In science studies, boundary-work comprises instances in which boundaries, demarcations, or other divisions between fields of knowledge are created, advocated, attacked, or reinforced. Academic scholarship on boundary-work has emphasized that such delineations often have high stakes involved for the participants, and carries with it the implication that such boundaries are flexible and socially constructed.

Thomas F. Gieryn

The original use of the term "boundary-work" for these sorts of issues has been attributed to Thomas F. Gieryn,[1] a sociologist, who initially used it to discuss the problem of demarcation, the philosophical difficulty of coming up with a rigorous delineation between what is "science" and what is "non-science".[2]

Gieryn defined boundary-work as the "attribution of selected characteristics to [an] institution of science (i.e., to its practitioners, methods, stock of knowledge, values and work organization) for purposes of constructing a social boundary that distinguishes some intellectual activities as [outside that boundary]."[3] Philosophers and sociologists of science, such as Karl Popper and Robert K. Merton, long struggled to come up with a criterion which would distinguish science as unique from other knowledge-generating activities, but never were able to come up with one that was stable, transhistorical, or worked reliably.

Gieryn's 1983 paper on boundary-work and demarcation emphasized that the very discussions of demarcation between science and non-science were "ideological"; that there were strong stakes for scientists to erect such boundaries both in arguing for their own objectivity and the need for autonomy.

Gieryn looked specifically at instances of boundary-work in 19th-century Britain, in which scientists attempted to characterize the relationship between religion and science as one of sharp distinction,[4] and also looked at instances in which scientists attempted to argue that science and politics and/or ideology were inherently separate as well. Many other works by sociologists and historians have since looked at boundary-work in many other situations, usually focusing on the rhetoric of scientists (or their opponents) and their interpersonal and intersocial interactions.

Studies in boundary-work have also focused on how individual scientific disciplines are created.[5] Following the work of Pierre Bourdieu on the "scientific field", many have looked at ways in which certain "objects" are able to bridge the erected boundaries because they satisfy the needs of multiple social groups (boundary objects).


An example of such boundary-work can be found in the study of science and literature. One instance of these studies is Aldous Huxley's book Literature and Science (see also Edward M. Jennings's (Ed.)1970 Science and Literature: New Lenses for Criticism, Anchor Books and Harry Raphael Garvin and James M. Heath's Science and Literature, Bucknell University Press)

Another example of boundary-work occurred when individual scientists and scientific institutions published statements responding to the allegations of scientific fraud during the "Climategate" episode.[6]

See also


  1. Gieryn, Thomas F. (1999). Cultural Boundaries of Science. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-226-29262-5.
  2. In 1999 Gieryn (1999a, p.5) stated that the “boundary” concept he introduced in his 1983 paper had been suggested by a presentation by Steve Woolgar to a meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science in November 1981. He attributed the mature development of his ideas to the influences of (in order of publication) Geertz (1973), Serres, (1982), Geertz (1983), Gilbert and Mulkay (1984), Shapin and Schaffer (1985), Yearley (1988), Holmquest (1990), Reichert (1992), Abbot (1995), Silber (1995), McOmber (1996), Taylor (1996), Kerr, Cunningham-Burley, and Amos (1997), and Wolfe (1997).
  3. Gieryn, Thomas (1983). "Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: Strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists" (PDF). American Sociological Review. 48 (6): 781–795. doi:10.2307/2095325. JSTOR 2095325. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-01-27. Retrieved 2015-04-18.
  4. See, in particular, Gieryn, T.F., "John Tyndall's Double Boundary-Work: Science, Religion, and Mechanics in Victorian England", pp.37-64 in Gieryn, T.F., Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line, University of Chicago Press, (Chicago), 1999.
  5. See, for example, Yeates (2013, esp. pp.93-101, and 309-349) for an account of the extended boundary-work performed by James Braid in relation to the creation of the domain of hypnotism.
  6. Ramírez-i-Ollé, 2015


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  • Gieryn, T.F. (1999a), Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line, University of Chicago Press, (Chicago), 1999.
  • Gieryn, T.F. (1999b), "John Tyndall's Double Boundary-Work: Science, Religion, and Mechanics in Victorian England", pp.37-64 in Gieryn, T.F., Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line, University of Chicago Press, (Chicago), 1999.
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  • Ramírez-i-Ollé, Meritxell (2015). "Rhetorical Strategies for Scientific Authority: a Boundary-Work Analysis of ‘Climategate’", Science as Culture, Vol. 24, Issue 4, pp. 384-411. DOI:10.1080/09505431.2015.1041902
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  • Wolfe, A. (1997), "Public and Private in Theory and Practice: Some Implications of an Uncertain Boundary", pp.182-203 in Weintraub, J.A. & Kumar, K. (eds), Public and Private in Thought and Practice: Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy, University of Chicago Press, (Chicago), 1997.
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  • Yeates, L.B., James Braid: Surgeon, Gentleman Scientist, and Hypnotist, Ph.D. Dissertation, School of History and Philosophy of Science, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, January 2013.
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