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Boundary objects


One of the questions I have been considering is the extent to which the practitioners within the autism domain can be considered a single community of practice, or whether there are a number of different communities of practice. My thinking has led me to consider inter-agency working and inter-disciplinary teams and has led me to various studies considering what happens at the boundary between organisations, professions, etc. It would seem that the boundary area can be seen as a place of opportunity, but also a place if disjunction and threat as it requires practitioners to see things from different perspectives to gain a common understanding. It has been suggested that one of the reasons why parents can feel side-lined from professional discussions is that the professionals are so busy sorting out their boundary issues, there is no room for the parental voice. In fact, the informed parent might even be seen as a threat to professional practitioners who are feeling vulnerable as they sort out their identities in an inter-disciplinary context.

The current issue of Sociology  includes an article discussing boundary objects (Fox, 2011). Although the focus of the article is on the adoption of new technologies and innovations, the concept of boundary objects could be of relevance in looking at the relationships that exist at the boundaries between communities of practice. Indeed, the context of the article is one of interdisciplinary working between different communities of practice. Fox suggests that boundary objects enable communication across boundaries and “empower members of different communities to transfer their own knowledge” (p 72).

In the AS domain, and SEN more generally, there are a range of artefacts which are shared between members of different communities of practice. These might include diagnostic reports, IEPs, Statements, etc. Boundary objects are said to allow different communities of practice to learn about each others perspectives and share meaning, but Fox also recognises that if they are inappropriately introduced, the may exacerbate difficulties rather than ameliorating them. He uses the example of Lister’s work in introducing asepsis, showing that originally Lister’s ideas were rejected by the medical establishment as by linking doctors with the introduction of germs to the patient, the doctor was perceived as part of the problem. Once the doctor was seen as part of the solution, with a shift of focus to the benefit of the patient, asepsis became acceptable, and it fitted the spirit of the time which was geared towards greater cleanliness and personal hygiene.

Putting this into an AS context, very often parents are anxious to receive a diagnosis for their child. The diagnostic report provided by the medical team is prized and is perceived by parents as a key to having their child’s needs addressed. However that same report may be seen in a different light by those responsible for educating the child. It may be that the education professionals do not share the medical perception of the child’s needs, or it may be that in order to meet the needs of one child might involve reducing support to another child (all too common a scenario in a world of scarce resources). Further, the formal diagnosis and recognition of a child’s needs might be the first step to the time and resource consuming process of a formal assessment of the child’s SEN and negotiations with the local authority to ensure appropriate provision is put in place. The parent might experience the school as obstructive rather than enabling in responding to the diagnostic report and addressing their child’s needs.

No doubt other artefacts could be similarly considered.

The question is, how can these artefacts, or border objects, be used to facilitate addressing the needs of children with SEN rather than as problematic.

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


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