Lamont, M. and V. Molnar. 2002. “The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences.”

Lamont, Michéle and Virág Molnár. 2002. “The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences.” Annual Review of Sociology 28:167-195.

Boundaries have been recently studied in a myriad and across fields of social science.  Covers literature on boundaries of social/collective identity, inequalities of race, class, and gender, knowledge and science, and those of communities, nations and place. Recommends research in cultural production of boundaries, difference and hybridity, group and cultural membership/classifications.

Classical sociologists were often concerned with delineations of boundary – sacred vs. profane, Marx’s class boundaries, ethnic and status groups of Weber.

Key understanding of paper: the importance of “understanding the role of symbolic resources (e.g., conceptual distinctions, interpretive strategies, cultural traditions) in creating, maintaining, contesting, or even dissolving institutionalized social differences (e.g., class, gender, race, territorial inequality) […] Symbolic boundaries are conceptual distinctions made by social actors to categorize objects, people, practices, and even time and space. They are tools by which individuals and groups struggle over and come to agree upon definitions of reality” (168).  Symbolic boundaries also “separate people into groups and generate feelings of similarity and group membership” (here 168, see Epstein 1992, 232) – this is where people access resources and obtain status, often unequally. Patterns of behavior become consistent, institutionalized, and inequalities become markers for boundaries; boundaries become markers for inequality.  Symbolic boundaries à social boundaries.

Group differentiation works to achieve superiority over outgroups (Tajfel and Turner 1985, Hogg and Abrams 1988) – leads to in-group favoritism especially in high-status groups (Brewer and Brown 1998).

Jenkins (1996): “collective identity as constituted by a dialectic interplay of processes of internal and external definition. On the one hand, individuals must be able to differentiate themselves from others by drawing on criteria of community and a sense of shared belonging within their subgroup. On the other hand, this internal identification process must be recognized by outsiders for an objectified collective identity to emerge” (here, 170) – a social psychological understanding.

A cultural sociologists understanding – how boundaries are shaped by traditions, narratives, schema, and contexts that individuals have access to (Lamont 2000, Somers 1994, Swidler 2001).  – how environment and others shape society’s relationship to individuals, how membership within cultures is constructed.

Bourdieu’s Distinction as contributing to the micro/macro approach of understanding class, through exclusionary practices in education, promoting unequal access to resources through unequal socialization patterns. Boundary research often performed on the exclusion tactics of the elite, rather than the formation of identity in opposition to classed others, or multiple out-groups.

“At the social psychological level, Ridgeway (1997) explains gender inequality in terms of interactional processes and the construction of boundaries. She argues that we “automatically and unconsciously gender-categorize any specific other to whom we must relate” and that when “occupational roles are activated in the process of perceiving a specific person, they become nested within the prior, automatic categorization of that person as male or female, and take on a slightly different meaning as a result” (1997, p. 220)” (here 176). The practice of patrolling boundaries of femininity – Martin (2001) uses hegemonic femininity.

Tilly (1998) – reinforcement of dichotomous categories works for dominant groups to marginalize perceived others, and limit access to resources – “durable inequality most often results from cumulative, individual, often unnoticed organization processes” (176).

Boundary-work coined  by Gieryn (1983): originally used in a study regarding how scientists delineate attributes of methods, character, and claims to draw boundaries between ‘real’ science and non-science – this lends to practices of asserting and establishing authority. Takes place in three waves – explusion (contestation of boundary, assertion and sanction of boundary transgression); expansion (the attempt to legitimize and gain control of mechanisms that establish authority); and, protection of autonomy (works to further strengthen boundaries to disallow permeability without review).

Boundary object (Bowker and Star 1999) – “material objects, organizational forms, conceptual spaces or procedures” which work to develop and maintain coherence of boundaries (here 180).

Literature in how self-determined boundaries between physical communities take place, how networks impact the definition of boundaries –

***Boundaries established by those who do not have face-to-face contact – boundaries often mediated by information technology and impersonal markets (online or media interactions) (Calhoun 1991) – a community constructed by “imagined personal comnections through some medium such as television, visual or printed representation, or tradition” (here 182, see Cerulo 1997, Swidler 2001). Use of common categorization systems, vocabularies, and symbols to create shared identity even if very different in terms of r/c/g or spatial location (Hunter, 1974, Wuthnow 1989, Lamont 1992, and Calhoun 2001).

National boundaries as sites of either strong delineation processes (ie customs) and ritual, or a hybridization of separated groups  (ie border towns)

Main ideas:

  • “Symbolic boundaries are often used to enforce, maintain, normalize, or rationalize social boundaries as exemplified by the use of cultural markers in class distinctions” (186)
  • “Symbolic boundaries, however, are also employed to contest and reframe the meaning of social boundaries” (186).
  • “There are also cross-cultural differences in how symbolic boundaries are linked to social boundaries” (186)
  • “In some cases symbolic boundaries may become so salient that they take the place of social boundaries” (186).


Bowker G, Star SL. 1999. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge,

MA: MIT Press

Brewer MB, Brown RJ. 1998. Intergroup relations. Pp. 554–94 In Gilbert DT, Fiske ST, Lindszey G, eds. 1998. Handbook of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill

Calhoun C. 1991. Indirect relationships and imagined communities: large-scale social integration and the transformation of everyday life. In Social Theory for a Changing Society, ed. P Bourdieu, JS Coleman. pp. 95–121. Boulder, CO: Westview, NY: Russell Sage Found.

Calhoun 2001 – w/o br

Cerulo KA. 1997. Identity construction: new issues, new directions. Annu. Rev. Sociol. 23:385–409

Epstein CF. 1992. Tinker-bells and pinups: the construction and reconstruction of gender boundaries at work. Pp. 232–56 in Lamont M, Fournier M. eds. 1992. Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press

Gieryn TF. 1983. Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: strains and interests in professional interests of scientists. Am. Sociol. Rev. 48:781–95

Hogg MA, Abrams D. 1988. Social Identification. London: Routledge

Hunter A. 1974. Symbolic Communities. The Persistence and Change of Chicago’s Local Communities. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press

Jenkins R. 1996. Social Identity. London: Routledge

Lamont, M. 1992. Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and American Upper-Middle Class. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press

Lamont M. 2000. The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, NewYork: Russell Sage Found

Martin K. 2001. Engaging Hegemonic Femininity: Gender and Appearance on Campus. Presented at Sociol. Colloq., Univ. Mich., March

Ridgeway CL. 1997. Interaction and the conservation of gender inequality: considering employment. Am. Sociol. Rev. 62:218–35)

Somers MR. 1994. Reclaiming the epistemological “Other”: narrative and the social constitution of identity. In Social Theory and the Politics of Identity, ed.CCalhoun, pp. 37–99. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell

Swidler A. 2001. Talk of Love. How Culture Matters. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press

Tajfel H, Turner JC. l985. The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In Psychology of Intergroup Relations, ed. S Worchel, WG Austin, pp. 7–24. Chicago: Nelson- Hall

Tilly C. 1998. Durable Inequality. Berkeley: Univ. Calif. Press

Wuthnow R. l989. Communities of Discourse: Ideology and Social Structure in the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and European Socialism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press


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