A negotiation and boundary object approach to exploring methods of transdisciplinary research

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Waterhouse, J, Keast, R & Koppenjan, J 2016, 'A negotiation and boundary object approach to exploring methods of transdisciplinary research', paper presented to 20th International Research Society on Public Management Conference 2016, Hong Kong, China, 13-15 April.


Many of the most persistent and emerging public issues involve multiple, contested and intersecting problem threads. Finding solutions to such complex problems is increasingly understood to come as a result of the amalgamation of expertise, knowledge and commitment held in diverse groups of actors. However, since each of these actors or stakeholders comes from different social worlds and bring particular views, expectations, skills and resources to the problem, when their paths intersect integrating mechanisms are needed that are able to reconcile different perspectives and synthesise their different, but relevant sets of information, create common understandings and generate new shared knowledge.
The notion of a boundary object, or set of artefacts that provide the processes or places to link diverse interests, has been shown to play an important role in cross disciplinary knowledge sharing and creation (Kimble, 2010). Despite the growing theoretical attention directed to the boundary object, it remains a mostly abstract or conceptual tool, with little research done in practice or real world to flesh out if and how it can facilitate the emergence of common knowledge and knowledge creation across organisational or sectoral boundaries.
Negotiation is one context in which the boundary object concept has been applied as a tool for mediating multi-party conflicts (e.g. Koskinen and Mäkinen, 2009). In this paper, however, we explore the idea that negotiation is itself a form of boundary object. Negotiation is defined as a process whereby two or more parties with some apparent conflict seek to do better jointly than each could achieve alone (Lax and Sebenius, 1986). Negotiation is largely intuitively understood yet rarely clearly articulated in practice.

In this largely conceptual paper we explore the specific role of negotiation, primarily integrative negotiation, as a boundary object for sharing, synthesizing and creating knowledge, practice and improved understanding across disciplinary boundaries involved in public administration. In so doing, we draw on (a) literature and (b) an analysis of secondary data to determine first if negotiation itself can be considered a boundary-object, or if it is the negotiation artefacts such as plans, agendas, offers and space that play a role in addressing complex, transdisciplinary issues and the generation of knowledge and new/transformative solutions. In addressing this objective, the paper explores the complex question of whether negotiation, as a process, can be a boundary object or whether it is the negotiation artefacts that are the objects.
We envisage the findings will contribute practical knowledge of the skills and processes needed in negotiating the sharing of complex knowledge across multiple disciplinary boundaries. From the findings we will craft an emergent theoretical model for a boundary object approach to negotiation to better explain how the use of boundary objects may facilitate participation by individuals involved in resolution of interdisciplinary issues and the design of new ways forward. Thus the paper contributes to the earlier goals of Star and Griesemer (1989) in their introduction of boundary objects as helping to “translate, negotiate, debate, triangulate and simplify in order to work together”.