Boundary Work

trading zones

According to Galison, “Two groups can agree on rules of exchange even if they ascribe utterly different significance to the objects being exchanged; they may even disagree on the meaning of the exchange process itself. Nonetheless, the trading partners can hammer out a local coordination, despite vast global differences. In an even more sophisticated way, cultures in interaction frequently establish contact languages, systems of discourse that can vary from the most function-specific jargons, through semispecific pidgins, to full-fledged creoles rich enough to support activities as complex as poetry and metalinguistic reflection” (Galison 1997, p. 783).

He established the concept of “trading zone” when analysing the history of nuclear physics in the twentieth century, in 1997. In this magisterial work we are made to encounter the fascinating exchanges and intense collaborations between three sub-cultures of physicists– theoreticians, experimentalists and engineers (who built the machines used in nuclear physics). These traditions remained intact, preserved inside the collaboration, while the co-ordination of exchange took place around the production of the two competing instrument cultures of ‘image’ and ‘logic’ which ultimately joined. Taking his lead from anthropology, Galison observes how their often asynchronous exchanges can be compared to the incomplete and partial relations which are established when different tribes come together for trading purposes. Nothing in the notion of trade presupposes some universal notion of a neutral currency.

Researchers are trying to get further with the concept of “trading zone” by applying it to other disciplines than sciences. He will call this metaphore “transaction spaces” (Re-Thinking Science: Knowledge and the Public in an Age of Uncertainty, Nowotny, Helga, Peter Scott, und Michael Gibbons. 2001).

The idea of “transaction” implies that every partners and participants are bringing something to be exchanged, negociated. It allows implies that they will have the ressources to create something out of the other participant’s trading object/idea. The success of this exchange relies on the ability of all participants to bring an object/idea that is considered valuable by someone else.


“This notion of transaction spaces makes the evolutionary process (…), because these transaction spaces are where the first tenuous interactions between ‘society’ and ‘science’ take place. They are spaces (both symbolically and very concretely) where potential participants can decide what might be traded and also establish the lines of communication necessary to sustain discussion of potential to the point where constraints become visible.”, Michael Gibbons, 2001.

The trading-zones make objects emerge from the trade. Those objects of negociation are found at the end of the trading process, they are defined through the exchange and might have a different shape regarding both sides of the exchange. That is what Michael Gibbons call “Mode-2 objects”.

Regarding the concept of “trading zone” and its associated “transaction space”, we could imagine a method which would consist of creating a lexicon of a contextualized transdisciplinary research in order to imagine the “Mode-2 object” that could come out of the trade. This lexicon will help define the new form of knowledge that might come out between different disciplines.

Here a conference that might be interesting to go further, Peter Galison on De-localized Production of Scientific Knowledge from 2007 at The Berkman Center :
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1sxZs-FkDfI

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