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Variation among Academic
Disciplines: An Update on Analytical
Frameworks and Research
Willis A. Jones
University of Kentucky
Abstract: As the number of subjects taught at American colleges and
universities has continued to increase, many scholars have examined
how the academic practices and experiences of faculty differ across
scholarly disciplines. Since the publication of Braxton and Hargens’
1996 book chapter, however, this research has not been
comprehensively reviewed. This paper examines research on the
impact of academic disciplines on college and university faculty
published after 1996. The findings of this review suggest that while
there is much that is currently known about differences among
academic disciplines, there remains a need for increased scholarship
in this area.
Scholarly research on the professoriate has yielded significant evidence
that two factors compose the primary means by which differences among
American academics are created and reinforced (Clark, 1997; Light,
1974). The first, institutional type, is a manifestation of America’s
inordinately large, uniquely competitive system of higher education
(Clark, 1997). American faculty are dispersed among over 5,000
institutions of higher education. Some are public and some are private,
some are research universities, while others are liberal arts colleges, and
many are for-profit colleges while many more are non-profit institutions.
Institutional diversity is also evident by categories such as Historically
Black College and Universities, women’s colleges, fundamentalist
colleges, and catholic colleges (Clark, 1997).
Of no less importance in the differentiation within the academic
profession are academic disciplines. Before the beginning of the 1850s,
Willis A. Jones is an Assistant Professor in the Educational Policy Studies and
Evaluation Department at the University of Kentucky.

Copyright © 2011 by The Journal of the Professoriate, an affiliate of the Center for
African American Research and Policy. All Rights Reserved (ISSN 1556-7699)
Journal of the Professoriate (6)1 10
most American institutions of higher learning offered classes in only a
few basic academic disciplines such as mathematics, classical languages,
and philosophy (Braxton & Hargens, 1996). Today, institutions such as
the University of Texas at Austin and the University of California at Los
Angeles (UCLA) offer courses in over 170 fields of study including pre-
athletic training, interior design, and dance.
Differences in the academic profession attributable to differences among
academic disciplines are the focus of this article. As the number of
subjects taught at American colleges and universities has continued to
increase, many scholars have examined how the academic practices and
the experiences of faculty differ across scholarly disciplines. One of the
first comprehensive surveys of this research was performed by John M.
Braxton and Lowell L. Hargens in their 1996 book chapter titled
Variation among Academic Disciplines: Analytical Frameworks and
Research. In this chapter, Braxton and Hargens reviewed a diverse body
of research on both the development of frameworks for classifying
academic disciplines and the observed differences between various
academic fields in such areas as journal acceptance rates, research
productivity, and faculty beliefs about general education requirements.
The findings of this review lead Braxton and Hargens to conclude that
“the differences among academic disciplines are profound and extensive”
(Braxton & Hargens, 1996, p. 35). Since the publication of this book
chapter, however, many additional studies have examined variation
among academic disciplines. This proliferation of new research has
created a need to update the work of Braxton and Hargens.
In this paper, I summarize research published after 1996 which examines
variation in academic disciplines. I begin by reviewing research on the
conceptualization of academic disciplines in an attempt to uncover
whether new frameworks for studying differences in academic
disciplines have developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The second
section of this paper reviews recent empirical assessments of academic
disciplines. This section reviews the findings of studies published after
1996 which have examined disciplinary differences in areas such as
teaching methodologies, disciplinary structure, and the experiences of
scholars. The paper concludes with a summary of the findings and
recommendations for future research on academic disciplines.
Variation among Academic Disciplines/Jones 11
Recent Frameworks for Classifying Academic
Disciplines
Of the eleven academic discipline classification schemes detailed by
Braxton and Hargens (1996), five were found to have received the most
empirical attention: the Hagstrom (1964) model based on the idea of
disciplinary consensus, the Hargens (1975) model based on normative
and functional integration, the Zuckerman and Merton model based on
disciplinary codification, the Lodahl and Gordon (1972) model based on
levels of paradigm development, and the Biglan (1973) model based on
the hard/soft, pure/applied, and life/non-life distinction (Braxton &
Hargens, 1996). Each of these classification schemes, all of which
developed outside of the higher education research community, is based
upon the notion that individual fields of study have different levels of
paradigmatic development based on their level of consensus. High
paradigmatic fields have high levels of agreement among their
practitioners with regard to issues such as appropriate research topics and
methods (Braxton & Hargens, 1996). Low paradigmatic fields, on the
other hand, exhibit less agreement with regard to the appropriate research
questions for their field and even less agreement on the appropriate
methodology for addressing these questions (Alise, 2007; Braxton &
Hargens, 1996; Kuhn, 1962, 1970).
Since 1996, only one other significant attempt to classify academic
disciplines has been introduced within the higher education community.
This classification attempt, however, is not a “new” typology but rather a
reintroduction an earlier schema which had not yet found its way into the
higher education literature at the time of the Braxton and Hargens (1996)
study. This classification system was introduced by John Smart and his
colleagues and is based on the Holland Theory of Occupational
Classification (Smart, Feldman & Ethington, 2000). The Holland theory
is a personality-based career development framework which proposes
that individuals at the time of their occupational choice have various
skills and abilities due to their inherited characteristics and their
environmental circumstances. These skills and abilities can be used to
classify individuals into six personality types: Realistic, Investigative,
Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional. Individuals of different
personality types are better equipped to deal with certain occupational
environments (Holland, 1973, 1997). As individuals begin the process of
choosing an occupation, Holland proposes that he/she will search out
Journal of the Professoriate (6)1 12
those occupational environments which best fit with their personality.
For example, an individual who is very practically-oriented, enjoys
physical, hands-on activities, and works well with tools (i.e., the realistic
personality type) will seek occupations where these skills are valuable,
such as farmer or carpenter. On the other hand, an individual who is very
creative, individualistic, and enjoys somewhat chaotic environments (i.e.,
the artistic personality type) is likely to seek occupations such as
musician, actor, or interior designer.
Smart et al. (2000) used Holland’s framework as the foundation for their
classification of academic disciplines. They did this by classifying
various academic disciplines using the Educational Opportunities Finder
(Rosen, Holmberg & Holland, 1994). Table 1 provides the results of this
classification.
Table 1
Academic Disciplines by Holland Types
Type Academic Disciplines
Investigative Biology and life sciences, economics, geography,
math/statistics, physical sciences, finance, aeronautical
engineering, civil engineering, chemical engineering,
astronomy, earth science, pharmacy, anthropology, ethnic
studies, geography, and sociology
ArtisticArchitecture, fine arts (art, drama, music), foreign
languages, English, music, speech, theater, and
environmental design
SocialEthnic studies, home economics, humanities (history,
philosophy, religion, rhetoric), library science, physical
and health education, psychology, social sciences
(anthropology, political science, social work), education
EnterprisingBusiness, communications, computer/information
science, law, public affairs, journalism, marketing,
industrial engineering,
Source: (Holland, 1973, 1997); Smart et al. (2000)
Variation among Academic Disciplines/Jones 13
One of the first things one notices about this chart is the fact that two of
the original categories of the Holland classification scheme are missing.
This is because Smart et al. excluded the realistic and conventional
categories due to the fact that very few college students and faculty fit
into these categories. Smart et al. also postulate that many academic
disciplines have a primary category and a secondary category. A field
such as ethnic studies, for example is primarily a social field, but also has
qualities of an investigative field.
Recent Findings Regarding Disciplinary Differences
Though there has only been one major classification scheme introduced
since 1996, research on the differences among academic disciplines has
been plentiful. The vast majority of this work has used either the Smart at
al. (2000) theory of disciplinary classification or the Biglan (1973) model
of disciplinary classification. This section will review the findings of this
research.
Research using the Holland Classification Scheme
The Socialization Hypothesis
Research on college faculty using the Holland classification scheme is
based primarily on the idea that “faculty create academic environments
inclined to require, reinforce, and reward the distinctive patterns of
abilities and interests of students in a manner consistent with Holland’s
theory” (Smart et al. 2000, p. 96). This socialization hypothesis has been
the basis for several recent studies on the professoriate. Using an analysis
of variance methodology on data from the 1986 and 1990 surveys of the
Cooperative Institutional Research Program out of UCLA, Smart et al.
(2000) found that “faculty members in different clusters of academic
disciplines create distinctly different academic environments as a
consequence of their preference for alternative goals for undergraduate
education, their emphasis on alternative teaching goals and student
competencies in their respective classes, and their reliance on different
approaches to classroom instruction and ways of interacting with
students inside and outside their classes” (p. 238). Specifically, faculty in
each disciplinary category create academic environments in a manner
consistent with Holland’s theory. Faculty in artistic and investigative
environments are more successful at socializing their students to the
goals and ideals of their academic disciplines in comparison to faculty in
Journal of the Professoriate (6)1 14
social and enterprising fields (Smart et al., 2000). These findings lead
Smart et al. (2000) to conclude that the socialization assumption of the
Holland theory was supported.
Smart and Thompson (2001) provide further evidence in support of the
socialization assumption of the Holland classification scheme. These
researchers, using a 4 x 2 MANOVA methodology on data collected
from 587 full-time faculty at a single doctorial-granting university,
examined the relative emphasis faculty members in Investigative,
Artistic, Social, and Enterprising academic environments placed on the
development of alternative student competencies in their classes. Their
findings showed that faculty in each of the four academic environments
reinforced and rewarded students for the development of skills viewed as
ideal for their respective academic environment while not emphasizing
the development of other skills deemed not necessary for their academic
discipline. For example, faculty in Investigative environments placed
greater emphasis on students’ development of such investigative
competencies as analytical abilities, mathematical skills, and scientific
abilities while at the same providing few rewards for students’
acquisition of “enterprising” competencies such as leadership and
managerial skills, and persuasive abilities.
This discipline-specific socialization process has also been found to take
place with faculty at the graduate level. Using data from interviews with
24 faculty members with graduate student teaching responsibilities,
Thompson (2003) explored professional socialization processes and
methods in each of the four disciplinary fields described by Holland
(2000).The findings of this study suggested that through interactions with
faculty members “graduate students are encouraged, reinforced, and
rewarded for their display of attributes salient to the academic discipline,
and thus academic environment” (Thompson, 2003, p. 428). Thompson
suggest that this occurs through environmental demands which stimulate
graduate students to perform the preferred activities of the academic
environment, encourage students to see themselves in ways consistent
with the preferred values of the academic environment, and reward
students for the display of the preferred values of the academic
environment (Thompson, 2003). These findings lead Thompson to agree
with Smart et al. (2000) that Holland’s typology is a salient method for
understanding interdisciplinary differences.
Variation among Academic Disciplines/Jones 15
Teaching beliefs and practices. The Holland classification
scheme has also been used to examine differences in the teaching
practices of faculty. Many of these studies have found evidence that
faculty in different academic disciplines employ significantly different
educational practices in the classroom (Umbach, 2006). Smart and Mach
(2007) examined disciplinary differences in teaching practices by
examining how faculty in various disciplines designed and structured
their undergraduate courses. Using MANOVA on data from over 14,000
faculty members, the researchers were able to find substantial differences
in the manner by which faculty in each of the four academic
environments structured and designed courses. For example, faculty in
Investigative fields placed greater emphasis on “analyzing data” as
opposed to faculty in the three other disciplinary categories who placed
greater emphasis on “understanding people”. In addition, faculty in
Enterprising academic disciples tended to structure their courses to
emphasis student acquisition of “career and communication skills” which
is different than faculty in the other three disciplines who tended to
emphasis students’ ability to understand themselves and people from
other backgrounds (Smart & Umbach, 2007).
Using hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) on a sample of over 13,000
faculty at 134 colleges and universities, Mach (2006) also found
evidence of differences in teaching practices among faculty in different
academic disciplines. Specifically, Umbach found that faculty in
Realistic fields are more likely than faculty in other fields to use active
and collaborative techniques in their instruction. Faculty in Realistic
fields were significantly more likely to emphasize higher order cognitive
activities in their classes in comparison to faculty in other fields. Finally,
Umbach found that faculty in Social disciplines used diversity-related
activities in their classes more than faculty in other disciplines.
More recently, Smart et al. (2009) examined the extent to which faculty
in academic environments based on the Holland classification
emphasized different student learning outcomes in their classrooms. This
study found that faculty in different academic fields emphasize different
student learning outcomes. For example, the study found that faculty in
Investigative environments place a much stronger emphasis on analyzing
quantitative problems in comparison to their colleagues in the three other
environments.
Journal of the Professoriate (6)1 16
Departmental functioning and leadership. A different aspect
of academic disciplinary differences was studied by Hearn and Anderson
(2002) in their examination of departmental conflicts over promotion and
tenure. Using the Holland classification typology, they were able to find
evidence that faculty disputes with regard to promotion and tenure are
somewhat a function of the academic environment. With regard to
departmental tenure votes, Hearn and Anderson found that social
departments had the most very split votes with a rate of 20%. Realistic
disciplines, with only a 6% rate, had the lowest number of very split
tenure decisions while investigative disciplines had a very split vote rate
of 9%. These findings led the researchers to conclude that the Smart et
al. classification typology offers useful insight into variations in
departmental functioning.
Biglan (1973) Classification Scheme
Though the Smart et al. (2000) typology has been a popular theoretical
foundation for studying academic differences, the Biglan(1973) model
has been the most used classification scheme in examining differences
among academic disciplines since 1996. The Biglan classification
scheme, as mentioned earlier, is based on the idea that academic
disciplines vary in their level of consensus. Using multidimensional
scaling analysis in 1973, Biglan found that faculty similarities with
regard to various attitudes and behaviors could be summarized along
three dimensions; the hard/soft dimension, the applied/pure dimension,
and the life/nonlife dimension. The strongest of these dimensions, the
hard/soft dimension, is based on the level of paradigmatic development
within a field. Disciplines with high paradigmatic development such as
chemistry, physics, and engineering are classified as hard disciplines
while disciplines with lower levels of paradigmatic development such as
sociology, history, and educational administration are soft disciplines.
The other dimensions, applied/pure and life/non life, are based on the
applicability of the scholarship engaged in and the level to which
scholarship in a given field involves the study of life.
Variation among Academic Disciplines/Jones 17
Teaching beliefs and practices. Braxton, Olsen, and Simmons
(1998) used the Biglan classification scheme to examine disciplinary
differences in the use of Chickering and Gamson’s (1991) seven
principles of good practice in undergraduate education by faculty. Using
hierarchical multiple regression, they found that faculty in soft fields are
no more likely than faculty in hard fields to provide prompt feedback,
encourage cooperation among students, and emphasis time on task. On
the other hand, faculty in soft fields were found to be more likely to use
active learning techniques, value diversity, have contact with students,
and have higher expectations of students.
Colbeck (1998) also looked a differences in teaching practices among
disciplines using the Biglan model. Using data on English and Physics
professors from two public 4-year universities, Colbeck examined the
extent to which faculty in soft and hard disciplines integrated research
into other areas of their job. Her findings suggest that though faculty in
both hard and soft sciences often attempted to integrate their research
into other aspects of their work, it was often done somewhat differently.
Faculty in physics were more likely to integrate their research into their
training of students in how to conduct research. English faculty,
however, were more likely to integrate research into their classroom
teaching.
Barnes et al. (2001) conducted an extensive study on differences in
faculty attitudes about teaching goals and grading among disciplines.
Using both descriptive statistics and regression analysis, their findings
suggested that faculty in hard fields were more likely than faculty in soft
fields to see grades as serving a gate keeping function, a finding which
the authors claimed was consistent with the fact that hard fields generally
have a more codified body of knowledge that students are expected to
master (Barnes et al., 2001). Faculty in hard fields were also more likely
than faculty in soft fields to select “subject matter facts and principles” as
their primary teaching goal. Faculty in soft fields were more likely to
select “student development” as their primary teaching goal. These
findings provide more support to the idea that faculty in different fields
tend to have different beliefs about teaching and the usefulness of
grading (Barnes et al., 2001).
Faculty beliefs about teaching and learning were also the focus of Nelson
Laird, Schwartz, Kuh, and Shoup’s (2006) study. In their study of faculty
at 109 American colleges and universities, Nelson Laird et al. examined
Journal of the Professoriate (6)1 18
disciplinary differences in faculty’s emphasis on the use of deep
learning1. The findings of the study indicate that faculty in soft
disciplines such as education, the humanities, and the social sciences
emphasized deep learning more than their colleagues in the hard
disciplines.
Braxton and Boyer (1999) in their book titled Faculty Misconduct in
Collegiate Teaching found that disciplinary differences may even have
an impact on beliefs about faculty norms. While moral turpitude and lack
of attention to course planning were inviolable norms across disciplines,
five norms, including condescending negativism and disrespect for the
needs of students and faculty, were found to differentiate by discipline.
Kidwell and Kidwell (2008) also found disciplinary differences to play a
role in faculty ethical behavior. Using data from faculty in 89 business
schools across the US, the authors found that faculty in quantitative (high
paradigmatic) business disciplines were more likely to view activities
such as showing controversial media and bringing up racially or sexually
charged matters as less ethical than their counterparts in qualitative (low
paradigmatic) business disciplines.
While each of the aforementioned studies provided evidence that
academic disciplines have a strong influence on faculty beliefs and
practices, there is some evidence questioning the relative strength of this
influence. Lee (2007) used data from the Cooperative Institutional
Research Program on over 4,000 academic departments to examine the
relative impact of institutional culture and academic disciplines on
departmental culture. Her findings offer support for the notion that
academic disciplines are influential in faculty beliefs and behaviors while
also providing evidence that institutional culture may have more of an
impact on faculty ideals than academic disciplines. While Lee found that
the academic discipline was a relative more powerful influence on a
department’s instrumental orientation and multicultural orientation, the
overall departmental culture with regard to areas such as prestige
1 Deep learning is defined by the authors of this study as a personal commitment
to understand the material which is reflected in using various strategies such as
reading widely, combining a variety of resources, discussion ideas with others,
reflecting on how individual pieces of information relate to larger constructs or
patterns, and applying knowledge in real world situations (Biggs, 1989).
Variation among Academic Disciplines/Jones 19
orientation, student centeredness, and collegiality were more influenced
by institutional characteristics than academic disciplines. These findings
call into question the relative strength of the influence of academic
disciplines on faculty attitudes and behaviors.
Departmental Functioning and Leadership. Scholars have
also used the Biglan model to examine disciplinary differences in areas
other than faculty teaching. Hearn and Anderson (2002) found that
faculty disputes over promotion and tenure were more likely to occur in
soft fields as opposed to hard fields of study. In examining the impact of
academic disciplines on faculty turnover, Xu (2008) found that female
scholars in hard, pure, life fields of study had much stronger intentions
on leaving their current position than female scholars in other fields.
Asian-American faculty were found to have much stronger turnover
potential than White faculty in hard, pure fields while African American
faculty in hard, applied fields had stronger intention of leaving their
current position than White faculty. Other interesting findings from this
study include the fact that workload and productivity measures affected
faculty turnover differently based on the disciplinary classification and
that evaluation of environmental support from other faculty had a
differential impact on intent to leave an institution (Xu, 2008). The
findings of Xu, however, were somewhat contradictory to the work of
Barnes, Agago, and Coombs (1998). In their study of faculty stress and
its impact on intentions to leave academia, the researchers found that
disciplinary differences only account for around two percent of the
variance in faculty intention to leave. These findings led the researchers
to conclude that disciplinary differences have little impact on faculty
decisions to leave the profession (Barnes et al., 1998).
Del Fevero (2006) looked at the relationship between academic
disciplines and the administrative behavior of academic deans. Her
findings indicate that “the effects of discipline cannot be discounted in
framing studies of administrators’ perceptions of their leadership context
and the behavior which necessarily flows from those perceptions” (p. 1).
For example, Del Fevero found that a dean’s association with an applied
field of study had a positive influence on the dean’s reported engagement
in multi-frame behaviors. For deans in pure and high consensus (hard)
fields, individual work and organizational contexts appeared to exert
more homogeneous forces on the administrative work context. Also,
Journal of the Professoriate (6)1 20
deans in pure fields reported relying more on trial‐and‐error than deans
from applied fields.
Academic leadership was also the focus of Kekale’s (1999) qualitative
study of disciplinary differences among college and university faculty. In
this paper, faculty from several academic fields were asked their
preference with regard to academic leadership. In soft fields, scholars
typically preferred more democratic and collegial academic leadership.
Faculty in soft fields also tended to dislike “efficient, hard results-
oriented” (p. 233) management due to their belief that it was unfair and
undemocratic. Faculty in hard fields, however, preferred a leadership
style where decisions were based on measurability and linear thinking.
These findings were consistent with the characteristics typically
associated with soft and hard academic disciplines.
Research practices employed. In his doctoral dissertation, Alise
(2007) looked for differences between academic disciplines with regard
to preferred research methods. His study provides evidence that pure
fields are more likely to publish studies using quantitative methods than
applied fields while applied fields are more likely to publish research
using qualitative and mixed methods than pure fields.
Evidence from Non-American Institutions
Many scholars who have examined variation among academic disciplines
have used non-American university settings for their study. Ballantyne,
Bain, and Packer (1999) examined teaching practices at Australian
universities and found some predictable variation in teaching styles
based on academic disciplines. While the lecture method was the
dominate mode of teaching across disciplines, Ballantyne et al. found
evidence that faculty in soft disciplines spent most of their teaching time
either lecturing or leading tutorials as compared to faculty in hard
disciplines who often used “practical sessions” as their primary teaching
technique. Ballantyne et al. also found that faculty in hard fields used
computer based teaching techniques much more than faculty in soft
fields while faculty in soft fields used cooperative/collaborative learning
techniques more than faculty in hard fields. Neither of these are
unexpected findings given what is known about the nature of hard and
soft disciplines.
Variation among Academic Disciplines/Jones 21
In a case study of four academic departments in one Finnish university,
Ylijoki (2000) examined how academic disciplines effected the core
beliefs, values, and norms of an academic department. The findings of
this study indicate that differences in departmental professional
orientation, reference point of study, professional aims, and primary
activities can be understood on the basis of the discipline’s position in
Biglan’s hard-soft and pure-applied paradigm. This study also found that
these differences among disciplinary fields can have distinct meanings
for students with regard to their beliefs about the virtues and vices of
studying.
A third study that has used data on faculty at non-American universities
is Norton et al.’s (2005) study of teaching beliefs and intentions. In this
study of 697 faculty at four institutions of higher education in the United
Kingdom, it was found that faculty in different disciplines significantly
differed with regard to their teaching intentions. These differences,
according to the authors of the study, are largely a result of differences in
teachers’ conceptions of teaching. For example, Norton et al. found that
hard discipline faculty produced significantly lower scores than soft
discipline faculty on belief in using interactive teaching techniques, but
significantly higher scores than soft discipline faculty on belief in
training students for jobs.
Conclusions and Recommendation
The goal of this study was to provide a comprehensive review of
research addressing differences among academic disciplines with regard
to the university faculty. Though efforts were made to ensure the
comprehensiveness of this review through the examination of publication
databases such as the Social Science Citation Index, ERIC, WilsonWeb,
and Google Scholar, it is possible that not every piece of research written
on differences among academic disciplines has been reviewed in this
paper. It is believed, however, that this paper offers a complete overview
of this research and provides the reader with a thorough synopsis of
current knowledge in this area of inquiry.
One of the most interesting findings of this literature review is the fact
that little effort appears to have been made to classify academic
disciplines since the early efforts reviewed by Braxton and Hargens in
1996. A possible explanation of this could be the fact that the
Journal of the Professoriate (6)1 22
classification schemes created prior to 1996 have been sufficiently
accepted by the higher education community and scholars see no need to
modify them. While the research presented here would appear to indicate
that this is the case, further research addressing this question should be
conducted.
A second finding of this research is similar to the conclusions of Braxton
and Hargens (1996) in that there are substantial differences among
academic disciplines in a number of areas with regard to the faculty. This
review found disciplinary differences to have a substantial impact in
areas such as faculty socialization, faculty teaching beliefs and activities,
departmental functioning, preferred research practices, faculty
satisfaction, and academic leadership styles. More specifically, faculty in
soft disciples have been found to be more orientated towards teaching
then faculty in hard fields as evidence by the fact that faculty in soft
disciplines are more likely to employ principles of good practice in their
classroom teaching, integrate research into classroom teaching, and
emphasis deep learning in their classroom teaching. In addition, faculty
in hard disciplines have fewer disputes with regard to tenure decisions,
are more likely to change institutions, and prefer a leadership style where
decisions were based on measurability and linear thinking. These results
provide addition credence to the idea that any study of university faculty
must take into account differences among academic disciplines.
These outcomes, however, should continue to be explored as part of a
research agenda that studies various elements of academic disciplines. As
noted in the work of Lee (2007) and Barnes et al. (1998), there is some
question as to the relative influence of academic disciplines in relation to
other mechanisms that could account for different behavior among
faculty (such as institutional characteristics). This question should
continue to be explored. In addition, Del Fevero’s (2006) work on how
academic disciplines influence the behavior of administrators should be
expanded to focus on upper level administrators such as vice-
chancellors/vice presidents and chancellors/presidents. Given the
socialization assumption that permeates work on academic disciplines, it
would be interesting to examine whether the behavior, beliefs, or ideals
of upper level college and university management can be attributed in
part to the type of educational environment a university executive was
educated in.
Variation among Academic Disciplines/Jones 23
Research on academic disciplines should also employ newer, more
advanced research methodologies. In particular, it would be interesting if
researchers began using hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) to
determine what portion of attitudinal or behavior differences among
faculty members can be attributed to the discipline and what proportion
can be attributed to other factors such as institutional differences. As
noted, it has been widely accepted in literature on faculty behavior that
two very important factors in understanding and studying the college
faculty are institutional type and discipline type. Very few studies,
however, have employed a methodology which addressed both of these
factors. HLM could be a way at doing this.
Future research on academic disciplines should also look to examine
differences in faculty behavior within disciplines. For example, within
the field of history there are several subfields such as American history,
European history, African American history, etc. The assumption of most
classification models is that faculty within these sub-disciplines have
very similar values and attitudes. This, however, might not always be the
case. Unfortunately, not enough research on intra-disciplinary
differences has been conducted by the higher education community.
These questions should become part of the research agenda on academic
disciplines.
Overall, while there is much that we already know about differences
among academic disciplines, there remains much we do not know about
these differences. As a result, there remain several areas of inquiry for
future scholars. This research should continue to focus on the outcomes
mentioned earlier as well as incorporate newer outcomes yet to be
studied. As researchers continue to grapple with these difficult questions,
the higher education community will benefit from a more complete
understanding of faculty and how variations in academic disciplines can
account for substantial difference within academia.
Journal of the Professoriate (6)1 24
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What are Academic Disciplines?

Some observations on the Disciplinarity vs.
Interdisciplinarity debate
ESRC National Centre for Research Methods

NCRM Working Paper Series

03/09

Dr Armin Krishnan

University of Southampton
National Centre for Research Methods

January 2009

What Are Academic Disciplines?
Some Observations on the Disciplinarity vs. Interdisciplinarity Debate

Working Paper

Disciplines and Interdisciplinarity

Armin Krishnan
University of Southampton
National Centre for Research Methods
January 2009
What Are Academic Disciplines?
2

Content

INTRODUCTION ……………………………………………………………………………………..4
THE PROBLEM OF DEFINING DISCIPLINES …………………………………………….7
1. THE PHILOSOPHICAL PERSPECTIVE: UNITY AND PLURALITY ………. 12
2. THE ANTHROPOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE: CULTURE AND TRIBES …. 20
3. THE SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE: PROFESSIONALIZATION AND
DIVISION OF LABOUR ………………………………………………………………………….. 25
4. THE HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: EVOLUTION AND DISCONTINUITY 31
5. THE MANAGEMENT PERSPECTIVE: MARKET AND ORGANISATION.. 36
7. SURVIVAL STRATEGIES FOR DISCIPLINES……………………………………. 47
BIBLIOGRAPHY …………………………………………………………………………………… 52

What Are Academic Disciplines?
3

Acknowledgements

This working paper has been written in the context of preparing the ground for
other ongoing research projects on interdisciplinarity and research methods that
are being carried out by members of the National Centre for Research Methods
at the University of Southampton. The author is grateful to Graham Crow, Rose
Wiles and Nick Bardsley for showing so much patience and for offering
invaluable support and constructive criticism on the various drafts of this working
paper. Any errors remaining are, of course, my own fault.

What Are Academic Disciplines?
4

Introduction

Interdisciplinarity has become a buzzword in scientific debates and it has been
identified by many research funding organisations in Europe and the United
States as the desirable direction towards which the social sciences should
develop themselves, both in terms of teaching and research. For example, Joyce
Tait and Catherine Lyall1 and Anthony Forster2, all of them writing on behalf of
the ESRC, are very outspoken of the idea of interdisciplinarity and their reports
on interdisciplinary research in the UK detail ways of promoting the idea across
the social sciences. These and many similar reports in other countries usually
take it for granted that ‘interdisciplinarity’ is a good thing and needs to be
encouraged and promoted wherever possible.3
The new interdisciplinarians sometimes point at the problem that
academic work generally happens within narrow and possibly arbitrary or artificial
disciplinary boundaries, which sometimes prevents academics seeing the close
connections of different phenomena and also of the different disciplines. For
example, there is the argument that complex discipline-transgressing phenomena
are irreducible and that they cannot be understood adequately by using
reductionist disciplinary approaches. 4Furthermore, the prevalent tendency in
most disciplines of increasingly narrow and deep specialisation would make
research less relevant to outsiders or society, would foster insularity and
imperialism rooted in partial and ideological thinking, would hinder the exchange

1 Joyce Tait and Catherine Lyall (2001), ‘Investigation Into ESRC Funded Interdisciplinary
Research’, Final Report, SUPRA.
2Anthony Forster (2003), ‘Report Into the ESRC’s Promotion of Successful Interdisciplinary
Research’, ESRC, Research Evaluation Committee.
3 Elizabeth Shove and Paul Wouters (2005), ‘Interactive Agenda Setting in the Social Sciences –
Interdisciplinarity’, IASS.
4 William H. Newell (2001), ‘A Theory of Interdisciplinary Studies’, Issues in Integrative Studies 19,
p. 2; Julie Thompson Klein (2004), ‘Interdisciplinarity and Complexity: An Evolving Relationship’,
E:CO 6:1-2, p. 4
What Are Academic Disciplines?
5
of ideas across disciplines and would ultimately impede the progress of science.5
According to this new orthodoxy, scientists should aim to develop fruitful
relationships to other disciplines than their own and perhaps even to transcend
disciplinary thinking altogether.
At the same time, practising interdisciplinarity is notoriously fraught with
difficulties. As Julie Thompson Klein puts it, ‘[i]nterdisciplinarity is on everyone’s
agenda; actually implementing it in institutional settings is a more difficult
proposition’.6It appears that a key problem with the ‘interdisciplinarity’ debate is
that it is not quite clear how ‘disciplinarity’ is understood.7 For example, John
Aram, argues that “[r]ecognizing ambiguities in the concept of ‘discipline’
foreshadows the challenge of defining interdisciplinarity. Where elements are
relatively stable, integrated and autonomous, interaction may be more easily
perceived and defined”.8 This is obviously not the case with disciplines, which
continuously change, which are themselves fragmented and heterogeneous, and
which interact with other disciplines in many complex ways.
The concept of interdisciplinarity also raises some interesting questions
related to the future of science. For example: are disciplines a necessary or an
obsolete feature of science?; can the borders of disciplines be redrawn easily or
are they of a more permanent nature?; should the boundaries not only between
the disciplines, but also between science and society be transformed? In short, in
what way should interdisciplinarity change the disciplines involved and the social
sciences at large? As the following discussion will show, there are many different
possibilities for understanding disciplines and disciplinarity and any particular
conception of disciplinarity will lead to rather different conclusions concerning the

5 J. Rogers Hollingsworths (1986), ‘The Decline of Scientific Communication Within and Across
Academic Disciplines’, Policy Studies Journal 14:3 (March), pp. 422-428; Sayer, Andrew (2001),
‘For Postdisciplinary Studies: Sociology and the Curse of Disciplinary Parochialism/Imperialism’,
in: J. Eldridge, J. McInnes, S. Scott, C. Warhurst and A. Witz (eds), For Sociology: Legacy and
Prospects, Durham: Sociologypress, pp. 83-91.
6 Julie Thompson Klein (1996), Crossing Boundaries/Knowledge, Disciplinarities, and
Interdisciplinarities, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, p. 209.
7 Julie Thompson Klein (2005), Humanities, Culture and Interdisciplinarity/The Changing
American Academy, New York: State University of New York Press, p. 219.
8 John Aram (2004), ‘Concepts of Interdisciplinarity: Configurations of Knowledge and Action’,
Human Relations 57:4, p. 381.

What Are Academic Disciplines?
6
value of disciplines and the practicality or possibility of interdisciplinarity and the
general direction of the social sciences.
Although the idea of ‘interdisciplinarity’ is certainly a very compelling one, it
also appears that the term is so loosely and insufficiently defined as to make it
almost meaningless. Mattei Dogan and Robert Pahre therefore suggest to banish
the term altogether. 9Interdisciplinarity is now made up by a range of very
different concepts like crossdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, supradisciplinarity or
transdisciplinarity, which are often talked about as if they were just one. Even if
there is agreement on the terms, it still remains unclear what is to be
accomplished. Furthermore, what would a social scientist have to do to in order
to be called interdisciplinary: get funding from more than one research council?;
collaborate with people in the natural sciences or perhaps just with other social
scientists of a different specialisation?; or merely read some books outside the
own discipline? Would it be even possible not to be interdisciplinary in some form
or way, or are there any obvious criteria for what exactly distinguishes
interdisciplinary research from disciplinary research?
The most general definition of ‘interidsciplinarity’ as proposed by Joe Moran
is: ‘any form of dialogue or interaction between two or more disciplines’,10 which
is very vague. At least it captures what most people have in mind when they hear
‘interdisciplinarity’, which is essentially that interdisciplinarity means crossing
disciplinary boundaries. However, in order to be able to cross a boundary there
need to be boundaries in the first place and one needs to know where these
boundaries are. 11In other words, the main problem with the notion of
‘interdisciplinarity’ seems to be that many people who use it do not make explicit
what exactly they understand under a discipline or when exactly a disciplinary
boundary is crossed with what kind of consequence. This means any useful
definition of interdisciplinarity would thus require a workable definition of
academic disciplines first, which is certainly not easy. Simply listing recognised

9 Mattei Dogan and Robert Pahre (1990), Creative Marginality/Innovation at the Intersections of
Social Science, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, p. 65.
10 Joe Moran (2001), Interdisciplinarity: The New Critical Idiom, London: Routledge, p. 16.
11 Lynda Hunt (1994), ‘The Virtues of Disciplinarity’, Eighteenth Century Studies 28:1, pp. 1-7.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
7
disciplines is not a solution, as the number of disciplines changes over time. This
fact would require some explanation why a field of academic study can or might
not be labelled a ‘discipline’ and how one has arrived at a particular list.
This paper will look at disciplines and disciplinarity through the lenses of
certain academic disciplines including philosophy, anthropology, sociology,
history, management and education. These different perspectives shall be
considered as ‘ideal types’ and not as ‘official’ views by the respective disciplines
or any particular members of these disciplines. Rather it is assumed that the
disciplines just provide some general patterns or paradigms for analysis, which
are applied to the phenomenon of academic disciplines. It will then become quite
apparent that they have many dimensions and layers, which are usually not
sufficiently explored and distinguished in the interdisciplinarity debate. By paying
more attention to these multiple dimensions and the complexity of disciplinarity,
the arguments and positions may be better discernable and a better
understanding of the debate on interdisciplinarity may be gained from it.

The Problem of Defining Disciplines
It has been pointed out by many researchers of higher education that the concept
of a discipline is not a straightforward one.12 The disciplines are so different from
each other that it is hard to come up with a concise definition that would fit all of
them to the same degree. A ‘discipline’ can be many things at the same time and
it is worthwhile to look closely at the various meanings of the word. Therefore
many academic investigations of the concept of ‘disciplinarity’ start off with an
exploration of the etymology of the word discipline.13 This seems to be a useful

12 Tony Becher and Paul R. Trowler (2001), Academic Tribes and Territories, Buckingham: The
Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, p. 41.
13 E.g. Bryan Turner (2001), ‘Discipline’, Theory, Culture and Society 23, pp. 183-186; Joe Moran
(2002), Interdisciplinarity: The New Critical Idiom, London: Routledge, p. 2; Julie Thompson Klein
(2006), ‘A Platform for a Shared Discourse for Interdisciplinary Education’, Journal of Social
Science Education 5:2, pp. 10-18; J.M. Balkin (1996), ‘Interdisciplinarity as Colonization’,
Washington and Lee Law Review 949; Marietta Del Favero (2002), ‘Academic Disciplines’,
Encyclopaedia of Education.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
8
exercise as the word has clearly retained a strong connection to its etymological
roots.
The term ‘discipline’ originates from the Latin words discipulus, which
means pupil, and disciplina, which means teaching (noun). Related to it is also
the word ‘disciple’ as in the disciples of Jesus.14 A dictionary definition will give a
whole range of quite different meanings of the term from training to submission to
an authority to the control and self-control of behaviour.15 As a verb it means
training someone to follow a rigorous set of instructions, but also punishing and
enforcing obedience. Important is ‘military discipline’ in the sense of the drill in
the use of weapons and strict obedience to military commands. Bryan Turner has
also pointed at the ecclesiastical meaning, which refers to the order maintained in
the church, and at the medical meaning of ‘discipline’ as a medical regimen
imposed by a doctor on a patient to the patient’s benefit.16 It follows that the
academic discipline can be seen as a form of specific and rigorous scientific
training that will turn out practitioners who have been ‘disciplined by their
discipline’ for their own good. In addition, ‘discipline’ also means policing certain
behaviours or ways of thinking. Individuals who have deviated from their
‘discipline’ can be brought back in line or excluded.
As a result, there is an important moral dimension to ‘discipline’ that defines
how people should behave or think. Michel Foucault has famously interpreted
‘discipline’ as a violent political force and practice that is brought to bear on
individuals for producing ‘docile bodies’ and minds. In this process of disciplining
for the general purpose of economic exploitation and political subjugation the
‘disciplines’ do not remain external to the subject, but become increasingly
internalised.17 Although Foucault uses the term ‘discipline’ in a very general and
also fairly specific sense, it clearly includes the academic disciplines and their
contributions to bringing about ‘discipline’ in society.18 The disciplined individual

14 J.M. Balkin (1996), ‘Interdisciplinarity as Colonization’, Washington and Lee Law Review 949.
15 Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Discipline’, Online Edition, available at ,
accessed 23 February 2009).
16 Bryan Turner (2001), ‘Discipline’, Theory, Culture and Society 23, pp. 183.
17 Michel Foucault (1991), Discipline and Punish/The Birth of the Prison, London: Penguin.
18 Compare Foucault’s work on madness and medicine.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
9
accepts the external rationality and values as one’s own, which means open
repression is no longer needed. For Foucault disciplining is thus a process aimed
at limiting the freedom of individuals and as a way of constraining discourses.19
Disciplines then have to be considered to be considerable barriers to free
thinking and an obstacle to more self-governed subjectivation, which became the
focus of Foucault’s later work.20
The term ‘academic discipline’ certainly incorporates many elements of the
meaning of ‘discipline’ discussed above. At the same time, it has also become a
technical term for the organisation of learning and the systematic production of
new knowledge. Often disciplines are identified with taught subjects, but clearly
not every subject taught at university can be called a discipline. There is more to
disciplines than the fact that something is a subject taught in an academic setting.
In fact, there is a whole list of criteria and characteristics, which indicate whether
a subject is indeed a distinct discipline. A general list of characteristics would
include: 1) disciplines have a particular object of research (e.g. law, society,
politics), though the object of research maybe shared with another discipline; 2)
disciplines have a body of accumulated specialist knowledge referring to their
object of research, which is specific to them and not generally shared with
another discipline; 3) disciplines have theories and concepts that can organise
the accumulated specialist knowledge effectively; 4) disciplines use specific
terminologies or a specific technical language adjusted to their research object;
5) disciplines have developed specific research methods according to their
specific research requirements; and maybe most crucially 6), disciplines must
have some institutional manifestation in the form of subjects taught at universities
or colleges, respective academic departments and professional associations
connected to it. Only through institutionalisation are disciplines able to reproduce
themselves ‘from one generation to the next by means of specific educational

19 David Bridges (2006), ‘The Disciplines and the Discipline of Educational Research’, Journal of
Philosophy of Education 40:2, p. 268.
20 The theme is explored by Foucault in Technologies of the Self. Michel Foucault (1988),
‘Technologies of the Self’, in: L.H. Martin, H. Guttman and P. Miller (eds), Technologies of the
Self, Amhurst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
10
preparation’. 21A new discipline is therefore usually founded by the way of
creating a professorial chair devoted to it at an established university.
Not all disciplines have all of the aforementioned six characteristics. For
example, English literature has the problem that it lacks both a unifying
theoretical paradigm or method and a definable stable object of research, but it
still passes as an academic discipline.22 Generally it can be said that the more of
these boxes a discipline can tick, the more likely it becomes that a certain field of
academic enquiry is a recognised discipline capable of reproducing itself and
building upon a growing body of own scholarship. If a discipline is called ‘studies’,
then it usually indicates that it is of newer origin (post Second World War) and
that it may fall short of one or more of the abovementioned characteristics. This
would be typically lack of theorisation or lack of specific methodologies, which
usually diminishes the status of a field of research. These ‘studies’ disciplines
can either aim at remaining ‘undisciplined’, as women’s studies did in the 1970s,
or they can engage in the process of their disciplinarisation and
institutionalisation.
Furthermore, although there can be no true hierarchy in the world of
science, as each discipline can claim expert knowledge in its own domain, not all
disciplines are created equal. Some disciplines would be considered to be ‘more
useful, more rigorous, more difficult, or more important than others’.23 There are
also tremendous differences between the disciplines with respect to their overall
standing within universities, which can be seen by the number of students and
the amount of research money they can attract and the overall resources that are
allocated to them by universities in terms of teaching personnel, teaching hours,
and equipment. Bigger departments with more staff and more expensive
equipment tend to have greater influence within universities than smaller and less
equipped departments. In the UK this means that vice chancellors are usually

21 Leo Apostel quoted in Sinclair Goodlad (1979), ‘What Is an Academic Discipline?’ in: Roy Cox
(ed.), Cooperation and Choice in Higher Education, London: University of London Teaching
Methods Unit, p. 11.
22 Terry Eagleton (1983), Literary Theory/An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 197-198.
23 Douglas W. Vick (2004), ‘Interdisciplinarity and the Discipline of Law’, Journal of Law and
Society 31:2, p. 172.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
11
recruited from the science and technology disciplines on the grounds of greater
managerial experience. 24In addition, some newer disciplines like IT and
management do quite well because of their great relevance to the business world
and therefore greater attractiveness for students, while other more established
disciplines like literature may have a hard time averting the fate of a slow death.25
The psychologist Anthony Biglan has developed a classification system for
disciplines according to the beliefs held about them by their members, which
seeks to further explain some of the differences between disciplines. It most
generally divides disciplines into ‘hard’ or ‘paradigmatic’ disciplines and ‘soft’ or
‘pre-paradigmatic’ disciplines, which also points at the divide between natural
sciences and humanities/social sciences. 26In addition, Biglan distinguishes
between disciplines that are ‘pure’ or primarily theoretical (e.g. mathematics) and
disciplines that are ‘applied’ (e.g. engineering), and thirdly, disciplines that
engage with ‘living systems’ (e.g. biology) and those with ‘non-living systems’
(e.g. history). Generally speaking, the ‘hard’ natural sciences would be more
respected, natural scientists would be more focused on producing journal articles
and would enjoy a greater degree of social connectedness in their specialist field.
In contrast, the ‘soft’ sciences would be less respected, their practitioners would
be more focused on teaching and publishing monographs and would be far more
loosely connected. The Biglan classification thus combines the epistemological
and the cultural dimension of disciplines and it is still considered to be valid in the
way it ‘culturally’ distinguishes disciplines.27 A similar classification to Biglan’s
has been suggested by the higher education researcher Tony Becher. He

24 Tony Becher (1994), ‘The Significance of Disciplinary Differences’, Studies in Higher Education
19:2, p. 159.
25 Alvin Kernan (1990), The Death of Literature, New Haven: Yale University Press.
26 Anthony Biglan (1973), ‘The Characteristics of Subject Matters in Different Academic Areas’,
Journal of Applied Psychology 57, pp. 195-203.
27 Marlene Schommer-Aikins, Orpha K. Duell and Sue Barker (2003), ‘Epistemological Beliefs
Across Domains Using Biglan’s Classification of Academic Disciplines’, Research in Higher
Education 44:3 (June), pp. 352-353.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
12
introduced the distinction between ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ disciplines, which refers to
the variance in pace in and social cohesion between disciplines.28
Finally, it is quite revealing that a lot of ‘pseudo-militaristic’ and geopolitical
metaphors have been used in the disciplinarity vs. interdisciplinarity debate,
either to justify or to denigrate interdisciplinary research.29 One might think of the
terms ‘borders’, ‘boundaries’, ‘territories’, ‘kingdoms’, ‘fiefdoms’, ‘silos’, ‘empire
building’, ‘federalism’, ‘migration’ and so on. In some of these debates knowledge
is almost treated like a geographic territory over which one can fight and which
can be controlled by ‘disciplinary factions’. In reality, there are lots of overlapping
jurisdictions and constantly shifting and expanding knowledge formations. This
makes the metaphor of ‘knowledge territories’, which implies some stable or
identifiable topography and some sort of zero-sum game over its distribution,
sometimes quite misleading. The geopolitical metaphors are therefore used in
this paper in the conscience that they are only metaphors, but also useful ones
for making the highly abstract concepts of knowledge and disciplines more
tangible. The following sections will now approach disciplinarity from various
paradigmatic angles. The first perspective on disciplines discussed below will be
the philosophical view.

1. The Philosophical Perspective: Unity and Plurality
General Outlook
For a philosopher the question of academic disciplines represents itself as a
problem of the organisation of knowledge and how knowledge relates to reality.
Philosophers ever since Plato have believed that the oneness of the world could
be matched by the unity of knowledge about the world. This means philosophers
often had some inclination of creating a unified theory of reality and knowledge –

28 Tony Becher (1981), ‘Towards a Definition of Disciplinary Cultures’, Studies in Higher
Education 6:2, pp. 109-122; Tony Becher (1994), ‘The Significance of Disciplinary Differences’,
Studies in Higher Education 19:2, pp. 151-161.
29 Graham Huggan (2002), ‘Mixing Disciplines: The Anxiety of Interdisciplinarity’, Postcolonial
Studies 5:3, p. 256.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
13
an inclination that was discredited in the 20th century as metaphysical thinking.
Since Kant philosophy has moved away from metaphysics and instead focused
on the critique of knowledge, or as it is now called on epistemology, which deals
with the problems of the nature of knowledge and of truth. Disciplinarity and
interdisciplinarity are intrinsically connected to the problem of the
correspondence or non-correspondence of knowledge to an objective reality and
the problem of the unity or disunity of all knowledge.
From a more traditional philosophical perspective the academic disciplines
are simply particular branches of knowledge and taken together they form the
whole or unity of knowledge that has been created by the scientific endeavour.
The disciplines would therefore remain compatible to each other and could be in
principle integrated into an overarching theory or system of knowledge. In
Ancient times education and philosophy was interdisciplinary (or rather pre-
disciplinary) in the sense that philosophers did not accept any boundaries or
limitations to the validity of the truths they uncovered by the way of thinking. For
Plato philosophy was a unified science and the philosopher was the person
capable of synthesizing all knowledge.30 Any knowledge above the level of mere
opinion fell automatically into the jurisdiction of philosophy and could be judged
by its own methods. Aristotle was the first to introduce a division of knowledge by
dividing it into theoretical and practical enquiry 31and thus balancing ‘pure’
thinking (rhetoric, logic, mathematics, ethics) with the observation of nature
(physics, astronomy). This first division of ‘philosophical’ knowledge prepared the
way for the uncountable further divisions of knowledge into more and more
specialised fields of science. The unity of knowledge was apparently lost
irreversibly.
In the early 20th century a new philosophical school of thought under the
name ‘logical positivism’ emerged. The logical positivists set out to restore the

30 Klein, Julie Thompson (1990), Interdisciplinarity/History, Theory, and Practice, Detroit: Wayne
State University Press, p. 19; Julie Thompson Klein (2005), Humanities, Culture and
Interdisciplinarity/The Changing American Academy, New York: State University of New York
Press, p. 14.
31 Julie Thompson Klein (2005), Humanities, Culture and Interdisciplinarity/The Changing
American Academy, New York: State University of New York Press, p. 15.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
14
unity of science and knowledge that was undermined by the rapid proliferation of
academic disciplines and research agendas. It originated in Germany and Austria
of the early 1920s and was for many decades the dominant strand in the
philosophy of science, which it firmly established as a subdiscipline of
philosophy.32 The logical positivists claimed that science is a cumulative process
based on the objective observability of nature. Logical positivism views science to
be driven by empirical observation guided by rationalism or logical reasoning.
They aimed to define ‘the scientific method’ and promoted the idea of the
verifiability of knowledge and theories. Some of the logical positivists were
committed to the idea of a unified science based on the development of a
universal scientific language (either a phenomenalistic or physicalistic
language).33 Although formally rejecting Kant’s ‘a priori’ knowledge (especially
the synthetic a priori), the logical positivists believed in the existence of
(foundational) nonsynthetic a priori principles and the possibility of objective
scientific knowledge.34 All of the academic disciplines would therefore share the
same universal scientific rationality. From the perspective of logical positivism
one might thus expect the number and content of academic disciplines to remain
relatively stable, as the rationale for dividing knowledge in the first place would be
unchanged.35
Logical positivism came under attack from various sides, notably, for
example, from Karl Popper who opposed the idea of verifiability and the inductive
methodology of the logical positivists, and from analytical philosophy that
emerged after the Second World War and which leaned more towards naturalism,
or the idea that all observable effects have natural causes, opposing the logical a
priori claimed by the logical positivists. A fundamental development in modern
philosophy of science has been rise of the descriptive history of science as an
alternative to the essentially normative philosophy of science. Thomas Kuhn

32 Michael Friedman (1999), Reconsidering Logical Positivism, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, pp. XI-XIII.
33 Ibid., p. 145.
34 Ibid., p. 10.
35 Robert Pahre (1996), ‘Patterns of Knowledge Communities in the Social Sciences – Navigating
Among the Disciplines: the Library and Interdisciplinary Inquiry’, Library Trends (Fall).
What Are Academic Disciplines?
15
argued in his famous 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that
science is not a cumulative process as claimed both by the logical positivists and
Popperians, but rather a succession of scientific revolutions that from time to time
fundamentally reorganise scientific fields or disciplines.36 Kuhn coined the term
‘paradigm’ to express the idea that disciplines are organised around certain ways
of thinking or larger theoretical frameworks, which can best explain empirical
phenomena in that discipline or field. Results that do not fit into the prevailing
paradigm are somehow excluded, for example by limiting the domains of theories,
or treated as anomalies the ongoing attempted resolution of which shape its
development. Thus paradigms shape the questions scientists ask and also the
possible answers they can get through their research. Once the problems with
the paradigm become obvious as too many exceptions remain unexplained, a
new paradigm that is able to explain more phenomena and / or that is in some
sense more efficient might replace the previous one.
Though Thomas Kuhn did not rule out the possibility of objective scientific
truth, his work gave some new impetus to the older debate started by Karl
Mannheim’s ‘sociology of knowledge’, which deals with the impact of ideology on
science and the supposed ‘social construction of truth’. The controversial
Austrian philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend only saw weak links between
the body of accepted science and an objective reality and argued vehemently
against the idea of a ‘scientific method’ that could reliably produce truth about the
world. Instead he proposed an anarchical science based on the motto of
‘anything goes’ in terms of method.37 Scientists should proceed as they see fit
without the need of any overarching framework for what may or may not count as
science proper. He also affirmed a version of a social construction of knowledge
thesis and claimed the knowledge generated by the various scientific disciplines
would be incompatible. The scientific disciplines would have already moved so

36 Thomas Kuhn (1962), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago
Press.
37 Paul Feyerabend (1984), Against Method/Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge,
London: Verso.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
16
far apart from each other that they would be now ‘incommensurable’, or so
different that they cannot even be compared.
Postmodernists have, even more controversially, gone further than either
Kuhn or Feyerabend when they claimed that all knowledge would be just a social
construction and would be necessarily tainted by societal power arrangements,
which they serve. The whole concept of scientific truth would be therefore
historically contingent and the product of discourses and of prevailing rationalities.
According to a radical social constructionist perspective scientific truth does not
refer to anything other than itself and the (historically contingent) processes of its
creation. Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition38 argued that a discipline could
be understood as a specific practice, with rules that determine which kind of
statements are accepted as true or false within that particular discourse. Lyotard
interprets this practice as a Wittgensteinian ‘language game’ and claims that no
formal language game can be universal and consistent, or in other words there
cannot be an all-encompassing language game for science. 39On this view
scientific progress can only occur within the boundaries of disciplinary language
games that compliment each other, but which cannot be in principle combined or
merged.
Social constructionists are often less interested in the product of science or
the established knowledge itself, than in the particular methods and practices that
are used to acquire new knowledge, which they feel are contingent. For example,
there have been many ethnographic studies on laboratory research suggesting
an element of arbitrariness with which experimental results are interpreted and
scientific ‘facts’ are established.40 Furthermore, social constructionists have been
interested in the practice of academic peer review, which is interpreted to be
primarily a means of policing academic discourses and of ensuring their overall

38 Jean-Marie Lyotard (1984), The Postmodern Condition/A Report on Knowledge, Manchester:
Manchester University Press.
39 Ibid., pp. 41-43.
40 Most importantly Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar (1979), Laboratory Life: the Social
Construction of Scientific Facts, Los Angeles: SAGE.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
17
coherence (in contrast to ensuring the correspondence to an objective reality).41
From this perspective scientific knowledge is divided and created partly for the
purpose of serving the interests of the respective knowledge communities. The
different rationalities and methodologies (paradigms) used by these knowledge
communities (disciplines) would make the disciplinary knowledges
incommensurable and would put serious limits to even the possibility of
interdisciplinarity. At the same time, social constructionists often wish to
undermine disciplinary boundaries and authorities by emphasizing the artificiality
and contingency of these boundaries.
Special Insights
The academic disciplines reflect the problem that our knowledge of the world is
divided into a larger number of branches. The logical positivists tried to restore
the unity of knowledge by appealing to fundamental a priori principles of scientific
rationality that would be shared across all scientific disciplines. The later
philosophy of science rejected such ‘foundationalism’, or the idea that all
knowledge needs to be based on the belief in some universal and unchanging
principles. This move towards anti-foundationalism opened the way to a position
of the relativism of scientific truth. For social contructionists and postmodernists
alike the academic disciplines would be seen as discourses that are created and
maintained for serving special interests without actually referring to some
objective discoverable reality. The disciplines would be simply incommensurable
and any efforts of overcoming disciplinary divisions would be a futile exercise, as
the disciplines operate on the basis of completely incompatible rationalities and
methodologies that cannot be bridged in a meaningful way.
Social constructionism has been a very popular and influential position in
parts of the social science community, perhaps because it involves a social
science take on what scientists and scholars do. But it has always faced severe
criticism as an account of the nature of knowledge and truth. So-called ‘analytic’
philosophers and especially philosophers of science, who plausibly constitute

41 Mario Biagioli (2002), ‘From Book Censorship to Academic Peer Review’, Emergences 12:1, pp.
11-45.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
18
mainstream philosophy, tend to regard social constructionism as incoherent,42
and argue principally, if not entirely, over how best to refute it.43 Natural scientists
have been particularly scathing in their rejection of it as an account of their
activities. 44Nonetheless, there are mainstream philosophers that are not
completely dismissive. One prominent critic of social constructionism is the
philosopher Ian Hacking, who has analysed the argumentation of the two main
factions in the ‘science wars’, social constructionists and of the naturalists/realists,
in detail.45 Although the general thrust of his argument is critical, Hacking admits
that he is nonetheless ambivalent on the issue of social construction.46 Hacking
inclines to the view that constructionism and naturalism may be
incommensurable positions that may never meet. 47Other philosophers like
Stanley Fish, in contrast, have tried to bridge the divide of the positions by
arguing that something can be both socially constructed and real and that social
constructionism does not need to reject the existence of an objective reality.48
Along those lines a new school of thought emerged in the late 1980s, which
calls itself ‘social epistemology’ and which tries to connect positivism and social
constructionism by looking at the interaction of reality and various knowledge
communities researching aspects of reality. Knowledge production is viewed as a
social process, but also as a process that is not independent of an external reality
to which any knowledge needs to refer to. In effect, social epistemology, as

42 John R. Searle (1995), The Construction of Social Reality, New York: Simon and Schuster, ch.
7-9; Nelson Goodman (1996), ‘Notes on the Well-made World’, in: P. J. McCormick (ed.),
Starmaking: Realism, Anti-realism, Irrealism, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 151-159; André
Kukla (2000), Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Science, London: Routledge; Nola,
Robert and Gürol Irzik (2003). ‘Incredulity Towards Lyotard: A Critique of a Postmodernist
Account of Science and Knowledge’, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 34, pp.
391–421; Boghossian, Paul (2006), Fear of knowledge, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
43 Common lines of argument proceed from the apparently self-defeating nature of the proposition
that all facts are social constructs, the apparent contradiction posed by cases where different
societies construct mutually contradictory propositions as true, and how to construe time periods,
such as the age of the dinosaurs, when no societies were around to construct any facts about
them.
44 Steven Weinberg (2001), Facing up: Science and its Cultural Adversaries, Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
45 Ian Hacking (1999), The Social Construction of What?, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press.
46 Ibid., p. 99.
47 Ibid., p. 31.
48 Stanley Fish (1996), ‘Professor Sokal’s Bad Joke’, The New York Times, 21 May.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
19
argued by Steve Fuller, is able to explain some of the biases in knowledge
production without giving up the belief in the possibility of a normative
epistemology that can guide or enhance scientific truth-seeking.49 Although the
disciplines would be socially constructed and thus to some degree contingent,
they are also epistemically efficient in producing new knowledge and in
evaluating knowledge claims. More recently David Bridges has made the
argument that disciplines not only make a community of arguers possible, but
also enhance the credibility of scientific research by maintaining the discipline-
specific rigour of inquiry, which would be lost in a postdisciplinary science. 50
Stanley Fish even claims ‘being interdisciplinary – breaking out of the prison
houses of our various specialties to the open range first of a general human
knowledge and then of the employment of the knowledge in the great struggles of
social and political life – is not a possible human achievement.’51 Breaking down
the existing authoritative structures that legitimise knowledge would only result in
the establishment of new divisions and new authorities. For Fish interdisciplinarity
is an attack on disciplinary boundaries and hierarchies that is bound to fail, not
only politically, but also epistemologically.
How Relevant?
The philosophical perspective on disciplinarity and disciplinary discourses is only
a side show in the overall interdisciplinarity debate, as the epistemological
dimension and implications of disciplinarity or interdisciplinarity are rarely
considered. 52Philosophers of science have moved away from foundationalist
theories and have recently begun to focus more on the interaction of epistemic
and social practices. Few philosophers would view the organisation of science in
the current disciplines with their current boundaries to have been an inevitable
and necessary result of scientific progress. Disciplinary boundaries exist because
they create some coherence in terms of theories, concepts and methods that

49 Steve Fuller (1991), Social Epistemology, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, pp. 24-30.
50 David Bridges (2006), ‘The Disciplines and the Discipline of Educational Research’, Journal of
Philosophy of Education 40:2, pp. 259-272.
51 Stanley Fish (1989), ‘Being Interdisciplinary Is So Very Hard to Do’, Profession 89, pp. 15-22.
52 Julie Thompson Klein (1990), Interdisciplinarity/History, Theory, and Practice, Detroit: Wayne
State University Press, p. 109.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
20
allow the testing and validation of a hypothesis according to agreed rules. These
rules are different from discipline to discipline making them to some extent
incompatible. Therefore it can be argued that ‘[e]pistemology constrains cross
disciplinary synthesis’.53 One can argue that there need to be some rules for
what can count as knowledge and as universal rules do not seem to be on the
horizon, disciplines will have to continue governing the production of knowledge.
Disciplines and the disciplinary organisation of knowledge could turn out to be ‘a
necessary evil of knowledge production’, as Steve Fuller argues.54

2. The Anthropological Perspective: Culture and Tribes
General Outlook
Modern anthropology is the study of human nature as it manifests itself in culture
and civilisation. It is an inherently interdisciplinary field because it is both
grounded in the natural sciences (physical anthropology) and the humanities
(cultural anthropology) with rather unclear boundaries. According to the American
anthropologist Clifford Geertz, the subject matter and practice of anthropology
was always difficult to define. He argues that “[a]nthropology, or anyway social or
cultural anthropology, is in fact rather something more that someone picks up as
one goes along year after year trying to figure out what it is and how to practise it
than something one has instilled in one through ‘systematic method to obtain
obedience’ or ‘formalized train[ing] by instruction and control’ ”. 55Thus
anthropology is more identified with the act of practising it rather than the
existence of a unifying paradigm or research agenda.
However, there is a well established anthropological tradition and a certain
kind of anthropological thinking. The comparative work of the early period of

53 Robert Pahre (1996), ‘Patterns of Knowledge Communities in the Social Sciences – Navigating
Among the Disciplines: the Library and Interdisciplinary Inquiry’, Library Trends (Fall).
54 Steve Fuller (2003), ‘Interdisciplinarity: The Loss of Heroic Vision in the Marketplace of Ideas’,
Interdisciplines.org [website],
(accessed 05 January 2009).
55 Geertz, Clifford (1995), After the Fact: Four Decades, Two Countries, One Anthropologist,
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 97.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
21
modern anthropology, which juxtaposes ‘primitive’ and ‘civilised’ societies, has
earned cultural anthropology a high reputation and has firmly established it as a
distinct academic discipline in the late 19th century. Anthropologists have
demonstrated quite successfully that modern and apparently primitive cultures
share many cultural characteristics and that apparently very similar groups or
cultures might differ significantly. It is generally held that human nature and
human culture has many universal features that can be discovered in any context
of society or in any civilisation. More recently anthropologists have shifted their
focus more towards understanding cultural practices in modern societies, taking
into account processes of globalisation and growing contact between societies
and cultures. 56This has brought anthropologists in direct competition with
sociologists. There are areas of anthropology and sociology that clearly overlap
and the demarcation of these disciplines at these fringes is hardly possible.
A main criterion for distinguishing anthropology from sociology is the use of
the method of ethnography that anthropologists established first. Ethnography
can be described as the observation of cultures by participating in cultural groups
and practices.57 An anthropologist would analyse academic disciplines in terms
of the cultural practices that create and maintain them. The focus is on how
academic disciplines are practised by people who call themselves academics or
scientists. These practices would be linked to cultural practices and structures
that anthropologists consider to be universal. One would then arrive at the
conclusion that disciplines are a form of social segmentation that resists an
overarching authority. Their practitioners belong to different ‘academic tribes’
inhabiting and defending different ‘knowledge territories’, distinguishing
themselves through self-created cultural practices and specific values.58 Every
discipline would have to be considered as part of larger cultural groupings
(academia, nations, civilizations) and also as a cultural microcosm that manifests

56 Pina-Cabral, João (2004), ‘The Future of Social Anthropology’, Social Anthropology 13:2 (June),
pp. 119-128.
57 Marilyn Strathern (2004), Partial Connections, Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, pp. 7-11.
58 Tony Becher (1994), ‘The Significance of Disciplinary Differences’, Studies in Higher Education
19:2, pp. 151-161; Tony Becher and Paul R. Trowler (2001), Academic Tribes and Territories,
Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
22
itself in the existence of disciplinary academic departments and (national)
disciplinary associations.
An ethnographer of academic cultures would naturally focus on a particular
community (an academic association, a university or even a department) in a
particular nation or society in order to understand its unique characteristics such
as particular practices and sets of values, maybe in comparison to another
discipline or another cultural setting. The anthropologist would be able to find
numerous cultural differences comparing one disciplinary academic community in
one country to an academic community of the same discipline in a different
country. British sociology, for example, differs distinctly from sociology in
Germany, France and the US in terms of emphasis, theories, methods and
scientific writing. It is firmly established that there are different national research
cultures that largely affect how science and disciplines are practised in different
countries.59
Special Insights
Understanding academic disciplines in terms of cultural practices offers many
interesting insights. The anthropological view clearly disenchants the practices of
knowledge production and also the practitioners. A comparison of different
‘academic tribes’ shows that there are substantial cultural differences, which
appear to be arbitrary – at least to an outsider. Like in all other social groups,
group identity is maintained primarily through the distinction between ‘them’ and
‘us’. In order to belong to a certain group one needs to speak the same language,
participate in the social life of the group and to share the same beliefs. For a
further strengthening of group identity social groupings will develop numerous
other distinctive cultural features that make it easy to identify outsiders and that
make it difficult for outsiders to join the group. In fact, outsiders are often treated
with suspicion, if not outright hostility, which ensures that different tribes do not
mix and remain separate. The sociologist Burton R. Clark joked in the 1960s that
‘Men of the sociological tribe rarely visit the lands of the physicists and have little

59 Tony Becher (1981), ‘Towards a Definition of Disciplinary Cultures’, Studies in Higher
Education 6:2, p. 116; Richard Whitley (2000), The Intellectual and Social Organization of the
Sciences, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. XXX-XXXI.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
23
idea of what they do over there. If the sociologists were to step into the building
occupied by the English department, they would encounter the cold stares if not
the slingshots of the hostile natives.’60
In academia disciplinary languages are developed at least in part with the
goal of protecting knowledge and disciplinary identity from outside infringement. If
knowledge would be universally understandable and easily available for
everyone, the specialists in the disciplines would lose their authority and
influence as the most important interpreters of their discipline’s accumulated
knowledge. In extreme cases such as the ‘discipline’ of nuclear strategy as it
emerged in the 1950s knowledge can become largely esoteric and debates might
be so full of technical terms and jargon that they would be only understandable to
a small elite group. The use of jargon and technical language can of course also
have the function, according to social sciences critic Stanislav Andreski, to
disguise ‘a paucity of new ideas’ and elevate ‘ponderous restatements of the
obvious’ to the level of ‘science’.61
Disciplines that consist of a tightly-knit group of scholars with a high degree
of agreement about methods and content will have a much stronger identity with
very well defined borders to other disciplines compared to disciplines that are
more loosely organised and that exhibit a low degree of coherence.62 The ‘hard’
natural sciences with their well-defined boundaries would find it much easier to
cooperate with scientists of other disciplines or fields than the ‘soft’ sciences,
which have far less defined boundaries and which are therefore more penetrable
and open to criticism.63 Thus the greater the intellectual distance, the more likely
would be a consensus or an integration of knowledge.64
Academics, who leave their tribe and cross boundaries, might find
themselves ‘expelled’, ‘cut off’ and ‘intellectually homeless’. The anthropologist

60 Tony Becher and Paul R. Trowler (2001), Academic Tribes and Territories, Buckingham: The
Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, p. 45.
61 Stanislav Andreski (1974), Social Sciences as Sorcery, London: Penguin, p. 11.
62 Tony Becher and Paul R. Trowler (2001), Academic Tribes and Territories, Buckingham: The
Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, p. 59.
63 Lisa Lattuca (2001), Creating Interdisciplinarity/Interdisciplinary Research and Teaching among
College and University Faculty, Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, p. 32.
64 Ibid., p. 31.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
24
Marilyn Strathern summarizes this tendency in the following words: ‘one knows
one is in an interdisciplinary context if there is resistance to what one is doing’.65
As a result, academic tribes, especially those with less tradition, strife for
developing a strong cultural identity that allows them to prosper. It is definitely in
the self-interest of a disciplinary group to keep its members in line and to uphold
disciplinary purity. Academic tribes will therefore eagerly protect their knowledge
and their methods by adding cultural features that are difficult to understand or to
copy for outsiders. Anthropologists would argue that the desire of groups of
developing some distinct cultural identity is universal and an unchanging part of
human nature. The academic tribes of the various disciplines may belong to the
bigger tribe, which is academia, but they will always aim for cultural distinctness
and autonomy.
At the same time, this natural academic tribalism does not make
relationships and exchanges between different academic tribes impossible. Julie
Thompson Klein speaks of ‘trading zones’ at the fringes of disciplines in which
‘interlanguages’ like ‘pidgins’ and ‘creoles’ can emerge. 66Highly specialist
disciplinary languages are thus simplified and partially integrated or mixed in the
process of the trading and borrowing of ideas and concepts. New hybrid cultures
and communities can form and exist at these fringe areas, culturally enriching
their respective larger disciplinary communities. In particular the Internet offers
great opportunities for virtual communities where specialists from various
disciplinary backgrounds can establish new interdisciplinary communities and
intellectual networks. For example, Dan Sperber argues that because of the
Internet and IT ‘it has become much easier for individual researchers to establish
and maintain communication based on common intellectual interests rather than
on institutional alliance’. 67On the other hand, the interdisciplinarity or
interdisciplinary discourses can become themselves a new academic territory or

65 Marilyn Strathern (2005), ‘Anthropology and Interdisciplinarity’, Arts and Humanities in Higher
Education 4:2, p. 130.
66 Julie Thompson Klein (1996), Crossing Boundaries/Knowledge, Disciplinarities, and
Interdisciplinarities, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, p. 51.
67 Dan Sperber (2003), ‘Why Rethink Interdisciplinarity?’, Interdisciplines.org [website],
(accessed 19 January 2009).
What Are Academic Disciplines?
25
a new discipline engaged in turf battles with competing and affected disciplines.68
So it appears that by introducing interdisciplinary studies in North America and
the UK ‘disciplinary boundaries were re-drawn rather than demolished’. 69
Tribalism thus remains a very persistent feature of academic cultures.
How Relevant?
The anthropological view can analyse and explain academic cultures by looking
at their cultural practices that reinforce group identity. There are some excellent
studies of academic cultures available, most importantly Tony Becher’s and Paul
Trowler’s book, which looks at academic culture of the 1980s and 1990s in the
US and Britain.70 The advantage of the anthropological view is that it is primarily
descriptive and not normative. The anthropologist will always be very reluctant in
making value judgements about different cultures and will aim at presenting them
as neutrally as possible. What the anthropologist will not and cannot offer is any
guidance about the future other than saying that some aspects of collective
human behaviour are more or less a fixture. From this point of view we may
never overcome (academic) tribalism though exchanges between cultures are
certainly possible and can be quite beneficial for all sides concerned.

3. The Sociological Perspective: Professionalization and Division of
Labour
General Outlook
Like in the case of anthropology it is also quite difficult to speak of any particular
sociological perspective of academic disciplines, in particular as sociology is the
broadest and most inclusive of all social sciences. It lacks a unifying paradigm or

68 Vaughan Baker (1997), ‘The Perils and Promises of Interdisciplinarity in the Humanities’, in:
Lewis Pyenson, Disciplines and Interdisciplinarity, p. 61.
69 Elizabeth Bird (2001), ‘Disciplining the Interdisciplinary: Radicalism and the Academic
Curriculum’, British Journal of Sociology of Education 22:4, p. 463.
70 Tony Becher and Paul R. Trowler (2001), Academic Tribes and Territories, Buckingham: The
Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
26
even a unifying object of research71 and is fragmented into no fewer than 30 to
40 subdisciplines.72 Although it is possible to trace back the tradition of sociology
to Auguste Comte and the early 19th century, the discipline as such did not exist
before it became institutionalised in the form of academic journals and
departments during the 1890s in the US and Europe. The discipline of sociology
enjoyed great success during the 20th century, but serious worries about its crisis
and uncertain future reappeared periodically in the 1960s, the 1980s and in
recent years.
Though sociology is a discipline that is notoriously difficult to define, an
early thinker of the discipline argued that ‘a sociologist is a man who is studying
the facts of society in a certain way’.73 Like philosophers, sociologists would be
interested in the totality of human life, however with a focus on how it relates to
society. A sociologist can be legitimately interested in any aspect of human life,
but it is the sociological mindset that sets him or her apart from other (social)
scientists. Furthermore, as will be seen below, being a sociologist also relates to
the ‘facts of society’ as they concern employment. Being a sociologist depends to
no small degree on being employed as such and on practising sociology
professionally. Generally speaking, the outlook of sociology is that human
behaviour is largely determined by societal practices and societal organisation.
Any human behaviour or societal group can be analysed from this particular
angle.
If one looks at the topics that have traditionally interested people, who call
themselves ‘sociologists’ most, then one would probably look at academic
disciplines in the categories of the sociology of work. This branch sociology deals
with the phenomenon of professionalization and the societal division of labour.
Professionalization is a social process through which an activity becomes a
means for people to make a living. A professional is someone who can carry out

71 John Urry (1981), ‘Sociology as a Parasite: Some Vices and Virtues’, in: Philip Abrams,
Rosemary Deem, Janet Finch and Paul Rock (eds), Practice and Progress: British Sociology
1950-1980, London: George Allen & Unwin, p. 32.
72 Mattei Dogan (1996), ‘The Hybridization of Social Science Knowledge – Navigating Among the
Disciplines: The Library and Interdisciplinary Inquiry’, Library Trends (Fall).
73 Albion Small (1903), ‘What Is a Sociologist?’, American Journal of Sociology 8, p. 468.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
27
a certain activity with a higher level of skill and knowledge than an amateur and
someone who is paid for it sufficiently to base their own livelihood on that activity.
Scientific activity or research were during most of the 19th century still not
particularly professionalized, as permanent paid scientific positions were rare and
scientists were unable to dominate work processes, material rewards or access
to academic jobs. 74This changed only in the late 19th century through the
creation of academic professional associations, which evaluated and
disseminated scientific work through discipline-specific academic journals and
which thus created systems of reputation and reward.75
Academic disciplines can then be treated as a particular form of the division
of labour in science and as a crucial aspect of the overall professionalization of
science. Academic professions can be quite influential as they control resources
of academic departments, access to the profession by awarding degrees and
through employment, and as they ultimately define what is good practice in the
profession. In other words, the ‘disciplines were both units of labour market
definition and control, and of intellectual production and validation’.76 As a result,
by professionalizing academic disciplines it enables academics to gain the
freedom of following their own pursuits and professional interests. At the same
time, professionalization increases the competition amongst the disciplinary
professional groups over limited resources. The disciplines are thus competing
over money and influence within the universities and the overall scientific
community.
Since the early 1980s sociologists have observed a tendency of
deprofessionalization or a weakening of professional identities and attributes in
modern society. It has been argued that the academic professions have generally
lost some of their autonomy because of a weakening of academic knowledge
claims and external pressures to make their work more relevant to the wider

74 Richard Whitley (2000), The Intellectual and Social Organization of the Sciences, Oxford:
Oxford University Press, p. 21.
75 Joe Moran (2002), Interdisciplinarity: The New Critical Idiom, London: Routledge, p. 13.
76 Richard Whitley (2000), The Intellectual and Social Organization of the Sciences, Oxford:
Oxford University Press, p. 57.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
28
science community and society at large.77 In particular the ‘audit culture’ or the
tendency of imposing external quality standards on academic work has been
singled out as a major factor in the overall process. So it is no surprise that
academics feel alienated and see their professional identity in a crisis.78
Special Insights
The division of labour is one of the defining characteristics of modernity and is an
expression of the increasing rationality of societal organisation. Dividing the
project of science into specialised disciplines, which work separately towards the
overall production of knowledge would be seen as a rational and efficient
arrangement, similar to the division of labour in society overall. This division of
labour in science into disciplines was according to Immanuel Wallerstein a
‘triumph of liberal ideology’,79 which has created specialists pursuing the aim of
turning their specialisations into distinct professions.
Academic disciplines certainly have all the main characteristics of other
professions: they have collegiate autonomy over professional training and the
certification of professional competence, they have a distinct set of knowledge
and skills that is institutionalised in a curriculum, they have distinct professional
ethics and there is a community of professionals that cultivates a distinct
professional habitus.80 More established disciplines will come closest to being
identified as distinct professions, while the members of newer and less
established disciplines will probably see themselves as scientists in a more
general way.
The more an academic discipline is linked to a career path or profession
outside academia, the more successful these attempts of professionalization tend
to be. The sociological perspective thus explains why academic disciplines enjoy

77 Tony Becher and Paul R. Trowler (2001), Academic Tribes and Territories, Buckingham: The
Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, p. 13.
78 John Beck and Michael F.D. Young (2005), ‘The Assault on the Professions and the
Restructuring of Academic and Professional Identities: a Bernsteinian Analysis’, British Journal of
Sociology of Education 26:2 (April), p. 184.
79 Immanuel Wallerstein (1991), Unthinking Social Sciences/The Limits of Nineteenth-Century
Paradigms, Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 19.
80 John Beck and Michael F.D. Young (2005), ‘The Assault on the Professions and the
Restructuring of Academic and Professional Identities: a Bernsteinian Analysis’, British Journal of
Sociology of Education 26:2 (April), p. 188.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
29
a different reputation and in particular why there are such big differences
between established and less established disciplines. Pierre Bourdieu has
analysed these differences in terms of a ‘clash of faculties’ for the French
university establishment of the early 1970s in his book Homo Academicus. 81
Bourdieu’s units of analysis are not individual disciplines but rather the four main
faculties of French universities, which are medicine, law, science and arts. He
shows that the more established faculties of medicine and law exhibit the
greatest homogeneity in terms of their members and that they tend to have a far
greater influence within universities and academia at large. They are the most
scholarly faculties requiring their members to learn crucial aspects of knowledge
by heart and they have clear links to professions outside the academy. In
contrast, science and arts faculties are far more heterogeneous and less
influential. Their members face a far more uncertain career, which means that
they are older when they reach a senior position, that they are more likely to be
unmarried or divorced, that they have fewer children and generally hold more left-
wing political views.82
The academic professions or disciplines are thus identified as the main
power blocs in the academic environment with the most homogeneous and
professionalised disciplines exerting most influence in universities and the
scientific community. Similar to developments in other areas of society where the
power of professions is diminishing, as they become more and more subjected to
external forces and societal demands, there has been a considerable decline in
the status and social esteem of professors, whose salaries and autonomy has
been curtailed.83 This trend is accompanied a growing academic proletariat with
largely diminished career opportunities. Apparently, academics in some countries
such as the US, UK, Japan and Sweden feel to a much greater extent that their

81 Pierre Bourdieu (1988), Homo Academicus, Cambridge: Polity Press.
82 Ibid., pp. 43-47.
83 Peter Scott (2007), “From Professor to ‘Knowledge Worker’: Profiles of the Academic
Profession”, Minerva 45:2, pp. 205-215.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
30
professions and status would be under attack, while in other countries they are
more content.84
Not all is bad and there are certainly some positive aspects to this trend of
the decline of academic professions, as individuals are freed from sometimes
repressive professional structures that did not encourage creativity or intellectual
risk-taking. There also seems to be a return to the scientific generalist, who can
be equipped with generic academic skills that can be applied to many contexts.85
This ‘new generalism’ can be seen, for example, in the generic research training
programmes that many universities nowadays offer to young academics.86 As a
result, academics will gain more freedom in choosing their own fields of research
and their own methods. The downside might be that they will lose the protection
(intellectual, but also legal protection) and the sense of belonging that the
academic professions used to provide. Academics will be on their own and no
longer be automatically part of a specific scientific community, but rather required
to consciously choose their own community – maybe even many times during
their career. In practice this might mean that many academics will have to try to
make a living out of frequently moving from one short-term research or teaching
assignment to another embracing a flexible ‘can-do’ attitude.
How Relevant?
The sociological perspective is important because it can make sense of what is
happening in academic professions in the context of larger trends in the world of
work, as disciplines are largely identified with a particular group of practitioners or
professionals. The professions overall are weakened by accelerating social and
technological change, which has led to the notion of ‘life-long’ learning. In
academia this means that the familiar disciplinary structures are also at risk
because of the larger trend of deprofessionalization. However, no discipline can
survive without a community of practitioners or professionals. It is at least

84 Jürgen Enders (1999), “Crisis? What Crisis? The Academic Professions in the ‘Knowledge’
Society”, Higher Education 38:1, pp. 71-81.
85 Julie Thompson Klein (2005), Humanities, Culture and Interdisciplinarity/The Changing
American Academy, New York: State University of New York Press, pp. 37-39.
86 John Beck and Michael F.D. Young (2005), ‘The Assault on the Professions and the
Restructuring of Academic and Professional Identities: a Bernsteinian Analysis’, British Journal of
Sociology of Education 26:2 (April), p. 190.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
31
questionable whether the aim of creating academic generalists can lead to the
creation of professionals in their own right, who can develop universal
professional practices and their own work ethos. As a result, disciplines and
disciplinarity would be seen by sociologists to be endangered by wider societal
trends. Interdisciplinarity, or rather postdisciplinarity, would appear to be a
symptom and result of the overall crises of the academic professions and the
disciplines that they represent.

4. The Historical Perspective: Evolution and Discontinuity
General Outlook
Like any other social phenomena academic disciplines do have a history. Every
discipline can be analysed by looking at its historical development. Historians of
science can look at the specific historical conditions that led to the foundation of
an academic discipline and at how it changed over time, or in other words, its
evolution. The historical perspective helps to understand the great continuity of
disciplines, but also the points of discontinuity or departure from obsolete
practices and ways of thinking (what Thomas Kuhn has famously termed
‘paradigm change’). Sometimes this leads to the disappearance of an older
discipline and the creation of a new one that can replace it. In other words, the
historical perspective captures the great dynamics of the development of science
and the academic disciplines.
Historians will generally look for the wider societal context and the overall
conditions that influenced the development of a specific discipline, for example
the political climate or any particular needs society had at a particular time, as
well as internal factors that shaped its development. For example, Julie
Thompson Klein has pointed out that the academic discipline was an invention of
the late Middle Ages. The term was first applied to three academic areas for
which universities had the responsibility of producing trained professionals:
What Are Academic Disciplines?
32
theology, law and medicine. 87Klein argues that this early disciplining of
knowledge was a response to external demands, while the specialization into
disciplines that emerged in the 19th century was due to internal reasons. By that
time science and the pursuit of scholarly and new knowledge had become an
institutionalised and highly systematic endeavour. Disciplinarity helped recruiting
and producing the specialists that were needed in the context of the
industrialisation and the advance of technology.88 As society grew in complexity,
the social sciences, which tried to emulate the natural sciences, were invented.
The consequence was that a whole range of new disciplines were institutionally
established in the late 19th and early 20th century, including the main social
sciences sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science and economics.89
The rationale for the new disciplines was that they dealt exclusively with a
particular object or topic that was not covered by any other discipline. ‘The
sociologist dealt with contemporary societal organization outside the political
sphere, thus remaining sharply distinguished from the political scientist. An
anthropologist was concerned with culture, by which he meant not literature or
the fine arts but primarily group attitudes, frequently focusing upon pre-literate
societies. The economist studied only the means of production.’90 This topical
division was primarily pragmatic, as it allowed the disciplines to develop a stable
identity and an agenda for research and further development. Some disciplines
enjoyed some lasting success, but others either quickly disappeared (e.g.
phrenology, physiognomy, ethnogency) or devolved from an established
discipline to a field of study (e.g. theology to religious studies) because of a
changing political and societal environment.

87 Julie Thompson Klein (1990), Interdisciplinarity/History, Theory, and Practice, Detroit: Wayne
State University Press, p. 20.
88 Joe Moran (2002), Interdisciplinarity: The New Critical Idiom, London: Routledge, p. 13.
89 The first chair in sociology in Britain was established in 1907; the Royal Anthropological
Institute was founded in 1871; the British Psychological Society was founded in 1901; the first
chair in international politics in Britain was established at the University of Wales in 1912; the first
chair in Political Economy was established at the University College London in 1828 with the
professionalization of the discipline occurring at the end of the 19th century.
90 Kenneth T. Grieb (1974), ‘Area Studies and the Traditional Disciplines’, The History Teacher
7:2 (February), p. 230.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
33
Though the number of disciplines and associated departments is
proliferating,91 many established disciplines, especially in the social sciences are
afraid of failing as a discipline. Academic disciplines can get into trouble once the
political and historical context changes and they no longer appear to be very
useful. Disciplines like anthropology seemed quite useful in the time of
colonialism where so-called civilised cultures were subjugating so-called primitive
cultures and were later trying to reverse that situation through de-colonisation.
W.S. Bainbridge has pointed out that ‘[s]ome would even say that cultural
anthropology was an element of European colonialism, or a temporarily
necessary corrective to its cultural hegemony, and with the demise of colonialism
it has become superfluous.’92 Sometimes the difficulties a discipline faces are
self-inflicted. In the special case of British Sociology it has been argued that it
was mainly a lack of effective leadership that prevented the discipline from
achieving the same status as in other countries and which was one of the causes
for its decline in the 1980’s following a period of rapid expansion.93
Special Insights
The historical perspective shows that the development of academic disciplines
cannot be understood without reference to historical context. It also helps
understanding the evolutionary path taken by specific disciplines. Often new
disciplines have been set up to meet particular political and societal needs. For
example, Michel Foucault has shown that the social sciences were set up and
prospered because of the political need of getting more information on the
population, which could be used for more effective government and which helped
to stabilise emerging political and societal structures.94 The new discipline of area
studies was set up in the US after the Second World War in order to train ‘area
specialists’ who could assist in shaping the increasingly global US foreign policy

91 Hershey H. Friedman (2001), ‘The Obsolescence of Academic Departments’, Radical
Pedagogy 3:2 (Fall).
92 W.S. Bainbridge, (2003), ‘The Future in the Social Sciences’, Futures 35, pp. 639.
93 Reba N. Soffer (1982), ‘Why Disciplines Fail? The Strange Case of British Sociology’, The
English Historical Review 97:385 (October), pp. 767-802.
94 Roger Deacon (2002), ‘Truth, Power, and Pedagogy: Michel Foucault on the Rise of the
Disciplines’, Educational Philosophy and Theory 34:4, p. 446.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
34
of the beginning Cold War era.95 Similarly, new disciplines like computer science
and artificial intelligence were closely linked to military applications and
prospered because of military funding. Once these new disciplines had been set
up they developed a life of their own, possibly freed from their original purpose if
they managed to diversify their funding and main stakeholders.
The formation of a new discipline thus requires talented scientists who can
take over the burden of intellectual leadership by defining what the new discipline
is about and by giving it a clear agenda for research, which can inspire followers.
In other words, founding a new discipline needs adventurous pioneers who are
willing to leave their original discipline behind and to cover new ground, which
always includes a certain risk that they and their new discipline will possibly fail.
This means that practically every new discipline starts off necessarily as an
interdisciplinary project that combines elements from some parent discipline(s)
with original new elements and insights. Once the discipline is established a new
type of researcher is needed. The new discipline needs people who can
consolidate it by filling in the gaps left by the pioneers. Without these
consolidators and synthesizers a discipline will never develop some stable
identity and will eventually go nowhere. So in the consolidation phase disciplines
will start restricting too original ideas and will become more and more focused on
disciplinary coherence and orthodoxy.
Furthermore, disciplines seem to show typical development patterns from
formation to eclipsing and later decline. In other words, there might be a typical
life cycle for disciplines. Kenneth Grieb has pointed to a process of ‘maturing’ in
which a discipline broadens its scope so much that it starts overlapping with other
disciplines.96 As all scientific activity is based on the idea of scientific progress in
the form of a continuous expansion of knowledge, scholars need to innovate in
order to earn their reputation from their colleagues. This means that new subject
matters and methods are constantly integrated into a discipline, which means

95 Julie Thompson Klein (1996), Crossing Boundaries/Knowledge, Disciplinarities, and
Interdisciplinarities, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, p. 115.
96 Kenneth T. Grieb (1974), ‘Area Studies and the Traditional Disciplines’, The History Teacher
7:2 (February), p. 232.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
35
that the discipline loses its coherence and disciplinary demarcations become less
relevant. The very distinct identities and coherence that the disciplines once
acquired is lost in this process of constant fragmentation, which means that
political scientists, for example, can no longer say what political science as a
whole is all about. At the same time, without that constant expansion disciplines
will forego their dynamism and will yield increasingly diminishing returns until they
disappear. According to Mattei Dogan and Robert Pahre, it would be the advance
of knowledge that drives fragmentation with most innovation occurring at the
margins of disciplines. 97Without innovation disciplines will not be able to
successfully reproduce themselves, as they will not attract talented researchers
or convince a wider audience of the discipline’s intrinsic value.
As a result of increasingly overlapping subject areas, disciplines are now
identified more through the methodology they apply to certain topics or research
fields, rather than through the topics or research fields themselves. 98An
anthropologist and a sociologist might be equally interested in a particular aspect
of modern society – the difference might only be that the anthropologist might
use ethnography as a method and the sociologist a survey. However, as
sociologists have also become interested in the method of ethnography it may
indicate that the distinction between sociology and anthropology is artificial and
an accident of history rather than the result of any scientifically substantial
difference between the disciplines. It sometimes happens that academics in
overlapping fields split from their parent disciplines and form a new discipline.
Anthropology, for example, split from its parent natural history and psychology
split from philosophy and medicine. A new discipline will later also undergo the
process of broadening and fragmentation, which produces more and more
disciplines and subdisciplines. So if it is not just obsolescence that threatens the
survival of a discipline, but also its own success by the way of expanding
scholarship and maturing.

97 Mattei Dogan and Robert Pahre (1990), Creative Marginality/Innovation at the Intersections of
Social Science, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, p. 59.
98 Kenneth T. Grieb (1974), ‘Area Studies and the Traditional Disciplines’, The History Teacher
7:2 (February), p. 232.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
36
How Relevant?
The historical view can help understanding why disciplines are created and why
they sometimes fail or fundamentally change by adopting a new paradigm.
Historians of science have uncovered the close or indirect connections between
particular historical conditions and the development of disciplines and have
shown the contingency and artificiality of current disciplines and disciplinary
boundaries. There was no apparent scientific necessity for the way science is
now divided in disciplines or even for the disciplines themselves.99 Sometimes
there are ‘historical accidents’ that can lead to the sudden creation of a new
discipline. An obvious example is terrorism studies, which was hardly a discipline
before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.100 The discipline emerged because there was
suddenly a political need for understanding the new threat environment after the
Cold War. Terrorism studies has a growing number of scholars and the new
discipline already challenges the survival of the older discipline of traditional
security studies, which has now been renamed into ‘strategic studies’. In other
words, we should not be surprised by the change in the overall arrangement of
disciplines. There are few fixtures and the only thing that seems certain that all
disciplines can be expected to have a limited life span.

5. The Management Perspective: Market and Organisation
General Outlook
From a management perspective higher education and science is about making
good use of limited resources for meeting the demands of society. The
organisation of universities in departments divided along disciplinary lines is a
means of shaping the supply (knowledge) according to market demands and

99 Steve Fuller (2003), ‘Interdisciplinarity: The Loss of Heroic Vision in the Marketplace of Ideas’,
Interdisciplines.org [website],
(accessed 05 January 2009).
100 Rebecca Attwood (2007), ‘Terrorism Studies Surge’, Times Higher Education (22 July),
available at:

(accessed 21 January 2009).
What Are Academic Disciplines?
37
according to internal organisational requirements and choices. “Faculty must be
‘placed,’ their salaries must be located in some departmental budget, teaching
loads and student credit hours must be assigned and balanced, performances
must be evaluated.”101 Disciplinary department structures are thus seen primarily
as a management problem and a way of marketing knowledge. Because of
significant shifts in terms of funding and rising costs of research over the last 20
years, universities have become increasingly subjected to market forces.102 This
usually means that universities are increasingly encouraged to adopt better
‘business practices’ that can make them more competitive in the education and
research market. As a result, universities have to question their current forms of
management, organisation and practices.
A key term that has emerged in recent years, which aims at addressing this
problem, is ‘knowledge management’: a discipline created for optimising
(business) organisations. It effectively blends administration, human resources,
information systems management and strategy and is based on the idea of a
‘learning organisation’, which makes best use of its resources by constantly
adapting to a changing environment. Knowledge management is a primarily a
business concept. However, in the process of the growing marketization and
privatization of universities, it is being applied to higher education and academic
research. Universities need to position themselves on the higher education and
science market by recruiting and retaining suitable personnel that can acquire
and promote marketable new knowledge in the form of attractive courses,
technological or business application and policy development – all of which are
important sources of income and reputation for universities.
As societal demands change, the supply side has to adjust to these
changes as well. As a result, universities are under increasing pressure to
respond to the changed market by creating new courses and research
programmes that are more competitive. This also means to discontinue research

101 Vaughan Baker (1997), ‘The Perils and Promises of Interdisciplinarity in the Humanities’, in:
Lewis Pyenson, Disciplines and Interdisciplinarity, p. 59.
102 Tony Becher and Paul R. Trowler (2001), Academic Tribes and Territories, Buckingham: The
Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, pp. 8-10.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
38
and study programmes that are no longer successful. But closing down
unsuccessful departments has proven to be rather difficult because of the
resistance that the professionalized disciplines and affected departments can
mobilise. 103However, universities responded by offering new interdisciplinary
educational and research programmes. This can lead to the formation of new
interdisciplinary departments and eventually new disciplines, or it might result in a
completely different postdisciplinary organisation of universities. In fact, there has
been undoubtedly a continuous and strong growth of interdisciplinary teaching
and research programmes in the American academy. According to one count,
there were already 410 interdisciplinary programmes in 280 different American
universities in 1996, which represents a 75 percent growth from 1986.104
This promotion of interdisciplinary organisational arrangements has often
been perceived as a cost-cutting measure. Universities simply cannot afford to
offer the full range of disciplines and to have the respective number of
departments representing these disciplines. Lennard Davis has pointed out that
“You could get rid of that spindly comparative-literature department by com-
bining it cleverly and ‘interdisciplinarily’ with the heftier English department, and
then you’d have to pay only one secretary instead of two.”105 Not surprisingly,
there is a clear tendency to combine departments into new interdisciplinary
departments or research centres, which are more flexible structures. Their
emphasis in research and teaching can more easily shift in relation to the
specialists that are represented in them. A few sociologists within a cultural
studies department have far less influence on curriculum and the management of
the school or university than a full-blown sociology department would have.
Because of fluctuation of personnel this means that the overall composition of
interdisciplinary departments in terms of discipline representation can change
easily with direct and quite immediate effects on curricula and research.

103 Hershey H. Friedman (2001), ‘The Obsolescence of Academic Departments’, Radical
Pedagogy 3:2 (Fall).
104 Stephen L. Payne (1999), ‘Interdisciplinarity: Potentials and Challenges’, Systemic Practice
and Action Research 12:2, p. 175.
105 Lennard Davis (2007), ‘A Grand Unified Theory of Interdisciplinarity’, The Chronicle Review
53:40, p. b49.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
39
Special Insights
The organisation of universities into disciplines and departments is only one of
many possibilities of organising people and knowledge. It can be argued that it
might have been an effective organisation when it was originally created in the
19th century. Now this arrangement seems totally outdated and wasteful because
of the considerable overstaffing and duplication of effort across departments and
science at large. Even worse, current organisational structures of universities do
not reflect intellectual realities and overall (societal) trends of knowledge
production and management. According to Michael Gibbons’ highly influential
book on The New Production of Knowledge, 106a new mode of knowledge
production (termed Mode 2) has emerged, which happens outside disciplinary
and academic contexts and which is focused on creating knowledge directly
related to its application. Traditional discipline-specific knowledge production
within academic departments (termed Mode 1) is becoming increasingly obsolete
and less relevant for society. In other words, scholarly knowledge loses its
market value, while knowledge creation through application yields the highest
usefulness and profits, which is discussed in terms of accountability. Gibbons
claims that Mode 2 knowledge would be inherently heterogeneous and
transdisciplinary 107and that it would be more accountable than Mode 1
knowledge production.108
To some extent universities have already shifted to Mode 2, as they have
become major players in intellectual property rights and consultancy. It is
certainly foreseeable that alternative forms of university organisation, which are
better adjusted to the market, become more and more pervasive. Instead of
organisation into disciplinary departments universities might organise teaching
and research around broader topics or ‘studies’ areas such as women’s studies,
environmental studies, security studies and so on, which generally lack strong
disciplinary identities. Practically all of them incorporate aspects of a great range

106 Michael Gibbons, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott and
Martin Trow (1994), The New Production of Knowledge/The Dynamics of Science and Research
in Contemporary Societies, London: SAGE.
107 Ibid., p. 3.
108 Ibid., pp. 78-80.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
40
of parent disciplines without acquiring all the hallmarks of a distinct discipline. It
may be the case that research and teaching will be separated completely
because of the increasing cost of research, which makes it financially unwise to
combine research and teaching duties for researchers working on expensive
projects. Furthermore there is an observable tendency that research output has
become the major factor in terms of academic career advancement, which is
particularly apparent in the UK because of its introduction of the Research
Assessment Exercise.109 The top researchers in universities often do very little, if
any teaching. This general tendency of emphasizing research over teaching
could ‘encourage the emergence of mainly teaching organisations’110 where the
work of lecturers would largely resemble the work of secondary school teachers.
As traditional disciplinary arrangements become increasingly less relevant,
we might be moving more and more to a postdisciplinary world of shifting
specialisations and special interest areas. In such a world universities would hire
academics and other professionals because of their narrow specialisation and
not because of their disciplinary affiliation or their discipline specific training. This
will allow them to form ‘clusters’ of knowledge and research and will enable
universities to remain competitive by focusing on expertise in niche fields, rather
than by focusing on acquiring a broad competence in an increasing number of
disciplines, which will in any case not be sustainable.
How Relevant?
In a world of limited resources and growing marketization of education and
knowledge, the management perspective of disciplinarity is immensely important.
Universities have been organised around disciplines in the past because it used
to be a particularly effective organisation of teaching and research. The downside
of this arrangement is clearly the lack of flexibility caused by too rigid
organisational and intellectual structures. It also means that the number of
departments has grown constantly and that the overall organisation and

109 Tony Becher and Paul R. Trowler (2001), Academic Tribes and Territories, Buckingham: The
Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, p. 78.
110 Michael Gibbons, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott and
Martin Trow (1994), The New Production of Knowledge/The Dynamics of Science and Research
in Contemporary Societies, London: SAGE, p. 80.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
41
management of resources has become inefficient. More departments means
more staff, also more staff in senior positions, and lots of duplication in terms of
work and resource requirements. Newer forms of management emphasize lean
management and flexible ‘virtual’ organisational arrangements that allow rapid
and effective reorganisation in order to adjust faster to the changing market and
knowledge environment. As a lot of research or knowledge production already
occurs outside academia, especially in the private and government sectors,
universities will try to emulate alternative and more efficient organisational
arrangements of knowledge production and management. From a management
perspective there is no necessity for science to be organised along disciplinary
lines. The rapid proliferation of interdisciplinary centres, institutes, programmes
and colleges might indicate that disciplinary departments could become in the
future fairly small employers for academics.

6. The Educational Perspective: Teaching and Learning
General Outlook
It has been argued that the interdisciplinarity debate is too focused on research
and that relatively little discussion occurs in the area of teaching.111 The science
of education offers a different perspective on disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity,
which will be explored in this section. Education or pedagogics is a relatively new
discipline that combines aspects of psychology, history, philosophy and some
practical studies.112 Its domain is the whole complex of teaching and learning.
The discipline of education is nowadays a compulsory subject used for the
training of teachers and university lecturers. Education is, of course, also a field
of research that aims to understand the social reality of education.
The main problems and questions education deals with are: what content
shall be taught to pupil and students (the question of curriculum)?; how should

111 Lisa Lattuca (2001), Creating Interdisciplinarity/Interdisciplinary Research and Teaching
among College and University Faculty, Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, pp. 19-20.
112 Robert V. Bullough (2006), ‘Developing Interdisciplinary Researchers: What Ever Happened to
the Humanities Education?’, Educational Researcher 35:8 (November), p. 5.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
42
the content be taught (the question of teaching method)?; what other educational
goals shall be pursued in addition to teaching knowledge and skills (the question
of values)? In other words, education has to answer to questions of truth,
learning and morals. It has to reflect on the higher goals of education beyond
passing on random knowledge and skills. The ‘science of education’ would be the
reflexive effort of looking at the reality of education and trying to understand how
it is practised. Education researchers are thus different from educators and they
also aim at avoiding value judgements that are inevitable in the field of
pedagogics, as pedagogics wants to determine good practice in teaching. The
following section is more concerned with the perspective of educators and
pedagogics, but also draws on some findings of education researchers.
The educational perspective on disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity is
focused on the problem of curriculum or the question of what would be
worthwhile to be taught to pupils and students. The content should be in some
meaningful way relevant to students in terms of shaping their personalities and in
terms of improving their chances of being successful in life, for example by
finding suitable employment and pursuing a career afterward. Academic
disciplines are thus mainly identified with subjects that provide content and
structure to school and university curricula. School education and many higher
education courses tend to be multidisciplinary in the sense that they require
pupils and students to study more than one subject area. This is a very common
practice that ensures that education does not become overly specialized, one-
sided or ideological, turning out graduates who lack a more balanced
understanding of the world.
Educators (teachers and lecturers) tend to be very much in favour of
multidisciplinarity in the sense of providing pupils and students with a greater
range of possibilities for developing own interests and strengths. At the same
time, educators seem to be most concerned about the tendency of mixing
subjects in the form of interdisciplinary subjects and courses, as it simply might
What Are Academic Disciplines?
43
demand too much from students and teachers. 113The credibility of teachers
depends on them being an authority in the subject(s) they teach. With the growth
of knowledge it has become so difficult to be an authority in one discipline that
claiming authoritative knowledge in more than one discipline looks like
dilettantism.114 Similarly, it might be expecting far too much of students to require
them to master many different types of knowledge in the context of relatively
short academic courses that usually take just one to three years. Thus amongst
many teachers and lecturers scepticism towards the interdisciplinary agenda
seems to prevail.
Special Insights
The educational perspective offers a very complex picture. Disciplinary
instruction has been the most traditional and common way of organising school
education and courses of study. Disciplines provide the comfort of some stability
in curricula and provide some general structure for the organisation of teaching,
especially at an undergraduate level. For example, an aspiring political science
graduate will have to take some modules in the main political science
subdisciplines, which are political theory, political systems and international
relations, before specialising in any particular field. The contact of political
science students with ‘sister’ disciplines like history, sociology or law is seen as
welcome, provided that they are experienced as complementary rather than
competing subjects. The reason is that the discipline should be taught in a
manner that it is a coherent body of knowledge. Coherence makes it easier for
students to learn and understand a discipline. Contradictory knowledge claims or
fragmented knowledge is simply far more difficult to digest and far less
compelling. Coherence has therefore a major effect on the attitudes of students
towards learning and their educational success.

113 Howard Gardner (1999), The Disciplined Mind: What Students Should Understand, New York:
Simon & Schuster, p. 219.
114 Mattei Dogan (1996), ‘The Hybridization of Social Science Knowledge – Navigating Among the
Disciplines: The Library and Interdisciplinary Inquiry’, Library Trends (Fall).
What Are Academic Disciplines?
44
Educational research indicates that there is overall a strong tendency
towards more interdisciplinary subjects and courses. 115All disciplines are
troubled by the explosion and increasing fragmentation of knowledge, making it
more and more difficult for teachers to select what is really relevant to their
students. It has been argued that this growing complexity would make
interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and research necessary. Disciplinary
boundary lines would be nowadays much harder to draw and this has already led
to the creation of genuinely interdisciplinary courses like environmental studies,
which combine a larger number of subjects. 116Educators have some mixed
feelings about the new trend towards interdisciplinary courses. On the one hand,
it is seen as an opportunity of liberating students from disciplinary parochialisms
and narrow-mindedness. The student or disciplined researcher and scholar
would no longer be, in Paul Feyerabend’s words, a ‘trained pet’ stuck within a
familiar paradigm that he or she would be too anxious to question,117 but would
instead be free to see the many connections between numerous bodies of
knowledge.
On the other hand, educators fear that students would just get confused
forcing on them a variety of incompatible disciplinary perspectives and altogether
contradictory fragments of knowledge. Students might come to the conclusion
that any position or viewpoint is equally valid and that it would be unnecessary to
make a substantial effort understanding that position. So instead of making
students more critical thinkers the exact opposite could happen: students might
just embrace a convenient position of uncritical relativism. More conscientious
students and young researchers might also struggle in finding any intellectual
base to start with. The education researcher Robert Bullough asks: ‘Where, one
wonders, will these young aspiring experts learn what makes a question worthy
of enquiry and educationally important, and where will they gain the courage to

115 Julie Thompson Klein (1999), Mapping Interdisciplinary Studies/The Academy in Transition,
Washington, DC: The Association of American Colleges & Universities, p. 2.
116 Ibid., pp. 4-5.
117 Paul Feyerabend (1984), Against Method/Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge,
London: Verso, p. 25.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
45
go outside established bounds when dissent is needed and necessary?’ 118
Furthermore, being ‘interdisciplinary’ carries a terrifying intellectual risk, as one
researcher describes: ‘The angel I hear – who sounds more like the bank robot
reciting my inadequate balance than any imaginable angel – scornfully inflates
my attempts to use the insights of other disciplines as polymath grandeur…the
fear that I can’t possibly know anything about economics or government because
a whole department in the next building really knows the subject is paralyzing
and unproductive’.119
It appears that students would need some rigorous disciplinary training first
before they go off and develop their own interdisciplinary research interests as
one interdisciplinary researcher argued.120 Disciplinary instruction does make a
lot of sense at an undergraduate level. If interdisciplinary research is pursued at
the postgraduate (doctoral) level aspiring interdisciplinary researchers would
need some support infrastructure in the form of training, multiple supervisors and
community that can compensate for the problem that the research does not occur
within one disciplinary department.
One purpose of education is to prepare pupils and students for economic
participation or for the job market.121 An academic degree used to be a ‘corporate
certification of accomplishment in a field of knowledge’. 122This means that
curricula should convey knowledge and skills that are considered relevant to
employers. Disciplinary instruction allows potential employers to have some idea
of the particular training a graduate has undergone and the particular skills and
knowledge the graduate may have. For example, companies and banks like to
employ economists because they tend to have mathematical skills and
knowledge of economic processes and behaviour. This is what an economics

118 Robert V. Bullough (2006), ‘Developing Interdisciplinary Researchers: What Ever Happened to
the Humanities Education?’, Educational Researcher 35:8 (November), p. 3.
119 Quoted in Vaughan Baker (1997), ‘The Perils and Promises of Interdisciplinarity in the
Humanities’, in: Lewis Pyenson, Disciplines and Interdisciplinarity, p. 59.
120 Lisa Lattuca (2001), Creating Interdisciplinarity/Interdisciplinary Research and Teaching
among College and University Faculty, Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, p. 70.
121 Harry Brighouse (2006), On Education, London: Routledge, pp. 27-28.
122 Lewis Pyenson (1997), Disciplines and Interdisciplinarity in the New Century, Lafayette, LA:
The University of Southwestern Lousiana Press, p. 28.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
46
degree certifies and what makes it valuable. Similarly, psychologists are valued
on the job market for their empirical research and statistical skills and their
understanding of human motivation. The problem with new and interdisciplinary
degrees is that employers simply do not know what kind of employee they would
get and what kind of skills and knowledge the employee could contribute to the
organisation. As a result, the job prospects and career opportunities for
graduates in interdisciplinary fields may be diminished.
In higher education this means that curricula should also enable students to
join the academic profession and to become scholars who can advance science
and knowledge. The problem with switching to interdisciplinary curricula and the
interdisciplinary training of researchers is that the next generation of researchers
will be less thoroughly trained in the disciplines. The true dilemma of education is
therefore the growing divide between teaching, which still happens in the context
of traditional disciplines, and the increasing importance of interdisciplinary
research for which university education should prepare young researchers.
Relevance
Universities still proclaim themselves to be institutions of higher education, which
means that education is their main business and should be their main concern. It
is quite impossible to run an educational institution without curricula made up by
subjects, or more abstractly, some thematically coherent teaching units. Effective
teaching just needs authority, context and structure and cannot be carried out
from some idealised postdisciplinary position of everything is possible or
permissible. The academic disciplines of the modern university have shaped
higher education by creating disciplinary subjects and by providing the suitably
trained teaching personnel. There are ways of making courses and subjects
more interdisciplinary, for example by requiring students to attend seminars in
different departments or by team teaching classes. However, there are also time
constraints and cognitive limitations on part of teachers and students that will
make it necessary to discipline the interdisciplines, thus creating some stable and
coherent body of knowledge and methods for assessing the quality of student
work. (University) education without discipline(s) seems hardly a viable possibility.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
47
Disciplinary Perspectives on Disciplines Matrix
Philosophy Anthropology Sociology History Management Education
Paradigm Knowledge Culture Social
Organisation
Time Market Personality
Development
What
Factors
Encourage
Disciplin-
arity?
Language
games/
discourses
Cultural
identity and
segmentation
Professionali
zation/ Power
Structures
Leadership of
talented
founders of a
discipline
Past success
of disciplinary
organisation
Curriculum
and the need
for structured
or ‘disciplined’
learning
What
Factors
Encourage
Inter-
/Transdiscip
linarity?
Universa-
lisation of
knowledge
New forms of
community
and identity
Social
Change/Decli
ne of
Professions
Maturation of
a discipline/
lack of
leadership
Better
adaptation to
the market
Changes of
knowledge
structures/new
approaches to
teaching
On Balance Disciplines
are needed
for
validating
claims to
truth
Disciplines
offer a stable
identity and
are similar to
tribal
structures
Disciplinary
structures are
difficult to
overcome
because of
the self-
interest of
power groups
Historically
the number
of disciplines
has
constantly
expanded
rather than
declined
Disciplines
are an
obsolete form
of the
organisation
of science
and
universities
Educators are
more in favour
of disciplinary
education
because of a
concern that
students may
only be
confused by
competing
claims to truth
and world
views

7. Survival Strategies for Disciplines
This paper has shown that academic disciplines are under attack from many
sides. Most importantly there are budgetary pressures connected to rising costs
of research and diminishing returns in some areas, which mean that a great
many disciplines have to fear for their long-term survival. This final section will
discuss possible survival strategies for academic disciplines with respect to their
chances and perils. Most basically a threatened discipline has three options for
responding to the threat to its existence: it can try to withdraw to its core areas
and this way strengthen its identity and boundaries; it can move closer to a
stronger discipline and form a strategic alliance; or finally, it can reconstitute itself
within a newer and larger field of study aiming at dominating the new discourse.
All of these strategies have their own dangers and there is no general recipe for
success. It will depend on each specific discipline which strategy might work best.
As disciplines are not monolithic entities it will be often the case that disciplines
What Are Academic Disciplines?
48
will turn to two or all three of these strategies. It therefore depends on good and
strong leadership by the most talented scholars to give a troubled discipline a
new direction and a new lease of life.
1. Turning inward and strengthening boundaries
The intuitive and spontaneous reaction of a community to a perceived outside
threat is to turn inward and to attempt to improve the cohesion of its members.
United we stand, divided we fall – so the slogan goes. The discipline will
withdraw from knowledge territories that it can no longer claim to control and it
will focus on its core areas and original virtues or strengths. This will increase the
sense of identity and belonging of its members and allow it to concentrate its
efforts on areas that are most promising and areas that are least challenged by
others. This is the strategy that philosophy has chosen when it reconstituted itself
as an academic discipline at the end of the 19th century. It withdrew to its core
areas like logic, epistemology and ethics, where it could claim unique knowledge
and expertise. In the United States academic philosophy became after the
Second World War very focused on analytical philosophy along the lines of
Wittgenstein. The result was that American philosophers became hostile to so-
called ‘continental philosophy’, which they felt was not intellectually rigorous
enough. They have largely succeeded in driving out competing traditions of
philosophy out of American philosophy departments. 123In effect, the analytic
philosophy tradition turned inward and worked largely on refining their own
analytical instruments. Indeed philosophy survived as an academic discipline in
the modern research university, despite various attempts of moving it out of the
academy completely. The great danger of this strategy is that the discipline loses
touch with its societal and science environment and thus just speeds up its own
obsolescence and irrelevance, if its basic assumptions on which it rests turn out
to have been fundamentally flawed, or if it can no longer relate to a larger context
anymore that can make it interesting to outsiders. In the history of the academic
discipline of philosophy there has been a strong tendency towards

123 J.M. Balkin (1996), ‘Interdisciplinarity as Colonization’, Washington and Lee Law Review 949.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
49
hyperspecialization and insularity. 124An academic career in philosophy still
requires strong focus on a particular philosophical tradition and particular
philosophical debates, which are mainly characterised by their arcane and
esoteric style. Academic philosophers have recently become worried about the
possibility of an ultimate failure of their discipline and try to become more
interdisciplinary by engaging more in public debates through ‘applied philosophy’
or ethics. An important example is bioethics, which might become a worthy
successor to the current discipline of philosophy. 125The bottom line is that
without some real virtues and a real contribution to science and society not even
the most tightly-knit and methodically rigorous discipline can pass the test of time.
2. Forming strategic alliances with stronger disciplines
The alternative to turning inward is to join forces with a strong ally who can
protect the discipline from ultimate failure. A threatened discipline might
collaborate with a strong discipline, which can make it more respected according
to the motto: If you can’t beat them, join them. So instead of strengthening
boundaries, it will attempt to tear down or soften the clear border to a strong
discipline by incorporating some of its methods and knowledge. A ‘soft’ discipline
like sociology might turn to a ‘hard’ discipline like biology to form the new
interdisciplinary amalgam of ‘sociobiology’, which combines the natural and
social sciences.126 Similarly, a province of philosophy, the philosophy of mind,
has moved strongly into the direction of neuroscience and computer science,127
which makes it much more respectable compared to its previous grounding in
metaphysical theories that are now considered to be scientifically unsound. The
advantage of this strategy is that it can lead to a new influx of ideas, which can
rejuvenate the discipline. The obvious danger is that the stronger discipline might
just appropriate or swallow this new interdisciplinary formation by having or
attracting the more talented researchers who can take the new discourse further.

124 Christina Bicchieri (2006), ‘Philosophy: What Is to Be Done?’, Topoi 25, pp. 21-23.
125 Glenn McGee (2006), ‘Will Bioethics Take the Life of Philosophy?’, The American Journal of
Bioethics 6:5 (September/October), pp. 1-2.
126 Mattei Dogan (1996), ‘The Hybridization of Social Science Knowledge – Navigating Among the
Disciplines: The Library and Interdisciplinary Inquiry’, Library Trends (Fall).
127 Julie Thompson Klein (1996), Crossing Boundaries/Knowledge, Disciplinarities, and
Interdisciplinarities, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, p. 47.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
50
If a social science discipline too keenly embraces ‘foreign’ methods, then it will
tempt the experts who originally developed these methods to simply move into
the new turf because they are better able to use and refine the methods than
anybody else. For example, a social science discipline that becomes too focused
on using computer modelling and simulation could become at some point just an
adjunct or application of computing rather than remaining an autonomous
discipline.128 The reason is that learning a new method like computer modelling
requires many years of specialised training in computer science, while the
background knowledge for applying the method could be probably acquired a lot
faster and more easily. So it is quite dangerous to adopt apparently more
powerful methods from other disciplines just for the sake of it. In some cases it
only results in rather unimaginative or inappropriate use of these methods in
which much effort and talent is wasted on ‘split[ing] a hair into four by factor
analysis’.129
3. Reconstituting the discipline in a newer and larger field of study
The final strategy is based on the idea that a discipline might reconstitute itself
within a newer and more fashionable field of study with the aim of eventually
dominating it, according to the motto: better be a trendsetter than a follower.
Thus the threatened discipline could put itself in a much bigger context spanning
a much wider area of knowledge that used to belong to a great variety of
disciplines and attach to it a more attractive label. For example, anthropology can
rebrand itself as cultural studies, which provides a much larger context through
joining a great number of disciplines including anthropology, sociology, media
and communication studies, film studies and literature. If a discipline cannot
survive as an autonomous department in a university, then such a rebranding
and uniting with other endangered disciplines is an obvious thing to do. A cultural
studies department combining various social sciences might have a much
stronger position and a much more certain future than the much smaller
disciplinary departments. In any case, a big department is much more difficult to

128 W.S. Bainbridge (2003), ‘The Future in the Social Sciences’, Futures 35, p. 645.
129 Mattei Dogan (1996), ‘The Hybridization of Social Science Knowledge – Navigating Among the
Disciplines: The Library and Interdisciplinary Inquiry’, Library Trends (Fall).
What Are Academic Disciplines?
51
eliminate than a small one and a broader scope offers greater opportunities for
the development of teaching and research than a narrow scope. The downside is
that the joined disciplines are unlikely to keep their own distinct identities, or at
least they have their identities challenged by the creation of this seemingly new
discursive formation. Will anthropology still be anthropology if the next generation
of researchers are trained and understand themselves to be cultural studies
scholars rather than anthropologists? Will anthropology not be eroded through its
replacement by a succession of fashionable ‘studies’ areas such as ‘cultural
studies’, ‘development studies’, ‘postcolonial studies’ and so on, one
anthropologist wonders.130 Some of the anthropology tradition and scholarship
might survive, but it will also be in direct competition with the traditions of other
disciplines joined in the cultural studies (or similar) fields. As a result, this
strategy of fashionably reconfiguring disciplines could turn out to be just another
path to extinction.

It is certainly too soon to declare the end of disciplines and there is the strong
likelihood that disciplines and disciplinarity can survive in the long-term. Some
disciplines will undoubtedly disappear, but it is unlikely that a single
postdisciplinary science could be possible or successful or even desirable. An
anarchical and completely pragmatic science based on constantly shifting
interests and applications without some sustained and systematic effort will
simply not work. Luckily, the natural tendency in society is towards order and not
anarchy. At the same time, the old practice in the social sciences of mutual
disregard has no future as well. The disciplines have to make a greater effort of
understanding and appreciating each other’s work without abandoning their own
distinct identities, however arbitrary their boundaries are. This means embracing
interdisciplinarity while keeping and nurturing disciplines as the ultimate
reference points. Only such a mature and self-conscious science will be
worthwhile pursuing and deserves a future.

130 João Pina-Cabral (2004), ‘The Future of Social Anthropology’, Social Anthropology 13:2 (June),
p. 127.
What Are Academic Disciplines?
52
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