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Academic Disciplines - Disciplines and the Structure of Higher Education, Discipline Classification Systems, Discipline Differences

disciplinary fields knowledge consensus

Discipline is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "a branch of learning or scholarly instruction." Fields of study as defined by academic discipline provide the framework for a student's program of college or postbaccalaureate study, and as such, define the academic world inhabited by scholars. Training in a discipline results in a system of orderly behavior recognized as characteristic of the discipline. Such behaviors are manifested in scholars' approaches to understanding and investigating new knowledge, ways of working, and perspectives on the world around them. Janice Beyer and Thomas Lodahl have described disciplinary fields as providing the structure of knowledge in which faculty members are trained and socialized; carry out tasks of teaching, research, and administration; and produce research and educational output. Disciplinary worlds are considered separate and distinct cultures that exert varying influence on scholarly behaviors as well as on the structure of higher education.

The number of disciplines has expanded significantly from those recognized in early British and German models. Debates are ongoing about the elements that must be present to constitute a legitimate disciplinary field. Among such elements are the presence of a community of scholars; a tradition or history of inquiry; a mode of inquiry that defines how data is collected and interpreted, as well as defining the requirements for what constitutes new knowledge; and the existence of a communications network.

Disciplines and the Structure of Higher Education

Influence in the academic profession is derived from disciplinary foundations. A hierarchical structure of authority is not possible in colleges and universities given the autonomy and expert status of faculty with respect to disciplinary activities. Consequently, the structure of higher education is an associational one based on influence and persuasion. Interaction between the professor and the institution is in many ways shaped by the professor's disciplinary affiliation. This condition is not only a historical artifact of the German model of higher education that was built on the "scientific ethos" from which status in the profession has been derived, but it also results from faculty members having their primary allegiance to a discipline, not to an institution. Disciplinary communities establish incentives and forms of cooperation around a subject matter and its problems. Disciplines have conscious goals, which are often synonymous with the goals of the departments and schools that comprise an institutional operating unit.

Colleges and universities are typically organized around clusters of like disciplines that have some cognitive rationale for being grouped together. The seat of power for decisions on faculty promotion, tenure, and, to some extent, support for research and academic work, lies in the academic department. Thus discipline as an important basis for determining university structure becomes clear. In institutions placing lesser emphasis on research and in institutions more oriented toward teaching, the faculty may adopt more of a local or institutional orientation than a cosmopolitan or disciplinary orientation. In these institutions faculty performance and recognition may be based on institutional as opposed to disciplinary structures. Therefore, the strength of discipline influence on organizational structure in research institutions, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges, for example, can be expected to vary.

Discipline Classification Systems

Numerous analytical frameworks are evident in the literature for classifying academic disciplines for purposes of comparative study. Four of these frameworks have drawn much of the focus of empirical work in the study of discipline differences. These are codification, level of paradigm development, level of consensus, and the Biglan Model. Each of these frameworks is reviewed in turn with relevant commentary on categorical variation determined through empirical study.

Codification. Codification refers to the condition whereby knowledge can be consolidated, or codified, into succinct and interdependent theoretical formulations. As a cognitive dimension, codification describes a field's body of knowledge as opposed to behavioral attributes of scholarly activity. Use of the codification framework in the study of discipline has essentially been displaced by the use of the high-low consensus concept, because consensus, or level of agreement among scholars, has been determined to be a function of codification.

Paradigm development. Paradigm development, as first developed by Thomas S. Kuhn, refers to the extent to which a discipline possesses a clearly defined "academic law" or ordering of knowledge and associated social structures. "Mature" sciences, or thosp> with well-developed paradigms such as physics, are thought to have clear and unambiguous ways of defining, ordering, and investigating knowledge. At the opposite end of the scale are fields such as education and sociology, which are described as preparadigmatic. These fields are characterized by a high level of disagreement as to what constitutes new knowledge, what are appropriate methods for inquiry, what criteria are applied to determine acceptable findings, what theories are proven, and the importance of problems to study. The terms paradigm development and consensus are thought to be interchangeable as they describe a common dimension of disciplinary fields–the extent of agreement on structure of inquiry and the knowledge it produces.

Consensus. The core of the paradigm development concept is the degree of consensus about theory, methods, techniques, and problems. Consensus implies unity of mind on elements of social structure and the practice of science. The indicators of consensus in a field are absorption of the same technical literature, similar education and professional initiation, a cohesiveness in the community that promotes relatively full communication and unanimous professional judgments on scientific matters, and a shared set of goals, including the training of successors. Researchers commonly attribute high levels of consensus to the physical sciences, low levels to the social sciences, and even lower levels to the humanities.

Greater particularistic tendencies, that is, judgments based on personal characteristics, have been exhibited by low-consensus disciplines. For example, in award structures in the sciences, the lower the consensus level the more awards are based on personal characteristics. With respect to the peer-review process, low-consensus editorial board members have been shown to be more likely to accept publications from their own universities. Also, in selection of editorial board members, low-consensus journals put more emphasis on personal knowledge of individuals and their professional associations.

The Biglan Model. Anthony Biglan derived his taxonomy of academic disciplines based on the responses of faculty from a large, public university and a private liberal arts college regarding their perceptions of the similarity of subject matter areas. His taxonomy identified three dimensions to academic disciplines: (1) the degree to which a paradigm exists (paradigmatic or pre-paradigmatic, alternatively referred to hard versus soft disciplines); (2) the extent to which the subject matter is practically applied (pure versus applied); and (3) involvement with living or organic matter (life versus nonlife systems). The natural and physical sciences are considered to possess more clearly delineated paradigms and are in the "hard" category. Those having less-developed paradigms and low consensus on knowledge bases and modes of inquiry (e.g., the social sciences and humanities) are considered "soft." Applied fields tend to be concerned with application of knowledge, such as law, education, and engineering. Pure fields are those that are viewed as less concerned with practical application, such as mathematics, history, and philosophy. Life systems include such fields as biology and agriculture, while languages and mathematics exemplify nonlife disciplines. Biglan's clustering of thirty-three academic fields according to his three-dimensional taxonomy is displayed in Table 1.

Subsequent work by Biglan substantiated systematic differences in the behavioral patterns of faculty with respect to social connectedness; commitment to their teaching, research, and service roles; and publication output. Biglan concluded that the three dimensions he identified were related to the structure and output of academic departments. Specifically, hard or high-paradigm fields showed greater social connectedness on research activities. Also, faculty in these fields were committed more to research and less to teaching than faculty from soft or low-paradigm fields. Those in hard fields also produced more journal articles and fewer monographs as compared to their low-paradigm counterparts. Greater social connectedness was exhibited by scholars in high-paradigm fields, possibly as a result of their common orientation to the work. Applied fields showed greater commitment to service activities, a higher rate of technical report publication, and greater reliance on colleague evaluation. Faculty in life system areas showed higher instance of group work with graduate students and a lesser commitment to teaching than their counterparts in nonlife systems areas. Empirical research applying the Biglan Model has been consistent in supporting its validity.

Discipline Differences

While the disciplines may share a common ethos, specifically a respect for knowledge and intellectual inquiry, differences between them are vast, so much


so in fact that discipline has been referred to as the major source of fragmentation in academe. Disciplines have been distinguished by styles of presentation, preferred approaches to investigation, and the degree to which they draw from other fields and respond to lay inquiries and concerns. Put simply, scholars in different disciplines "speak different languages" and in fact have been described as seeing things differently when they look at the same phenomena.

Differences in discipline communication structures, reward and stratification systems, and mechanisms for social control have been observed. In addition to these variations in structure of disciplinary systems, variations at the level of the individual scholar, the departmental level, and the university level, summarized in a 1996 work by John M. Braxton and Lowell L. Hargens, are drawing a good bit of scholarly attention. To illustrate the extent and content of differences reflected in the literature, a comparative review of discipline differences, based on nature of knowledge, community life and culture, communication patterns, and social relevance or engagement with the wider context, has been synthesized from the work of Tony Becher in Table 2.

It is important to note that the differences captured here encompass both epistemological and social characteristics of each of the four discipline groups. Much of the early study of disciplinary variation focused primarily on the epistemological or cognitive aspects, and it was essentially studies in the sociology of science that brought attention to the social aspects of disciplinary work. Indeed the social factor is becoming more a focus of study with increased attention to the disciplinary impacts on academic organization and leadership. In better understanding how social and epistemological characteristics are manifested in disciplinary groups, scholars will move closer to a theory of discipline differences.


BECHER, TONY. 1987. "The Disciplinary Shaping of the Profession." In The Academic Profession: National, Disciplinary, and Institutional Settings, ed. Burton R. Clark. Berkeley: University of California Press.

BECHER, TONY. 1989. Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Cultures of the Disciplines. Bury St. Edmunds, Eng.: Society for Research into Higher Education, Open University Press.

BEYER, JANICE M., and LODAHL, THOMAS M. 1976. "A Comparative Study of Patterns of Influence in United States and English Universities." Administrative Science Quarterly 21:104–129.

BIGLAN, ANTHONY. 1973. "The Characteristics of Subject Matter in Different Academic Areas." Journal of Applied Psychology 58:195–203.

BIGLAN, ANTHONY. 1973. "Relationships between Subject Matter Characteristics and the Structure and Output of University Departments." Journal of Applied Psychology 57 (3):204–213.


BRAXTON, JOHN M., and HARGENS, LOWELL L. 1996. "Variations among Academic Disciplines: Analytical Frameworks and Research." In Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, Vol. XI, ed. John C. Smart. New York: Agathon Press.

CLARK, BURTON R., ed. 1987. The Academic Profession: National, Disciplinary, and Institutional Settings. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

KOLB, DAVID A. 1981. "Learning Styles and Disciplinary Differences." In The Modern American College, ed. Arthur W. Chickering. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

KUHN, THOMAS S. 1996. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

LADD, EVERETT C., and LIPSET, SEYMOUR MARTIN. 1975. The Divided Academy: Professors and Politics. Berkeley, CA: Carnegie Commission on Higher Education.

LIGHT, DONALD, JR. 1974. "Introduction: The Structure of the Academic Professions." Sociology of Education 47 (winter):2–28.

LODAHL, JANICE B., and GORDON, GERALD. 1972. "The Structure of Scientific Fields and the Functioning of University Graduate Departments." American Sociological Review 37 (February):57–72.

RUSCIO, KENNETH P. 1987. "Many Sectors, Many Professions." In The Academic Profession: National, Disciplinary, and Institutional Settings, ed. Burton R. Clark. Los Angeles: University of California Press.


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about 4 years ago

it very important to know about the major problems of higher institution students!!

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almost 6 years ago

What criteria can be used to determine whether an area of study can be classified as a discipline? Some of the criteria could include a)existence of systematic body of knowledge in books b)existence of pple teaching it, c) students studying it d) literature on it, e) researchers in the area, f)associations/bodies to further its vision/aims, g)existence of paradigm, h) consensus among scholars in field,i) research journals/ publications on it, etc

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over 8 years ago

Thank you for this overview - so far it is the best summary of the literature on disciplinary classification systems I can find. Isn't there also a US Government publication that serves higher education in the classification of disciplines, fields, subfields, etc?

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almost 3 years ago

deciplines in higher education

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about 3 years ago

Is it possible to get a version of this that includes the tables?

Thanks very much.

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over 1 year ago

Hello, This article was very useful to me as i teach in a teacher education college.