Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Stephen Turner "What are disciplines? And how is interdisciplinarity different?"

While reading this week’s articles, the multiplicity of definitions calls my attention to the extraordinary complexity of disciplines and the numerous dimensions along which they differ (degree of stability, degree of consensus, tightness of paradigm, openness to other ideas, and status).

In Stephen Turner’s article, he emphasizes the way disciplines are closed and operate as employment cartels. Compare to other definitions, he has rather a pragmatic definition of a discipline. For Turner, to be a discipline, a field must have an “internal labour market,” that is, a set of arrangements that make it typical to hire specialists in the field. Without this, nonspecialists can obtain employment, and there is consequently less control over the specialized knowledge of the field.

“Disciplines, this suggests, are cartels that organize markets for the production and employment of students by excluding job-seekers who are not products of the cartel” (p. 51).

More specifically, by his definition, a field is a discipline if it meets two conditions: (1) it has departmental status across a large number of institutions, and (2) it has a market for new doctorates. In other words, to be termed a discipline a field must have both “identity” and “exchange.” The identity comes from achieving departmental status. The exchange comes from having a market for new doctorates.

Turner’s emphasis on disciplines as employment cartels, which emphasizes the exclusionary nature of disciplines, first led me to assume that Turner has a negative view of disciplines. And indeed Turner does express concern over the risks of “fossilization” of disciplines. But Turner notes positive features of disciplines as well. For example, “The fact that a lot of people are trained in fundamentally the same way makes it possible for them to effectively make judgments about the quality of the work done by other people and for regimes of training to themselves be evaluated for their rigor” (p.52). The absence of an internal labour market, Turner suggests, makes interdisciplinary programs vulnerable to many external factors, which, he suggests, is “the answer to the question of why interdisciplinary effects so often to fail” (p.56).

Turner’s approach represents a good starting point because it emphasizes the social organization of disciplines. Yet I want to say that there are some questions left to be answered. For instance, what are the prerequisites for establishing an internal labour market in the first place? And what kinds of the continuing legitimacy needed to maintain it? I think Turner’s perspective can be improved upon by extending the analysis to more fully consider the conditions that contribute to the founding and persistence of disciplines.


1. Turner compares some cases of interdisciplinary programs with respect to the division of labour. Disciplines, as Turner has suggested, have two elements to their definition. One is nominal: the discipline must be called a discipline. The other is related to the actual facts of employment: there must be persons trained in the name of the discipline and the beginnings of a labour market. What does this mean for cross-, inter-, multi etc. disciplinarity?

2. Turner focuses more on internal factors in explaining the formation of discipline. However, there can be both internal and external factors that drive disciplinarization. External factor can be such as the reaching of some particular stage of intellectual development. Are there any crucial external factors that work as an antecedent or driving force of disciplinarization?


Adding some background information of the reading... 

This is one of the chapter in the book "Practicing Interdisciplinarity (2000)" under the part2 titled as "The Changing Topography of Science."

The author of the chapter, Stephen Turner is a Professor of Philosophy department in University of South Florida. He is the author of a number of books in the history and philosophy of social science and statistics. He is interested in the problem the political significance of science and more broadly in the problem of knowledge in society. His other current interests are problems of explaining normatively and issues relating to the implications of cognitive neuroscience for social theory. 

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