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What is discipline? How should it be defined?

Nicholas Overgaard explains the topic

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?

In the scientonomic context, this term was first used by Hakob Barseghyan in 2016. The term is currently accepted by Scientonomy community.

Broader History

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.1p. 109 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.1pp. 111-112 Becher’s main point then comes as he states that “characteristic beliefs, values and practices are, if anything, more noticeable than epistemological distinctions.”1p. 113 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.”1p. 113 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”.1p. 110

Scientonomic History

Acceptance Record

Here is the complete acceptance record of this term (it includes all the instances when the term was accepted as a part of a community's taxonomy):
CommunityAccepted FromAcceptance IndicatorsStill AcceptedAccepted UntilRejection Indicators
Scientonomy1 April 2016It was acknowledged as an open question by the Scientonomy Seminar 2016.Yes

All Theories

The following definitions of the term have been suggested:
TheoryFormulationFormulated In
Discipline (Patton-Al-Zayadi-2021)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.2021
If a definition of this term is missing, please click here to add it.

Accepted Theories

According to our records, no definition of the term has ever been accepted.

Suggested Modifications

Here is a list of modifications concerning this term:
Modification Community Date Suggested Summary Verdict Verdict Rationale Date Assessed
Sciento-2021-0006 Scientonomy 1 August 2021 Accept new definitions of subquestion, core question, core theory, discipline, delineating theory, subdiscipline, and discipline acceptance. Open

Current Definition

There is currently no accepted answer to this question.



In Scientonomy, there are currently no accepted claims concerning the existence of Discipline.


In Scientonomy, no classes are currently accepted as disjoint with Discipline.


In Scientonomy, there are currently no accepted subtypes of Discipline.


In Scientonomy, there are currently no accepted supertypes of Discipline.


In Scientonomy, there are currently no accepted associations of Discipline.

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.

Related Topics

This term is also related to the following topic(s):


  1. a b c d e  Becher, Tony. (1981) Towards a Definition of Disciplinary Cultures. Studies in Higher Education 6 (2), 109-122.