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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