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Thinking about Academic Tribes
December 16, 2012 - 9:11pm

I recently read for the first time a book that for many (most?) is a classic: Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Culture of Disciplines, in its revised edition (2001). I admit that the idea of an ethnography of academic disciplines and their internal codes is a bit narcissistic in the sense that it belongs to the genre of academics studying and writing about academia, but then so is this blog and all the writing about the theories of pedagogy and the analyses of higher education. We as academics have a duty to critically examine our own practices, so that is enough of an argument to read the book and take part in the discussions about the delimitations we tend to draw between our tribes and territories, the two key terms used by the authors  Tony Becher and Paul R. Trowler.

“Academic tribes”, or “small worlds” or “microcultures” as they are variously called, are groupings that take place based on disciplinary boundaries. They are based on the subject and the method of academic investigation within that discipline. They are supposed to be more or less internally coherent and to be governed, however informally, by norms and values developed and internalized over time.

That these tribes exist is now commonplace. What I find interesting are two questions:    

1. How widespread or broad are they?  

2. How powerful are they to guard access to and the future development of any given discipline?

Academic Tribes: how broad?

The distinction between disciplines is as old as the attempt to study and think about the world. Becher and Trowler distinguish between several dichotomies based on epistemological dimensions: hard vs soft sciences, theoretical vs. applied knowledge. They also identify differences in the practice of the discipline, with variations in research styles, publishing traditions and career paths.

I find these distinctions applicable in my known universe, but also perhaps, too applicable. For example, the hard vs. soft approach to the nature of knowledge can describe the difference between natural sciences and social sciences, but also the one between ethnography and political science, both fields within the social science discipline. Moreover, political science is also divided between a more quantitative and a more qualitative methodological position. And to go to the microlevel, there are universities where political science departments are known to specialize in either the “harder” or the “softer” variant.

This has the consequence that we cannot generalize very much when we discuss “higher education” as a whole. The discussion on the future of the humanities, or their usefulness that has been quite present in the news on higher ed around the world is based on the assumption that there is a unit defined as the “humanities”. But according to the thinking behind the academic microcultures literature, the field is too fragmented to be described (and governed) as one.

The general and global trend has been towards fragmentation/interdisciplinarity and a flourishing of disciplines. There are now very specific fields of inquiry that did not exist 25 years ago, from my own area of specialization, “European Studies”, to “Queer Studies” or “Visual Cultures” or you name it – whichever specific domain that is entitled to define a territory of knowledge with its own boundaries. So, how can we have a discussion about the social sciences or the humanities or about engineering, when we see the growth of new disciplines that mix and match in a multi- or inter- or transdisciplinary fashion?


Academic Tribes: how powerful?

The other aspect I wanted to bring up here is the power of these academic tribes. Are the rules and values and practices valid within a given academic tribe so clearly implemented so that the boundaries of the tribal territory are safeguarded from “unfitting” guests?

If the ethnographic section of Becher and Trowler’s book is to be taken seriously (and I think that it should), then the answer is yes, academic tribes do guard their territories quite fiercely. The upside of this is that disciplines and various professional environments at a smaller scale are kept updated because of the constant knock at the door from new generations of scholars who want to join the tribe.

The downside of this may be the generation of very unitary departments, where hiring policies implicitly follow the principle of the goodness of fit between prospective candidates and the already existing academic culture. “If you are a qualitative political scientist do not even consider applying for a job at university X because they only do quantitative stuff” – this is the line of reasoning one can hear during a job search. Or even worse, if one’s ideological position does not fit with the tribe’s (if you are a feminist in a conservatives’ den or the other way around), the chances of getting a job there are minimal, despite one’s academic merits.

My final thought on this is that one should get to know (or define) one’s academic tribe quite early. It may help in the job search.

Anamaria writes from Lund, Sweden. She is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


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