Symbolic Boundaries Research Paper

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1. Definition And Intellectual Context

‘Symbolic boundaries’ are the lines that include and define some people, groups and things while excluding others (Epstein 1992, p. 232). These distinctions can be expressed through normative interdictions (taboos), cultural attitudes and practices, and more generally through patterns of likes and dislikes. They play an important role in the creation of inequality and the exercise of power. The term ‘symbolic boundaries’ is also used to refer to the internal distinctions of classification systems and to temporal, spatial, and visual cognitive distinctions in particular. This research paper focuses on boundaries within and between groups. It discusses the history, current research, and future challenges of work on this topic.

The literature on symbolic boundaries has gained importance since the 1960s due to a convergence between research on symbolic systems and indirect forms of power. Writings by Pierre Bourdieu, Mary Douglas, Norbert Elias, Erving Goffman, and Michel Foucault on these and related topics have been influential internationally across several disciplines, but particularly in anthropology, history, literary studies, and sociology. In North America, a renewed cultural sociology has produced wide-ranging empirical research agendas on symbolic boundaries and inequality. In other fields including community, cognition, deviance, gender, immigration, knowledge and science, nationalism, professions, race and ethnic studies, and social movements, issues of boundaries have gained analytical prominence, although some authors analyze boundary work without using the language of symbolic boundaries.

2. History

Two of the founding fathers of sociology played central roles in shaping the literature on symbolic boundaries: Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. Their contributions are reviewed before turning to the ‘neoclassical’ writings of Mary Douglas, Norbert Elias, and Thornstein Veblen, which illustrate the lasting influence of Durkheim and Weber on this literature up to the 1960s. While Durkheim brings attention to classification systems and their relationship with the moral order, Weber is more concerned with their impact on the production and reproduction of inequality.

One of the most widely used examples of symbolic boundaries is taken from Durkheim’s later work, Les formes elementaires de la vie religieuse (The Elementary Forms of Religious Life 1965 [1911]). In this book, Durkheim argues that the distinctiveness of the religious experience from other types of experiences rests in the fact that it involves a symbolic distinction between the realms of the sacred and the profane (pp. 234, 250). The meanings of these realms are mutually exclusive and are defined relationally, through interdictions and rituals that isolate and protect the former from the latter (e.g., a Roman Catholic sinner cannot receive communion until he is purified through confession) (p. 271).

The distinction between the sacred and the profane extends to the whole universe of objects and people in which it takes place. For instance, the status of members of a community is defined by the types of relationship they have with sacred objects (e.g., Roman Catholic women cannot celebrate mass). In this sense, religious systems provide a cosmology, i.e., a general interpretation of how the world is organized and how its elements relate to one another and to the sacred. This cosmology acts as a system of classification and its elements are organized according to a hierarchy (counterpoising for instance the pure with the impure). The belief invested in this ‘order of things’ structures people’s lives to the extent that it limits and facilitates their action. In Durkheim’s words, ‘the power attached to sacred things conducts men with the same degree of necessity as physical force’ (p. 260).

Moving beyond the religious realm, Durkheim points to the existence of a moral order, i.e., a common public system of perception of reality that regulates, structures, and organizes relations in a community. This system operates less through coercion than through intersubjectivity (p. 238). In fact, Durkheim defines society by its symbolic boundaries: it is the sharing of a common definition of the sacred and the profane, of similar rules of conducts and a common compliance to rituals and interdictions that defines the internal bonds within a community. Hence, he posits that the boundaries of the group coincide with those delimitating the sacred from the profane.

Unlike Durkheim, Max Weber is more concerned with the role played by symbolic boundaries (honor) in the creation of social inequality than in the creation of social solidarity. In Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (1922; Economy and Society 1978), he describes human beings as engaged in a continuous struggle over scarce resources. In order to curb competition, they discriminate toward various groups on the basis of their cultural characteristics, such as lifestyle, language, education, race, or religion (Chap. 2). In the process, they form status groups whose superiority is defined in relation to other groups. They cultivate a sense of honor, privilege relationships with group members, and define specific qualifications for gaining entry to the group and for interacting with lower status outsiders (e.g., opposing miscegenation). They invoke their higher status and shared rules of life to justify their monopolization of resources. Hence, cultural understandings about status boundaries have a strong impact on people’s social position and access to resources.

Thornstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1979 [1899]) parallels Weber’s writings on status groups. Veblen is also concerned with the mechanisms that produce boundaries between status groups. This American economist suggests that habits of thought (‘classifying and demarcating’) are central to these mechanisms and are often organized around notions of superiority and inferiority concerning employment, consumption, and leisure. In his words, ‘the concept of dignity, worth, or honor, as applied either to persons or conduct, is of first-rate consequence in the development of class and class distinctions’ (p. 15). For instance, idleness symbolizes status because it signifies pecuniary status. It is a way for ‘successful men to put their prowess in evidence.’ Evidence of nonproductive consumption of time includes ‘quasi-scholarly or quasi-artistic accomplishments.’ Also, ‘refined tastes, manners, and habits of life are useful evidence of gentility because good breeding requires time, application, and expenses’ (p. 49) and are therefore not available to those ‘whose time and energies are taken up with work.’

Veblen also developed the concept of ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the context of an acerbic critique of the excesses of the business class. He argues that the possession and display of wealth confers honor: as an invidious distinction, it symbolizes ranking within a group. This way of manifesting superiority is more common when predatory aggression or war are less frequent. Veblen’s analysis assumes that there is a usual tendency to change standards of sufficiency as one’s pecuniary situation improves, so that one becomes restless with creating ‘wider and ever-widening distance’ between herself and the average standard.

Also paralleling Weber’s work is the work of German sociologist Norbert Elias, U¨ ber Den Prozess der Zivilisation (The Civilizing Process 1982 [1939]). Elias analyzes the historical emergence of a boundary between civilized and barbarian habits by using evidence from Western manner manuals written between the late middle ages and the Victorian period. His attention centers on ‘natural’ bodily functions such as spitting, defecating, eating, and blowing one’s nose to show an ‘advance in the threshold of self-control’ over time. He demonstrates the growing centrality of shame and embarrassment in instituting norms of behavior in public and private. At a more general level, he shows transformations in standards of behavior and feelings and in personality structures (what he calls ‘habitus’ or habits emerging from social experience). He argues that these vary across hierarchical groups in society and that these variations are key to pacification and the exercise of power.

To turn now to the lasting influence of Durkheim’s work, in Purity and Danger (1966), Mary Douglas is concerned with the order-producing, meaning-making, and form-giving functions of classification systems and the role of rituals in creating boundaries grounded in fears and beliefs. In Natural Symbols (1970), she takes on the idea of a correspondence between classification systems and social organization advanced by Durkheim and Mauss (1963 [1903]). She describes the structure of binary symbolic systems as ‘reflecting’ that of group structures. Like Elias, she is also concerned with the moral order and centers her attention on the system of social control as expressed through the body and through the observable artifacts of everyday life (food, dirt, and material possessions). She argues that the very basis of order in social life is the presence of symbols that demarcate boundaries or lines of division.

One of Douglas’ main concerns is how communities differentiate themselves from one another and how they are internally differentiated. She distinguishes groups on the basis of their degree of social control and of the rigidity of their grid (by which she means the scope and coherent articulation of their system of classification or the extent to which it is competing with other systems). In societies with high social control and great cultural rigidity (i.e., what she calls high grid and group), there is a concern to preserve social boundaries; the role structure is clearly defined and formal behavior is highly valued and well-defined in publicly insulated roles. Through ‘the purity rule,’ formality screens out irrelevant organic processes, ‘matters out of place.’ Douglas suggests that the more complex the system of classification and the stronger the pressure to maintain it, the more social intercourse pretends to take place between disembodied spirits, i.e., the more the purity rule applies.

3. Current Theory And Research

In the contemporary literature on symbolic boundaries, both the neo-Weberian and neo-Durkheimian heritage remain strong. The question of how boundaries intersect with the production of inequality has attracted great interest in recent years, following the publication of Pierre Bourdieu’s impressive corpus. In the United States in particular, cultural sociologists have been working to assess some of Bourdieu’s theoretical claims and to use his work as a stepping stone for improving our understanding of the cultural aspects of class, gender, and racial inequality. Other important developments concern the study of identity through boundary work, and research on moral order, community, and symbolic politics. As is argued in the final section of this research paper, social scientists will soon face the challenge of integrating work from a wide range of fields that have used the concept of boundaries to various ends.

3.1 Culture And Inequality

In the last 20 years, a large neo-Weberian literature emerged around the study of processes of closure, as illustrated most notably by the work of Frank Parkin and Randall Collins. Parkin (1979) drew on Weber to propose an analysis of class relationship that focuses on the distributive struggle for monopolizing or usurping resources within and across classes—with an emphasis on the right of ownership and credentialism, i.e., the use of educational certificates to monopolize positions in the labor market. Equally inspired by Durkheim, Collins (1998) extended his earlier work on credentialism and interaction rituals to analyze how intellectuals compete to maximize their access to key network positions, cultural capital, and emotional energy, which generates intellectual creativity. These authors’ contributions intersect with those of Pierre Bourdieu and his collaborators, although their ideas followed an independent path of development.

In Reproduction (1977 [1970]), Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron proposed that the lower academic performance of working class children cannot be accounted for by their lower ability but by institutional biases against them. They suggest that schools evaluate all children on the basis of their familiarity with the culture of the dominant class (or cultural capital), thus penalizing lower-class students. Extensive vocabulary, wide-ranging cultural references, and command of high culture are valued by the school system and students from higher social backgrounds are exposed to this class culture at home. Hence, children of the dominated classes are over-selected by the educational system. They are not aware of it, as they remain under the spell of the culture of the dominant class. They blame themselves for their failure, which leads them to drop out or to sort themselves into lower prestige educational tracks.

This work can be read as a direct extension of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ ‘dominant ideology thesis,’ which centers on the role of ideology in cementing relations of domination by camouflaging exploitation and differences in class interests. However, Bourdieu and Passeron are more concerned with classification systems than with representations of the social world itself, i.e., with how representations of social relationships, the state, religion, and capitalism contribute to the reproduction of domination. Implicitly building on the work of Antonio Gramsci, they made inroads in analyzing the subjective process of consolidation of class domination, focusing on the shaping of cultural categories. The control of subjectivity in everyday life through the shaping of common sense and the naturalization of social relations is the focus of their attention. They broaden Marx and Engels by suggesting that crucial power relations are structured in the symbolic realm proper, and are mediated by meaning. They de facto provide a more encompassing understanding of the exercise of hegemony by pointing to the incorporation of class-differentiated cultural dispositions mediated by both the educational system and family socialization.

In Distinction (1984 [1979]), Bourdieu applies this analysis to the world of taste and cultural practice at large. He shows how the logic of class struggle extends to the realm of taste and lifestyle, and that symbolic classification is key to the reproduction of class privileges: dominant groups define their own culture and ways of being as superior. Thereby they exercise ‘symbolic violence,’ i.e., impose a specific meaning as legitimate while concealing the power relations that are the basis of its force (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977 [1970], p. 4). They define legitimate and ‘dominated’ cultures in opposition: the value of cultural preferences and behaviors are defined relationally around binary oppositions (or boundaries) such as high/low, pure/impure, distinguished/vulgar, and aesthetic/practical (p. 245). The legitimate culture they thereby define is used by dominant groups to mark cultural distance and proximity, monopolize privileges, and exclude and recruit new occupants to high status positions (p. 31). Through the incorporation of ‘habitus’ or cultural dispositions, cultural practices have inescapable and unconscious classificatory effects that shape social positions.

A large American literature applying, extending, assessing, and critiquing the contributions of Bourdieu and his collaborators developed in the wake of their translation in English (for a review, see Lamont and Lareau 1988). For instance, DiMaggio (1987) suggests that boundaries between cultural genres are created by status groups to signal their superior status. Lamont (1992, Chap.7) critiqued Bourdieu (1979) for exaggerating the importance of cultural capital in upper middle class culture and for defining salient boundaries a priori instead of inductively. By drawing on interviews with professionals and managers, she showed that morality, cultural capital, and material success are defined differently and that their relative importance vary across national contexts and by subgroups. Lamont also showed variations in the extent to which professionals and managers are tolerant of the lifestyles and tastes of other classes, and argued that cultural laissez-faire is a more important feature of American society than French society. High social and geographic mobility, strong cultural regionalism, ethnic and racial diversity, political decentralization, and relatively weak high culture traditions translate into less highly differentiated class cultures in the United States than France.

Other sociologists also argue that cultural boundaries are more fluid and complex than cultural capital theory suggests. In particular, in his study of group variation in home decoration, Halle (1993) suggests that art consumption does not necessarily generate social boundaries. He finds that the meaning attached to living room art by dwellers is somewhat autonomous from professional evaluations, and is patterned and influenced by a wide range of factors beyond class—including neighborhood composition. He also finds that cultural consumption is less differentiated than cultural capital theory suggests—with landscape art being appreciated by all social groups for instance. Finally, he suggests that ‘the link between involvement in high culture and access to dominant class circles … is undemonstrated’ (p. 198). For his part, Hall (1992) emphasized the existence of heterogeneous markets and of multiple kinds of cultural capital. He proposes a ‘cultural structuralism’ that addresses the multiplicity of status situation in a critique of an overarching market of cultural capital.

Bryson (1996), Erickson (1996), and Peterson and Kern (1996) suggest that cultural breadth is a highly valued resource in the upper and upper-middle classes, hence contradicting Bourdieu’s understanding of the dominant class which emphasizes exclusively the boundaries they draw toward lower class culture. Bryson (1996) finds that musical exclusiveness decreases with education. She proposes that cultural tolerance constitutes a multicultural capital more strongly concentrated in the middle and upper classes than in the lower classes. Erikson (1996) suggests that although familiarity with high status culture correlates with class, it is useless in coordinating class relations in the workplace. She writes that the ‘culture useful for coordination is uncorrelated … with class, popular in every class’ (p. 248) and that ‘the most useful overall cultural resource is variety plus a well-honed understanding of which [culture] genre to use in which setting’ (p. 249). For their part, Peterson and Kern (1996) document a shift in high status persons from snobbish exclusion to ‘omnivorous appropriation.’ These studies all call for a more multidimensional understanding of cultural capital as a basis for drawing boundaries, and counter Bourdieu’s postulate that the value of tastes is defined relationally through a binary or oppositional logic.

3.2 Identity And Boundary Work

The growing literature on identity is another arena where the concept of symbolic boundaries has become more central. In particular, sociologists and psychologists have become interested in studying boundary work, a process central to the constitution of the self.

Social psychologists working on group categorization have been studying the segmentation between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Brewer’s (1986) social identity theory suggests that ‘pressures to evaluate ones’ own group positively through in-group out-group comparison lead social groups to attempt to differentiate themselves from each other.’ This process of differentiation aims ‘to maintain and achieve superiority over an out-group on some dimension’ (Tajfel and Turner 1985, pp. 16–17). While these authors understand the relational process as a universal tendency, sociologists are concerned with analyzing precisely how boundary work is accomplished, i.e. with what kinds of typification systems, or inferences concerning similarities and differences, groups mobilize to define who they are.

The concept of boundary work was proposed originally by Gieryn in the early 1980s to designate ‘the discursive attribution of selected qualities to scientists, scientific methods, and scientific claims for the purpose of drawing a rhetorical boundary between science and some less authoritative residual non- science’ (1999, pp. 4–5). In recent years, sociologists have become interested in analyzing this process by looking at self-definitions of ordinary people, while paying particular attention to the salience of various racial and class groups in boundary work. For instance, Newman (1999) analyzes how poor fast-food workers define themselves in opposition to the un- employed poor. Lamont (1992) studies the boundary work of professionals and managers, while Lamont (2000) examines how workers in the United States and France define worthy people in opposition to the poor, ‘people above,’ blacks, and immigrants, drawing moral boundaries toward different groups across the two national context. Lichterman (1999) explores how volunteers define their bonds and boundaries of solidarity by examining how they articulate their identity around various groups. He stresses that these mappings translate into different kinds of group responsibility, in ‘constraining and enabling what members can say and do together.’ Binder (1999) analyzes boundaries that proponents of Afrocentrism and multiculturalism build in relation to one another in conflicts within the educational system. Finally, Gamson (1992) analyzes how the injustice frames used in social movements are organized around ‘us’ and ‘them’ oppositions.

Jenkins’s (1996) study of social identity provides useful tools for the study of boundary work. He describes 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. Future research on the process of collective identity formation may benefit from focusing on the dynamic between self-identification and social categorization.

3.3 Moral Order, Community, And Symbolic Politics

A third strand of work on symbolic boundaries presents more palpable neo-Durkheimian influences. Several empirical studies have centered on moral order and on communities. Wuthnow (1987, p. 69) writes ‘Order has somehow to do with boundaries. That is, order consists mainly of being able to make distinctions—of having symbolic demarcations—so that we know the place of things and how they relate to one another.’ A recent example of this neo-Durkheimian line of work is Alexander’s (1992) semiotic analysis of the symbolic codes of civic society. The author describes these codes as ‘critically important in constituting the very sense of society for those who are within and without it.’ He also suggests that the democratic code involves clear distinctions between the pure and the impure in defining the appropriate citizen. His analysis locates those distinctions at the levels of people’s motives and relationships, and of the institutions that individuals inhabit (with ‘honorable’ being valued over ‘self-interested’ or ‘truthful’ over ‘deceitful’ in the case of the democratic code).

It should be noted that the last decades have produced several studies of status politics that documented precisely how groups sharing a lifestyle made such distinctions, engaged in the maintenance of the moral order, and simultaneously bolstered their own prestige. Particularly notable is Gusfield (1963) who analyzed the nineteenth century American temperance movement in favor of the prohibition and the Eighteenth Amendment to the constitution. Gusfield under- stands this movement as a strategy used by small-town Protestants to bolster their social position in relation to urban Catholic immigrants. Along similar lines, Luker (1984) describes the worldviews of anti- abortion and pro-choice activists. She shows that they have incompatible beliefs about women’s careers, family, sexuality, and reproduction, and that they talk past one another and define themselves in opposition to one another. The literature on social movements includes numerous additional studies that focus on the process by which categories of people are turned into categories of enemies (Jasper 1997, Chap. 16).

4. Challenges And Future Directions

Two main challenges concerning the study of boundaries are pointing at the horizon of sociological scholarship. They concern (a) a necessary synthesis of the various strands of work that speak to boundary issues across substantive areas; and (b) the study of the connection between objective and subjective boundaries.

The concept of boundaries is playing an increasingly important role in a wide range of literatures beyond those discussed above. For instance, in the study of nationalism, citizenship, and immigration, scholars have implicitly or explicitly used the boundary concept to discuss criteria of membership and group closure within imagined communities (e.g., Anderson 1983, Brubaker 1992). Some of these authors are concerned with the established rules of membership and boundary work. Yet others study national boundary patterns, i.e., the ways in which nations define their identity in opposition to one another (Saguy 2000).

The concept of boundary is also central in the study of ethnicity and race. The relational process involved in the definition of collective identity (‘us’ vs. ‘them’) has often been emphasized in the literature on these topics. The work of Barth (1969) for instance concerns objective group boundaries and self-ascription, and how feelings of communality are defined in opposition to the perceived identity of other racial and ethnic groups. Along similar lines, Bobo and Hutchings (1996) understand racism as resulting from threats to group positioning. They follow Blumer (1958) who advocates ‘shift[ing] study and analysis from a preoccupation with feelings as lodged in individuals to a concern with the relationships of racial groups … [and with] the collective process by which a racial group comes to define and redefine another racial group’ (p. 3).

Finally, gender and sexual boundaries are also coming under more intense scrutiny. For instance, Epstein (1992) points out that dichotomous categories play an important part in the definition of women as ‘other’ and that much is at stake in the labeling of behaviors and attitudes as feminine or masculine (also see Gerson and Peiss 1985). Those who violate gender boundaries in illegitimate ways often experience punishment in the workplace. More recently, Tilly (1997) argues that dichotomous categories such as ‘male’ and ‘female’ (but also ‘white’ and ‘black’) are used by dominant groups to marginalize other groups and block their access to resources. He extends the Weberian scheme by pointing to various mechanisms by which this is accomplished, such as exploitation and opportunity hoarding. He asserts that durable inequality most often results from cumulative, individual, and often unnoticed organizational processes.

Because these various literature all deal with the same social process, boundary work, it may be appropriate at this point to begin moving toward a general theory of boundaries by, for instance, identifying similarities and differences between boundaries drawn in various realms—moral, cultural, class, racial, ethnic, gender, and national boundaries. This could be accomplished by focusing on a number of formal features and characteristics of boundaries, such as their visibility, permeability, boundedness, fluidity, and rigidity. We may also want to compare embedded and transportable boundaries; explicit and taken-for-granted boundaries; positive and negative boundaries; and the relationship between representations of boundaries and context. Social scientists should also think more seriously about how different types of boundaries can combine with one another across local and national contexts (e.g., how cultural or moral boundaries combine with race, gender, or class boundaries).

A second challenge will be to understand the connection between objective boundaries and symbolic boundaries. Students of objective boundaries have focused on topics such as the relative importance of educational endogamy vs. racial endogamy among the college educated; racial hiring and firing; the extent of residential racial segregation; the relative permeability of class boundaries; and the process of creation of professional boundaries. Lamont (1992) has argued that symbolic boundaries are a necessary but insufficient condition for the creation of objective boundaries. More empirical work is needed on the process by which the former transmutes into the latter.


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