What counts as an ‘academic discipline’?

Disciplinary matters

What counts as an academic discipline matters to me on two fronts: firstly, because my research on academic writing is allowing me to reflect on why academic writing is not classed as a discipline (in the UK, at least) given its rich history and scholarly identity; and secondly, because I teach EAP (English for Academic Purposes), and over the years the issue of whether EAP is a discipline or not resurfaces, mainly because its recognition within and without the academy remains contested (debates surrounding this contention can be found here).

Moreover, academic disciplinary boundaries also matter when it comes to justifying and establishing the remit of current and future disciplines. For example, the dicipline of Science evolved from Natural Philosophy; Psychology came into its own once its links with Philosophy and Medicine were scinded; Anthropology and Sociology clearly overalp, but what has traditionally distinguished them is their methodology (ethnography in the former case, statistics in the latter; yet, more and more Social Scientists are using ethnography as their preferred methodology, including Educationalists); and current university degree courses on Peace, War and Terrorism are new: do they count as ‘disciplines’ and if so, on what grounds?

As universities increasingly have to vie for custom, academic departments are opening and closing their doors on the basis of ‘student demand’. As a consequence, academics are increasingly having to re-negotiate their own identities and scholarly remits at a time when job security, the purpose of higher education and ‘post-truth‘ politics are being hotly debated and are likely to be having an impact on how academia is being understood. Research funding is also linked to how secure and recognised an academic discipline is. All of this, therefore, raises legitimate questions about ‘what counts as an academic discipline’ and to what extent do current affairs determine this.

I’ve come across this helpful and clarificatory resource which contextualises the above debates surrounding disciplinary boundaries (the document has further references on (inter)disciplinary issues). Below, I’ve copied the 6 criteria for establishing ‘what counts as an academic discipline’ that Dr Armin Krishnan lists on pages 9 and 10 of his report:

‘Discipline’ has a rich and complex etymology which highlights tensions between agency and structure

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 preparation’. A 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.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.

Are you dealing with any of these issues? If so, I’d love to know your thoughts, especially on whether academic writing should be classed as an academic discipline!

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Technical_drawing?uselang=en-gb#/media/File:Zentralperspektive_zeichnen.png