Status of Disciplinary Boundaries

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How do disciplinary boundaries exist within the scientific mosaic?
Nicholas Overgaard explains the topic

A community's mosaic consists of the set of all theories accepted and methods employed by that community at some particular time. How do disciplinary boundaries exist within the mosaic: are they expressible as theories and/or methods? Is the statement of disciplinary boundaries a mere definition of a discipline, a description of what a discipline has been doing, or a normative prescription of what a discipline ought to do. For example, when physicists say "Physics is the study of the nature and properties of matter and energy", it's not quite clear whether this is meant as a definition, description or prescription. It can have three different meanings:

  • definition: physics, by definition, is the study of the nature and properties of matter and energy;
  • description: physics has been studying the nature and properties of matter and energy;
  • prescription: physics ought to study the nature and properties of matter and energy.

Is it possible that actual disciplinary boundaries are some kind of a combination of the three? If that is so, then how are the definition of a discipline, its description and its prescription interrelated? The task is to clarify the exact nature of disciplinary boundaries.

In addition, how are topics of disciplines related to disciplinary boundaries? Different disciplines are interested in different topics and it seems likely that there is a substantial link between the topics covered by a discipline and the boundaries of the discipline. However, it is possible for different disciplines to study the same topic. For instance, behavioural economics can study behaviours in different settings which is also a topic studied by psychology. Thus, it seems likely that there is more to disciplinary boundaries and different topics.

In the scientonomic context, this question was first formulated by Hakob Barseghyan in 2016. The question is currently accepted as a legitimate topic for discussion by Scientonomy community. At the moment, the question has no accepted answer in Scientonomy.


Until very recently the question of the status of disciplinary boundaries was mostly ignored. Static methodologists showed very little interest in the subject although they did weigh in on the related question of the demarcation of scientific theories from pseudo-scientific ones. Philosophers of science like Karl Popper and Rudolf Carnap formulated criteria for distinguishing scientific disciplines like astronomy and physics from non-scientific topics like astrology and palm reading. Carnap's verificationism maintained that a theory is scientific only if it can be verified by observation. 1pp. 27 Popper, on the other hand, maintained that a theory is only scientific if it is vulnerable to falsification by conflicting observations. 1pp. 58

Later, dynamic methodologists like Imre Lakatos and Thomas Kuhn said more that was of relevance to the status of disciplinary boundaries, without explicitly broaching the subject. Lakatos saw the scientific endeavour as consisting of research programs.

A more interesting comparison to be drawn between history and the status of disciplinary boundaries lies in the opinion of dynamic methodologists such as that of Imre Lakatos and Thomas Kuhn. Lakatos, while never outright stating his opinion on disciplinary boundaries seems to have formed a strong implicit foundation for disciplinary boundaries. For Lakatos, periods of stability in science involve research programs. What is interesting is that one of the main criteria for a theory to become accepted into a research program is to be in unity with the rest of the program.2pp. 32-34 Herein it is evident, while there were no absolute criteria by which to determine disciplinary boundaries, Lakatos at least regarded them in some sort of simple terms in that they had to work with each other. In essence, for Lakatos disciplinary boundaries were still ambiguous but more defined than his static methodologist predecessors.

Kuhn, like Lakatos, never took an explicit stance on disciplinary boundaries. Kuhn had a very interesting system of five shared values which theories progress through. Ignoring his future contradictions and deconstructions of these values, one of the five values which shows his recognition of disciplinary boundaries is consistency. Consistency as a value entailed that a theory be internally consistent but also consistent with other theories of the paradigm. Like in the case for Lakatos, disciplinary boundaries are seen as ambiguous but at least recognized by Kuhn.3pp. 320-339

Some more recent authors (Becher, Bechtel, Hoskin, and Stichweh) have attempted to clarify the nature of academic disciplines. Tony Becher conducted a case study by interviewing experts from six apparently distinct disciplines, and used the data obtained to propose a number of different methodological ways to distinguish between disciplines. He contends that each discipline has its own qualities – not just epistemological, but cultural as well, and regards each of these in turn to contrast between disciplines.4p. 109 Becher identifies the way practitioners approach problems, the extent of the role of ideology, and characteristic modes of publication as distinguishing epistemological features between fields. As an example, he contends that historians and biologists are more open-ended in their problem solving (do not require an initial hypothesis), whereas physicists and sociologists prefer a more concrete starting point. He also contends that ideology plays a lesser role in the natural sciences than in fields like history and sociology, and cites examples of different modes of publication from discipline to discipline.4pp. 111-112 Becher’s main point then comes as he states that “characteristic beliefs, values and practices are, if anything, more noticeable than epistemological distinctions.”4p. 113 That is, we can examine the social structure of a discipline rather than what the field of study actually is to tell different disciplines apart – for example, historians prefer non-technical language and are largely amateur-driven, whereas physicists use highly technical language and “seem sharply conscious of a hierarchy of esteem attaching to particular specialisms within their discipline.”4p. 113 Becher’s paper is more of a prescription of methodology than one claiming to know how to tell disciplines apart – his approach involves interviewing faculty members and identifying the “main structural similarities and differences within and between the […] domains”.4p. 110


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Scientonomy1 April 2016It was acknowledged as an open question by the Scientonomy Seminar 2016.Yes

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  1. a b  Godfrey-Smith, Peter. (2003) Theory and Reality. University of Chicago Press.
  2. ^  Lakatos, Imre. (1970) Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. In Lakatos (1978a), 8-93.
  3. ^  Kuhn, Thomas. (1973) Objectivity, Value Judgement, and Theory Choice. In Kuhn (1977a), 320-339.
  4. a b c d e  Becher, Tony. (1981) Towards a Definition of Disciplinary Cultures. Studies in Higher Education 6 (2), 109-122.


Sinan Karamehmetoglu (12.6%), Cameron Martin (24.6%), Maxim Mirkin (27.8%), Jacob MacKinnon (2.0%), Hakob Barseghyan (8.4%), Paul Patton (24.6%)