Gieryn—Boundary Work

Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science

by Thomas F. Gieryn

[Gieryn, Thomas F. “Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: Strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists.”American sociological review (1983): 781-795.]


The definition of “science” and what can be considered “scientific” is not stable–instead, it is a flexible designation created by scientists to suit particular contexts.

boundary-work – “attribution of selected characteristics to the institution of science for purposes of constructing a social boundary that distinguishes some intellectual activities as “non-science”” (782).

scientists do boundary-work for three specific reasons

  1. when the goal is expansion of authority or expertise into domains claimed by other professions or occupations, boundary-work heightens the contrast between rivals in ways flattering to the ideologists’ side
  2. when the goal is monopolization of professional authority and resources, boundary-work excludes rivals from within by defining them as outsiders with labels such as “pseudo,” “deviant,” or “amateur”
  3. when the goal is protection of autonomy over professional activities, boundary-work exempts members from responsibility for consequences of their work by putting the blame on scapegoats from outside” (791-792).


The demarcation of science from other intellectual activities-long an analytic problem for philosophers and sociologists-is here examined as a practical problem for scientists. Construction of a boundary between science and varieties of non-science is useful for scientists’ pursuit of professional goals: acquisition of intellectual authority and career opportunities; denial of these resources to “pseudoscientists”; and protection of the autonomy of scientific research from political interference. “Boundary-work” describes an ideological style found in scientists’ attempts to create a public image for science by contrasting it favorably to non-scientific intellectual or technical activities. Alternative sets of characteristics available for ideological attribution to science reflect ambivalences or strains within the institution: science can be made to look empirical or theoretical, pure or applied. However, selection of one or another description depends on which characteristics best achieve the demarcation in a way that justifies scientists’ claims to authority or resources. Thus, “science” is no single thing: its boundaries are drawn and redrawn in flexible, historically changing and sometimes ambiguous ways.

Annotation Summary for: Gieryn – Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Philosophers and sociologists of science have long struggled with the “problem of demar- cation”: how to identify unique and essen- tial characteristics of science that distinguish from other kinds of intellectual activities. Comte used “reasoning and observation” Popper proposed “falsifiability” Merton explains the special ability of modern science to extend “certified” knowledge as a result, in part, of the in- stitutionalization of distinctive social norms (communism, universalism, disinterestedness and organized skepticism”

Page 1, Underline (Red): Content: “Merton, Popper, Comte”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This paper restates the problem of demarcation: characteristics of science are examined”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “not as inherent or possibly unique, but as part of ideological efforts by scientists to distinguish their work and its products from non-scientific intellectual activities. The focus is on boundary-work of scientists: their attributionof selected characteristics to the institution of science (i.e., to its practitioners, methods, stock of knowledge, values and work organi- zation) for purposes of constructing a social boundary that distinguishes some intellectual activities as “non-science.””

Page 2, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “boundary-work”

Page 2, Underline (Magenta): Content: “attribution of selected characteristics to the institution of science for purposes of constructing a social boundary that distinguishes some intellectual activities as “non-science.””

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “in society as a preferred truth in descriptions of natural and social reality.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Yet none of the per- spectives asks how science acquires that in- tellectual authority. Part of an answer to this large question will come from investigations of professional ideologies of scientists: What im- ages of science do scientists present to pro- mote their authority over designated domains of knowledge?”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “A common thread runs through these diverse descriptions of the relationship between sci- ence and ideology: all assume that science car- ries its own intellectual authority. In order for science to expose ideological distortion, or to legitimate capitalist structures of domination, scientific knowledge must be widely accepted”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Public addresses and popular writings by John Tyndall (1820-1893) are a rich source of information on how this boundary-work was accomplished in Victorian England”

Page 4, Underline (Red): Content: “John Tyndall”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “drawing the boundary between science and re-ligion, Tyndall emphasized the following dis- tinguishing features:”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “(1) Science is practically useful in inspiringtechnological progress to improve the material conditions of the nation; religion is “useful,” if at all, for aid and comfort in emotional matters”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “(2) Science is empirical in that its road to truth is experimentation with observable facts of nature; religion is metaphysical because its truths depend on spiritual, unseen forces as- sumed without verification.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “(3) Science is skeptical because it respects no authority other than the facts of nature;religion is dogmatic because it continues to respect the authority of worn-out ideas and their creators. ”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Because religion and mechanics thwarted (in different ways) Tyndall’s effort to expand the authority and resources of scientists, he oftenchose them as “contrast-cases” when con- structing ideologies of science for the public”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “(4) Science is objective knowledge free from emotions, private interests, bias or prejudice; religion is subjective and emotional.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “(3) Science is theoretical. Mechanicians are not scientists because they do not go beyondobserved facts to discover the causal princi- ples that govern underlying unseen processes. ”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “When Tyndall turns to build a boundary be- tween science and mechanics, he attributes to science a different set of characteristics in re- sponse to the different kind of obstacle pre- sented by the technical achievements and au- thority of engineers and industrial craftsmen.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “(1) Scientific inquiry is the fount of knowl- edge on which the technological progress of inventors and engineers depends”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “(4) Scientists seek discovery of facts as ends in themselves; mechanicians seek inventions to further personal profit.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “(2) Scientists acquire knowledge throughsystematic experimentation with nature; be- cause mechanicians and engineers rely on mere observation, trial-and-error, and common sense, they cannot explain their practical suc- cesses or failures”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Tyndall’s choice of religion and mechanics as contrast-cases was not an idle one: each was an impediment to public support, funding and educational opportunities essential for the growth of science in Victorian England.”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “(5) Science’ need not justify its work by pointing to its technological applications, forscience has nobler uses as a means of in- tellectual discipline and as the epitome of human culture”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “objectively evaluate knowledge claims”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Alternatively, Combe pre- sented an image of science as essentially limit- less: phrenological science could provide a sound foundation for deciding religious or political questions.”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Phrenology began in the late 18th centurywith anatomist-and-physician Franz Joseph Gall,”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “(2) For Combe, phrenology relied on em- pirical methods like any other science: “Expe- rience alone can decide concerning the accu- racy or inaccuracy of our observation and in- duction” (in Cantor, 1975:21 1). Critics argued, however, that theories of phrenology were so vague as to remove them from “adequate” em- pirical testing.”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The repertoires differed on three issues: (1) Anatomists tried to discredit the scientific legitimacy of phrenology by exposing its politi- cal and especially religious ambitions, which were said to currupt phrenologists’ ability to Anatomists offered public descriptions of science that effectively pushed Combe and phrenology outside its boundaries. Combe in turn offered a competing description of science, making it appear that he was unjustly banished and that he had as much claim to the mantle of science as anatomists.”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “(3) Anatomists accused phrenologists of re- lying on popular opinion to validate their theories while ignoring opinions of scientific “experts.””

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “accumulate abundant in- Once scientists tellectual authority and convert it to public- supported research programs, a different problem faces the profession: how to retain control over the use of these material resources by keeping science autonomous from controls by government or industry.”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “”basic” (2) This core of university-housed, scientific research is not a significant source of transfer” benefiting Soviet mili- “technology tary strength, and thus “no restrictions of any kind limiting access or communication should be applied to any area of university research”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” an NAS Panel on Scientific Communica- tion and National Security was created to ex- amine the question “What is the effect on na-tional security of technology transfer to adver- sary nations by means of open scientific com- munication, either through scientific literature or by person-to-person communications?” ”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “(3) Government controls on open scientific side have deleterious would communication effects.”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” the Report recommends, in effect, that the over- whelming majority of scientific communica- tions should remain free from government re- straints, and that national security will be more effectively attained not through controls on science but through preserved autonomy and enlarged resources to enable American science and technology preeminence. to retain its international To justify these recommendations, the Panel presents four arguments:”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “(1) The Report isolates a “core” of science scientific by demarcating the production of from its consumption. knowledge”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “(4) American military supremacy, in an age of high-tech weaponry, is better achieved not by controls on scientific communication, but by providing enlarged resources and improved facilities to scientists.”

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The boundary-work here is subtle and com- plex: on one hand, the Panel asserts that university-based science yields “basic” ratherthan “applied” knowledge; on the other, they assert that university-based science is essential for technological progress.”


Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “, the analysis begins to identify oc- casions where boundary-work is a likely stylistic resource for ideologists of a profession or occupation: (a) when the goal is expansion of authority or expertise into domains claimedby other professions or occupations, boundary-work heightens the contrast between”

Page 11, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “expansion”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “rivals in ways flattering to the ideologists’ side; (b) when the goal is monopolization of profes- sional authority and resources, boundary-work excludes rivals from within by defining them as outsiders with labels such as “pseudo,” “de- viant,” or “amateur”; (c) when the goal is pro- tection of autonomy over professional activi- ties, boundary-work exempts members from responsibility for consequences of their work by putting the blame on scapegoats from out- side.”

Page 12, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “monopolization”

Page 12, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “pro- tection of autonomy”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This paper offers one escape from seemingly interminable debates over the uniqueness and superiority of science among knowledge- producing activities. Demarcation is as much a practical problem for scientists as an analytical problem for sociologists and philosophers. De- scriptions of science as distinctively truthful, useful, objective or rational may best be ana-”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “lyzed as ideologies: incomplete and ambiguous images of science nevertheless useful for sci- entists’ pursuit of authority and material re- sources.”

Page 13, Underline (Red): Content: “Comte, Auguste [1853] Auguste Comte and Positivism: The Essen-1975 tial Writings. Edited by Gertrud Lenzer. New York: Harper & Row.”

Page 13, Underline (Red): Content: “Durkheim, Emile 1938 The Rules of Sociological York: Free Press. ”

Page 13, Underline (Red): Content: “Geertz, Clifford 1973 The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic. Habermas, Jurgen 1970 Toward a Rational Soc”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Merton, Robert K. 1973 The Sociology of Science. Chicago: Uni- versity of Chicago Press. 1976 Sociological Ambivalence and Other Es- says. New York: Free Press.”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Parsons, Talcott 1951 The Social System. New York: Free Press. 1967 Sociological Theory and Modem Societies. New York: Free Press.”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Popper, Karl R. 1965 The Logic of Scientific Discovery. York: Harper & Row.”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Mannheim, Karl Ideology and Utopia. New York: Harcourt. 1936”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Marcuse, Herbert 1974 One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon. 1964”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels Marx- Karl [1846] “The German Ideology.” Frederick Engels Collected Works. Vol. 5. 1976 New York: International.”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Shapin, Steve 1975 “Phrenological and the social knowledge structure of early 19th century Edinburgh.” Annals of Science 32:219-43. 1979 “The politics of observation: cerebral anatomy and social interests in the Edinburgh phrenology disputes.” Pp. 139-78 in Roy Wallis (ed.), On the Margins of Science: The Social Construction of Rejected Knowledge. Sociological Review Mono- graph No. 27.”


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