Ecosystem Services as Boundary Objects for Transdisciplinary Collaboration

Cara Steger, Shana Hirsch, Cody Evers, Benjamin Branoff, Maria Petrova, Max Nielsen-Pincus, Chloe Wardropper, Carena J. van Riper

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The ecosystem services (ES) framework has potential to bring transdisciplinary teams together to achieve societal goals. Some label ES as “boundary objects” that help integrate diverse forms of knowledge across social groups and organizational scales. However, this classification masks complexities that arise from unique characteristics of ES types (i.e., provisioning, regulating, and cultural), which influence their ability to function as boundary objects. We argue that interpretive flexibility and material structures interact in distinct ways across ES types throughout a boundary object “life cycle.” Viewing a 2015 U.S. federal memorandum as a catalyst, we critically evaluate the evolution of ES and its role as a boundary object. We propose that provisioning and regulating services are transitioning out of boundary object status, moving into a more standardized state. However, we anticipate that cultural services may continue to behave as boundary objects if collaborators maintain them as such. This shift in the functionality of ES as boundary objects is an important consideration for future research that attempts to reach across social worlds and disciplinary perspectives. We urge collaborations to rely on the most relevant disciplinary knowledge, rather than allowing the ease of standardized solutions to dictate the boundary of a given problem.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)153-160
Number of pages8
JournalEcological Economics
StatePublished - Jan 2018


  • Boundary objects
  • Collaboration
  • Cultural services
  • Provisioning services
  • Regulating services
  • Standards
  • Transdisciplinary research

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Environmental Science
  • Economics and Econometrics


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