubs, etc.). They attributed the successful pursuit
of the research to the generation of a series of boundary objects such as data records
and lists of species for collecting and describing insects.
Along with reception of these two concepts in the educational sciences, many
different terms have emerged to refer to ways in which continuity across sites can
be established, such as brokering, boundary interactions, boundary practices, and
boundary zones. In the next section we discuss the background of the increasing
interest in boundaries.
Background of the Interest in Boundaries
The growing interest in boundaries during the past decades should be under-
stood against the background of two developments in the social sciences. First,
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Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects
the interest in boundaries goes together with the study of larger units of analysis.
Star and Griesemer (1989) stated the need for ecological analysis that includes
analyzing the various institutions and different viewpoints of actors involved to
understand how boundaries are encountered and crossed (see also Clarke & Star,
2007). Likewise, Engeström, Engeström, and häaho (1999) showed that study-
ing boundary crossing requires an analysis of all the loosely connected systems
involved. This extended scope of analysis has been an explicit part of what is
referred to as the third generation of cultural historical activity theory (CHAT),
which states that two activity systems are the minimal unit of analysis (Engeström,
2001; Roth & Lee, 2007). CHAT represents a theoretical tradition that can be
traced back to the works of Vygotsky (1978; 1934/1986) and his contemporaries,
conceptualizing individual goal-directed actions in the frame of the larger collec-
tive system of activity from which these actions derive their meaning (Roth &
Lee, 2007). The extended analysis beyond one practice is visible in different
social scientific areas. For example, in organizational research there is increasing
interest in the role of maintaining and crossing organizational boundaries
(Heracleous, 2004; Lamont & Molnár, 2002; Paulsen & Hernes, 2003), and in
group psychology there is increasing interest in the collaborative processes of
cross-site (e.g., interdisciplinary or interteam) groups (Yoo & Kanawattanachai,
Second, on a more paradigmatic level, studies on boundaries seem to represent
a new fine-grained appreciation of diversity. Lamont and Molnár (2002) noted in
a short review of the literature that boundaries are discussed in a wide variety of
social sciences to investigate how markers of difference are created, maintained,
or contested at many different levels of institutionalization and categorization.
Nevertheless, they indicate that researchers who draw on the concept of boundar-
ies are largely unaware of studies of boundaries beyond their own specialties and
across the social sciences. R. Edwards and Fowler (2007) argued that the increas-
ing interest in boundaries is a result of a growing attempt of social theory, influ-
enced by postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, and feminism, to
focus on the marginal and the decentered as alternatives to discourses of power of
the center.
The paradigmatic shift can be seen in, for example, the way in which commu-
nication and the human mind are profoundly reconceptualized. In communication
theories, several scholars (Lotman, 1990; Wertsch & Toma, 1995) have begun to
argue against the basic and commonly held presupposition that communication is
a transmission process that works best in situations of sameness in the minds of
people. In contrast, they emphasize how words naturally mean different things to
different people. Several authors (Bhabha, 1990; Soja, 1996) have called attention
to the way in which intersections of cultural practices open up third spaces that
allow negotiation of meaning and hybridity—that is, the production of new cul-
tural forms of dialogue (Gutiérrez, Rymes, & Larson, 1995). In a different field of
social theory, social psychology, the human mind is no longer studied solely in
terms of a unified subject but as a self that is multiple, discontinuous, and inher-
ently related to individual and generalized others (Akkerman & Meijer, 2011).
Hence, it is more widely accepted to think in terms of a decentered self (Gergen,
1994) or dialogical self that continuously negotiates and strives to synthesize dif-
ferent subidentities (Hermans & Kempen, 1993). Accordingly, boundaries within
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Akkerman & Bakker
the self have become a focal point of interest of several psychologists (e.g.,
Marková, 2006; Valsiner, 2007).
What Is New for Educational Science?
An interesting question emerges concerning the extent to which the interest in
boundaries is new for educational science. The educational notion that most
closely approaches the idea of looking beyond single and singular domains and
practices is the notion of transfer. Reflecting on various approaches to transfer
throughout the history of educational sciences, Säljö (2003) reminds us that trans-
fer has been a concept for studying what is learned and for questioning how some-
thing learned in one task or context is applied in another task or context.
The literature on boundary crossing and boundary objects has a different focus
than the literature on transfer in various ways. Although transfer is mostly about
onetime and one-sided transitions, primarily affecting an individual who moves
from a context of learning to one of application (e.g., from school to work), con-
cepts of boundary crossing and boundary objects are used to refer to ongoing,
two-sided actions and interactions between contexts. These actions and interac-
tions across sites are argued to affect not only the individual but also the different
social practices at large. Following ideas underlying boundary crossing, we find
recent attempts to reconceptualize transfer (e.g., Beach, 1999; Konkola, Tuomi-
Gröhn, Lambert, & Ludvigsen, 2007; Tuomi-Gröhn, Engeström, & Young, 2003).
A second important difference between transfer studies and literature on
boundary crossing and boundary objects relates to the way in which diversity is
appreciated. Although the transfer literature approaches sociocultural differ-
ences as problematic, something that should be overcome or avoided, the bound-
ary literature initially values such differences. In the latter perspective, the
emphasis is on overcoming discontinuities in actions or interactions that can
emerge from sociocultural difference rather than overcoming or avoiding the
difference itself. The process of reestablishing action or interaction is seen as a
resource for learning. Claims on the potentials of boundaries have become an
explicit part of learning theories developed by Wenger and by Engestm.
Although Wenger (1998) took single communities of practice as his main unit of
analysis, he explicitly argued that learning at the boundaries is necessary if com-
munities of practice do not want to lose their dynamism and become stale. In the
third generation of CHAT, boundaries, in the form of contradictions between
activity systems, are seen as vital forces for change and development (Roth &
Lee, 2007).
We propose that dialogicality is a useful theoretical concept to underpin and
understand these claims on learning. Marková (2003) described dialogicality as
the ontological characteristic of the human mind to conceive, create, and commu-
nicate about social realities through mutual engagement of the ego (i.e., self or
selves) and the alter (i.e., others). The notion of dialogicality goes back to the
philosophy of Bakhtin (e.g., 1981, 1986), who, as Marková’s historical review of
social psychology indicates, was one of the first to state clearly that all understand-
ing and all symbolic activity of humans are “founded on ‘dialogue’ between dif-
ferent minds expressing multitudes of multivoiced meanings” (p. 83).
Bakhtin’s basic line of reasoning was that others or other meanings are required
for any cultural category to generate meaning and reveal its depths:
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Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects
Contextual meaning is potentially infinite, but it can only be actualized when
accompanied by another (others) meaning, if only by a question in the inner
speech of the one who understands. Each time it must be accompanied by
another contextual meaning in order to reveal new aspects of its own infinite
nature (just as the word reveals its meanings only in context). (Bakhtin, 1986,
pp. 145–146)
This Bakhtinian notion of dialogicality comes to the fore in the various claims on
the value of boundaries and boundary crossing for learning: learning as a process
that involves multiple perspectives and multiple parties. Such an understanding is
different from most theories on learning that, first, often focus on a vertical process
of progression in knowledge or capabilities (of an individual, group, or organization)
within a specific domain and, second, often do not address aspects of heterogeneity
or multiplicity within this learning process. Nevertheless, the claims on boundaries
as a dialogical learning resource do not specify the exact mechanisms taking place.
We contend that the increasing literature on boundary crossing and boundary
objects reflects a potentially new horizon in educational theory. First, this literature
focuses explicitly on boundaries rather than on the centers of particular domains
or communities; and second, it claims boundaries to be potential learning resources
rather than barriers. To investigate both of these aspects in more detail, two ques-
tions are central to the literature review: (a) What is the nature of boundaries? and
(b) What dialogical learning mechanisms take place at boundaries?
We conducted a literature search in ERIC and PsycINFO in three waves (May
2008, November 2009, and November 2010) with boundary object(s) and bound-
ary crossing as terms used in one of all fields, without restrictions regarding
the source, language, type, or year of reference. This resulted in an overall list
of 704 unique hits. From this list we selected 187 references based on two rules:
(a) boundary objects and/or boundary crossing are used as central analytical concepts
in theoretical or empirical analyses and (b) the study focuses on learning, under-
stood in its broadest sense (i.e., including an interest in change and development).
The latter rule mainly implied that we excluded studies in therapeutic contexts
where boundary crossing refers to ethical problems between therapists and
patients. The selection took place based on abstracts and, in cases of doubt, on full
texts. Five of the selected references could not be retrieved as full texts, leading to
a final number of 181 studies for review.
For the review, the full texts were first read and coded on paper according to
contextual information (specific domain, theoretical underpinnings) and concep-
tual information: boundary terms, implicit or explicit definitions, visual represen-
tations of boundaries, critical examples of boundary phenomena, and claims and
findings regarding boundary phenomena. The contextual information of the stud-
ies was scrutinized for determining different domains in which boundaries are
encountered. The conceptual information was analyzed regarding the nature of the
boundary (Question a) and the learning mechanisms taking place at the boundary
(Question b). As to the first question, we considered all descriptions of boundaries
and the way they play out for people and in boundary objects. As to the second
question, we analyzed what processes were described as being the basis for the
learning intended.
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In the first part of the Results section we briefly discuss the different domains
within and between which boundaries are encountered. In the second and third
part of this section we consider the two research questions, respectively observing
that boundaries are ambiguous in nature and describing four dialogical learning
Boundaries Within and Across Domains
The review revealed how boundaries are encountered within and between the
domains of work, school, and everyday life. Appendix A gives an overview of the
focus of the studies reviewed. Most studies focused on boundaries within work,
discussing how groups and individual professionals with different expertise, tasks,
or cultural backgrounds collaborate during work. Although the reviewed literature
covers studies within many different professional domains, four specific domains
are more prominently represented: science and academia, health care, technology
and design, and teaching. Boundaries can be expected in these professional
domains because of a high degree of specialization and a need for interdisciplinary
and cross-sectional work.
A much smaller number of studies focus on boundaries within school. This
literature covers secondary and further education and includes one study in the
context of primary education. Most of these studies are concerned with boundaries
between discourses and perceptions of students on one hand and discourses and
perceptions of teachers and/or the school on the other. For example, objects of
study are differences between the academic literacy and the hybrid language prac-
tice of students (Gutiérrez, 2008) or cultural differences in terms of institutional-
ized versus context-bound mathematics (Hoyles, Noss, & Kent, 2004). Some
studies report on boundaries that both teachers and students have to deal with, such
as different perspectives on shared scientific subject matter (F. V. Christiansen &
Rump, 2008).
A small number of studies in our review investigated boundaries in everyday
life. The very diverse types of boundaries in this domain include not only boundar-
ies encountered by adolescents between childhood and adulthood (Fine, 2004) but
also boundaries resulting from racial categories (e.g., Telles & Sue, 2009) or from
cultural categories that are worked on by different actors (e.g., Huyard, 2009).
Boundaries do occur not only within the domains of work, school, or everyday
life but also between them. Studies that focus on the latter often investigate the way
in which a single individual (student or professional) moves across these domains.
After the publication of Between School and Work (Tuomi-Gröhn & Engeström,
2003), many studies appeared studying the way in which students encounter
boundaries between school and work practice when graduating, doing internships,
or combining the sorts of knowledge they learned at both sites. Boundaries are
investigated between vocational education and vocational practice (e.g., Harreveld
& Singh, 2009), between secondary education and scientific practices (van Eijck,
Hsu, & Roth, 2009), between teacher education and teaching practice in schools
(e.g., Gorodetsky & Barak, 2008), and between higher education and workplaces
(e.g., F. V. Christiansen & Rump, 2008). These studies consistently denote how
students need to relate to different values and norms and find their own position.
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In remarkably similar ways, boundaries are reported between school and everyday
life (e.g., family life, peer groups), stressing how the differences between these
worlds and their discourses make it difficult for students to adapt, reorient, or
integrate their experiences (Phelan et al., 1991). The few studies on work and
everyday life show that professionals also face these challenges (e.g., Ashforth,
Kreiner, & Fugate, 2000).
The Nature of Boundaries
Having discussed how boundaries can be encountered in and between different
domains, we now address the nature of boundaries, focusing on similarities in how
various studies conceptualized boundaries. One central feature emerging from the
literature reviewed is that boundaries are always conceptualized in between two or
more sites. This can be seen most explicitly in the figures of boundaries and bound-
ary crossing in many studies. A typical example of such a visualization is Figure 1.
The figure is presented by the authors to indicate how both school and work
have a potentially similar interest in educating students, yet each have different
cultures. The boundary in the middle of two activity systems thus represents the
cultural difference and the potential difficulty of action and interaction across these
systems but also represents the potential value of establishing communication and
To speak of boundaries as social scientific phenomena, we need to know how
they play out. Let us therefore consider how the studies describe the people and
objects that, figuratively speaking, play a central role at the boundary.
People at the boundary. We defined boundaries as sociocultural differences that
give rise to discontinuities in interaction and action. Since it is individuals or
groups of people that actually encounter discontinuities in their actions and inter-
actions, it is worthwhile looking more closely at their experiences to understand
what boundaries are about. This stands out most clearly in cases with only one or
FIGURE 1. Figure of school and workplace as integrating activity systems.
Reconstructed from Konkola, Tuomi-Gröhn, Lambert, and Ludvigsen (2007, p. 216),
reprinted by permission of the publisher (Taylor & Francis Group, http://www
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Akkerman & Bakker
a few persons doing the crossing. Terms such as brokers, boundary crossers, and
boundary workers are often employed to denote them. The experiences of these
people illustrate the ambiguity of boundaries. In the study by Fisher and Atkinson-
Grosjean (2002), for example, managers of commercialization institutes are situ-
ated between industry and university. On one hand, they have a task of “building
bridges” between both worlds (p. 463), being the means for connecting both sides.
At the same time, however, these persons are held accountable in each world and
must endure criticism “by academics for being too aligned with industry, and by
industry for being too academic” (p. 453). Collinson (2006) describes the liminal
(Turner, 1969; Van Gennep, 1909/1960) and ambiguous nature of the work of
researcher administrators, who are sometimes positioned as administrative sup-
porters while at other times are required to work as full colleagues in academic
affairs. Focusing on identity formation of apprentices in trade vocation, Tanggaard
(2007) characterizes their position at the boundary as that of marginal strangers
“who sort of belong and sort of don’t” (p. 460). Williams, Corbin, and McNamara
(2007) point out how this ambiguous role can lead to conflicted narratives. They
describe how teachers in their role as school numeracy coordinators feel a conflict
between a collegial discourse and accountability discourse. Although it is consist-
ently reported how boundary-crossing individuals run the risk of not being
accepted (e.g., A. Edwards, Lunt, & Stamou, 2010), Jones (2010) found in a his-
torical analysis of boundary-crossing architects that people can receive apprecia-
tion for their innovative role in changing established professional practices in the
longer term.
The accounts of single groups and individuals crossing boundaries show how
they not only act as bridge between worlds but also simultaneously represent the
very division of related worlds. On one hand they have a very rich and valuable
position since they are the ones who can introduce elements of one practice into
the other (cf. Wenger, 1998). On the other hand they face a difficult position
because they are easily seen as being at the periphery, with the risk of never fully
belonging to or being acknowledged as a participant in any one practice.
How can people manage this ambiguous position at the boundary? It gener-
ally calls for personal fortitude(Landa, 2008, p. 195). More specifically it
requires people to have dialogues with the actors of different practices, but also
to have inner dialogues between the different perspectives they are able to take
on (Akkerman, Admiraal, Simons, & Niessen, 2006). Morse (2010b) describes
how some leaders and organizations are successful precisely because of a
boundary-crossing leadership style. D. Walker and Nocon (2007) make an
explicit plea for stimulating boundary-crossing competence,” which is the
“ability to manage and integrate multiple, divergent discourses and practices
across social boundaries” (p. 181). Likewise, Fortuin and Bush (2010) stress the
importance of boundary skills.
Objects at the boundary. Not only people but also objects can play an essential role
in crossing boundaries. In studies of boundary objects we also find the aforemen-
tioned ambiguity. On one hand, boundary objects are artifacts that articulate mean-
ing and address multiple perspectives. As already indicated by the definition by Star
and Griesemer (1989), boundary objects have different meanings in different social
worlds but at the same time have a structure that is common enough to make them
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Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects
recognizable across these worlds. However, it is not only interpretative flexibility
that turns objects into boundary objects; boundary objects are organic arrangements
that allow different groups to work together, based on a back-and-forth movement
between ill-structured use in cross-site work and well-structured use in local work
(Star, 2010). Hence, they are “a means of translation” (Star & Griesemer, 1989,
p. 393) within a situation of multisite work relations and requirements.
Several of the studies reviewed report that artifacts can fail as boundary objects
when they do not fully or rightfully capture multiple meanings and perspectives.
For example, Hasu and Engeström (2000) found how supportive message boxes
with system-related information about a medical technology were designed by
system designers but failed to be supportive because the concerns and interpreta-
tions of users were not accounted for. Boundary objects are often designed to
displace a part of communication or practice by anticipating multiple perspectives.
Hunter (2008) described the successful development of policy documents that
have a life of their own and function as tools for future communication and col-
Despite design intentions, it is stressed that boundary objects are only partially
communicative and, therefore, can never fully displace communication and col-
laboration. The risk with boundary objects is that they, especially because of their
“material and processual nature” (Star, 2010, p. 604), appear to be self-contained
objects. Wenger (1998) warned that “it is easy to overlook that they are in fact the
nexus of perspectives, and that it is often in the meeting of these perspectives that
artifacts obtain their meanings” (p. 108). Several scholars have described how
additional information (e.g., about its inception, its history, and the surrounding
negotiations) is needed to render boundary objects intelligible to other parties or
for future use (e.g., C. P. Lee, 2007; Lutters & Ackerman, 2007). Furthermore, it
has been argued that boundary objects can be perceived or used differently over
time, at one time enabling communication and collaboration across sites, whereas
at other times losing their boundary crossing function (Barrett & Oborn, 2010;
Pennington, 2010).
Given the ambiguous nature of addressing and articulating multiple meanings
while being simultaneously ill structured across sites, what are important consid-
erations when designing boundary objects? J. K. Christiansen and Varnes (2007)
make a connection between boundary objects as displacements and using these as
obligatory passage points to which, in this case, project managers must direct their
attention. This suggestion of boundary objects as displacements resonates with
descriptions of boundary objects as black boxes. As black boxes, boundary objects
tend to be invisible or taken-for-granted mediations that translate across sites but,
when carefully considered or opened up, may provide learning opportunities
(Williams & Wake, 2007).
Boundaries as ambiguous in nature. The descriptions of boundaries and of people
and objects at the boundaries show an ambiguous nature. As an in-between or mid-
dle ground, the boundary belongs to both one world and another. It is precisely this
feature that seems to explain how the boundary divides as well as connects sides
(Kerosuo, 2001). However, the boundary also reflects a nobody’s land, belonging
to neither one nor the other world. The ambiguity seems to cause what we call a
sandwich effect for people or objects that cross or stand in between sites. On one
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Akkerman & Bakker
hand, they enact the boundary by addressing and articulating meanings and per-
spectives of various intersecting worlds. At the same time, these people and objects
move beyond the boundary in that they have an unspecified quality of their own
We contend that it is precisely this ambiguous nature that explains the interest
in boundaries and boundary crossing as phenomena of investigation for education
scholars. Both the enactment of multivoicedness (both–and) and the unspecified
quality (neither–nor) of boundaries create a need for dialogue, in which meanings
have to be negotiated and from which something new may emerge.
What Mechanisms Constitute the Learning Potential of Boundary Crossing?
To understand more precisely what the claimed learning potential at boundaries
entails, we scrutinized the literature with respect to the descriptions provided of
the learning processes. In line with this literature, we employ the term learning in
a very broad sense, including new understandings, identity development, change
of practices, and institutional development. We have discerned four mechanisms
of learning at the boundary, which we summarize as identification, coordination,
reflection, and transformation. In the following, each of these learning mecha-
nisms is described with examples from the studies reviewed. Appendix B provides
an overview of the mechanisms described in the studies reviewed.
Identification. In the literature we can identify studies that describe learning at the
boundary in terms of identification. These studies all focus on boundary crossing
as a process in which previous lines of demarcation between practices are uncer-
tain or destabilized because of feelings of threat or because of increasing similari-
ties or overlap between practices. The reported processes of identification entail a
questioning of the core identity of each of the intersecting sites. This questioning
leads to renewed insight into what the diverse practices concern. We found two
common processes of identification described in the studies.
First, the identification processes occur by defining one practice in light of
another, delineating how it differs from the other practice. This dialogical process
of identification can be called othering. For example, some studies consider the
challenge of individuals participating simultaneously in various institutionalized
domains such as work and home (e.g., Ashforth et al., 2000) or such as school and
home (e.g., Hughes & Greenhough, 2008). These studies denote that cultural con-
structions of work and home or school and home are drawn into question when
people come to act in both worlds simultaneously, for example, when private
phone calls interrupt work or when doing homework. In such instances, it becomes
important to determine how both practices do and do not relate to one another.
Hughes and Greenhough (2008) provide a rich example of the tensions that can
emerge when a student does mathematics homework with his mothers help. A
range of personal and cultural identities is contested: the wider practice of home-
work; the school’s mathematical practice and connected to this practice also the
boy’s school identity as a low-achieving pupil; the boy’s home identity as someone
wanting to play; and the mothers identity as helper, checker, and enforcer of
homework and as someone with her own ambivalent feelings toward mathematics.
The cultural differences of practices here lead to a negotiation of different identi-
ties, which do not harmoniously coexist.
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The study by Considine (2006) of the challenged boundaries of universities
shows how a process of identification by contesting or othering can also take place
when it concerns institutional identity. He denotes that managers and employees
of universities are finding it more and more difficult to explain what they do as
distinctive from other systems that produce knowledge. He emphasizes more gen-
erally that “what establishes the system as a system are the distinctions actors use,
and have others use, to define themselves, and this typically comes to light at the
border of one system and another” (p. 257). In a similar way, Geiger and Finch
(2009) describe how salespersons’ work is not a matter of crossing fixed boundar-
ies but a matter of continuously redefining and thereby shaping boundaries of the
seller and buyer markets.
A second, related process of identification that we found is the underlying need
for legitimating coexistence. Bogenrieder and van Baalen (2007) describe how
people, when working simultaneously in different organizational groups, have to
consider the interference between their multiple participations to be able to pursue
each one and be accepted in this multiple membership by others in the respective
groups. Hong and O (2009) provide an example of a failed attempt of identifica-
tion, reporting how in-house staff and outsourcing technicians of a tertiary educa-
tion institute were unable to come to terms with their distinct roles and
responsibilities. In contrast, Huemer, Becerra, and Lunnan (2004) describe how
individual actors from different organizations may successfully define their differ-
ing organizational identities as well as their shared identities on a network level
based on the project activities of this network. It should be noted that legitimating
coexistence is often highly political and sensitive to those involved. Timmons and
Tanner (2004) discuss how theater nurses feel threatened in their professional
identity by the emergence of a new, slightly similar profession that was labeled as
operating department practitioners. Reconstructing their own identities in light of
the other was then a way for the nurses to preserve their profession.
What is typical in identification processes is that the boundaries between prac-
tices are encountered and reconstructed, without necessarily overcoming discon-
tinuities. The learning potential resides in a renewed sense making of different
practices and related identities.
Coordination. Several studies, particularly those studying the role of boundary
objects as mediating artifacts, describe learning at the boundary as a matter of
coordination. They analyze how effective means and procedures are sought allow-
ing diverse practices to cooperate efficiently in distributed work, even in the
absence of consensus (Star, 2010). In these cases, dialogue between diverse part-
ners is established only as far as necessary to maintain the flow of work. Four
processes can be discerned from the studies reporting actual or intended coordina-
tion effects.
First of all, coordination requires a communicative connection between diverse
practices or perspectives (Landa, 2008), which can be established by instrumen-
talities (boundary objects) that are shared by multiple parties (J. K. Christiansen &
Varnes, 2007). Paterson (2007) describes how an information structure can allow
exchange of relevant patient information across different communities of practice
in health care. Although interconnecting different actors, such instrumentalities are
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read differently by different actors. Roth and McGinn (1998) discuss how school
grades as boundary objects mean different things in different sites:
In schools, they are related to getting a good report card, graduating, and
getting a diploma; in the admissions office of a university, the talk is about
acceptance and probability of future success. Grades are the boundary
objects that constitute the articulation between schools, colleges, and univer-
sities. (p. 410)
Second, some studies reveal that coordination entails efforts of translation
between the different worlds. Fisher and Atkinson-Grosjean (2002) describe how
the managers in industry liaison offices are charged with the role of translation, in
their case, translation of research results into concrete commercial applications (p.
450). Such translation work can also be accomplished by the use of boundary
objects and strongly relates to finding a balance in the aforementioned ambiguity
of boundaries (neither–nor and both–and). Translations entail both an intersubjec-
tive ground as well as a diversity of possible understandings.
Third, coordination entails enhancing boundary permeability (cf. Bimber,
Flanagin, & Stohl, 2005), so that one is not even aware of different practices sim-
ply because actions and interactions run smoothly without costs and deliberate
choice. Boundaries can become permeable, for example, when employees manage
to do homework without experiencing problematic discontinuities (Ashforth et al.,
2000; Shumate & Fulk, 2004). These authors claim that the permeability of bound-
aries can be enhanced by repeatedly crossing different practices (in their case role
transitions) as well as by means of rites or rituals (e.g., changing clothes or chang-
ing voice).
This latter example suggests a fourth process of coordination across
boundaries—the importance of routinization, that is, finding procedures by
means of which coordination is becoming part of automatized or operational
practice. Studies adhering to coordination often emphasize boundary objects, in
line with Star’s original definition, as useful forms of translations to take place
more or less without consensus or collaborative work between different groups
of people. Lutters and Ackerman (2007) show in their case study of service
engineers that boundary objects, although enhancing standardization and routi-
nization, can still be malleable in each instance of their use and rely a great deal
on situated interpretations of people with regard to the historic and current state
of relations between groups.
The various processes of coordination across boundaries (establishing a com-
municative connection, efforts of translation, increasing boundary permeability,
routinization) show how this learning mechanism of boundary crossing takes a
different form than identification. The potential in the coordinative mechanism
resides not in reconstructing but in overcoming the boundary, in the sense that
continuity is established, facilitating future and effortless movement between dif-
ferent sites.
Reflection. In addition to identification and coordination, we find studies, often
proposing or evaluating an intervention, that focus on the potential of the boundary
in terms of reflection. These studies emphasize the role of boundary crossing in
coming to realize and explicate differences between practices and thus to learn
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something new about their own and others’ practices. Williams and Wake (2007),
for example, describe how, as college teachers, they visited workplaces together
with their students. These visits made them aware of the differences between the
mathematical genres in both college and work cultures, each having its own con-
ventions and rules.
This reflective mechanism emphasizes not only comprehension but also the
formulation of the distinctive perspectives. Hence, reflection involves what Boland
and Tenkasi (1995) in their study called perspective making, that is, making
explicit one’s understanding and knowledge of a particular issue. Boland and
Tenkasi discuss how cognitive maps and narrative structures are means to formu-
late and represent one’s perspective, which in knowledge-intensive firms may
“reflexively give access to the implicit and unstated assumptions” (p. 364).
Similarly, Hoyles, Bakker, Kent, and Noss (2007) state that boundary crossing
occurs “if these [boundary] objects facilitate communication between different
activity systems by making explicit the knowledge and assumptions mobilized in
the interpretation of the object” (p. 335).
A second process that is strongly emphasized in studies focused on reflection is
that a boundary creates a possibility to look at oneself through the eyes of other
worlds. With regard to their visits to workplaces, Williams and Wake (2007) also
pointed to this second process:
On the other hand we noticed sometimes that the process has a reflexive
impact on the workplace: workers who did not perhaps see their activity as
mathematical were sometimes brought to see things our way, and thus look
at their practice with a new, more mathematical perspective, e.g., the police-
man who came to see the “error” of using an average of the averages in per-
formance management, from a mathematical point of view. (p. 340)
The reflective impact of boundaries thus also entails what Boland and Tenkasi
(1995) called perspective taking. They argued that boundary objects in knowledge
intensive firms are artifacts that can serve as a perspective-taking experience for
those who have the attitude of engaging the horizons of another thought world:
“This taking of the other into account, in light of a reflexive knowledge of one’s
own perspective, is the perspective-taking process” (p. 362). Discussing cross-
cultural business negotiations, White, Härtel, and Panipucci (2005) argue that a
lack of such perspective taking can result in misunderstandings, which in turn
negatively affect how the negotiation process is perceived and proceeds, with the
risk of leading to major miscommunication. Taking another perspective is a way
to begin to see things in a different light.
From a Bakhtinian point of view, both perspective making and perspective tak-
ing are dialogical and creative in nature. If it were merely duplication, it would not
entail anything new or enriching. This generation of something new comes to the
fore nicely in the study by Williams et al. (2007), who investigated teachers with
an additional role as school numeracy coordinators. These teachers literally
embody the boundary as they stand in between the research and development group
at the university and the group of colleagues at school. Although initially experi-
encing a conflict between the role and discourse of colleague and of an accountable
coordinator, one manager–teacher came to redefine both these perspectives, for
example, perceiving management not as an activity conflicting with collegiality
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but as an activity that involves making sure that colleague teachers will have an
easier and better job. The authors point out that through this process, manager–
teachers “come to reflexively understand and appreciate the exigencies of manage-
ment” (p. 62). In this way, the demands of collegiality in school partly turn the
audit (which tends to emphasize inspection, accountability, and blame) into a mat-
ter of dialogical inquiry for rethinking current structures, standards, and resources
in the school.
A consequence of perspective making and perspective taking is that people’s
ways of looking into the world are enriched so that one enriches ones identity
beyond its current status. This is clearly described in the study by George (1999),
which discusses how students in a village high school in the Republic of Trinidad
and Tobago face both traditional wisdom and scientific knowledge. According to
George, boundary crossing strategies should “make it possible for students in
traditional settings to have easier access to science through overt comparisons of
their world view with that of science” (p. 94). She points out how both traditional
wisdom and science originate from attempts of human beings to take care of
themselves and to make sense of their world. Both concern public knowledge,
have a personal side (to suit individual circumstances), and are historic systems
in which current knowledge is based on knowledge of the past, whereas differ-
ences mainly concern what are considered to be appropriate mechanisms to attain
health and a good relation with the environment. She reasons that both types of
knowledge allow traditional students to evaluate the likely contribution of science
to their lives.
Though this reflective mechanism might look similar to the mechanism of iden-
tification, they are different in focus. Where identification represents a focus on a
renewed sense of practices and a reconstruction of current identity or identities,
reflection results in an expanded set of perspectives and thus a new construction
of identity that informs future practice.
Transformation. A fourth learning mechanism described in the literature can be
summarized as transformation (see Appendix B for an overview). Similar to stud-
ies describing reflection, studies describing transformation often investigate the
effects of interventions. Transformation leads to profound changes in practices,
potentially even the creation of a new, in-between practice, sometimes called a
boundary practice.
The studies that describe transformation processes consistently start with
describing the confrontation with some lack or problem that forces the intersecting
worlds to seriously reconsider their current practices and the interrelations. If such
a confrontation is not occurring, transformation cannot be expected. Buxton et al.
(2005) reason that the potential of boundary objects often goes unrecognized and
untapped because underlying cultural models remain implicit. They suggest that
exploration and discussion of the boundary objects are needed to affect the dis-
courses of participants over time. Akkerman et al. (2006) stress the same problem,
having found that participants of a collaborative intercultural research project do not
come to explore each others’ thought worlds. They conclude that the meaning-
generating effect of diversity cannot be presupposed; only when cultural differences
lead to discontinuities can these generate negotiation of meaning; hence, “group
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members should be encouraged to perceive and treat each other as other persons and
to render each others arguments as strange and new” (p. 482). The findings of
various scholars lead them to conclude something similar: Confrontation entails
encountering discontinuities that are not easily surpassed.
Many of the studies describing transformation suggest that a confrontation with
a boundary can be caused by a disruption in the current flow of work. For example,
a breakdown of a patient measurement in the context of health care specialists
using a new technological design leads to strong frustration; however, it also cre-
ates an opportunity for negotiating the technological design with the developers
and thus for re-mediating the measurement activity and the division of labor within
it (Hasu & Engeström, 2000). Following the ideas of second- and third-generation
CHAT, these scholars denote that tensions and conflicts may represent structural
contradictions within or between activity systems. It is argued that they can, there-
fore, be made productive for transformation of the systems. Besides disruptions in
work flow, confrontation with important boundaries can also be caused by the
appearance of a third perspective. In Kerosuo’s (2001, 2004) studies, the story of
the patient with a chronic or complex disease is deliberately introduced in meet-
ings with specialists from different domains, departments, or institutions who are
all involved in the same patient’s case. The patient’s story of their treatment com-
pels the specialists to reconsider how they work because their current approach
apparently does not lead to a complete and satisfying diagnosis and treatment of
the disease. In the context of a classroom, Matusov et al. (2007) describe how
teachers can contribute to the emergence of Creole communities with diverse and
distinguished cultural groups by making explicit to the pupils when the teacher
encounters a recursive interactional breakdown without offering a ready-made
A second process in intended and reported transformations is recognizing a
shared problem space, often in direct response to the confrontation. For the health
care specialists this shared problem space is the health of the patient with a chronic
or complex (rather than single) disease. For diverse and Creole classrooms this
shared problem is the recurrent interactional breakdown that needs to be solved
It should be noted here that some of the studies we have reviewed (e.g.,
R. Edwards & Fowler, 2007) have come to use the term boundary object to refer
to this shared problem space. Object then is understood, following cultural his-
torical activity theories, as the motive for activity and, in these cases of boundary
crossing, as the motive for shared activity between diverse systems of activity.
This conceptualization of boundary object is very different from the original
definition by Star and colleagues, in which object refers to mediating artifacts
(in the form of signs or tools). This twofold meaning of boundary objects in
CHAT can be explained, as boundary objects have been initially referred to by
Engeström et al. (1995) in terms of Stars conceptualization of boundary objects,
whereas in later, third-generation CHAT literature (Engeström, 2001) boundary
objects have been pictured as shared motives of two or more activity systems. In
the image of two interacting activity systems such as the one previously shown
in Figure 1, boundary objects are thus either (in Stars sense) localized as similar
artifacts in the upper triangle that mediate two or more systems or localized as
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“the potentially shared or jointly constructed object” between two activity
systems (Engeström, 2001, p. 136).
We propose that to prevent confusion in this new body of literature, boundary
object should be restricted to its original conceptualization by Star (1989; Star
& Griesemer, 1989). Nonetheless, the various CHAT-informed studies make an
important contribution to the understanding of boundary crossing as a potential
process of transformation: Transforming current practices is not without direc-
tion; it is motivated by and directed toward the problem space that binds the
intersecting practices together. As such, boundaries and the crossing of boundar-
ies mediate a deliberate target of change. Although in coordination the focus is
on minimal dialogue between practices (dialogue is intended only inasmuch as
needed to pursue collaborative work), in the transformation mechanism dia-
logue becomes the focal point of interest.
A third process in transformation is hybridization. Given a certain problem
space, practices that are able to cross their boundaries engage in a creative pro-
cess in which something hybrid—that is, a new cultural form—emerges. In
hybridization, ingredients from different contexts are combined into something
new and unfamiliar. This can take the shape of new tools or signs, such as the
formation of a new concept (Engestm et al., 1995) or an analytical model
(Postlethwaite, 2007). The hybrid result can also take the shape of a completely
new practice that stands in between established practices, such as school–work
partnerships (Konkola et al., 2007) or an interdisciplinary field of science
(Palmer, 1999). In the latter case a new place with its own boundaries eventually
A fourth process found in the descriptions of transformation is the crystalliza-
tion of what is created, denoting how transformation is a more extreme version of
learning at the boundary than the previously described mechanisms. The reasoning
is that it is one thing to create something hybrid at the boundary but quite another
to embed it in practice so that it has real consequences. Crystallization can occur
by means of what Wenger (1998) called reification, that is, to “congeal this experi-
ence into ‘thingness’” (p. 58). As already discussed, a boundary object is an exam-
ple of reification. However, as argued by Macpherson and Jones (2008), it may not
be enough for transformation to take place if new shared conceptions of activity
are crystallized in the form of boundary objects:
There also has to be a pragmatic commitment to these new activities, which
occur not through the object itself, but through the engagement the objects
facilitate. . . . It is this object-centered activity that has the potential to renew
existing organizational artifacts of production (tools), of work distribution
(processes and divisions of labor) and of work regulation (norms and values).
(pp. 192–193)
Crystallization also takes place by means of developing new routines or proce-
dures that embody what has been created or learned. Gorodetsky and Barak (2008)
describe how the emergence of a community of student teachers, schoolteachers,
and teacher educators represents a successful form of boundary crossing because
the teachers started to enact new ideas in their own teaching practices. Although
the importance of crystallization is emphasized in many of the studies pointing at
transformation processes, their empirical findings suggest it is rarely realized. This
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proves how hard it is to transform practices at the boundary, something that can
often be explained by considering the distinct cultural history of practices.
Some studies describing transformation denote a crucial fifth process: the
importance of maintaining uniqueness of the intersecting practices. This may
seem at odds with the hybridization described earlier. The ambivalent direction—
creation and connection to a new hybrid field, but also maintaining the integrity of
the familiar field—is reflected in the following quote from Palmer (1999) about
the interdisciplinary work of scientists:
Interdisciplinary research requires a balance between established core
knowledge and the infusion of new knowledge. As researchers explore new
problem areas, they do not necessarily abandon their disciplinary concentra-
tions. Most have dual or multiple agendas, building on a core research
specialization as they transit into a newer hybrid area. (p. 250)
In this way, it seems that transformation into changed or new practices does not go
without some level of reinforcement of the established practices, as happens in
identification processes. A plausible argument underlying this ambivalence is that
it is precisely the difference (in this case of distinct disciplines) that upholds the
relevance and value of the intersecting practices to one another.
A last process required for transformation and reported by most studies is that
continuous joint work at the boundary is required to preserve the productivity of
boundary crossing. This is where transformation seems almost opposite to the
coordination mechanism, where the focus is on achieving a way to cross practices
without much effort or awareness (e.g., Bimber et al., 2005; Hasu & Engeström,
2000). More than in the other mechanisms, transformation involves real dialogue
and collaboration between “flesh-and-blood partners” at either side of the bound-
ary (Engeström et al., 1995, p. 333). This seems to be the basic motive to create
what are known as boundary-crossing laboratories in which people from different
systems of activity are invited to meet to discuss and work on shared problems at
the boundary, with the researcher acting as a mirror confronting people with the
problem they share (e.g., Kerosuo, 2001). In addition to difficulties with crystal-
lization, insufficient continuous joint work at the boundary could explain the lack
of finding lasting transformations throughout most of the empirical work that we
reviewed. Discussing student teacher assessment schemes as boundary objects
between schools and higher education institutions, A. Edwards and Mutton (2007)
formulated this issue as follows:
Once the scheme has been worked on and it enters each system as a tool to
be used within the system rather than a joint object to be worked on
[between the systems], its potential to reconfigure practices may diminish.
(p. 508)
This continuous joint work at the boundary is often described by the reviewed
studies as a process of negotiation of meaning. Related to this point, Oswick and
Robertson (2009) warn other scholars not to give merely positive accounts of
processes of boundary crossing and the role of boundary objects in particular. Too
often boundary objects are perceived and presented as knowledge-transforming
devices developed and applied between collaborating parties with complementary
interests where agreed outcomes and change are rendered coherent, desirable, and
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achievable. Instead, they argue, boundary objects are often subject to political
processes, having a mediating role for contrasting goals, possibly reinforcing
power structures and occupational hierarchies.
In contrast with the other mechanisms, transformation can entail the emergence
of new in-between practices. The various processes of transformation indicate how
difficult it is to achieve but, if successful, also imply sustainable impact. Not sur-
prisingly, most of the literature reviewed—particularly intervention studies—aims
for this fourth type of dialogical learning mechanism at the boundary.
Conclusions and Discussion
In the introductory sections, we state that the emerging body of literature on
boundary crossing and boundary objects urges us to look at learning across and
between multiple social worlds and thus expands education research beyond the
study of learning within single domains and practices. We have argued that this
literature represents an understanding of learning that is grounded in the notion of
dialogicality and thus inherently involves dialogue between multiple perspectives
and parties without implying or seeking homogeneity. Our aim was to gain better
insight into the claimed learning potential of boundaries, and we asked two ques-
tions: (a) What is the nature of boundaries? and (b) What dialogical learning mech-
anisms take place at boundaries?
In response to the first question, we found that boundaries have an ambiguous
nature in that they are both–and as well as neither–nor phenomena at the same
time. This ambiguous nature creates what we call a sandwich effect for boundary-
crossing people and boundary objects. On one hand, these people and objects
enact the boundary by addressing and articulating the multiple meanings and
perspectives following from sociocultural diversity (representing both–and). At
the same time, boundary objects and boundary-crossing people move beyond the
boundary since they are not fully defined by this multivoicedness but rather are
in a middle ground and have an often unspecified quality of their own (neither
nor). Both this multivoicedness and the unspecificity at boundaries trigger dia-
logue and negotiation of meaning, explaining why encounters of boundaries are
often described not only as challenging but also as worthwhile to investigate in
relation to learning.
In response to the second question, we analyzed the learning processes
described in the studies and discerned four dialogical learning mechanisms of
boundaries: (a) identification, which is about coming to know what the diverse
practices are about in relation to one another; (b) coordination, which is about
creating cooperative and routinized exchanges between practices; (c) reflection,
which is about expanding one’s perspectives on the practices; and, (d) transforma-
tion, which is about collaboration and codevelopment of (new) practices. These
mechanisms and accordant processes are summarized in Table 1. Most of the stud-
ies did not explicitly frame their empirical cases in these terms, and the mecha-
nisms could often be read only implicitly in their definitions, claims, findings, and
conclusions. Likewise, the small group of studies emphasizing more than one of
the four learning mechanisms did not explicitly distinguish them as such. The
categorization presented in Table 1 is intended not as a complete or fixed model
of learning at the boundary but as a conceptual means to facilitate the explication
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of, and interdisciplinary dialogue about, the different ways in which scholars have
approached learning at the boundary.
The categorization of the four mechanisms raises the question of how they
relate to one another. Several things can be said about this. First, on a general level
it seems that identification is about constructing and reconstructing boundaries,
whereas the other mechanisms are more about transcending boundaries. Second,
it seems that identification and reflection mechanisms mainly reflect meaning-
oriented learning processes (at stake are perspectives and identities), whereas both
coordination and transformation reflect more practice-based learning processes (at
stake is activity). Third, the coordination mechanism seems opposite to transfor-
mation, as the former reflects a smooth, effortless, and routine process of people
or objects moving back and forth between practices, whereas the latter involves
confrontations and continuous joint work. Identification and reflection, both
involving the explication and visibility of perspectives, seem conditional for trans-
formation because in the latter boundaries need to be encountered and contested
before being put to use for codeveloping practices.
Thinking in terms of these four mechanisms allows us to think in a more fine-
grained way about boundary crossing and boundary objects. With respect to the
concept of boundary objects, there is a clear tendency to focus on achieving coor-
dination, which seems in line with the empirical way in which Star initially applied
the concept. In a critique on the common usage of the concept, C. P. Lee (2007)
stressed that boundary objects do not always “pass cleanly and unproblematically
between communities of practices and satisfying the needs of all” (p. 313) but can
come with socially negotiated and disruptive processes that give them meaning.
Following Lee’s point, Pennington (2010) showed how boundary objects can have
a function in minimizing the need for social interaction and collaboration (such as
Overview of different mechanisms and according characteristic processes of
boundary crossing
Dialogical learning mechanisms Characteristic processes
Identification Othering
Legitimating coexistence
Coordination Communicative connection
Efforts of translation
Increasing boundary permeability
Reflection Perspective making
Perspective taking
Transformation Confrontation
Recognizing shared problem space
Maintaining uniqueness of intersecting practices
Continuous joint work at the boundary
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in coordination) as well as a function in maximizing negotiation and mutual under-
standing of perspectives. In response to the tremendous literature on boundary
objects, Star (2010) recently emphasized that her “initial framing of the concept
was motivated by a desire to analyze the nature of cooperative work in the absence
of consensus” (p. 604). Studies in our review all seem to be driven by a similar
motive as Stars. Nevertheless, the studies reviewed indicate that boundary objects
not only can lead to coordination processes but also can be of value for processes
of identification and reflection (e.g., Kynigos & Psycharis, 2009) and processes of
transformation (e.g., Macpherson & Jones, 2008). Regardless of the learning
mechanisms that boundary objects support, Stars original definition is useful for
distinguishing boundary objects from other types of objects. Researchers in this
field would serve the community well by sticking to the original definition of
boundary objects and using other names for other types of objects.
There is one conclusion that holds for all four of the mechanisms: Dialogical
engagement at the boundary does not mean a fusion of the intersecting social
worlds or a dissolving of the boundary. Hence, boundary crossing should not be
seen as a process of moving from initial diversity and multiplicity to homogene-
ity and unity but rather as a process of establishing continuity in a situation of
sociocultural difference. This holds also for the transformation mechanism, in
which something new is generated in the interchange of the existing practices,
precisely by virtue of their differences. This leaves open whether these practices,
over time, develop a new core practice. This maintenance of diversity is precisely
what is captured in the notion of dialogicality: [D]ialogical antinomies both
unite and divide, both estrange and appropriate, both orientate the self towards
ideas and meaning of others as well as towards the selfs own ideas” (Marková,
2003, p. 97).
Future Research
We see two main directions that would help advance the research in this area.
First, in response to the literature reviewed, we see the need for defining the bound-
ary concept beyond that of a sensitizing concept. In this article we defined bound-
aries as sociocultural differences leading to discontinuities in action and
interaction. We contend that this definition is in line with the reviewed studies,
even though most did not define the boundary concept. Many studies seem to use
the term boundaries when discontinuities are expected rather than empirically
detected. This can lead to a problematic conceptualization of boundaries, namely,
one that completely resides in the existence of sociocultural differences. Dialogue
and transitions of people and objects across different communities testify against
this. We move across different practices all the time, often without awareness.
Continuity of actions and interactions thus turns such a notion of boundaries into
an artificial one. We therefore stress that boundaries, as a meaningful analytic
concept, are about sociocultural differences leading to discontinuities rather than
about sociocultural diversity per se. Defining boundaries in this way, it becomes
clear how boundaries are real in their consequences, yet it also makes clear that
boundaries are malleable and dynamic constructs. Sociocultural differences can
lead to discontinuities in action and interaction in various ways at various times,
but these discontinuities can also be overcome, even if temporal and partial. We
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Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects
should also note that vice versa, it is by means of discontinuities that sociocultural
differences between practices are being defined and shaped.
Methodologically, the proposed definition of boundaries requires researchers to
take not only a systemic or macro perspective, describing the sociocultural differ-
ences (e.g., cross-contextual analysis or historical formation of differences), but
also a situated or micro perspective, describing who experiences a particular dis-
continuity in which interactions or actions. In this way, it becomes possible to
study how sociocultural differences play out in and are being shaped by knowledge
processes, personal and professional relations, and mediations, but also in feelings
of belonging and identities.
Following from the previous point, a second worthwhile direction for research
is to identify a set of methodological indicators or markers with which diversity as
well as consequent discontinuities can be empirically detected. Wenger (1998)
denoted how the boundaries of communities of practice can be “reified with
explicit markers of membership, such as titles, dress, tattoos, degrees of initiation
rites” (p. 104). One can also think of spatial markers within architecture and inte-
rior design, such as tables and walls that indicate who belongs where (e.g., some
decades ago it was not uncommon for teachers to sit on a higher platform in the
classroom, marking their authority). Kerosuo (2004) explicitly asks how boundar-
ies can be traced, describing some verbal markers as fragile signals in social inter-
action. In her study on boundaries in health care, she found three types of verbal
markers: metaphors of boundaries (such as fences, walls, limits), actors’ attributes
and definitions of social relations (we vs. they), and references to different loca-
tions (locations of care in this context). Kerosuo maintains that boundaries may
also be captured by temporal distinctions, for example, by working hours and
activity schedules.
As a final point we stress that the main value of this emerging body of literature
on boundary objects and boundary crossing resides in (a) a recognition and
acknowledgment of increasing diversity in and between schools, work, and every-
day life; (b) putting decentered or marginalized spaces of social organization at
the center of researchers attention; and (c) perceiving boundaries not only as
barriers to but also as potential resources for learning. At the same time, most of
the literature has not explicitly defined its central concepts. As nicely articulated
by R. Edwards and Fowler (2007), “[T]here is a sense in which these concepts
have been as much subject to the boundary-making of conceptualizing practices,
as they have challenged the boundaries themselves” (p. 108). One difficulty of this
body of literature is that the scholars are scattered across highly diverse and more
or less separate domains of study (as Appendix A shows). Nonetheless, they all
share a similar interest, which creates the need for a more extensive, integrative
discussion on boundaries from a multidisciplinary perspective (Heracleous, 2004).
With this review we hope not only to have identified this body of literature in the
field of educational theory but also to have stimulated educational scholars to
move across the boundary of their own field of study.
The research reported in this manuscript was funded by the Dutch Program Council
for Educational Research of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research
under Grant PROO 411-06-205. We want to thank Nathalie Kuijpers and Ellen
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Overview of the studies in the different domains
Work (127)
Science and
18 Akkerman et al. (2006); Benn and Martin (2010); Broekkamp
and van Hout-Wolters (2007); Considine (2006); R. Edwards
and Fowler (2007); Fisher and Atkinson-Grosjean (2002)
Goodwin (2005); Kynigos and Psycharis (2009); Lagesen
(2010); Liebenberg (2009); Palmer (1999); Pennington
(2010); Pierce (1999); Pohl et al. (2008); Postlethwaite
(2007); Star (2005); Tate (2008); Zittoun et al. (2009)
Technology and
14 Barcellini et al. (2009); Barrett and Oborn (2010); Broberg
and Hermund (2007); Carlile (2002); Cohn et al. (2009);
Hasu and Engeström (2000); Johannessen and Ellingsen
(2009); Luna-Reyes et al. (2008); Massanari (2010); Neff
et al. (2010); Paay et al. (2009); Puustinen et al. (2006);
Veinot (2007); Whyte et al. (2008)
Health care and
social work
14 Allen (2009); Engeström (2001); Heldal (2010); Huzzard
et al. (2010); Kerosuo (2001, 2004); Kerosuo and
Engeström (2003); Mitchell et al. (2010); Mørk et al.
(2008); Paterson (2007); Schryer et al. (2009); Swan et al.
(2002); Swan et al. (2007); Timmons and Tanner (2004)
Teaching 15 S. Andersson (2006); Cobb et al. (2003); Cobb et al. (2009);
Cobb and McClain (2006); A. Edwards et al. (2010);
Engeström (2008); Gorodetsky and Barak (2009); Kärk-
käinen (2000); Landa (2008); Rasku-Puttonen et al. (2004);
Soliday (1995); Stein and Coburn (2008); Venkat and Adler
(2008); S. Walker and Creanor (2005); Williams et al.
General and
other specific
work domains
66 Allen-Collinson (2009); Bechky (2003); Behrend and Erwee
(2009); Bogenrieder and van Baalen (2007); Boland and
Tenkasi (1995); Burman (2004); Carlile (2002, 2004);
Carlile and Rebentisch (2003); J. K. Christiansen and Varnes
(2007); Collinson (2006); Crosby and Bryson (2010);
Daniels (2004); Decuyper et al. (2010); Dillon (2008);
Doherty et al. (2010); Donnelly (2009); Dulipovici (2009);
Engeström (2004); Engeström et al. (1995); Engeström
et al. (1997); Engeström and Sannino (2010); Falconer
(2007); Faraj and Xiao (2006); Fenton (2007); Fleischmann
(2007); Fuller et al. (2009); Gal (2008); Gasson (2005);
Geiger and Finch (2009); Hall et al. (2002, 2005); Harris
and Simons (2006); Hemetsberger and Reinhardt (2009);
Hepso (2008); Hildreth et al. (2000); Hinds and Kiesler
(1995); Hong and O (2009); Hoyles et al. (2007); Huemer
et al. (2004); Hustad (2007); Jones (2010); Kellogg et al.
(2006); Kent et al. (2007); Kim and King (2004); Landry et al.
(2010); C. P. Lee (2007); Levina and Orlikowski (2009);
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Lindgren and Wåhlin (2001); Lutters and Ackerman
(2007); Macpherson and Jones (2008); Metiu (2002);
Morse (2010a, 2010b); Nitzgen (2004); Nosek (2004);
O’Mahony and Bechky (2008); Ordanini et al. (2008); Os-
wick and Robertson (2009); Rose-Anderssen et al. (2010);
Scarbrough et al. (2004); Strübing (1998); Thurk and Fine
(2003); Toiviainen et al. (2009); Werr et al. (2009); White
et al. (2005)
School (12)
Primary 1 Matusov et al. (2007)
Secondary 3 Buxton et al. (2005); Hoyles et al. (2004); Roth and McGinn
Tertiary and
higher ed.
7 Cambridge (2008); F. V. Christiansen and Rump (2008); East
(2009); Fortuin and Bush (2010); Gutiérrez (2008); Melles
(2008); Zitter et al. (2009)
General 1 Young and Muller (2010)
Everyday life (11)
11 Bilici (2009); Brown and Gómez de García (2006); Fine
(2004); Fleischmann (2003); Garcia and McDowell (2010);
Hunter (2008); Huyard (2009); H. J. Lee (2009); Loveman
and Muniz (2007); Miettinen (2006); Telles and Sue (2009)
School–work (17)
education or
4 Harreveld and Singh (2009); Konkola et al. (2007); Tanggaard
(2007); Vähäsantanen et al. (2009)
1 van Eijck et al. (2009)
6 I. Andersson and Andersson (2008); A. Edwards and Mutton
(2007); Finlay (2008); Gorodetsky and Barak (2008); Tsui
and Law (2007); Yoon et al. (2006)
Higher education–
3 Garraway (2010); Smeby and Vågan (2008); Williams and
Wake (2007)
3 Guile and Griffiths (2001); Hung and Chen (2007); Saunders
Work–everyday life (3)
3 Ashforth et al. (2000); Bimber et al. (2005); Shumate and
Fulk (2004)
School–everyday life (11)
11 Clark (2007); R. Edwards et al. (2009); George (1999);
Hughes and Greenhough (2008); Kisiel (2010); Leander
(2002); Lund (2006); Phelan et al. (1991); D. Walker and
Nocon (2007); Yamazumi (2006; 2009)
APPENDIX A (continued)
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Categorization of reviewed studies
Identification (27)
Allen-Collinson (2009); Ashforth et al. (2000); Bilici (2009); Bogenrieder and van
Baalen (2007); Burman (2004); Cohn et al. (2009); Considine (2006); A. Edwards
et al. (2010); R. Edwards and Fowler (2007); Engeström et al. (1995); Engeström
et al. (1997); Gal (2008); Garraway (2010); Geiger and Finch (2009); Hong and O
(2009); Huemer et al. (2004); Hughes and Greenhough (2008); Jones (2010);
Kynigos and Psycharis (2009); Leander (2002); Loveman and Muniz (2007); Metiu
(2002); Mørk et al. (2008); Shumate and Fulk (2004); Timmons and Tanner (2004);
Werr et al. (2009); Young and Muller (2010)
Coordination (60)
Allen (2009); Ashforth et al. (2000); Barcellini et al. (2009); Barrett and Oborn (2010);
Behrend and Erwee (2009); Bimber et al. (2005); Brown and Gómez de García
(2006); Carlile (2002, 2004); J. K. Christiansen and Varnes (2007); Clark (2007);
Cobb et al. (2003); Considine (2006); Decuyper et al. (2010); Donnelly (2009);
Dulipovici (2009); Falconer (2007); Faraj and Xiao (2006); Fisher and Atkinson-
Grosjean (2002); Gal (2008); Garcia and McDowell (2010); Heldal (2010); Hepso
(2008); Hinds and Kiesler (1995); Hoyles et al. (2004); Hunter (2008); Huyard
(2009); Kärkkäinen (2000); Kellogg et al. (2006); Kerosuo and Engeström (2003);
Lagesen (2010); Landa (2008); Landry et al. (2010); C. P. Lee (2007); Lutters and
Ackerman (2007); Melles (2008); Metiu (2002); Neff et al. (2010); Nitzgen (2004);
Nosek (2004); Ordanini et al. (2008); Paterson (2007); Pennington (2010); Phelan et
al. (1991); Puustinen et al. (2006); Roth and McGinn (1998); Schryer et al. (2009);
Shumate and Fulk (2004); Smeby and Vågan (2008); Star (2005); Stein and Coburn
(2008); Swan et al. (2007); Thurk and Fine (2003); Timmons and Tanner (2004);
Vähäsantanen et al. (2009); Veinot (2007); Williams and Wake (2007); Yakura
(2002); Zitter et al. (2009); Zittoun et al. (2009)
Reflection (23)
S. Andersson (2006); Bechky (2003); Boland and Tenkasi (1995); Cambridge (2008);
Carlile (2002); F. V. Christiansen and Rump (2008); Collinson (2006); Fleischmann
(2003); George (1999); Hoyles et al. (2007); Kent et al. (2007); Kynigos and
Psycharis (2009); H. J. Lee (2009); Liebenberg (2009); Loveman and Muniz (2007);
Luna-Reyes et al. (2008); Mørk et al. (2008); Pierce (1999); Scott and Walsham
(2005); Soliday (1995); White et al. (2005); Williams and Wake (2007); Yoon et al.
Transformation (92)
Akkerman et al. (2006); I. Andersson and Andersson (2008); Benn and Martin (2010);
Bilici (2009); Broberg and Hermund (2007); Broekkamp and van Hout-Wolters
(2007); Brown and Gómez de García (2006); Buxton et al. (2005); Carlile (2004);
Carlile and Rebentisch (2003); Cobb et al. (2009); Cobb and McClain (2006); Crosby
and Bryson (2010); Daniels (2004); Dillon (2008); Doherty et al. (2010); East (2009);
A. Edwards and Mutton (2007); R. Edwards and Fowler (2007); Engeström (2001,
2004, 2008); Engeström et al. (1995); Engeström and Sannino (2010); Fenton (2007);
Fine (2004); Finlay (2008); Fleischmann (2007); Fuller et al. (2009); Garraway
(2010); Gasson (2005); Goodwin (2005); Gorodetsky and Barak (2008, 2009);
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Komproe for their library help, Larike Bronkhorst for a careful reading of the final
article, and Tim Muentzer for his editing help. Finally, we want to thank the editor and
reviewers of Review of Educational Research for their thorough feedback on an earlier
version of this article.
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