‘Bounding’ US Cybersecurity
: Negotiating a Symbolic and Organisational Thing of Boundaries

  • Clare L Stevens

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Despite its prominence in security discourses and policies in the United States, what counts as ‘cybersecurity’ and how it is to be practised by state actors is still a matter of contention. While these debates feature recurring accounts of the challenges that cybersecurity poses to longstanding conceptual and symbolic distinctions, by deploying the analytical framework of ‘boundary work,’ this project critically examines how boundaries are (re)constituted in US cybersecurity politics, and, conversely, the extent to which cybersecurity is shaped by historically resonant boundaries and institutionalised cultures.
The thesis argues that what cybersecurity ‘is,’ and how its boundaries are drawn, are not overdetermined by strategic or technological imperatives, so much as they reflect the efforts of different entities to defend and extend their own organisational and symbolic boundaries. In adopting such a position, this thesis highlights the boundary work of different actors and their attempts to ‘fix’ the boundaries of cybersecurity via an in-depth analysis of illustrative junctures and debates in US cybersecurity politics. This in turn opens up critical questions over the extent to which security imaginaries and conceptions of US national identity work as important codes of intelligibility in (and transformed through) cybersecurity politics over time: as the thesis seeks to demonstrate, it finds that technologies, consequential categories, institutional responsibilities, political authority, and national identity are also constituted and challenged in and through these debates.
Addressing these issues, the thesis thus seeks to develop a distinctively processual framework to help security scholars de-essentialise cybersecurity discourses, instead arguing that cybersecurity is best approached as a culturally and temporally contingent concept. Rather than a singular object then, what cybersecurity is emerges at the point of boundary work that emphasises different boundaries and characteristics at different times, depending upon the position of the speakers and the resources they can assemble to stabilise their claims.
Date of Award24 Jun 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorJohn R Downer (Supervisor)


  • cybersecurity
  • boundary work
  • culture
  • imaginaries
  • politics
  • technologies

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