Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Andew Abbott, "The Context of Disciplines"

Most Important Sentence: “Thus, a long historical process has given rise to a more or less steady, institutionalized social structure in American academia: a structure of flexibly stable disciplines, surrounded by a perpetual hazy buzz of interdisciplinarity.”

This book chapter, taken from Abbott’s larger volume The Chaos of Disciplines, attempts to more deeply understand disciplines (and their chaotic nature) by looking at the context in which they have arisen and been sustained. Additionally, Abbott discusses how interdisciplinarity has contributed to that maintenance of disciplines. With these ideas in the background, he finally uses of the bulk of the chapter to discuss, most in-depth, what he calls the “interactional field of disciplines.”
Abbott begins this chapter with the claim that “External contexts of fractal comparisons have important consequences for internal development within a sublineage” (p.121). This sinuous statement sets the stage for the broad argument he subsequently makes: Academic disciplines in the United States developed with a particular history and confluence of forces that have strongly contributed to their resiliency or “extraordinary stasis” through the years. Those particularities include 1) the fact that “universities were numerous and decentralized,” 2) faculty employment expanded during the development period of the modern disciplines at rates unseen since, and 3) aspiring professions used higher degrees “as prerequisites of professional schooling” (p.125). Without an internal structure, then, disciplines stepped in to provide organization and meaning within and across universities.
That “within” and “across” characteristic of disciplines was and remains critical to their stasis. That is, disciplines experienced a kind of “dual institutionalization” whereby they simultaneously “constituted the macrostructure of the labor market for faculty,” and “constituted the microstructure of each individual university” (p.126). A clear example of this, Abbott reminds us, is disciplines’ role in American undergraduate education, especially at the most elite universities, which gain prestige from certain disciplinary majors. Interesting was Abbott’s point that never has this major system been pedagogically question; I wondered if it would be worthy of debate for two reasons: 1) for real pedagogical value, and 2) since his argument obviously expects the disciplinary structure to continue anyway.
A number of different points Abbott makes both intrigued and perplexed me.  For one, his argument about a lack of diversification among academic disciplines due to labor market pressures somewhat contradicts all that I have heard (and presumed) about the value of individual specialization (by which I mean, unique combination of skills, attributes, et cetera) for the job market. It is perhaps just in the academic world that such specialized combinations are not rewarded, or just not as Abbott sees it? Similarly, I am skeptical of Abbott’s claim that “nondisciplinary intellectuals” (and non-academic intellectuals in general) have difficulty succeeding outside of academia. Perhaps I know of a few too many rare examples that would refute this, but I still sense that Abbott’s bias shows through here. Again, when he lists the many substantive benefits of disciplines, I question whether Abbott has his own overly strong allegiance to disciplines to be writing, seemingly agnostically, about the history and context behind disciplines.
Interdisciplinarity comes into the equation of Abbott’s argument in that it has emerged hand-in-hand with the many disciplines, and yet has not become an overwhelming power against any one of them. In fact, Abbott cleverly mentions that nothing exhibits the power of the “historicist forces” of disciplinarity better than interdisciplinarity. This I was surprised to read. He argues that insofar as interdisciplinarity is problem-driven (“and problems… have their own life cycle” (p. 134)), and as disciplines necessarily operate on a level larger than individual problems, both interdisciplinarity and the individual disciplines will persist – and invite debate regarding the inevitability of their persistence. 
All of this reminds me of the self-preservation attribute of higher education that we discussed last week. For example, this type of arrangement and the practical consequences for the immutability of disciplines, along with the supposedly subsidiary role of interdisciplinarity, positively feeds into the very existence of disciplines.  Moreover, cycles of power were clearly evident in the creation of disciplines; for example, when disciplinary societies developed and subsequently excluded many of the “amateurs of knowledge” that had created them in the first place.  Abbott alludes to the possible alternatives that may have arisen in place of the disciplinary structure we know today, yet he does not elaborate on any one of them enough for the reader (or at least me) to assume that it was any other force besides self-preservation and power struggles that caused the results he describes.  Thus, the cynic (or perhaps the semi-Marxist) in me desires to conclude that disciplinarity in higher education is yet another societal element determined by struggles of power.
About midway in the chapter, Abbott qualifies the argument made thus far by saying “the system of disciplines is more or less a constant at the social structural level by no means fixes the complex cultural field that the disciplines produce” (p. 137). As I understood it, the complex and flexible cultural field within which disciplines manage themselves is constantly negotiated by and dependent on the interactions between disciplines regarding the division of labor of intellectual work. With this, Abbott seemed to be introducing the necessary nuance to the reality of disciplines, and to things in the natural world more generally – that on some level, division of labor is perpetually occurring and adapting to current circumstances, whether it be through competition, efficient negotiation, or some other mode.

I appreciated this article for the blend of history and social theory that Abbott applied to a conceptual discussion of disciplines. It built well on last week’s discussion about the origin of the research university, and contributes to the broad inquiry that this class is about: what the future of disciplinarity is; how the university might morph and grow in the future; and where the opportunity lies within such an institutionalized structure for innovation, both of intellectual elements and the systemic characteristics.

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