What is it about?

This is a conceptual article that uses the concept “boundary object” in order to discuss what role the loosely defined notion “standard product quality” plays with regard to coordination and controversies in the Norwegian agrifood market. The Boundary object theory offers a unique approach to exploring the boundaries (shared spaces) between standard and non-standard product qualities as framed by the involved actors. This theory emphasises the difference between doing and being: Analysing what quality does in social settings is a more informative approach than discussing what quality is. The core arguments are illustrated by a review of available studies of the Norwegian agrifood market. The first part of the article concludes that standard quality coordinates the hegemonic stakeholders (producers, retailers, regulators and consumers) without presupposing consensus between them. The second part of the article addresses the controversies in the boundaries between the hegemonic agricultural agrifood system and competing alternatives related to organic, terroir and animal welfare-qualities. The study discerns no signs of any transformative quality-turn away from the Norwegian hegemonic agrifood system and the inherent emphasise on “standard product” quality. On the other hand, this is not static since different interpretations of quality continuously challenge each other.

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Why is it important?

Boundary object theory reminds us that organisations are not only bundles of capabilities but also bundles of dynamic boundaries. The article further illustrates how power issues can be explicitly incorporated into the analysis of boundary objects and subsequently into theories of organisational boundary spanning organisations. Shared spaces are arenas and loci where controversies unfold. Organisational boundaries are commonly conceptualised in terms of economic efficiency. But organisational boundaries also need to be investigated from perspectives such as identity, learning and power distribution. Boundary object theory is clearly useful in that respect. Boundary objects are never neutral. They are embedded within complicated networks of social relations. Their function is very much a product of their location within these networks.

Perspectives

The approach in this article differs from other studies based on Boundary object theory in that more attention is paid to the drivers of coordination and controversies across organisational boundaries. Organisational boundaries are not necessarily simple arenas for developing mutual understanding and harmony. Loosely defined boundary objects and the shared spaces in which they are located can be subject to a great deal of rivalry and complex power games. Boundaries between organisations are sites of conflicts and negotiations of interests as well as translations of meaning that are never power-neutral. Boundary object theory can open up complex social fields where actors not only (dis)agree on e.g. various interpretations and understandings of what quality is. This theory is useful in focusing on the challenging and information-rich issue of what quality does in these social settings.

Svein Ole Borgen
Consumption Research Norway, Oslo Metropolitan University

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This page is a summary of: Standard quality as a boundary object—A conceptual study, Sociologia Ruralis, July 2021, Wiley, DOI: 10.1111/soru.12345.
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