In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Symbolic Boundaries

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Early Antecedents to the Symbolic Boundaries Concept
  • Symbolic Boundaries and Legitimacy in the Professions, Science, and Work

Sociology Symbolic Boundaries
Kyle Puetz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0158


Symbolic boundaries refer to demarcations that distinguish one set of persons, groups, objects, and/or other social entities from another such set. There are a wide variety of different theoretical and operational definitions that plausibly fall under the umbrella of symbolic boundaries, but generally speaking, such boundaries are “symbolic” because they are culturally constituted and/or have a constituent aspect that is subjectively meaningful. This speaks to the idea that boundaries are socially created and do not perfectly correspond to objective differences in the social or material environment. Sociologists working in a critical vein recognize symbolic boundaries as important because they underlie systems of stratification; symbolic boundaries are theorized to play an important role in the production and reproduction of unequal social relationships between persons and groups. Symbolic boundaries are also conceptually important because they comprise systems of classification and play a role in several cognitive processes: the assignment of meaning, attention, identity management, processes of evaluation, and the formation and expression of cultural preferences. The conceptual and operational flexibility of the symbolic boundary concept means that sociologists apply it to very different social phenomena. Social scientists have employed it in reference to, among other things, discursive moral judgments that implicitly generate in-groups and out-groups; ritual interdictions against particular practical activities; patterned differences in cultural preferences; narrative constructions of moral worthiness and moral pollution; and claims of jurisdictional control by epistemic or professional authorities. Despite this variety, these conceptualizations still share an important resemblance. As an analytical trope, the symbolic boundary emphasizes structural or formal features of culture—the binary structure of cultural codes, cultural holes embedded within a patterned network of cultural relations, categorical asymmetries in visibility—rather than cultural content. The concept has become essential to analyses performed in the substantive study of art; civil society; cognition; deviance; evaluation; gender and sexuality; identity; institutions and organizations; popular culture; professions and work; race, ethnicity, and nationalism; religion; science; social inequalities; and social movements.

General Overviews

Perhaps due to the conceptual and operational flexibility of the symbolic boundary concept, there have been relatively few literature reviews or summaries that pertain to symbolic boundaries as a concept. The selected works speak to the efforts of Michéle Lamont, who provides seminal discussions of the concept of symbolic boundaries in several empirical works, to formalize and popularize the concept of symbolic boundary. Lamont and Fournier 1992 is a collection of contributions from a variety of contemporarily renowned boundary theorists. Lamont and Molnár 2002 and Pachucki, et al. 2007 provide broad assessments of the state of the theoretical literature.

  • Lamont, Michéle, and Marcel Fournier, eds. 1992. Cultivating differences: Symbolic boundaries and the making of inequality. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    An edited volume and early programmatic statement on symbolic boundaries as a concept. Topics include the institutionalization of cultural categories, the use of culture for exclusionary purposes, gender and ethnicity in boundary-work, and boundary-work in civic and political life.

  • Lamont, Michéle, and Virág Molnár. 2002. The study of boundaries in the social sciences. Annual Review of Sociology 28:167–195.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.28.110601.141107

    In this review article, Lamont and Molnár provide a typology for understanding variability among boundaries according to specific properties. These include permeability, salience, durability, and visibility.

  • Pachucki, Mark, Sabrina Pendergrass, and Michéle Lamont. 2007. Boundary processes: Recent theoretical developments and new contributions. Poetics 35:331–351.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.poetic.2007.10.001

    This review article provides a comprehensive discussion of the boundary literature, with particular attention given to ethno-racial boundaries and aesthetic boundaries.

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