Boundary-work and the Vulnerability of Academic Status

The Case of Finnish Nursing Science

Acta Universitatis Tamperensis No. 1867


By: Pia Vuolanto
March 2014
Tampere University Press
Distributed by Coronet Books
ISBN: 9789514492549
313 Pages
$110.00 Paper original


This study focuses on how the boundaries of nursing science have been defined and how its academic status has been challenged and defended in the course of two conflicts at the University of Tampere. The first conflict occurred as a PhD thesis on fasting was publicly defended in nursing science in 1996. The evening news on Finland’s main television channel stated that the thesis was groundbreaking, and that fasting had been scientifically proven to be healthy, but the thesis’s opponents criticised the thesis and the practices applied in the research. The Finnish Association of Sceptics also publicly criticised the thesis. That same year in the same department of nursing science, a Masters thesis concerning the concept and practice of ‘therapeutic touch’ aroused another conflict. The thesis was published as a book, the publisher of which received the Finnish Association of Sceptics’ annual Humbug Award. This was a crisis for the nursing science community in Tampere, and after the award, the departmental committee for nursing science decided to ban certain books and theories. In particular, references to the works of the then popular nursing theorist Rosemarie Rizzo Parse were no longer to be accepted.

This study scrutinises boundary-work in the context of these two conflicts in Finnish nursing science. The concept of boundary-work, adopted from Thomas Gieryn, refers to the ways in which science is separated from other spheres of life. The methodology of the study comes from the rhetoric of science, which provides ways to analyse in detail the forms of argumentation which may be deployed during a conflict through various rhetorical tools to persuade and reassure the parties involved: the various disciplines within the academic community, the actors of nursing science, students, nurse practitioners or the scepticism movement. The study asks two research questions: what forms does scientific boundary-work take in the case of nursing science? How is nursing science defined by this boundary-work?

The study finds four forms of boundary-work. Intradisciplinary boundary-work defines a discipline’s boundaries, norms and principles, and does disciplinary identity work. It distinguishes between insiders and outsiders, and identifies right and wrong, accepted and unaccepted knowledge forms and schools of thought within the discipline. Interdisciplinary boundary-work situates the discipline among other disciplines and views it in relation to them. It characterises disciplinarity versus multi-, trans- and interdisciplinarity. Boundary-work between science and society defines the social role, status and relevance of the discipline. It debates the social, political, cultural and economic benefits and harms of the discipline, and analyses its relationship with societal actors and social movements. Boundary-work between science and other knowledge systems concerns the relationship of science with non-science, religion, magic, irrationality, New Age and other systems of knowledge considered unscientific. In the documentary material, newspaper articles and scientific discussions analysed for the study, the different forms of boundary-work interrelate and overlap so that the same argument or text can be used in two or more forms of boundary-work.

This study highlights the diversity of ways in which nursing science is chararcterised in the two conflicts. In this context the academic status of the then small and emerging female-dominated field with professional bonds seems vulnerable. This is shown multi-dimensionally in the forms of boundary-work. In intradisciplinary boundary-work in the conflicts over fasting and therapeutic touch the vulnerability of nursing science’s academic status was evident in that the discipline needed to be legitimated as unambiguously strong, precise and scientific. In the interdisciplinary boundary-work nursing science appeared as ‘a little sister’ in need of protection and guidance, an unstable newcomer short of acceptance from other disciplines, and consequently, a discipline that was subordinate especially to medicine. In the boundary-work between science and society, nursing science was presented as having a wide and significant societal impact in order to justify its position. Underlining the societal impact allowed nursing science to be protected against the fear that the discipline might be rendered invisible. In the boundary-work between science and other knowledge systems nursing science was presented as unscientific, and was depicted as a route by which unscientific knowledge might enter science. Since these charges were made in public, in the context of the conflicts over fasting and therapeutic touch, this argumentation forced nursing science on the defensive side and made it appear vulnerable. The main contribution of this study is to elaborate the boundary-work concept of Gieryn and to identify and examine different forms of boundary-work simultaneously, even within a single conflict. The four-part framework is a contribution to boundary-work studies because it proposes a new way to address multiple boundaries and the simultaneity of boundary-crossings for which the two conflicts in Finnish nursing science provided especially fruitful research material. The study contributes to the sociology of science by addressing a discipline that has previously been neglected and produces new knowledge about its status in the academic world and in the broad socio-cultural context.