In an introductory book chapter titled “Disciplines” Salter and Hearn attempt to clarify what is meant by discipline and weigh in on the debate over whether conceptualizing knowledge into disciplines is remains useful. They ultimately conclude that it does, but also chip away at assumptions about the stability and intellectual foundations of the notion of discipline.
In arguing that the universe of disciplines may not be as stable as we think, they point to the general lack of cohesion within and lack of clear boundaries surrounding disciplines. Conflicts tend to fracture disciplinary scholars into subfields and overlaps in methods, objects of analysis and other attributes between disciplines blur boundaries demarcating where one discipline ends and the next begins.
It would seem that there is a subconscious awareness within disciplinary fields of the inherent instability of the universe of disciplines. In Salter and Hearn’s account, members of a disciplinary field continually struggle over how tightly or loosely they define the scope of their discipline. The scope of the discipline is rained in by those who fear that if it reaches the point at which it would seem to include just about anything the common bonds holding the discipline together will fall apart.
They then go on to question the idea that disciplines represent something essential about human knowledge. They offer a more complex understanding of what a discipline reflects, suggesting disciplines are defined not just in service of the advancement of knowledge, but also as a means of reinforcing certain power and institutional structures. They say when thinking of the notion of discipline in terms of knowledge, it should not be understood as entirely separate from the less noble definition of discipline as social control through coercion. Universities, administrative structures, journals and funders, all have a stake in the maintenance of particular disciplinary boundaries.
Even with all of this in mind, Salter and Hearn maintain that an intellectual basis remains for disciplines and that even if it didn’t, that there would be practical reasons for keeping them. In making the point that an intellectual basis for disciplines remains, they say that while any one set of methods, perspectives, objects of study or other attributes might not be the exclusive province of any one discipline, they are represented unequally among them. That each discipline can at least claim a prevailing foci of attention that are useful in orientating people towards constellations of knowledge.
While I think Salter and Hearn make a generally sound case for the usefulness of disciplines, their assertion that an intellectual basis for disciplines might not be a necessary condition gave me pause. Their reasoning as to why disciplines would remain useful even without an intellectual basis, was rather unsatisfying. They say simply that it would be useful on a practical level because universities use the term “discipline” to distinguish their faculties. They don’t say that this would be the only practical reason, but the claim that using disciplines would be justified solely for practical reasons arguably could be expected to make many readers uncomfortable and begs for more evidentiary attention.
About the authors:
Liora Salter is herself a cross disciplinarian, as a professor with cross-appointments in Environmental Studies and Law at York University. She has degree in sociology and communication and is also known for work in communication studies and interdisciplinary research. Allison Hearn is an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario, who studies media and culture with a focus on visual and tele-visual theory and culture, media activism. She also studies the university as a cultural and political site.
If it were demonstrated that delineation of knowledge into disciplines is completely arbitrary on an intellectual basis, do you think that their use would still be justified for practical reasons?
Throughout the chapter, Salter and Hearn use disciplines like economics, law and sociology to illustrate their points. Do you think that they would have had more difficultly illustrating some of the points they make had they instead used disciplines in the hard sciences as examples?