Disciplines, specialties, professions and discourses in knowledge organization (KO)

"The term “discipline” refers both to organizational units in educational programs (for example, in schools) and to organizational units in knowledge production. The term ‘discipline’ is inherited from the vocabulary of nineteenth century and is understood as a branch of instruction for the transmission of knowledge and as a convenient mapping of academic administration” (Dogan, 2001, p. 14851).


"The scientific discipline as the primary unit of internal differentiation of science is an invention of nineteenth century society. There exists a long semantic prehistory of disciplina as a term for the ordering of knowledge for the purposes of instruction in schools and universities. But only the nineteenth century established real disciplinary communication systems. Since then the discipline has functioned as a unit of structure formation in the social system of science, in systems of higher education, as a subject domain for teaching and learning in schools, and finally as the designation of occupational and professional roles." (Stichweh, 2001, p. 13727).


"Specialization is first of all an intellectual orientation. It depends on a decision to concentrate on a relatively small field of scientific activity, and, as is the case for any such decision, one needs a social context supporting it, that is, other persons taking the same decision. Such decisions are rare around 1750 when encyclopedic orientations dominated among professional and amateur scientists alike, but they gained in prominence in the last decades of the eighteenth century. Second, specialization as role differentiation points to the educational system, which is almost the only place in which such specialized roles can be institutionalized as occupational roles. From this results a close coupling of the emerging disciplinary structures in science and the role structures of institutions of higher education." (Stichweh, 2001, p. 13728).


"Scientific communities are communication systems. In this respect the emergence of the scientific discipline is equivalent to the invention of new communication forms specific of disciplinary communities. First of all one may think here of new forms of scientific publications. In the eighteenth century a wide spectrum of publication forms existed; they were not, however, specialized in any way." (Stichweh, 2001, p. 13728). (A model for how communication is organized within disciplines is the UNISIST model of information dissemination, which distinguishes, among other things, between primary, secondary and tertiary information services and sources).


Pierce (1991) describes disciplines as social organizations which develop norms and criteria for what counts as authoritative knowledge. Disciplines are battle places which compete with other disciplines about their boundaries and which create societies which exclude nonmembers. "To some extent, the exclusion of those lacking university training in the discipline resembles the professionalization of an applied field. There are, however, important differences between professionalization and the exclusion of amateurs in an academic discipline. Professions seek to restrict the performance of certain types of work to their own members; disciplines legitimate contributions to bodies of knowledge" (Pierce, 1991, p. 26). He concludes his paper: "Perhaps we [library and information professionals] should learn to be more critical of the very concept of authority. Authority is legitimate only within the boundaries of the community (subject or otherwise) in which it is based. Many questions pertain to areas claimed by competing disciplines, and some to areas beyond the bounds of recognized disciplinary communities. Even when we are able to locate authoritative sources with answer to questions, they tend to be less certain than they look, and greater authority is no guarantee of quality. Authority tells us only that the creators of the source have qualifications and institutional affiliations that match the expectations of a given disciplinary community, not that the source is infallible, or even that its disciplinary community it the best to pursue the information sought" (Pierce, 1991, p. 31).


Crane & Small (1992) distinguish between two kinds of disciplines: “restricted disciplines”, such as most physical sciences, which would be expected to exhibit a high degree of linkage between different research areas within the discipline, but less linkage to other disciplines and “unrestricted sciences”, such as most social sciences, which would be likely to exhibit relatively diffuse links among research areas both within and outside the disciplines.


Classification of disciplines

Disciplines (or sciences) may be classified in one-dimensional classification schemes, in two-dimensional maps  or in multidimensional ways (cf. atlas of science). Concerning the classification of disciplines see classification of the sciences.


The overall level of classification disciplines is related to the organizational structures of

universities and other research institutions. A common division is Natural Science, Technology, Arts & Humanities and Social Sciences.


Relations between "disciplines" and Library and Information Science (LIS)

The relation between library classification and disciplinary structure is presented in this quotation:


"Thus, between 1850 and 1945, a series of disciplines came to be defined as constituting an area of knowledge to which the name “social science” was accorded. This was done by establishing in the principal universities first chairs, then departments offering courses leading to degrees in the discipline. The institutionalization of training was accompanied by the institutionalization of research: the creation of journals specialized in each of the disciplines; the construction of associations of scholars along disciplinary lines (first national, then international): the creation of library collections catalogued by disciplines”. (Wallerstein, 1996, p. 30).


The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) states that “a work on water may be classed with many disciplines, such as metaphysics, religion, economics, commerce, physics, chemistry, geology, oceanography, meteorology, and history. No other feature of the DDC is more basic than this: that it scatters subjects by discipline” (Dewey, 1979, p. xxxi; emphasis added). (See also aspect or discipline classification versus entity, phenomena or one-place classification). One strength of discipline classification is that the classification is targeted to specific user groups, organized in disciplines.


To use disciplines as basis for classification is sometimes termed aspect classification and is opposed to entity classification (also termed "phenomenon" or "one place" classification). This dualism is related to the distinction between intellectual organization of knowledge and social organization of knowledge.




(Dogan, 2001) puts forward the view that disciplines are no longer the most important units in scientific communication. He finds that no person in disciplines like sociology today can master the knowledge of the whole discipline and contribute to many of them. Each formal discipline gradually becomes unknown in its entirety. “The process of specialization has tended to disjoin activities which had previously been united, and to separate scholars belonging to the same formal discipline, but who are interested in different fields.” (Dogan, 2001, p. 14851) “In the sociology of science the term ‘discipline’ is defined as ‘a cluster of specialties’ (Crane and Small, 1992, p. 198), the specialty being the main source of academic recognition and professional legitimating (Zuckerman, 1988, p. 539; here cited from Dogan, 2001, p. 14851).


Dogan (2001) further finds that while specialization is celebrated as a mark of competence in the sciences, in some social sciences, especially sociology, political science, psychology, and anthropology, does one hear complaints and lamentations about the fragmentation of the discipline into specialties. In these disciplines the word ‘crisis’ appears in the title of many books and articles about the identity and the contours of these disciplines (Horowitz, 1993; Turner & Turner, 1990). Dogan, however, see such “crises” as symptoms of growth and expansion.

“There is more communication between specialties belonging to different disciplines than between specialties within the same discipline” (Dogan, 2001, p. 14852)

“The networks of cross-disciplinary influence are such that they are obliterating the old classification of the social sciences”. (Dogan, 2001, p. 14853)

“Depending on the definition we adopt, there are in the social sciences between 12 and 15 formal disciplines, but dozens of specialties, sectors, fields, and subfields. In sociology, for instance, there are some 50 specialties, as indicated by the list of research committees of the International Sociological Association. There are as many in the International Political Science Association. Most of these groups cooperate to a limited extent within their respective discipline” (Dogan, 2001, p. 14852).


"Derek de Solla Price (1963) conjectured that specialties would begin to exhibit speciation when the carrying community grew larger than a 100 or so active scientists (Crane, 1972; Kochen, 1983). Furthermore, the proliferation of scientific journals can be expected to correlate with this proliferation of communities because new communities will wish to establish their own journals (Price, 1965). New journals are organized within existing frameworks, but the bifurcations and other network dynamics feed back on the historical organization to the extent that new fields of science and technology become established and existing ones thus reorganized (Van den Besselaar & Leydesdorff, 1996)." (Leydesdorff, 2006, p. 601).  




Professions are part of the social division of labor in society, and one way to study the social organization of knowledge is to study the nature and structure of the division of labor (for an introduction, see Littek, 2001). The study of professions is a specialty within the social sciences, see professions, study of). The development of languages for special purposes is related to the development of both disciplines and professions).



Terms such as discourse community, "speech community",  "epistemic community"; "intellectual community" and "thought collective" are increasing being used in the literature along with "discipline" and "specialty". They are terms emphasizing the development of common languages and genres. A discourse community is a less formal entity than a discipline, it is more a unit determined by its actual degree of communication. However, the terminology is not today well defined or laid down.


For Library and Information Science (LIS) are the concepts of discipline, specialty and discourse community important. They are important explanatory terms in bibliometrics. As we saw, they are also important in knowledge organization because classification often uses disciplines as points of departure.


However, too little research in LIS has been concerned with disciplines. This is the case both on the more concrete level and on the abstract level. On the concrete level the further development of classification systems may benefit from empirical input about trends in the developments of disciplines. On the more abstract level may LIS benefit from a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the social organization of knowledge, such as shortly presented above. Although social organization of knowledge is but one dimension in KO it is a dimension that cannot be neglected.


Example: LIS as a discipline, specialty, profession & discourse.

The dynamics of specialties and disciplines is addressed by Tengström (1993 p. 12), who emphases that cross-disciplinary research is a process, not a state or structure. He differentiates three levels of ambition regarding cross-disciplinary research:

  1. The ”Pluridisciplinarity” or ”multidisciplinarity” level

  2. The genuine cross-disciplinary level: ”interdisciplinarity”

  3. The discipline-forming level ”trans disciplinarity”

What is described here is a view of social fields as dynamic and changing. Library and information science, for example, can be viewed as a field that started as a multidisciplinary field based on literature, psychology, sociology, management, computer science etc., which is developing towards a discipline in its own right.


Much research in LIS is related to the Internet. When is Internet research a part of LIS, and when is it a part of other disciplines? Or is it becoming a new discipline itself? (C.f., Disciplinarity/interdisciplinarity: The example of Internet research).  Does it matter, whether it belongs to one discipline or another?


"It is now evident that where one discipline ends and the other begins no longer matters, for it is the nature of the case that the boundaries are ill-defined." Patricia Churchland (1986, p. x)





Abbott, A. (2001). Chaos of disciplines. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.


Churchland, P. S. (1986). Neurophilosophy. Cambridge: MIT Press. 


Crane, D. (1972). Invisible colleges. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Crane, D. & Small, H, (1992). American sociology since the seventies: the emerging identity crisis in the discipline. In T. C. Halliday and M. Janowitz (Eds), Sociology and its Publics: The Forms and Fates of Disciplinary Organization (pp. 197–234). Chicago,: University of Chicago Press.


Dewey, M. (1979). Dewey Decimal Classification and relative index. (19th ed., Vol. 1). Albany, NJ: Forest Press.


Dirks, A. L. (1996). Organization of Knowledge: The Emergence of Academic Specialty in America. Published on-line by author ( http://webhost.bridgew.edu/adirks/ald/papers/orgknow.htm  ). Bridgewater, MA. Accessed 2006-07-20


Dogan, M. (2001). "Specialization and Recombination of Specialties in the social sciences" (pp. 14851-14855). International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Edited by Smelser, N. J. & Baltes, P. B. London, Pergamon-Elsevier Science.


Herubel, JPVM (2007). Musings on disciplinary morphology and nomenclature in the humanities and social sciences: Implications for book selection. Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 39(1) , 54-62.

Abstract: Scholarly publication reflects disciplinary orientation, so much so that publishers and library collections personnel use disciplinary nomenclature as referent. University press publications, as well as other serious academic publication venues, may reflect disciplinary nomenclature, if not alignment with those disciplines featured in the AAUP Directory. Using the Directory's discipline and publisher grid for 2007, the article discusses disciplinary nomenclature with the idea of proposing a model or perspective that illuminates the nuances and organic nature of knowledge not easily captured by disciplinary nomenclature. Commonly accepted currency in the academic enterprise, disciplinary nomenclature may be best seen as an organically foundational approach to knowledge discovery and generation and, ultimately, as situated within scholarly communication venues. As knowledge is organic in nature, it may best be seen through the morphology of disciplinary formation and ecology, permitting nuances to emerge as organic formations and intellectual contours. This useful and flexible definitional approach to disciplinarities - subdisciplinarity as well as multi-disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and trans-disciplinarity - permits scholars, publishers, and librarians a perspective subtle enough to consider an intellectual cartography that includes the organic nature of scholarship as well as the publication of that knowledge. Such fields as American studies, Middle Eastern studies, and urban studies offer additional perspective when confronted with disciplinary nomenclature. Without disparaging the received wisdom and attribution commonly ascribed to disciplinary nomenclature as used by researchers, publishers, and librarians, the scholarly communication system requires additional perspective, especially where nomenclature is concerned.


Hjørland, B. (2000). Review of Wallerstein et al. (1996). Open the Social Sciences, report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. IN: Knowledge Organization, 27(4), 238-241. http://www.db.dk/bh/publikationer/Filer/Review%20of%20Wallerstein.PDF


Horowitz, I. L. (1993). The Decomposition of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.


Kochen, M. (1983). Mathematical model for the growth of two specialties. Science of Science, 3(11), 199-217.


Leydesdorff, L. (2006). Can scientific journals be classified in terms of aggregated journal-journal citation relations using the Journal Citation Reports? Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 57(5),  601-613.


Littek, W. (2001). Labor, division of. IN: International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Edited by Smelser, N. J. & Baltes, P. B. London, Pergamon-Elsevier Science.  (Pp.8220-8226).


Oleson, A. & Voss, J. (Eds.). (1979). The Organization of knowledge in modern America, 1860-1920. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Pierce, S. J. (1991). Subject areas, disciplines and the concept of authority. LISR [Library and Information Science Research], 13, 21-35.


Popham, Susan L. (2005). Forms as Boundary Genres in Medicine, Science, and Business. Journal of Business and Technical Communication; 19; 279-303.  http://jbt.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/19/3/279.pdf


Price, D. J. de Solla (1963). Little science, big science. New York: Columbia University Press.


Price, D. J. de Solla (1965). Networks of scientific papers. Science , 149, 510-515.


Stichweh, R. (2001). Scientific Disciplines, History of. IN: Smelser, N. J. & Baltes, P. B. (eds.). International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Oxford: Elsevier Science (pp. 13727-13731).


Tengström, E. (1993). Biblioteks- och informationsvetenskapen - ett fler- eller tvär-vetenskapligt område? Svensk Biblioteksforskning,(1), 9-20.


Turner, S. P. & Turner, J. H. (1990). The Impossible Science: An Institutional Analysis of American Sociology. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.


Van den Besselaar, P., & Leydesdorff, L. (1996). Mapping change in scientific specialties: A scientometric reconstruction of the development of artificial intelligence. Journal of the American Society for Information Science , 47, 415-436.


Wallerstein, I. (1996). Open the Social Sciences, report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. 


Zuckerman, H. (1988). Sociology of science. In N. J. Smelser (Ed), (1988). Handbook of Sociology (pp. 511–574). Newbury Park: Sage.



See also: Aspect or discipline classification; Disciplinarity/ Interdisciplinarity (Epistemological lifeboat); Social organization of knowledge; UNISIST model of information dissemination (Core Concepts in LIS); Units in knowledge organization





Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 13-12-2007





  1. Which different ideals would lie behind the understanding of a concept such as "discipline" seen from different epistemological positions?

  2. What is the difference between "a discipline" and "a specialty"? (provide examples of each concept).

  3. How many "formal disciplines" exist in the social sciences? How can this number be estimated? How many specialties exist in a given discipline? How can this number be estimated?

  4. What are the criteria of division in dividing disciplines into specialties?

  5. What are the differences between specialties on one hand and "schools", "sects" or "paradigms" on the other hand?

  6. What are the most important audiences (or target groups) for researchers?

  7. What is the difference between the concepts "interdisciplinarity" and "hybridiztion of specialties"?

  8. Is academic fragmentation a desirable phenomenon?