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Academic discipline

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Academic discipline

A discipline (or specialism) is knowledge or a concentration in one academic field of study or profession. A discipline incorporates types of knowledge, expertise, skills, people, projects, communities, problems, challenges, studies, inquiry, approaches, and research areas that are strongly associated with academic areas of study or areas of professional practice. For example, the branches of science are commonly referred to as the scientific disciplines. Thus, the phenomenon of gravitation is strongly associated with the discipline of physics, and so gravitation is considered to be part of the disciplinary knowledge of physics.

Disciplinary knowledge associated with academic disciplines and professions results in people who are known as experts or specialists, as opposed to generalists who may have studied liberal arts or systems theory.

Closely associated concepts include multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, and crossdisciplinarity, which address problems arising out of the isolation that accompanies the specialization inherent in disciplines. Disciplinary "silos" create the problem of communicating among experts who speak different languages. Division of labor can lead to productivity and comparative advantage in applying production or problem solving skills, but also adds to the problem of transaction costs and the problem of communication overhead that may require that some individuals develop Interactional expertise and establish "trading zones" to communicate across disciplinary "silos".

Some researchers find that academic disciplines seem to be replaced by what is termed Mode 2[1] or "post academic science".[2]

History of the concept

"The scientific discipline as the primary unit of internal differentiation of science is an invention of nineteenth century society. There exists a long semantic prehistory of disciplina as a term for the ordering of knowledge for the purposes of instruction in schools and universities.".[3]

The branches of science as distinct categories, also known as the scientific disciplines, emerged at the end of the eighteenth century to address a variety of needs: to archive a growing body of knowledge, to organize knowledge in such a way as to form teaching curricula, and to assemble communities of like-minded practitioners. This resulted in the categorizing of scientific specializations and their concomitant journals into the disciplines of modern science.

Educational institutions originally conceived of "disciplines" to catalog and archive the new expanding body of information produced by the scientific revolution during the early modern period. Curricula and disciplinary designations were linked first in German universities during the first half of the nineteenth century and were gradually adopted in other countries, becoming the accepted conventional subjects of science by the approaching 20th century: Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geology, Astronomy.

Prior to this, categories were broad and general, and knowledge was less specialized. The term scientist itself was coined in 1834 and not in use popularly until the late 19th or early 20th century. With rare exceptions practitioners of science tended to be amateurs and were referred to as Natural Historians and Natural Philosophers, designations harkening back to Aristotle (natural history encompassed what was to become the life sciences; natural philosophy became the physical sciences.)

Few opportunities existed for science as an occupation outside of the educational system, so it was natural that, as specializations developed, they would do so hand in glove with the subjects identified as modern scientific disciplines in universities. Science as a profession was coupled with educational occupations. Higher education provided the institutional structure for scientific investigation as well as economic support.

As the volume of scientific information accrued with unprecedented speed, it became fruitful to concentrate on smaller fields of scientific activity and specializations emerged. Academia's identified disciplines set forth the organizing structure and forums for like-minded people of specialized interests and expertise. The most significant manifestations of this were the scientific journals.

Functions and criticism

A very influential critique of the concept of disciplines came from Michel Foucault in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish. Foucault asserts that academic disciplines originate from the same social movements and mechanisms of control that established the modern prison and penal system in 18th century France, and that this fact reveals essential aspects they continue to have in common: "The disciplines characterize, classify, specialize; they distribute along a scale, around a norm, hierarchize individuals in relation to one another and, if necessary, disqualify and invalidate." (Foucault, 1975/1979, p 223.[4])

Academic discipline

Main article: Academic disciplines

An academic discipline, or field of study, is a branch of knowledge that is taught and researched at the college or university level. Disciplines are defined (in part), and recognized by the academic journals in which research is published, and the learned societies and academic departments or faculties to which their practitioners belong.

Academic disciplines tend to co-evolve with systems of professions. The academic disciplines and professions may be said to 'own' knowledge and the privilege/responsibility of validating/authorizing new knowledge extensions in particular disciplinary areas. For example, astronomers define what is and is not a planet, and so the knowledge about the status of Pluto as a planet can change.

Pierce (1991, p. 22-23) writes: "Although most studies fail to define the term [discipline] explicitly, they typically assume that boundaries of disciplines closely follows those of academic departments. The use of such boundaries may seem to fix overly concrete limits on a highly abstract phenomenon, excluding too large a number of people with interest in the subject. But its importance in creating and maintaining disciplinary communities makes the academic department the building block from which disciplines are created".[5]

Fields of study usually have several sub-disciplines or branches, and the distinguishing lines between these are often both arbitrary and ambiguous.[6]

Scientific discipline

Scientific Disciplines are both subject areas of study and communities of professionals and practitioners with common interests and knowledge. Scientific Disciplines, corresponding with the branches of science, serve also to organize knowledge taxonomically. Conventionally, the branches of science represent major categories of study but have been divided into narrower specializations called sub-disciplines. For example, the Biology branch includes a number of sub-disciplines such as molecular biology, botany, and herpetology.

In the rapidly enlarging fields of scientific practice, the creation of sub-disciplines has out-paced its documentation. Some efforts have been made to catalog and map the sub-disciplines based on visible metrics, primarily existing scientific journals, which often self-identify themselves by a sub-discipline name. Such efforts have yielded over 500 active scientific sub-disciplines.



Multidisciplinary knowledge is associated with more than one existing academic discipline or profession.

A multidisciplinary community or project is made up of people from different disciplines and professions who are engaged in working together as equal stakeholders in addressing a common challenge. The key question is how well can the challenge be decomposed into nearly separable subparts, and then addressed via the distributed knowledge in the community or project team. The lack of shared vocabulary between people and communication overhead is an additional challenge in these communities and projects. However, if similar challenges of a particular type need to be repeatedly addressed, and each challenge can be properly decomposed, a multidisciplinary community can be exceptionally efficient and effective. A multidisciplinary person is a person with degrees from two or more academic disciplines, so one person can take the place of two or more people in a multidisciplinary community or project team. Over time, multidisciplinary work does not typically lead to an increase nor a decrease in the number of academic disciplines.

There are many examples of when a particular idea appears in different disciplines, at about the same period. One case is the shift from the approach of focusing on "specialized segments of attention" (adopting one particular perspective), to the idea of "instant sensory awareness of the whole", an attention to the "total field", a "sense of the whole pattern, of form and function as a unity", an "integral idea of structure and configuration". This has happened in painting (with cubism), physics, poetry, communication and educational theory. According to Marshall McLuhan, this paradigm shift was due to the passage from the era of mechanization, which brought sequentiality, to the era of the instant speed of electricity, which brought simultaneity.[7]

Multidisciplinary approaches is also encouraged in help shaping innovation of the future. Political dimensions of forming new multidisciplinary partnerships to solve the so-called societal Grand Challenges is presented in the Innovation Union and in the European Framework Programme, the Horizon 2020 [8] operational overlay. Innovation across disciplines is considered the pivotal foresight of the creation of new products, systems and processes to the benefit for societies growth and wellbeing. Regional examples such as Biopeople and industry-academia initiatives in translational medicine such as in Denmark provide the evidence of the successful endavour of multidisciplinary innovation and facilitation of the paradigm shift.


Main article: Interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinary knowledge is the knowledge extensions that exist between or beyond existing academic disciplines or professions. The new knowledge may be claimed by members of none, one, both, or an emerging new academic discipline or profession.

An interdisciplinary community or project is made up of people from multiple disciplines and professions who are engaged in creating and applying new knowledge as they work together as equal stakeholders in addressing a common challenge. The key question is what new knowledge (of an academic discipline nature), which is outside the existing disciplines, is required to address the challenge. Aspects of the challenge cannot be addressed easily with existing distributed knowledge, and new knowledge becomes a primary subgoal of addressing the common challenge. The nature of the challenge, either its scale or complexity, requires that many people have interactional expertise to improve their efficiency working across multiple disciplines as well as within the new interdisciplinary area. An interdisciplinary person is a person with degrees from one or more academic disciplines with additional interactional expertise in one or more additional academic disciplines, and new knowledge that is claimed by more than one discipline. Over time, interdisciplinary work can lead to an increase or a decrease in the number of academic disciplines.


Main article: Transdisciplinarity

In practice, transdisciplinary can be thought of as the union of all interdisciplinary efforts. While interdisciplinary teams may be creating new knowledge that lies between several existing disciplines, a transdisciplinary team is more holistic and seeks to relate all disciplines into a coherent whole.


Cross-disciplinary knowledge is that which explains aspects of one discipline in terms of another. Common examples of cross-disciplinary approaches are studies of the physics of music or the politics of literature.


In the interdisciplinary courses, some new terms are used, that there is no consensus on their meaning and their difference with the mentioned terms, such as intra-disciplinary, pluridisciplinary, hyperdisciplinary, meta-disciplinary and integrated. [9][10]

Bibliometric studies of disciplines

Bibliometrics can be used to map several issues in relation to disciplines, for example the flow of ideas within and among disciplines (Lindholm-Romantschuk, 1998) [11] or the existence of specific national traditions within disciplines.[12]


  • R. Fagin, J. Y. Halpern, Y. Moses, and M. Y. Vardi. Reasoning about Knowledge, The MIT Press, 1995. ISBN 0-262-56200-6
  • A. Abbott. The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor, University of Chicago Press, 1988. ISBN 978-0-226-00069-5
  • Augsburg, Tanya. (2005), Becoming Interdisciplinary: An Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies.

Further reading

Association for Integrative Studies

Dogan, Mattei & Pahre, R. (1990). The fate of formal disciplines: from coherence to dispersion. In Creative marginality: innovation at the intersections of social sciences. Boulder, CO: Westview. pp. 85–113.

Dullemeijer, P. (1980). Dividing biology into disciplines: Chaos or multiformity? Journal Acta Biotheoretica, 29(2), 87-93.

Gibbons, M.; Limoges, C.; Nowotny, H.; Schwartzman,S.; Scott, P. & Trow, M. (1994). The new production of knowledge: the dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies. London: Sage.

Golinski, Jan (1998/2005). Making natural knowledge. Constructivis, and the history of science. New York: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 2: Identity and discipline. Part II: The disciplinary mold (pp. 66–78).

Hicks, Diana (2004). The four literatures of social science. IN: Handbook of Quantitative Science and Technology Research: The Use of Publication and Patent Statistics in Studies of S&T Systems. Ed. Henk Moed. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.

Hyland, Ken (2004). Disciplinary Discourses: Social Interactions in Academic Writing. New edition. University of Michigan Press/ESL.

Klein, J. T. (1990). Interdisciplinarity. History, Theory, and Practice. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Leydesdorff, Loet & Rafols, Ismael. (2008). A global map of science based on the ISI subject categories. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. The decomposition of scientific literature into disciplinary and subdisciplinary structures is one of the core goals of scientometrics. How can we achieve a good decomposition? The ISI subject categories classify journals included in the Science Citation Index (SCI). The aggregated journal-journal citation matrix contained in the Journal Citation Reports can be aggregated on the basis of these categories. This leads to an asymmetrical matrix (citing versus cited) that is much more densely populated than the underlying matrix at the journal level. Exploratory factor analysis of the matrix of subject categories suggests a 14-factor solution. This solution could be interpreted as the disciplinary structure of science.

Lindholm-Romantschuk, Y. (1998). Scholarly book reviewing in the social sciences and humanities. The flow of ideas within and among disciplines. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Martin, B. (1998). Information Liberation: Challenging the corruptions of information power. London: Freedom Press. Book freely available at:

Morillo, F.; Bordons, M. & Gomez, I. (2003). Interdisciplinarity in science: A tentative typology of disciplines and research areas Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 54(13), 1237-1249.

Morillo, F.; Bordons, M; & Gomez, I. (2001). An approach to interdisciplinarity bibliometric indicators. Scientometrics, 51(1), 203-222.

Newell, A. (1983). Reflections on the structure of an interdiscipline. In Machlup, F. & U. Mansfield (Eds.), The study of information: Interdisciplinary messages (pp. 99–110). NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Pierce, S. J. (1991). Subject areas, disciplines and the concept of authority. LISR [Library and Information Science Research], 13, 21-35.

Porter, A. L.; Roessner, J. D.; Cohen, A. S. & Perreault, M. (2006). Interdisciplinary research: meaning, metrics and nurture. Research Evaluation, 15(3), 187-195.

Prior, Paul (1998). Writing/Disciplinarity: A Sociohistoric Account of Literate Activity in the Academy. Lawrence Erlbaum. (Rhetoric, Knowledge and Society Series)

Qin, J.; Lancaster, F. W. & Allen, B. (1997). Types and levels of collaboration in interdisciplinary research in the sciences. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 48(10), 893-916.

Rinia, E. J.; van Leeuwen, T. N.; Bruins, E. E. W.; van Vuren, H. G. & van Raan, A. F. J. (2002). Measuring knowledge transfer between fields of science. Scientometrics, 54(3), 347-362.

Sanz-Menendez, L.; Bordons, M. & Zulueta, M. A. (2001). Interdisciplinarity as a multidimensional concept: its measure in three different research areas. Research Evaluation, 10(1), 47-58.

Stichweh, R. (2001). Scientific Disciplines, History of. IN: Smelser, N. J. & Baltes, P. B. (eds.). International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Oxford: Elsevier Science (pp. 13727–13731).

Szostak, R. (2000). Superdisciplinarity: A Simple Definition of Interdisciplinarity With Profound Implications. Association for Integrative Studies, Portland, Oregon, October, 2000. (Meeting presentation)

Tengström, E. (1993). Biblioteks- och informationsvetenskapen - ett fler- eller tvärvetenskapligt område? Svensk Biblioteksforskning(1), 9-20.

Tomov, D. T.& Mutafov, H. G. (1996). Comparative indicators of interdisciplinarity in modern science. Scientometrics, 37(2), 267-278.

van Leeuwen, T. N. & Tijssen, R. J. W. (1993). Assessing multidisciplinary areas of science and technology - A synthetic bibliometric study of Dutch nuclear-energy research. Scientometrics, 26(1), 115-133.

van Leeuwen, T. N. & Tijssen, R. J. W. (2000). Interdisciplinary dynamics of modern science: analysis of cross-disciplinary citation flows. Research Evaluation, 9(3), 183-187.

Weisgerber, D. W. (1993). Interdisciplinary searching - problems and suggested remedies - A Report from the ICSTI Group on Interdisciplinary Searching. Journal of Documentation, 49(3), 231-254.

Wittrock, B. (2001). Disciplines, History of, in the Social Sciences. IN: International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, (pp. 3721–3728). Ed. By N. J. Smeltser & P. B. Baltes. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

See also

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