What is discipline? How should it be defined?
Epistemic agents often classify knowledge into disciplines; e.g. disciplines are a ubiquitous feature of modern science. Thus, having a notion of discipline is an important first step in understanding the role of disciplines in the process of scientific change.
Are disciplines they expressible as theories, questions, and/or methods? Is a discipline expressible as a mere definition of a discipline, a description of what a discipline has been doing, or a normative prescription of what a discipline ought to do. For example, when physicists say "Physics is the study of the nature and properties of matter and energy", do they mean this as a definition, description, or prescription? It can have three different meanings:
- definition: physics, by definition, is the study of the nature and properties of matter and energy;
- description: physics has been studying the nature and properties of matter and energy;
- prescription: physics ought to study the nature and properties of matter and energy.
Is it possible that disciplines are conceptualizable as some kind of a combination of the three? If that is so, then how are the definition of a discipline, its description and its prescription interrelated?
Several authors have attempted to clarify the nature of academic disciplines (e.g. Becher, Bechtel, Hoskin, and Stichweh). Tony Becher conducted a case study by interviewing experts from six apparently distinct disciplines, and used the data obtained to propose a number of different methodological ways to distinguish between disciplines. He contends that each discipline has its own qualities – not just epistemological, but cultural as well, and regards each of these in turn to contrast between disciplines.1 Becher identifies the way practitioners approach problems, the extent of the role of ideology, and characteristic modes of publication as distinguishing epistemological features between fields. As an example, he contends that historians and biologists are more open-ended in their problem solving (do not require an initial hypothesis), whereas physicists and sociologists prefer a more concrete starting point. He also contends that ideology plays a lesser role in the natural sciences than in fields like history and sociology, and cites examples of different modes of publication from discipline to discipline.1 Becher’s main point then comes as he states that “characteristic beliefs, values and practices are, if anything, more noticeable than epistemological distinctions.”1 That is, we can examine the social structure of a discipline rather than what the field of study actually is to tell different disciplines apart – for example, historians prefer non-technical language and are largely amateur-driven, whereas physicists use highly technical language and “seem sharply conscious of a hierarchy of esteem attaching to particular specialisms within their discipline.”1 Becher’s paper is more of a prescription of methodology than one claiming to know how to tell disciplines apart – his approach involves interviewing faculty members and identifying the “main structural similarities and differences within and between the... domains”.1
|1 April 2016
|It was acknowledged as an open question by the Scientonomy Seminar 2016.
|A discipline is characterized by (1) a non-empty set of core questions Q and (2) the delineating theory stating that Q are the core questions of the discipline.
|1 August 2021
|Accept new definitions of subquestion, core question, core theory, discipline, delineating theory, subdiscipline, and discipline acceptance.
There is currently no accepted answer to this question.
If a question concerning the ontology of a discipline is missing, please add it here.
If a question concerning the dynamics of a discipline is missing, please add it here.
This term is also related to the following topic(s):
- Becher, Tony. (1981) Towards a Definition of Disciplinary Cultures. Studies in Higher Education 6 (2), 109-122.