Theoretical Angle: Emphasis on Actors and Objects
Related to the direct and indirect influence of actor-network theory (ANT), actors, artefacts, and objects have been coming to the foreground in a number of disciplines. The concept of a boundary object was first introduced by Star and Griesemer (1989) to explain the case of the foundation of a museum, which was possible because different stakeholders did not need to negotiate a common understanding about the museum, nor common goals. Rather, it was enough for each of them to act according to their own social world; the boundary object was, at the same time, the product of those actions and the mediator across them. The basic idea of boundary objects has been developed and specified in several directions: for instance, intermediary objects (Boujut and Blanco, 2003) and boundary negotiating artefacts (Lee, 2007) emphasize different stages of evolution of a boundary object during product development. Bechky (2003) relates boundary objects to the boundary between professional belonging and status.
Harvey and Chrisman (1998) introduced the concept of a boundary object in the geographic community by arguing how geographic information systems (GIS) act as boundary objects through mediating between different groups who do not share common understandings. Through a microscale study on GIS and wetlands, they show how it worked despite “wetland” having different meanings for different actors: “The agreement is only paper-thin. The boundary object serves to solve jurisdictional and administrative battles while it conceals continued geographic ambiguity” Harvey and Chrisman, 1998). Harvey (2006) discusses the necessarily elastic relation between the cadastre and land tenure in Poland. Local practices, also inherited over generations, have to find working accommodations to relate to Polish state and European Union regulations. Hence, this information infrastructure is tense between diverging civil and political interests. So, it acts as a historically grounded boundary object.
These kinds of objects are a suitable sense-making device to approach land registries and block- chain when the points of convergence between stakeholders are a determinant aspect to account for. For instance, when a land registry spans across areas regulated by different property regimes, conceptualizing a registry as a boundary object highlights how commonalities and differences converge on a possible solution.
Many of the public and permissionless blockchains (Bitcoin included) have publicly available source codes, free for everyone to fork and to set up their own blockchains. This is similar to FOSS projects such as Linux or Firefox, whose mode of governance has been labeled “bazaar” by Raymond (1999) and Demil and Lecocq (2006): this mode of governance is characterized by openness and fairness, and an open license contract of the object in question. Further, there are fairly limited ways to exercise control over actors (to use a particular version of software), and an actors’ motivation to contribute with new code is rather low unless reputation is pivotal.
According to Miscione et al. (2018), blockchains differ from FOSS in many ways: blockchains bring rivalry among actors, e.g. a token always belongs to one entity at a time; their value is rooted in their uniqueness. Having conflicting versions of token ownership would undermine the ledger’s integrity and by that, affect the token’s value. Forks are undesirable, because users of a blockchain have a mutually dependent interest in the integrity of data, which, in contrast to the “bazaar,” leads to a stronger common interest. What’s more, if a majority of actors running a particular blockchain instantiation changes its consensus mechanisms, this change can be enforced on other users, which is not a feature of FOSS.
Comparing FOSS and blockchain systems with an emphasis on artefacts offers two perspectives. FOSS can certainly be seen as a boundary object, where communities of actors with widely diverging interests contribute a variety of solutions; however, there is common ground with every release, patch, or update of a software. The elasticity of FOSS is exemplified in low switching costs from one version to another, so an arbitrary version (even a self-programmed version) of software can be instantiated upon one’s liking. Does the same apply for blockchain systems? Even if a blockchain system can be seen as the result of a sense-making process across different actors or groups, likely with diverging interests, the elasticity of a blockchain system is far more constrained: blockchain systems are defined by the consensus protocol, which determines everyone’s mode of participation.
Specificities in Ghana: Land Rights Documents and Fees as Boundary Objects
Within the context of land governance, land itself forms an important boundary object, across which different communities and institutions associate and disassociate (not unusually, violently). While land creates boundaries through various modes of exclusion, it also forms the object around which “webs of interests” develop and sustain (see e.g. Meinzen-Dick and Mwangi, 2009) through a variety of uses with corresponding bundles of land rights (Davy, 2018). Within this context, technologies to support or change processes of land documentation and recordation also function as boundary objects. The socio-technological assemblages include not only the survey equipment of certified land surveyors or the GPS-enabled mobile phones of “fit-for-purpose mappers” (Lengoiboni, Richter, and Zevenbergen, 2019), but also the digital data and the land rights documents that are being printed and issued to landholders, as well as the associated fees for various signatures and stamps on a series of documents that have come to verify a land claim or transaction. The associations of actors that emerge through time may stabilize into larger actors that endow the process with legitimacy, and at the same time bind together people who previously held different meanings regarding land, property, and documents themselves. For example, in the process of leasehold registration, we see that the technologies and templates for formal recording of the Lands Commission (LC) form boundary objects that negotiate with LC external processes and actors. In this meeting, meanings and norms of the bureaucratic arena become adjusted in response to social norms and administration external actors, which in turn also change. What emerges is a space of “practical norms” that can be quite literally visited and observed at the encounters between registrants, intermediaries, and officials in front of the Customer Service Access Units of the LC (Abubakari, Richter, and Zevenbergen, 2018). Fees paid for a variety of intermediary documents, services, and signatures constitute an important, if not constitutive, element in the creation of such networks across differing institutional contexts. Meridia, a for-profit organization that recently entered the market of land rights documentation in Ghana, actually flipped the logic insofar as it created different “documentation packages” according to the actors that need to be involved given the institutional scene that they encountered (Salifu, 2018). The latter in turn shape the content and format of a given type of documentation package, and the fees associated with various signatories create the glue in the emergence of action nets.
The examples above indicate that Ghana’s context of institutional plurality is likely to give space to a new system, and it is imaginable that blockchain proponents, alongside their technology, may come to act as boundary objects in the emergence of new actor networks with their own normative frameworks and new shared meanings of land, property, and related recording technology. However, insofar as such endeavors would succeed amidst the contestations over legitimacy, the question as to whose claims are valid for entering on the blockchain’s own sphere of “code as law” and, as recent controversies over block sizes have shown, “lawlessness of code,” remains open. As such, it is as much a question of data governance as it is of land governance.
Theoretical Highlights and Possible Research Questions
Land rights documents in Ghana, generally speaking, play at least two important roles that evidence their value as boundary objects. Firstly, for the purpose of enrolment of communities, initiatives to map land rights are able to attract interest especially in communities where demand for (some kind of) land rights documents exists, e.g. as part of specific development projects, such as service provision (see, for instance, Lengoiboni, Richter, and Zevenbergen, 2019). Secondly, the production of documents and decisions on their form and content enroll further actors, for example, customary authorities, who sign in return for negotiated fees, and statutory actors to sanction the content of the documents. This kind of multi-party relation is exemplified by Meridia’s initiative. In this case, partially overlapping actor networks emerge in conjunction with the development of a w'hole set of so-called “documentation packages” for different purposes and regions (Salifu, 2018).
Actors entering the land governance scene of Ghana often recognize the central role that the maintenance of digital land rights data plays in becoming “inevitable partners” (Oberdorf, 2017). In this sense, analogue or digital documents play a similar function, as both boundary objects, but also as devices in the processes of interessement, enrollment, and mobilization (Callon, 1986). In a study on blockchain implementation in Ghana by BitLand and Benben, Oberdorf (2017) observed that “although not the core of the functioning of the Blockchain, the process of digitization repeatedly returned in the interviews with the companies and public actors” (p.44), indicating both the hopes that blockchain can make documents in their digital form indisputable as well as searchable, and indicating the greatest perceived risks: the moment of entry of a document into the database and who should be the “single party” to add the initial data (Oberdorf, 2017). So, data quality and immutability are properties that offer affordance for blockchains acting as boundary objects across traditional and statutory regulations. Moving to more empirical entry points and question, what an emphasis on artefacts suggests asking is if, and how, blockchain is actually used in Ghana, for what functions exactly and at what scale; and what actors and associated normative frameworks become enrolled in the process? How is it different from w'hat we see elsewhere, and why, for instance, what specific forms and uses of blockchain may function as boundary objects and w'hat changes in meaning would we see then at the crossroads of different normative frameworks in land governance? If stabilizing into actor networks, how would these new patterns of action interplay over legitimacy with others; and to what outcome? (Table 11.2).