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Boundary work and the relational nature of scientific styles

Chapter 4. Theoretical framework:

5. Boundary work and the relational nature of scientific styles

I have argued that the styles approach needs to pay attention to the potential internal differentiation of scientific disciplines and the existence of heterodoxies.

To do so, we must understand the relational nature of styles as a general phenomenon, and connect it to a sociological conception of how this relational nature is reproduced by actors. As I have argued above, the reproduction of a style of reasoning is achieved by a thought collective that erects external boundaries towards other thought collectives and other styles of reasoning, and towards

non-scientific common sense understandings of the world. Furthermore, if the reproduction and stability of a disciplinary style of thought in modern economics must also be understood in the context of the highly institutionalised setting that is the scientific discipline, another way of talking about the degree of disciplinarity is to think of it in terms of groupness, the extent to which the disciplinary thought collective forms a well-defined, self-identified and bounded group. In this section, I argue that the sociological concept of boundary work can be integrated into the styles approach and provide the conceptual grounds for developing a relational theory of styles.

Social and symbolic boundaries as outcomes of practice

In accordance with the overarching sociological understanding of styles of reasoning in terms of institutionally stabilised practices, the relation between mainstream economics and other scientific disciplines, non-science, and heterodox economics should be understood in the same terms, as structured but not unchanging outcomes of boundary practices, or boundary work. Following Lamont and Molnár’s (2002) synthesising review of boundary and boundary work as a general social phenomenon, it is useful to make an analytical distinction between symbolic and social boundaries. Symbolic boundaries are understood as the conceptual distinctions and schemata used to categorise and structure some aspect of the world. Social boundaries are the resulting objectified social structural difference that result from symbolic sorting and boundary processes, which becomes manifest in differential group membership and access to relevant resources.

Boundary work, following Gieryn’s (1983) classic formulation, is understood as the work of actors that accomplish the creation and maintenance of boundaries.

Gieryn’s important contribution shows how demarcation of proper science from non-science, but also how disciplines are demarcated from others, is not predetermined, but an achievement by professional groups in their struggle for authority and valuable resources. Gieryn makes a distinction between three forms of boundary work, as discussed in chapter 3. These are the expansion of scientific authority, protection of its authority, and the monopolisation of authority against other groups. In all forms of boundary work, the relational nature is fundamental:

boundary work is a struggle to establish who has the right to legitimately speak as a scientist, and what types of practices could legitimately be seen as scientific, or as belonging to the particular discipline. The boundary work performed by a thought collective is an excellent site to study how styles of reasoning are

legitimated and contrasted as outsiders and their style of reasoning are rhetorically excluded.

When considering styles of reasoning, both Crombian, but especially disciplinary, in the light of boundary work, their relational nature becomes clearer.

For, to hold, transmit, and guard a collective set of commitments and dispositions is to establish that there is not only a right way to do things, but also that the space of possible sanctioned approaches has an outside. There is inevitably a larger space of that which is non-scientific, inferior, and unacceptable, and the maintenance of the style, at least implicitly if not explicitly, presupposes a relation to that other side of the boundary. Once a style of reasoning becomes institutionally stabilised within a discipline, the defence of proper science becomes synonymous with maintaining disciplinary boundaries. A different form of boundary work is performed by heterodox thought collectives which attempt to redefine and redraw the boundaries of science and the discipline by any legitimate means. If the boundaries are contested by a heterodox thought collective, it means that the dominant disciplinary style cannot just silently presume the integrity of its boundaries. The style has to be actively and forcefully defended against heterodoxy or other attempts at loosening or reconfiguring the boundaries of proper science. Establishing a disciplinary style of reasoning in such a context is then hardly a innocent and inward-looking matter. This is, in essence, my conception of relational disciplinary styles.

However, if Gieryn’s approach emphasises struggles and conflicts over authority and resources and the exclusionary use of boundaries, other studies have instead emphasised how the role of porous boundaries, of creolisation and

“trading zones” leads to mutual understanding and exchange across boundaries (Lamont and Molnár 2002; Wisselgren 2008). Lamont and Molnár argue that one fruitful direction for further research is the empirical study of the ways that boundaries actually function, rather than taking their demarcating and exclusive function for granted. The question then becomes under what conditions boundaries become porous and permeable rather than rigid and exclusionary. In the present context, this leads to the question, first, of how disciplinary boundaries in economics relate to conceptions of “science” in general, and what role heterodox economics and other disciplines play in the construction work that maintains the boundaries of proper economics. Second, the relation between disciplinary and Crombian styles is an open question. Can we talk about boundary work not only in relation to the discipline, but also to Crombian styles? And in what sense do Crombian styles act as barriers or bridges in the interaction with other scientific disciplines. To conclude, we should think of boundary work not only in relation to the discipline, and we should be sensitive to the roles that styles

of reasoning plays in relation to the boundaries of mainstream and heterodox economics and their variable permeability.

Boundary work draws our attention to the constructed and contested nature of symbolic and social boundaries. It lets us highlight the agency of actors involved in the rhetorical reproduction or transformation of bounded structures. But is not only a rhetorical practice. For when the symbolic boundaries of what is considered to be proper economics, real science, are generally agreed and sufficiently established, symbolic boundaries may become social boundaries. That is, conceptions of what constitutes good science, of the boundaries of the accepted mode of reasoning, affects the distribution of resources and opportunities. In other words, resources in terms of both material reward (research grants and academic positions) as well as ever-important scientific recognition (publications in variably valued outlets and subsequent citations) are dependent on ongoing arguments about ambiguous and contested boundaries of proper economic science. The central mechanism through which this transformation of symbolic into social boundaries takes place are the various locations of the institutionalised practice of peer review.