Science, Non-Science and Boundary Work

The problem of demarcation – how to identify the unique and essential characteristics of science that distinguish it from other intellectual activities – has been addressed both as an analytical matter mainly by philosophers and epistemologists, and as a practical matter by sociologists and historians.

The philosophical quest for demarcating science has advanced along different avenues. It has been claimed that science is recognizable by its results, by its methods, and more often by the way in which statements claimed to be scientific are evaluated. Early in the twentieth century a philosophical school of thought known as logical positivism (the Vienna Circle) advanced an answer for demarcating science: demarcating science from religion and metaphysics was mainly a matter of semantics. Only statements about empirical observations are meaningful. Verification was then espoused as a safe criterion to decide whether or not one is dealing with a scientific statement. However, although any generalization can be tested by verification, it guarantees little, since the status of such generalizations is always uncertain, in that any following observation may counter it.

Correcting verificationism, Popper’s falsificationism starts by noticing that meaningfulness may not necessarily serve to demarcate science since a theory might well be meaningful without being scientific. By contrast, if the analysis starts by asserting under which conditions a theory can prove to be false (falsificationism), this serves better the quest for demarcating falsifiable scientific theories from unscientific (non-falsifiable) ones. Popper argued that scientific knowledge cannot be proven to be true; all that science can do is disprove theories. And to do so, criteria of refutation have to be laid down beforehand. Falsificationism is then an effort at producing instances which may counter a generalization. The failure to verify such instances, the failure to falsify a theory, generalization, or statement, gives credence to them as scientific. Alternatively, the failure to assess under which conditions the theory could be proved false is a clear sign of its unscientific nature.

But much that would be considered meaningful and useful in science is not necessarily falsifiable. Non-falsifiable statements have a role in scientific theories themselves, as in the case of cosmology, for example. If the acceptance or failure of scientific theories relied simply on falsification, no theory would ever survive long enough to be fruitful, as all theories contain anomalies. Besides, falsificationism does not provide a way to distinguish meaningful generalizations from meaningless ones. And more importantly, since falsificationism is based on factual propositions serving as instances to counter scientific claims, it implies a controversial observational theory. This last statement is the departure point of Lakatos’s reassessment of falsificationism. The difficulties inherent in Popper’s theory led Lakatos to propose a more subtle theory of falsification. His view, which he calls ”sophisticated falsification” to distinguish it from Popper’s, can be summarized thus: no experiment, experimental report, observational statement, or well corroborated low level falsifying hypothesis alone can lead to falsification. There is no falsification before the emergence of a better theory. Thus, Lakatos argued that no factual proposition can ever be proved by experiment; propositions can only be derived from other propositions, they cannot be derived from facts. Therefore, if factual propositions are unprovable then they are fallible, and if they are fallible, clashes between theories and propositions are not falsifications but merely inconsistencies. Evaluation on Lakatos’s view should be practiced, then, over a series of theories ”in the long run” rather than one at a time. Both falsification and verification and the idea of a scientific method are useful demarcation criteria, but only within the temporal confines of an established scientific paradigm. This is a familiar line of argument associated with Kuhn, who went further than Lakatos in pointing out that sophisticated falsification sidesteps the fact that numerous preliminary decisions are involved in Lakatos’s criteria. In order to decide whether a theory is indeed a better theory than another, scientists must, for example, decide which statement to make ”unfalsifiable by fiat” and which not. Or dealing with a probabilistic theory, they must decide on a probability threshold below which statistical evidence will be held ”inconsistent” with that theory; they have to decide what is going to be called ”facts,” ”new facts,” and so on.

Both Kuhn and Feyerabend’s contributions to the problem of demarcation push it forward by opening up its subjective and sociohistorical dimension. Both argued that the sorts of decisions scientists take are made in the light of shared ideological commitments within a given paradigm. The questions of truth and falsity and correct or incorrect understanding are not uniquely empirical (as the analytical approach held) and many meaningful questions surrounding the problem cannot be settled this way.

Despite the fact that at the analytical level there is no full agreement on what it is that distinguishes science from other kinds of intellectual activities, at the practical level there are many examples of temporary and localized agreements about such a distinction, achieved on a daily basis in scientific practice. From academic curricula in schools and colleges to the design of public or private organizations for the funding and management of scientific research, from ideas of science and scientific practice disseminated throughout the news and media entertainment industries to the process of peer evaluation in specialized journals, the existence of tacit agreements on what is science accounts for practical decisions that must be taken in these various contexts: defining curricula con tent for a discipline, allocating resources for research, announcing a new discovery, keeping the record of science, and even to tell someone a science fiction story involves a degree of tacit agreement on what science looks like. These practical dimensions of demarcation in science are what the notion boundary work attempts to describe. Boundary work is about an ideological style found in scientists’ attempts to create a public image for science by contrasting it favor ably to other intellectual or technical activities in order to advance their interests or resolve their inner strains (Gieryn 1983).

The capacity to create convincing distinctions between science and exemplars of non-science or pseudo science serves a variety of goals pursued by scientists for the advancement of their professional careers: acquisition of intellectual authority and career opportunities as much as the denial of these resources to others (supposedly pseudo or non-scientists), and the protection of the autonomy of scientific research from external interference.

From a boundary work standpoint, the authority of science is a result of its successful claim to autonomy, its expansion into areas previously claimed by others, and its successful rejection of other claimants to cognitive authority. Thus, boundary work comprises at least three kinds of strategies: expansion, expulsion, and the protection of autonomy. The work of expulsion operates when scientists seek to marginalize competing claims, to distinguish between orthodox and fringe, and to keep out specific social practices (e.g., magic, alchemy, witchcraft). Expansion occurs when scientists seek to extend their claim over areas previously claimed by others (e.g., religion, folk knowledge, craft expertise). Autonomy protection occurs when scientists seek to minimize interference in their domain by politicians or managers. On these grounds, cognitive authority turns out as the result, rather than the source, of successful boundary work and the novelty that this point of view brings to the fore is the extension of this argument from particular claims to scientific knowledge to the claims making surrounding the institution of science itself.

Because of the considerable material opportunities and professional advantages at stake, demarcating science is not merely an academic matter. Epistemologists and philosophers of science draw demarcations between types of knowledge without mentioning that these demarcations mean borderlines between people. They construct hierarchies in the realm of knowledge without making explicit the claims of domination which can be based on them. They separate ”true reality” from the merely phenomenal world of sensation and fantasy as if these differentiations were given by truth itself and not expressions of a social struggle about what the decisive facts are.

Boundary work has wider applications since expansion, monopolization, and protection of autonomy are generic features of professionalization. Thus, it is not surprising that the notion is useful for describing ideological demarcations of disciplines, specialties, or theoretical orientations within science as well. Content analysis of these ideologies suggests that science is not one single thing. Characteristics attributed to science vary widely depending upon the specific intellectual or professional activity designated as non-science and the particular goals of the boundary work. The rich argumentative repertoire detected in scientific ideologies often results in inconsistency. In the public domain science is at once presented as theoretical and empirical, pure and applied, objective and subjective, exact and estimative, democratic and elitist, limitless and limited. These inconsistencies can be explained, however, when considering that scientists build boundaries according to the kind of obstacles they find in their pursuit of authority and resources. In their quest scientists may find themselves competing with each other and needing to erect boundaries that ground identical aims on different bases. By the same token, variability may result from a simultaneous pursuit of separate professional goals, each requiring a boundary to be built in a different way.

Boundary work, based as it is on relatively unstructured observation of relatively unstructured ideological activities, has been considered insufficient. Further scholarly work on this topic has focused attention on crucial and more structured activities performed by boundary workers. This is how boundary work – a notion initially formulated to explain how scientists maintain the boundaries of their community against threats to its cognitive authority – has found useful policy relevant applications. One example is studying the strategic demarcation between political and scientific tasks in the advisory relationship between scientists and regulatory agencies. In this context, derivative notions such as boundary objects, boundary organizations, and even co production have been advanced. Boundary objects stand between different social worlds and they can be used by individuals within each world for specific purposes without losing their own identity as members of a specific community of practice. In some cases entire organizations can serve as boundary objects, as did many of the public interest organizations created by scientists in the mid twentieth century to facilitate political goals while protecting scientific ones (Guston 1999, 2001). Yet boundary organizations are also involved in co production, that is, the simultaneous production of knowledge and social order. Boundary organizations co produce society as they facilitate collaboration between scientists and non-scientists, and they create the combined scientific and social order through the generation of boundary objects (Jasanoff 1996; Bowker & Star 1999).


  1. Bowker, G. & Star, S. (1999) Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Gieryn, T. F. (1983) Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists. American Sociological Review 48(6): 781 95.
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  4. Gieryn, T. F. (1999) Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  5. Guston, D. H. (1999) Stabilizing the Boundary between US Politics and Science: The Role of the Office of Technology Transfer as a Boundary Organization. Social Studies of Science 29(1): 87 111.
  6. Guston, D. H. (2001) Boundary Organizations in Environmental Policy and Science: An Introduction. Science, Technology, and Human Values 26(4): 399 408.
  7. Jasanoff, S. (1996) Beyond Epistemology: Relativism and Engagement in the Politics of Science. Social Studies of Science 26(2): 393 418.
  8. Kuhn, T. S. (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  9. Lakatos, I. (1970) The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. In: Lakatos, I. & Musgrave, A. (Eds.), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  10. Popper, K. (1959) The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Hutchinson, London.

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