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3.1 Exploring Academic Disciplines

Learning Objectives

  1. Survey the landscape of academic disciplines.
  2. Appreciate how academic disciplines help shape how we understand the world.
  3. Understand that academic disciplines are constantly in flux, negotiating the terms, conditions, and standards of inquiry, attribution, and evidence.

The following table shows one version of the main academic disciplinesAn academic category characterized by particular areas of study, methods of inquiry, and standards of proof. and some of their branches.

Discipline Branch Examples
Business Accounting, economics, finance, management, marketing
Humanities Art, history, languages, literature, music, philosophy, religion, theater
Natural and applied sciences Biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, geology, mathematics, physics, medicine
Social sciences Anthropology, education, geography, law, political science, psychology, sociology

Since the makeup of the different branches is always in flux and since the history of any institution of higher education is complicated, you will likely find some overlapping and varying arrangements of disciplines at your college.

Part of your transition into higher education involves being aware that each discipline is a distinct discourse communityA particular system of communication developed over time within a discipline or social group. with specific vocabularies, styles, and modes of communication. Later in your college career, you will begin your writing apprenticeshipThe period of training and practice leading to command of a discipline and full participation in it academically or professionally. in a specific discipline by studying the formats of published articles within it. You will look for the following formal aspects of articles within that discipline and plan to emulate them in your work:

  • Title format
  • Introduction
  • Overall organization
  • Tone (especially level of formality)
  • Person (first, second, or third person)
  • Voice (active or passive)
  • Sections and subheads
  • Use of images (photos, tables, graphics, graphs, etc.)
  • Discipline-specific vocabulary
  • Types of sources cited
  • Use of source information
  • Conclusion
  • Documentation style (American Psychological Association, Modern Language Association, Chicago, Council of Science Editors, and so on; for more on this, see Chapter 22 "Appendix B: A Guide to Research and Documentation")
  • Intended audience
  • Published format (print or online)

Different disciplines tend to recommend collecting different types of evidence from research sources. For example, biologists are typically required to do laboratory research; art historians often use details from a mix of primary and secondary sources (works of art and art criticism, respectively); social scientists are likely to gather data from a variety of research study reports and direct ethnographicA kind of research in anthropology and the social sciences geared toward the study of a specific group of people or segment of a society. observation, interviews, and fieldwork; and a political scientist uses demographicA kind of statistical measurement used in political science to reflect segments of a population. data from government surveys and opinion polls along with direct quotations from political candidates and party platforms.

Consider the following circle of professors. They are all asking their students to conduct research in a variety of ways using a variety of sources.

What’s required to complete a basic, introductory essay might essentially be the same across all disciplines, but some types of assignments require discipline-specific organizational features. For example, in business disciplines, documents such as résumés, memos, and product descriptions require a specialized organization. Science and engineering students follow specific conventions as they write lab reports and keep notebooks that include their drawings and results of their experiments. Students in the social sciences and the humanities often use specialized formatting to develop research papers, literature reviews, and book reviews.

Part of your apprenticeship will involve understanding the conventions of a discipline’s key genres. If you are reading or writing texts in the social sciences, for example, you will notice a meticulous emphasis on the specifics of methodology (especially key concepts surrounding the collection of data, such as reliability, validity, sample size, and variables) and a careful presentation of results and their significance. Laboratory reports in the natural and applied sciences emphasize a careful statement of the hypothesis and prediction of the experiment. They also take special care to account for the role of the observer and the nature of the measurements used in the investigation to ensure that it is replicable. An essay in the humanities on a piece of literature might spend more time setting a theoretical foundation for its interpretation, it might also more readily draw from a variety of other disciplines, and it might present its “findings” more as questions than as answers. As you are taking a variety of introductory college courses, try to familiarize yourself with the jargonThe specialized language of a discipline. of each discipline you encounter, paying attention to its specialized vocabulary and terminology. It might even help you make a list of terms in your notes.

Scholars also tend to ask discipline-related kinds of questions. For example, the question of “renewable energy” might be a research topic within different disciplines. The following list shows the types of questions that would accommodate the different disciplines:

  • Business (economics): Which renewable resources offer economically feasible solutions to energy issues?
  • Humanities (history): At what point did humans switch from the use of renewable resources to nonrenewable resources?
  • Natural and applied sciences (engineering): How can algae be developed at a pace and in the quantities needed to be a viable main renewable resource?
  • Social sciences (geography): Which US states are best suited to being key providers of renewable natural resources?

Key Takeaways

  • Most academic disciplines have developed over many generations. Even though these disciplines are constantly in flux, they observe certain standards for investigation, proof, and documentation of evidence.
  • To meet the demands of writing and thinking in a certain discipline, you need to learn its conventions.
  • An important aspect of being successful in college (and life) involves being aware of what academic disciplines (and professions and occupations) have in common and how they differ.


  1. Think about your entire course load this semester as a collection of disciplines. For each course you are taking, answer the following questions, checking your textbooks and other course materials and consulting with your instructors, if necessary:

    • What kinds of questions does this discipline ask?
    • What kinds of controversies exist in this discipline?
    • How does this discipline share the knowledge it constructs?
    • How do writers in this discipline demonstrate their credibility?

    After you’ve asked and answered these questions about each discipline in isolation, consider what underlying things your courses have in common, even if they approach the world very differently on the surface.

  2. Based on the example at the end of this section, pick a topic that multiple disciplines study. Formulate four questions about the topic, one from each of any four different disciplines. Ideally choose a topic that might come up in four courses you are currently taking or have recently taken, or choose a topic of particular interest to you. Here are just a few examples to get you started:

    • Alcoholism
    • Child abuse
    • Poverty in developing nations
    • Fast food
    • Women in the workforce
  3. Drawing from the synopses of current research on the Arts and Letters Daily website (see the Note 2.5 "Gallery of Web-Based Texts" in Chapter 2 "Becoming a Critical Reader"), read the article referenced on a topic or theme of interest to you. Discuss how the author’s discipline affects the way the topic or theme is presented (specifically, the standards of inquiry and evidence).