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A question of fit: Reflections on boundaries, organizations and social-ecological systems

Sternlieb, Faith, R. Patrick Bixler, Heidi Huber-Stearns, Ch’aska Huayhuaca. 2013. A question of fit: Reflections on boundaries, organizations and social-ecological systems. Journal of Environmental Management, 130: 117–125.


Although there is acknowledgment that the complexity of social-ecological systems governance demands representation from diverse perspectives, there is little agreement in the literature on how to cross both fiat (human-demarcated) and bona fide (physical) boundaries to address such complexities. As a cohort of interdisciplinary scholars, we navigate the boundary between science and practice to address the question of fit regarding the role of organizations in transcending boundaries. We found there is a need to rectify discrepancies between theories about boundaries and theories about organizations. To this end, we propose a conceptual framework to analyze transboundary organizations, an umbrella term to group the literature on boundary organizations, intermediaries and bridging organizations; we introduce this term to illustrate they are not mutually exclusive and to facilitate interdisciplinary research. We first examine social-ecological systems (SES), a framework intended to improve understandings of boundaries and governance. We then continue to unpack the complexity of boundaries and organizations, specifically through important transboundary concepts such as scale and organizational learning. This helps frame our examination of the literature on: 1) boundary organizations; 2) bridging organizations (third-party entities); and 3) intermediaries (distinguished by their position between other actors). Our review identifies a number of discrepancies that pertain to the types of boundaries discussed and the roles assigned to organizations governing SES. Important characteristics have emerged from our review of transboundary organizations including legitimacy, saliency, urgency, and credibility. In developing a conceptual framework, we argue that transboundary organizations: 1) expand upon the boundary spectrum, 2) incorporate transboundary concepts, and 3) hybridize characteristics of boundary, bridging, and intermediary organizations. We conclude with a number of considerations for transboundary organizations and recommendations for further research.

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