; ; 1 Apr 2017


by Lovisa Willborg Jonsson and Katie Vann

Image by Philip Buckingham

Boundaries are spatial; they cordon off the areas that we physically inhabit and they structure our thoughts. They can be literal dividing lines; borders, walls and crossing points. They can also be abstract and immaterial; ideas, norms and values. Boundaries are the substance of society. They structure conversations, conflicts, resolutions and identities.

This month’s theme explores how Design Historians use and interpret boundaries in all senses of the word. Last month’s theme, explored what it is that constitutes a Fact. Like facts, boundaries should be seen as fluid instead of fixed. As Design Historians, our task is to look at how these porous boundaries manifest themselves in material culture.

In current affairs, perhaps the most widely discussed physical boundary is the proposed wall promised by the new US President that will physically separate the United States and Mexico. Although this boundary has not actually been built, as Design Historians it is our task to show that designed ideas like these still have the power to divide people even when they have not been realised.  Even though this particular boundary may never be built, it will continue to have an impact on history, and will will continue to structure the social lives of American and global citizens.

This is not to say that material things do not have power. Rather designs, immaterial or material, have equal impacts. For example, despite being knocked down, the Berlin Wall continues to have a physical impact upon the city and the peoples it divided. Designs have the power to grip imaginations years after they have been destroyed. They live on through memory and everyday social practices.

In 1989 Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer published Boundary Objects and The Beyond, which explored the multiple social worlds that objects occupy [1]. They used the terms ‘boundary objects’ to describe how material artefacts occupy numerous cultural fields. This concept is useful for helping us understand how a single object can have diverse meanings and values for different groups of people. As manifestations of social conflict, artefacts physically show us signs of their multiple identities.

Perhaps the most influential scholar to have discussed the cultural value of things is Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu created the concept of a cultural field to highlight how systems of social positions internally structure arenas of social struggle. In all of the research that we undertake on the Design History MA, we are looking for signs of how objects straddle these different worlds. [2]

As Design Historians, our task is to search for these signs using a multidisciplinary perspective. As such, this month our contributors will use the tools of art, history, geography and the social sciences to piece together the often forgotten material narratives of artefacts.

1. Star, Susan and Griesemer, James, ”Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39″ in Social Studies of Science, Vol. 19, No 3 (1989), pp. 387–420
2.Bourdieu, Pierre, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993)

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