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Life at the Boundary June 29, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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For decades now, historians of science and their allies in science studies have had an enduring fondness for boundary studies.  The “boundaries” in question are taken to be places where agreements that define what constitutes a legitimate claim no longer clearly apply.  In Thomas Kuhn’s idea of the “paradigm” (Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962), arguments across paradigms cannot be decided based upon evidence, because the standards of interpretation that would allow a decision to be made differ.

Kuhn’s point spoke to a potential philosophical irreconcilability, but sociologists would adopt the basic idea to discuss the importance of social coalition-building in knowledge-building, which could be hidden beneath an apparent epistemological smoothness where arguments were well-accepted, but which became visible in instances of controversy along coalition boundaries.

Harry Collins wrote in 1981, “In most cases the salience of alternative interpretations of evidence, which typifies controversies, has acted as a level to elicit the essentially cultural nature of the local boundaries of scientific legitimacy—normally elusive and concealed” (“Introduction” to a special issue of Social Studies of Science 11 (1981): 3-10).  Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer wrote in Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985):  “Another advantage afforded by studying controversy is that historical actors […] attempt to deconstruct the taken-for-granted quality of their antagonists’ preferred beliefs and practices, and they do this by trying to display the artifactual and conventional status of those beliefs and practices” (p. 7).

A particularly pressing place to look for agreement was at the boundary of what did and did not constitute “science”.  Robert K. Merton’s sociology of science sought to determine the sociological preconditions of science as well as the impacts different social contexts could have on the content of science.  Combined with Merton’s identification of a series of “norms” associated with science, his sociology was understood to take “science” as a granted activity, which society both made possible and influenced.

While I tend to think the reaction against Merton was overly strong, and the abandonment of explicit Mertonian institutional-functional analysis ill-advised, later sociologists were correct to point out that establishing a zone of “science” was also a sociological activity that gave those within the zone access to certain polemical resources.  “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists” American Sociological Review (1983): 781-795, written by Thomas Gieryn (a former student of Merton’s), was a landmark contribution to the anti-demarcationist movement in the sociology, history, and philosophy of science.  Writing alongside historians examining the Victorian establishment of “science” versus “the sciences” (mainly via X-Club activities and the British Association), Gieryn argued that varying aspects of the amorphous sciences could be emphasized to justify “scientists’ claims to authority and resources”.

However, as Gieryn himself noted, boundary studies were not limited to just the boundary of “science”.  Conflict and demarcation existed within and beyond science wherever disagreements about credibility and plausibility existed.  Figures such as Collins and Bruno Latour would take the prospect of arguments’ succeeding to be reliant on recourse to other things already deemed credible or plausible.  This is the basis of Collins’ sociological “relativism” and Latour’s “hybrids” and “networks” (see this post for some discussion of the difference between their positions).

Because rational agreement made recourse to trusted resources, the underlying basis of knowledge was taken to be grounded in a shared culture, as referenced in boundary polemics.  As Gieryn later wrote in Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line (1999): “Interests, rhetorical tropes, power, identity, hands-on practices, tacit skills, instruments, experimental systems, and (as a catchall) culture are now standard ingredients in sociological studies of the construction of scientific knowledge” (viii-ix).  Such cultural matters were understood both to draw sets of continuities between scientific credibility and broader sources of cultural credibility, and to emphasize the role of trust in credible sources within the scientific community.

However, the importance of boundary polemics, and the cultural objects and ideals referenced by those polemics, remains unclear.  One temptation has been to write the question off as a matter of personal taste.  Even Jed Buchwald has resorted to the position.  In his 1999 book, Gieryn made the point vividly by likening the depiction of the relations between the cultural and the natural in scientific work to a stew in preparation: “What happens to nature in all this kitchen work depends upon the chef you ask…”  As deeply unsatisfying as saying the matter is subjective is, it is not much better to imagine that the relationship is essentially some inscrutable mix, which varies in its proportions depending on “contingencies”.  A better alternative would be to develop an analytical taxonomy to help discern the significance of boundary polemics, since it is likely that fairly superficial historical issues have been repeatedly emphasized as the crucial objects of historical inquiry on the blind assumption that boundary polemics are automatically of interest wherever they occur, simply because they reflect the supposedly heretofore hidden cultural aspects of science.

Let us begin by taking to be a trivial observation the idea that basic presuppositions must be accepted for informed consensus to be reached.  When people do not share your presuppositions, engagement with such individuals can be frustrating, and it becomes easier to hurl a polemic than to try and bring them through all the necessary steps that would ostensibly bring them around to your point of view: they are superstitious, corrupted by economic interests, ill-mannered, and undisciplined.  However reflective these polemics may be of broader cultural ideals, your resort to them, to my mind, does not so much signify the social foundations of your epistemology as they are surface effects that serve to reinforce the reality of an internal-external divide between your work and the outside world.  Little need be said about the cultural stalemates, policy conundrums, and open power struggles that boundaries create, except to say that they exist.  It should not be surprising that they do.

Of course, sometimes things get existential—the resources needed to go on are at stake—which forces a “negotiation”.  At this point, whatever one’s own motivations, one must portray one’s work as more broadly valuable: contemplation of the work elevates the mind, the work leads to useful technologies, it employs workers, it predicts the future, it suggests new policies, or it is a signal of national prestige.  When one’s work becomes such a “boundary object”—Star and Griesemer, “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39,” Social Studies of Science 19 (1989): 387-420—one assumes its continued existence is dependent on its cultural surroundings.  One needs local workers to build an observatory, one needs military funding to build a laser, one needs amateurs to gather specimens.

The fact of multiple meanings and values is inherent to the idea of exchange, and is not novel.  While there is much to be said about the long-term history of particular dependencies, the actual multiplicity of meaning in a dependent relationship strikes me as only a marginal spin on classic Marxist and Mertonian observations about science-society relations.  What is of interest here is not the fluidity of meaning at the boundary, per se, but rather meaning within either the history of the particular science, or the political/economic/cultural history of the surrounding society.  The boundary object is only of interest insofar as both sides of the boundary agree that it should be supported (or either or both sides think it should not).

Of course, not just support, but meanings themselves can also be negotiated.  Again, there are very strong precedents in Marxist and Mertonian sociology concerning the relationship between science, ideology, and economic interests.  That the content of science and surrounding social norms can reflect each other is a well-rehearsed point, particularly for sciences such as psychology, ethnology, sociology, population genetics, and so on.  In the mid-twentieth century ideological influence over physics and genetics in totalitarian states, and the prospect of politics and vested interests influencing expert witnesses, was likewise much discussed.  Efforts have also been made to connect the core intellectual content of the physical sciences to culture, notably with Paul Forman’s argument about Weimar culture and causality in quantum theory, albeit with rather less sustained success.  In any event, while contributions to long-term histories of ideas remain of interest, individual case studies struggle to maintain relevance.  As Steven Shapin wrote 28 years ago, “work is often thought to be completed when it can be concluded that ‘science is not autonomous’, or that ‘science is an integral part of culture’, or even that there are interesting parallels or homologies between scientific thought and social structures.  But these are not conclusions; they are starting points for more searching analyses of scientific knowledge as a social product.”

Within the sciences, meanwhile, Peter Galison has described productive exchange across boundaries occurring through “trading zones” (originally in 1989, but canonically in 1997’s Image and Logic).  Here concepts and objects at boundaries take on a stripped-down meaning as they are passed between weakly linked domains.  Accordingly, he refers to exchange at the boundary in terms of “trading languages” of “pidgins” and “creoles”.  Galison’s point that pidgins can develop into creoles and thus new research programs is important, but to my mind, the more important point is that, as with the above examples of conflict, dependence, and negotiation, the most meaning-rich environments are away from boundaries—hence his argument for the “intercalation” of the histories of autonomous domains.

To my mind, to determine the significance of what happens at boundaries, it is important to have a full and detailed knowledge of what happens away from the boundaries.  This is especially important, because boundary polemics are not necessarily superficial, as the now-largely-defunct historiography of natural philosophy as its own distinct genre has shown.  When questions of matter, cosmology, physiology, spirit, thought, virtue, and theology coexist within the singular plane of philosophy, there is practically no such thing as a boundary.  In more recent times, certain sciences can indeed undergo profound epistemic shifts, and in such instances, it is likewise important to attend to boundary issues because successful installment of a new epistemological regime can make, break, or instantiate enduring instabilities into certain scientific fields.

However, I want to finish with the provocative suggestion that, despite their porosity, boundaries are not, in general, very interesting places, mainly because they are intellectually impoverished.  They are filled with superficial and often cliched polemics and items of exchange that only gain meaning when understood in the context of the more complex ideas lurking deep within particular territories.  Until the main contours of these various territories are better mapped, these deeper meanings will remain opaque.  Studies of life at the boundaries are more apt to rehearse what we know about the chaos and contingency of boundaries, and what we imagine we already know about life within the surrounding territories, than they are to reveal something genuinely new.


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[…] core of the phenomenon, whether it is social, biological or conceptual. So I was pleased to read this comment by Will Thomas regarding boundaries in social and historical […]

2. thonyc - July 2, 2010

As a dyed in the wool gradualist I have serious doubts as to whether boundaries actually exists. As far as I can assess the situation scientific change is smeared over a wide range of ideas all jostling with each other and long periods of time and that the boundaries that are discussed by historians and sociologists of science are artificial constructs created by them after the fact.

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4. Ik - July 20, 2010

New here, so just passing through. Nice blog, good post, thanks for sharing.

All boundaries are broken down with the ultimate theory.



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