Chapter 4. Theoretical framework:
3. The institutionalisation of disciplinary styles
I introduced the concept of a disciplinary style of reasoning as a specific constellation of Crombian styles that has become stabilised in a particular scientific discipline at some point in time. The institutional context that is the discipline provides an important potential stabilising mechanism to the style. I say
“potential” since the stability of disciplinary styles is an open question. As I have argued, a primary difference between the Crombian and disciplinary styles is that while the former are seemingly timeless longue durée phenomena, disciplinary styles are open to recombination and evolutionary transformation. An example is the gradual introduction and establishment of the statistical style in economics during the mid-twentieth century. The specific combination of Crombian styles in a discipline and its stability is thus an empirical question. But scientific disciplines are not all the same. I will argue that is useful to think of disciplines as self-reinforcing systems, while the degree of disciplinarity is a variable property.
Abbott (2001) argues that a modern US-based discipline functions as a
self-reproducing dual institution. Using this conception I will suggest a simple model of the relationship between the social and intellectual organisation of disciplines, where the four basic elements consist of the social macrostructure of (inter)national scientific disciplines, mirrored in the micro-organisation of departments at the university level, the system of scientific journals as institutionalised intellectual infrastructure with strong links to disciplines, and the peer review process as a central regulating mechanism.
The modern scientific discipline is the fundamental organisational structure of modern science that ties together a social thought collective and a collective archive of knowledge in a disciplinary style of reasoning. The organisation of scientific fields into distinct disciplines is the primary framework for, and result of, the collective self-discipline of a scientific thought collective. Disciplines may be regarded as “conservative novelty producing systems” (Whitley 1986:187), with remarkable stability provided by self-stabilising mechanisms. A discipline should not be understood in a too general or ahistorical way. As Abbott (2001) has argued, there is something very peculiar about the specific US type of scientific discipline that emerged in the early twentieth century, and has exhibited a striking, almost static, stability since then. Compared to the organisational forms of German, French or British universities, the form in the United States has its own self-stabilising dynamics. Since the Swedish university system, like many others, has increasingly been inspired by the US model, at least since 1945, and still today looks west for inspiration, this model is of great relevance to understanding the development of the economics discipline in the Swedish context.
According to Abbott (2001 ch 5), a number of features define the US model, which emerged as a hybrid of the European systems at the end of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. First, US universities were, like in Germany, many and decentralised. Second, like the British college model, they were educational institutions for undergraduate education. Third, they were simultaneously also graduate research institutions, like their German counterparts. However, while the doctorate was a core token of legitimacy in the German system, its role was more of a general qualification, as professorships and doctorates were tied to individual chairs and professorships, rather than bounded disciplines. The US system turned the PhD into a specific disciplinary authorisation certificate (i.e. in sociology, economics, psychology), and a doctorate soon became an entry requirement for an emerging national disciplinary labour market. Fifth, unlike the hierarchical German and French systems, US departments became departments of equals. Sixth, the creation of the modern department and discipline coincided with the institution of national societies that
professionalised the disciplines through the exclusion of lay intellectuals and the establishment of disciplinary journals.
The consolidation of the modern (US-type) discipline may be thought of in terms of what Abbott (2001:128) calls a dual institutionalisation of a social structure. It consists, on the one hand, of the macrostructure of the national discipline, which forms the interactional field and a functional labour market in which careers may be pursued. On the other hand, at the microlevel, every university is, with few exceptions, organised into a familiar set of departments (economics, sociology, psychology, etc.). The isomorphic structure of departments and organisation of teaching and research makes for smooth exchange of faculty within the discipline, where departments hire staff only with a doctoral degree from their own discipline. Through control over standard undergraduate curricula and doctoral programmes, departments “discipline” a large number of students and the future members of the discipline. The role of the disciplinary doctorate is crucial here, and Abbott (2001, 139) argues that the
“one central social structure signifying full disciplinarity” is the “reciprocity in acceptance of PhD faculty”, so that disciplines “become true disciplines in the social structural sense once they hire mainly PhDs in their own field”.
It is within this institutional structure that the reproduction of a disciplinary style of reasoning may be understood. Its self-stabilising mechanisms are central in this respect. Abbott (2001:127) goes so far as to claim that “absent any radical change in the process of academic hiring the current social structure of disciplines will endlessly re-create itself”. This exemplary rigidity of the dually institutional system helps us to account for the enduring existence of styles. While Abbott (2001:130) doesn’t use the concept of styles, he talks of much the same thing in terms of the cultural structure of disciplines, regulating “dreams and models both of reality and learning”, of professional identity and as a mode and legitimation of necessarily partial knowledge. Abbott illustrates this nicely with a view from undergraduate students in interdisciplinary settings. In these settings, he argues, a feature which goes
unnoticed by faculty but all too plain to students, is that teachers disagree profoundly about relatively commonplace matters. Undergraduates subject to distributional requirements learn to live with flagrant differences in the scholarly interpretation of social events. Economists tell them poverty reflects incentives, anthropologists that it arises in the culture of globalization, sociologists that it shows the potency of job migration in urban settings, and so on. The very phenomenon itself appears different in the different classes. Like their elders, most
undergraduates eventually learn to tune out all but one version of the problem.49 (Abbott 2001:143–44)
The relationship between disciplines is then not a question of a division of their objects, but about adopting a specific way of formulating and solving scientific problems, exactly what I call a disciplinary style of reasoning.
Disciplinary elites and scientific journals
On top of Abbott’s model of the dual institutionalisation of departments and disciplines, the modern ecosystem of scientific journals adds a third institutional layer. Journals may be more or less connected to one scientific discipline, and they may be of a more or less specialised nature. There are also great variations over time and between disciplines in how different journals are valued and positioned in the conceptual universe of a discipline. Economics has been shown to be a scientific discipline that is more hierarchical than comparable disciplines, with a sense of “superiority” (Fourcade et al. 2015) or an “elitism dispositif” (Maesse 2017) fuelling disciplinary hierarchisation. Disciplinary elites may exert power in the form of strategic decisions regarding the disciplines, for example when it comes to influencing the general direction of research, strategic hiring decisions and forms of education. However, one of the arguably most important forms of influence is through the indication of the style of the elite: if the style is transmitted through exemplars, in a strong hierarchy, the role of elite research becomes even more central in its role as exemplar.
In a situation with a small, clearly-defined set of generally acknowledged international (or rather US-based) journals, these fill an increasingly important role as institutions that filter and categorise the general knowledge and approaches that could be understood as the disciplinary core and define valid theoretical approaches, choice of problems and acceptable methodology; in short, the general disciplinary style of reasoning. This is not an inherent function of the journal system. Instead, it remains an open question how and to what extent some journals come to play this role. The existence of a set of high-status journals first requires their consecration, the general acknowledgement and stabilisation of
49 Abbott’s (1999, 2001) reasoning about disciplines and disciplinary knowledge is not only descriptive and analytical, it is also openly supportive of the intellectual merit of intellectual discipline(s), against what he claims to be a repetitive critique of “narrow disciplines” which has resurfaced as variations on a theme since at least the 1920s (Abbott 2001:122 n. 1). Against the threat of the balkanisation of organisation around problem-based research, Abbott (2001, 135) promotes the “problem-portable” knowledge generated by disciplines.
them as the “top” journals, while in turn filling the role as consecrators of top research, marked with a symbolic stamp of approval as “top research”.
The fourth institutional arrangement is that of peer review processes. The filtering and sorting function of peer review is at work in the everyday working of the journals, by editors and reviewers judging the quality of submitted papers.
Somewhat larger and more important decisions are taken by various funding agencies, and the arguably most decisive form of peer review is at work in hiring and promotion, where entire scientific oeuvres are evaluated and ranked by reviewers. Here, the selection of reviewers from within the discipline means that a trusted quality judgement with a strong disciplinary footing is obtained. In the evaluation practice itself, the evaluator’s scientific habitus is activated, and while it should not be understood in a deterministic way, the law of large numbers means that the averaging of a large number of evaluation practices will tend to stabilise and reproduce a disciplinary style of reasoning.
A final feature should be mentioned. Abbot talks about the dual institutionalisation of disciplines in an American national setting. However, while the sciences have always been part of international communities, the extent of integration into an international research community is an open question. Given the above institutional mechanisms, a crucial question for the present study, that extends beyond Abbott’s scope, is the extent to which a national discipline is integrated into and part of the international discipline. Among the factors we should expect to play an important role are the international standardisation of the doctoral degree, the extent of internationalisation of the labour market, and the reliance on internationally acknowledged journals for scientific communication, and the international recruitment of peer reviewers.