Tag Archives: Geertz

Malaby— Anthropology and Play

Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience

by Thomas Malaby

[Malaby, Thomas. 2009. “Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience.” New Literary History 40 (1): 205–18.]


  • The use of play as a theoretical tool, rather than being brushed off as a leisure activity, has taken hold across academic disciplines within the humanities and social sciences. Malaby wonders why Anthropology hasn’t been invested before now.
  • He argue that “while the ingredients of a more useful conception of play as a disposition (as opposed to an activity) were always present, and even found expression on occasion, the field as a whole stressed only two viable possibilities: play as nonwork and play as representation” (205-6).
  • BUT, “Departing from this pattern prepares us to recognize a better model for thinking about play, one that draws ultimately on the pragmatist philosophers’ portrayal of the world as irreducibly contingent. On this view, play becomes an attitude characterized by a readiness to improvise in the face of an ever-changing world that admits of no transcendently ordered account” ( bold added, 206).

Historically, play is divided in Anthropology

  • Non-work—position held by Materialists
    • Callois: “play is an occasion of pure waste” (206).
    • play cannot be commoditized, so it is worth nothing
  • Representation—position held by representationalists (gasp)
    • Ex. Geertz & Deep Play
    • play stands as a symbol of larger and deeper cultural meanings
    • BUT WAIT: “What should interest us about this treatment of a game, however, is the way it trades one kind of reductionism for another. In his zeal to trump whatever material stakes were in play with the different stakes of meaning-making, Geertz eliminated from consideration any consequence beyond the affirmation of meaning. On his view, games become static appraisals of an unchanging social order; and thereby, one element that is vital for any understanding of the experience of play is lost” (207).
    • “That element is the indeterminacy of games and the way in which, by being indeterminate in their outcomes, they encapsulate (albeit in a contrived fashion) the open-endedness of everyday life” (207-8).
  • So the point is that games are indeterminate, much like our complexly contingent lives.
    • “an approach to games that acknowledges this indeterminacy looks quite different from its past treatments. It connects games to other domains of experience by showing how they contain the same kinds of unpredictabilities and constraints that saturate our experience elsewhere, albeit combined in a contrived fashion. Viewed this way, games assume a powerful relationship to human practice and social process.”
      • “What is more, this view allows us to see how games may be related to a particular mode of experience, a dispositional stance toward the indeterminate. This is an aspect of experience that disappears from view when practice is left out in favor of materiality or representation” (208).
    • in Play and Work: A False Dichotomy, Stevens makes “a vital point that game researchers (and social scientists generally) are still prone to forget: if by “play” we are trying to signal a mode of human experience—a way of engaging the world whatever one is doing—then we cannot simultaneously use it reliably as a label for a form of distinct human activity (something that allows us to differentiate categorically between activities that are play and those that are not)” (208).
    • So then “when the work/play distinction is left behind, we see instead in ludic practice a more useful contrast between a cultural form (a game-like activity, no matter how playfully engaged in) and a mode of cultural experience (a playful disposition towards activities no matter how game-like)” (209).
      • Csikszentmihalyi’s flow is a mode, for instance
      • For Huizinga, it is the play-element
  • In the world, we also have this type of indeterminacy or contingency
    • can be compared to Heideggerian thrownness
    • also fits well into the concepts behind practice theory
  • There are three main features to this disposition of play in the world
    1. “First, it is an attitude that is totalizing in the sense that it reflects an acknowledgment of how events, however seemingly patterned or routinized, can never be cordoned off from contingency entirely …”
    2. “Second, the disposition of play is marked by a readiness to improvise, a quality captured by Bourdieu in his development of Marcel Mauss’s concept of the habitus …” 
    3. Finally, play is a disposition that makes the actor an agent within social processes, albeit in an importantly restrained way; the actor may affect events, but this agency is not confined to the actor’s intent, or measured by it. Rather, it allows for unintended consequences of action” (211).
  • The playful disposition does not need games, but can be leveraged to other means: “just as with ritual, it is the power of the mode of experience associated with it that makes the deployment of the cultural form a tempting project for individuals and institutions”

Play and institutions:

  • “In its study of ritual, anthropology undertook with great success a similar project, whose enabling insights should inform our current inquiries into play not least with regard to the relationship of these institutions to a social form they are beginning to deploy for purposes of their own …”
    • “games, as outlined above, manifest a playful disposition that, seeming to lift them above institutional interests, can, by the same token, be seen to validate those interests impartially” (213).
    • examples given
      • Linden Lab and its semi-successful attempts at gamifying the in-house decision making process
      • “gold-farming,” tying gameplay to actual capital accumulation IRL
      • TopCoder.com having coders compete to write the best code for specific commercial uses—the company then owns the code

Game vs. Ritual

  • There is an important “difference between the cultural forms of ritual and game. Rituals, despite the fact that they can go wrong—the fact, that is, they are subject to contingency—aim to bring about determinate outcomes …”
  • and “Games, while also a contrived cultural form and subject to similar kinds of sponsorship, are marked by the legitimacy of their indeterminacy; that is, their outcomes are supposed to be contingent” (214).

and finally—BIG POINT

  • “What is most provocative about the current moment, then, is how the explosion of thoroughly digitized games prompts us to confront the play element and its powerful yet indeterminate relationship to the emergent cultural form of computerized games. As institutions are coming to deploy games in their governance and in their engagement with a computer-mediated public, we may be well advised to see their efforts as similar to the age-old and ongoing attempts to employ ritual to prompt sentiments for nations or other groupings. The disposition of play is, in many ways, the latest sentiment to have been turned into the object of institutional desire. Some of us are prepared to bet that its roots in indeterminacy will be a bulwark against corporate takeover; but a bet is probably the most we can hazard. “

Continue reading Malaby— Anthropology and Play

Luhrmann—Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft

Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England

by Tanya Luhrmann

[Luhrmann, Tanya M. 1991. Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.]


  • based on 4 years of participant observation among magicians (Wiccan, Pagan, various occult groups) in London in the 1980s
  • “This study looks at ordinary middle-class English people who become immersed in a netherworld of magic and ritual, and asks a classic anthropological question: why do they practise magic when, according to observers, the magic doesn’t work?” (4).
  • “Magicians are ordinary, well-educated, usually middle-class people. They are not psychotically deluded, and they are not driven to practise by socio­economic desperation. By some process, when they get involved with magic—whatever the reasons that sparked their interest—they learn to find it eminently sensible. They learn to accept its core concept: that mind affects matter, and that in special circumstances, like ritual, the trained imagination can alter thephysical world” (7).
  • “The real issue is not that magicians become comfortable practising an irrational activity, but that when someone becomes a specialist, he finds his practice progressively more persuasive through the very process of interpreting and making sense of his involvement; this changing understanding may become progressively more opaque to outsiders” (7-8).
  • Magical ideas begin to seem normal in the process of becoming a magician: in this way, the involvement is more similar to becoming a certain sort of specialist than to producing a new theory” (312).
  • “How can a magician take his ideas seriously? Part of the answer is that the very process of learning to be a magician elicits systematic changes in the way that the magician interprets events. Interpretation depends upon a complex set of assumptions, biases, conceptual frames, knowledge, heuristics and attributive tendencies—intellectual habits in paying attention, in organizing what one notices, and in remembering it” (115).
  • “There seem to be three outstanding changes in intellectual habits.
    1. The magician learns what events count as evidence that the ritual has worked, and begins to find new patterns in sets of events, to see connections where previously he has only seen coincidence.
    2. Then, he acquires the knowledge shared by fellow practitioners—their common knowledge—which gives a depth and complexity to his practice, and allows him to discriminate between events in new ways, armed with these new categories and distinctions.
    3. Finally, he begins to use a battery of new assumptions—some of them explicitly formulated, others implicit in the conversation—which alter the types of remarks he takes for granted and does not question. The cumulative effect is as if the magician acquires new spectacles.” (115 numeric points added).
  • “I would argue that the rift between magician and non-practitioner is carved out by the very process of becoming a specialist in a particular kind of activity. Becoming a specialist often makes an activity seem sensible. The specialist learns a new way of paying attention to, making sense of and commenting upon her world” (115-16).
  • Becoming this type of specialist is important, “But as, if not more, important are the unsystematic experiences which, although they may have little to do with intellectual analysis, make the magician want to justify the practice, and which motivate him in the end to rationalize his commitment. These are the experiences which create bias” (176).
  • “Certain aspects of magical practice turn it into an engagement which many practitioners find compelling. They find the rituals deeply moving, the pre-ritual ‘homework’ engrossing, they dream with the images of magic’s potent symbols” (177).
  • There are four “distinctive categories of experiential response” to ritual magic practice. (All pg. 179).
    1. meditation and visualization—”the two techniques which magicians always learn upon becoming involved in practice. These are remarkable techniques: they change the practitioner’s phenomenological experience in relatively well-understood ways, and magicians are notably affected by their use.”
    2. magician’s language—”the linguistic style with which magicians describe their rituals and meditations. This style evokes a significant imaginative involvement with the ritual’s narrative and gives the magician concrete experience of the abstract terms of magical theory, like ‘contact’ or ‘power’. At the same time, the magician is told that no understanding of magical theory is complete or accurate: she can have confidence that the term refers to something, but she need not state unequivocally what it is.”
    3. ritual—There are three specific strategies a magician goes through to plan a ritual
      1. He is concerned to create a separate space and time,
      2. to exploit mind-altering techniques like chanting,
      3. and to alter the personality of the ritualist.
        • All these techniques take their central task to be setting ritual apart as something different, to be experienced almost as if it involved a different reality superimposed on the everyday.
    4. symbolism—”The use of symbolism is the most important element of the magician’s magical engagement. Symbolism plays many roles, and evokes many responses, and probably bears most responsibility for magic’s excitement. Magicians invent a mythopoeic history, talk about intimate feelings in symbolic terms, therapeutically reorganize their lives with symbolic ‘archetypes’. They also create a secrecy-shrouded mystery religion and talk of the ‘esoteric knowledge’ which their rites provide.”
  • “Throughout all this, the implication should be clear: magic is far more than a theory, and the pleasures of these other aspects—difficult to verbalize, difficult to forget—wed the magician more strongly than any intellectual analysis to a commitment to the validity of his practice” (179).
  • So… “Systematic changes in the style of intellectual interpretation make the ideas seem more believable; the satisfactions of involvement make the desire to justify the involvement even greater. Nevertheless, despite magic’s growing appeal, at some point in their practice – for some, throughout their practice – magicians confront scepticism, other people’s or their own” (270).
  • “magicians do not produce an elaborate philosophy which would describe all their beliefs, actions and desires as consistent, and substantively rational—oriented towards a genuinely desirable goal in the most effective manner possible. Instead, they justify the inconsistency with a range of arguments and make efforts to separate magic off and make efforts to separate magic off from the mundane by ritual and metaphor. Through practice, theory and styles of arguments, magicians insulate their magic from hostile criticism, real or imagined, and they acquire reasons to explain this separation … People rationalize rather than acting rationally, and strive for local consistency with a patchwork job of post hoc rationalization” (273).
  • “people tend to conceptualize themselves as unitary selves, coherent and all-of-a-piece. In order to understand their actions as part of that self, directed towards an end suitable to that self, they talk about ‘beliefs’ and ‘attitudes’ and ‘desires’, proposition-like assertions which explain why someone performs an action. If you see an aborigine eating grubs, you assume that he believes that the grub is nourishing, delicious, or imbued with sacral power” (307).
  • “In order to function effectively, humans—these interpreters of culture—must act as if humans do not act randomly, but in a way they can learn to anticipate and to which they can learn to respond. This involves attributing to them a set of proposition-like assertions about the state of the world – he is carrying an umbrella, he must believe that it will rain this afternoon – which they maintain over time” (307).

“the ethnography presented on modern magic and the persuasiveness which the practice obtains elicits three observations about belief. Let me summarize” (309).

  1. “First, it is optimistic to think that people have an ordered set of beliefs abouta particular endeavour which forms a consistent set with other beliefs which together describe the totality of thought and action. People are much fuzzier, and more complex, than that. The ethnographer can legitimately identify something like a belief when someone argues for a proposition, at least during the period when they are doing the arguing. But magicians argue in different ways at different times; some of them claim to believe one thing when practising magic, and another thing when not practising magic; others seem to be firmly committed to their practice, and produce arguments about relativism which do not seem entirely plausible in the face of their behaviour. “
  2. “Second, it is hubris—and bad ethnography—to assume that people act first and foremost because they are motivated by belief. The material on modern magic suggests particularly dearly that people often argue for a belief as a means to legitimize, and even to understand—to rationalize—the practice in which they have been involved … If someone goes to church as a regular part of his life, he is likely to argue for a belief in God. If he feels deeply spiritual when praying to God, he is more likely to be persuaded that God exists, for the religious framework provides a way to interpret that unusual feeling.”
  3. Third, magicians have beliefs; it is not true that becoming a magician simply involves learning to speak a new ‘language’ … That is more than a bow towards relativism: the assertion claims that apparently strange beliefs say nothing startling, but simply express conventional beliefs in new and surprisingways. Or, the assertion can be that in becoming a shaman, a Scientologist, a believer in something, someone is simply acquiring new terms to describe new experiences” (309).

interpretive driftslow, often unacknowledged shift in someone’s manner of interpreting events as they become involved with a particular activity. As the newcomer begins to practice, he becomes progressively more skilled at seeing new patterns in events, seeing new sorts of events as significant, paying attention to new patterns … there seems to be a slow, mutual evolution of interpretation and experience, rationalized in a manner which allows the practitioner to practise. The striking feature, I found, was how ad hoc, how seemingly unmotivated, this transformation became. Magicians did not deliberately change the way they thought about the world”

cognitive dissonanceIn the fifties, Leon Festinger (and others) developed a sociological theory of ‘cognitive dissonance’ to understand intellectual discomfort. Its most famous application concerned an American flying saucer cult which predicted that the world would end on 21 December. On 22 December—after the prophetic failure—the adherents began to proselytize, for the first time, claiming that the world had been miraculously redeemed. Festinger interpreted this as an attempt to reconcile their considerable commitment to their belief with the embarrassing evidence of its falsity by creating social support for a somewhat transformed version of it” (271).

Continue reading Luhrmann—Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft

Fine—Small Groups and Culture Creation

Small Groups and Culture Creation: The Idioculture of Little League Baseball Teams

by Gary Alan Fine

[Fine, Gary Alan. 1979. “Small Groups and Culture Creation: The Idioculture of Little League Baseball Teams.” American Sociological Review 44 (5): 733–45.]


  • based on participant (kind-of) observation over three years with little league baseball teams in three different communities in America
  • “in order to avoid treating cul­ture as an amorphous, indescribable mist which swirls around society members, it is necessary to ground the term in interac­tion” (733).
  • To do this, Fine asserts that each small group has an intercation based culture of its own, and calls this the group’s idioculture. 
    • “Idioculture consists of a system of knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, and customs shared by members of an interacting group to which members can refer and employ as the basis of further interaction” (734).

Rationale for the deployment of idioculture as a classificatory tool

  • “Five arguments are proposed here for the utility of the construct of idioculture in sociological research” (735).
    1. specificity of cultures
      • The relatively limited extent of the par­ticularistic aspects of small-group culture lends itself to examination by the partici­pant observer, and thus idiocultures can be specified by the researcher to a much greater extent than is true for either societal cultures or subcultures” (736).
    2. Comparative analysis of groups
      • “By comparing groups in terms of their experiences and shared meanings as influencing their culture, one is able to explicate the process of cultural differentiation—a process Fischer (1968) has termed microethnography” (736).
    3. Cultural creation and diffusion in societies and subsocieties
      • “In ob­serving a small group one can pinpoint precisely and with confidence the circum­stances under which an item of culture was created” (736).
      • esp. informal cultural products like jokes or slang.
    4. Groups as cultural units
      • “groups do not exist in a content-free con­text, but are continuously engaged in the construction of a social reality, a history, and a sense of meaning …
      •  Following interactionist theory, we assume that cultural content derives its shared social meaning through interaction, rather than through an a priori assignment of meaning. Groups negotiate meanings, and this ongoing negotiation structures the culture of groups” (737).
    5. Culture as mediation between environment and action
      • “Idioculture is proposed as a mediating element between constraints external to the group and the behavior of the group in dealing with these constraints. It is the process by which collective decisions ares elected, and thus permits an under­standing of how a group increases its sense of “groupness,” cohesion, and commitment” (737).

The Social Production of Idioculture

  • “At the inception of any group, an idioculture does not exist; however, the formation of a culture may occur from the opening moments of group interaction …
  • Eventually idioculture becomes self ­generating, and direct solicitation and re­ciprocal inquisition are no longer neces­sary for social solidarity” (737).
  • Five Filtering elements that establish a piece of idioculture—it must be perceived as:
    1. Known
      • either the item or components of the item must be based on information poreviously known by one or more members of the group
      • ” Since members have access to other idiocultures (or latent cultures)through previous or concurrent member­ships, the range of potentially known in­formation may be extensive” (738).
    2. Usable
      • i.e. must be mentionable in the context of group interaction
      • “Some elements of the latent or known culture, although shared by mem­bers of a group, may not be shared pub­licly because of sacred or taboo implica­tions” (739).
      • this can lead to strategic avoidance of the item (situational racism or foul language)
    3. Functional
      • “its perceived congruence with the goals and needs of some or all group members, and whether it is defined as facilitating the survival and successful operation of the group as a unit” (740).
      • If something is arbitrary or extraneous to group functioning, members won’t feel the need to adhere to it, and it won’t survive
    4. Appropriate
      • “Some potential elements of a group’s culture, while func­tional for satisfying group goals or per­sonal needs, do not occur or continue be­ cause they undermine the group’s social structure in not supporting the interper­sonal network and power relations in the group. Those potential cultural elements which are consistent with the patterns of interaction of the group are the appropri­ate culture of the group” (741).
      • example – the ironic nickname “Tiny” for an overweight member cannot survive if that member loses weight.
    5. Triggered
      • Some event has to bring the item into the group’s use—best if the event is notable or unusual
      • creates a type of genesis mythology for the item
  • These elements are contingent and hierarchical, in that “K>U>F>A>T” (738).

Final thoughts

  • “For both theoretical and methodological reasons, an examina­tion on the level of the small group seems desirable. Small groups can be examined adequately, and they represent locations where much culture, subsequently spread to larger social units, has its origin. This procedure, in addition to increasing understanding about the social role of culture itself, also has the potential for bettering knowledge about small groups …
  • Culture is a construction based upon the consensual meaning sys­tem of members; it comprises the interac­tional products that result from a verbal and behavioral representation of that meaning system.” (744).


Following interactionist theory, this study argues that cultural creation and usage can be examined by conceptualizing cultural forms as originating in a small-group context. Those cultural elements which characterize an interacting group are termed the idioculture of the group. This approach focuses on the content of small-group interaction, and suggests that the meanings of cultural items in a small group must be considered in order to comprehend their continued existence as communication. Five characteristics of cultural items affect which items will become part of a group culture. Cultural forms may be created and continue to be utilized in situations if they are known to members of the interacting group, usable in the course of group interaction, functional in supporting group goals and individual needs, appropriate in supporting the status hierarchy of the group, and triggered by events which occur in group interaction. These elements have impact only through the interpretations of group members oftheir situations. Support for this approach is drawn from a participant observation study of Little League baseball teams.

Continue reading Fine—Small Groups and Culture Creation

Cool—The Mutual Co-Construction of Online and Onground in Cyborganic

The Mutual Co-Construction of Online and Onground in Cyborganic: Making an Ethnography of Networked Social Media Speak to Challenges of the Posthuman

by Jennifer Cool

[Cool, Jennifer. 2012. “The Mutual Co-Construction of Online and Onground in Cyborganic.” In Human No More: Digital Subjectivities, Unhuman Subjects, and the End of Anthropology, edited by Neil L. Whitehead and Michael Wesch, 11–32. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.]


  • based on 10 years of participant observation with Cyborganic, a “group of San Francisco web geeks who combined online and face-to-face interaction in a conscious project to build community “on both sides of the screen”’ (11).
  • Finds that Cyborganic’s activities both online and onground (offline) are mutually co-constructed—
    • builds on the idea of colocation—several entities concurrently in the same place
    • using programs that reference a user’s emplacement onground users “display [their] presence across media” (20). She calls this “presence casting.
    • in that way, the users’ online and onground presences co-construct in a symbiotic relationship
  • Includes a detailed discussion of Katherine Hayles and the posthuman.

Great definition of media from Lisa Gitelman—”socially realized structures of communication, where structures include both technological forms and their associated protocols, and where communication is a cultural practice, a ritualized colocation of different people on the same mental map, sharing or engaged with popular ontologies of representation” (Always Already New, 2006, pg 7)

Cyborganic Onground

Cyborganic Online

Continue reading Cool—The Mutual Co-Construction of Online and Onground in Cyborganic

Latour—We Have Never Been Modern

We Have Never Been Modern

by Bruno Latour, (Translated by Catherine Porter)

[Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.]


  • The act of purification is key to being modern, however, we are increasingly creating and coming up against hybrids. For instance, a discussion of the ozone layer combines science, technology, politics, and nature, blurring the modernist distinctions and continuing the proliferation of quasi-objects.
  • Latour is not arguing that we are entering a new era of hybridization, but instead that we have always created these hybrids and their quasi-objects and have never been “modern” to begin with.
  • Latour hopes to replace what he calls the modern “constitution” with a nonmodern version that does not separate nature and society and brings the genesis of quasi-objects to light (see below).

Purification—making a clear distinction between the ideas of nature (science, non-human, objects) and society (culture, human, subjects)

Hybridization—mixing nature and culture (non-human and human, object and subject)

Quasi-object—the products of hybridization; objects that can influence the social action of subjects (soccer balls, tools, diagrams, etc.)


“The hypothesis of this essay is that the word ‘modern’ designates two sets of entirely different practices which must remain distinct if they are to remain effective, but have recently begun to be confused. The first set of practices, by ‘translation’, creates mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture. The second, by ‘purification’, creates two entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on one hand; that of nonhumans on the other. Without the first set, the practices of purification would be fruitless or pointless. Without thesecond, the work of translation would be slowed down, limited, or evenruled out. The first set corresponds to what I have called networks; the second to what I shall call the modern critical stance” (10-11).


“We can keep the Enlightenment without modernity, provided that we reintegrate the objects of the sciences and technologies into the Constitution, as quasi-objects among many others – objects whose genesis must no longer be clandestine, but must be followed through and through, from the hot events that spawned the objects to the progressive cool-down that transforms them into essences of Nature or Society” (135).

5.2 Continue reading Latour—We Have Never Been Modern

Herzfeld—Cultural Intimacy

Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State

by Michael Herzfeld

[Herzfeld, Michael. 2005. Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State. 2 edition. New York: Routledge.]


  • big question = “what advantages [do] social actors find in using, reformulating, and recasting official idioms in the pursuit of often highly unofficial personal goals, and how [do] these actions—so often in direct contra­vention of state authority—actually constitute the state as well as a huge range of national and other identities” (2).
  • “the nation-state’s claims to affixed, eternal identity grounded in universal truth are themselves, like the moves of all social actors, strategic adjustments to the demands of the historical moment” (5).
  • KEY POINT (acc. to Herzfeld) = the idea of the polity­—nation-state, local community, or international body—succeeds to the extent that its formal ideology encapsulates (or incorpo­rates) all the inward flaws and imperfections to which it is offi­cially and ostensibly opposed” (220).


  • Anthropologists should adopt the combination of a “top down” and “bottom up” approach, located at what Herzfeld calls a “militant middle ground.” This ground is not only a space where cultural intimacy and its use/characteristics are taken into consideration as coming equally from the state and the individuals, but also a space wherein the anthropologists takes a stance of cultural relativism, while maintaining their own personal ethical and moral beliefs (taking action if deemed necessary).
  • To shrug off binarism as a structuralist conceit is a mistake. Binarism and other essentialism play important parts of social life, and thus should be embraced by ethnography. It is important to note, however, that these binarisms act as convenient ways of describing the world, and should not be used as or confused with an abstract theoretical position.

cultural intimacy—”the recog­nition of those aspects of a cultural identity that are considered a source of external embarrassment but that nevertheless provide insiders with their assurance of common sociality, the familiarity with the bases of power that may at one moment assure the disenfranchised a degree of creative irreverence and at the next moment reinforce the effectiveness of intimidation” (3)

disemia—”the formal or coded tension between official self-presentation and what goes on in the privacy of collective introspection” (14).

structural nostalgia—”the longing for an age before the state, for the primordial and self­ regulating birthright that the state continually invoke” (22). Continue reading Herzfeld—Cultural Intimacy

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. Continue reading Gieryn—Boundary Work