3 A History of Disciplinarity

Isaac Oloruntimilehin


Disciplinarity in higher education refers to expertise in a discipline which is a specific area of knowledge, it includes the understanding of the methodology and the capacity to obtain, analyze, and employ specialized knowledge for various applications. A proper understanding of academic disciplines would aid learning and ensure that the knowledge obtained is effectively applied to solve real-life problems which is the major reason and goal for study.

While the concept of discipline is not a straightforward one, however in its simplest form it’s defined as a particular area of knowledge, especially a subject studied at a college or university. Discipline can also be seen as a branch of learning or scholarly knowledge. Students pursue higher education to learn about a specific area of knowledge, and it’s important to note that no area of knowledge is completely isolated from other areas of knowledge. There is a connection between all the fields of knowledge.

Academic disciplines are scholarly communities that specify which phenomena to study, advance certain central concepts and organizing theories, embrace certain methods of investigation, provide forums for sharing research and insights, and offer career paths for scholars. It is through their power and influence over careers that disciplines can maintain these strong preferences.

According to Repko (2011), the seven main defining characteristics of established disciplines are:

  1. They claim a body of knowledge about certain subjects or objects.
  2. They have methods of acquiring knowledge and theories to order that knowledge.
  3. They seek to produce new knowledge, concepts, and theories within or related to their domains.
  4. They possess a recognized core of courses.
  5. They have a community of experts.
  6. They are self-contained and seek to control their respective domains as they relate to each other.
  7. They train future experts in their disciplines specific masters and doctoral programs.

Outline of academic disciplines

There are a variety of disciplines and each discipline has its defining elements, phenomena, assumptions, context, epistemology, concepts, theories, and research methods that make it distinct from other disciplines. There are four broad categories of academic disciplines with various sub-disciplines and subjects (the list is not exhaustive):

  • Business: Accounting, Economics, Finance, Management, Marketing.
  • Humanities: Art, History, Languages, Literature, Music, Philosophy, Religion, Law.
  • Natural and applied sciences: Biology, Chemistry, Computer science, Engineering, Geology, Mathematics, Physics, Medicine.
  • Social sciences: Anthropology, Education, Geography, Political science, Psychology, Sociology.
Mind map of top-level disciplines and professions by Useamuse CC-BY SA 4.0


The history and emergence of the concept of disciplinarity

The historical development of disciplinarity has evolved. In its simplest form, it can be traced to the etymology of “discipline”, which reveals the historical evolution of the word’s meanings. The term is derived from the Greek pedagogic term didasko (teach) and the Latin disco (learn); and disciplina in classical Latin is the double sense of knowledge (knowledge system) and power (discipline of the child, military discipline). It can be viewed as a regulated system of acquiring knowledge in society through teaching and learning.

The origins of disciplines similar to the ones we know today can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, around 500 BCE with a focus on religion and the military. Meanwhile, disciplines can also be seen as a relatively new phenomenon, which started evolving in the nineteenth century to the development of the modern disciplinary system that we have today, as university departments were first seen in the United States only around 1825.

The various disciplines that are available today were not in existence in the past. The whole sum of knowledge was considered as a single unit; however, this sum of knowledge was classified into different disciplines over some time for different reasons and this classification is continuous and still ongoing. The evolutionary process of disciplines might have gone through the following phases:

  • Knowledge accumulation
  • Specialization and fragmentation of Knowledge
  • Formation of novel Disciplines
  • Diversification and further specialization of knowledge within the discipline
  • Formation of New Disciplines, breaking of disciplinary boundaries and emergence of more specialized new disciplines.

The significance, importance and relevance of disciplinarity

The need for disciplinarity can be summarised into the very continuous existence and availability of knowledge which is vital to the continued existence and survival of the human race. The continuous production of new knowledge over time necessitated the continuous creation of disciplines to ensure the preservation and transfer of knowledge, this would have been chaotic or impossible without disciplines. Ancient civilizations with their customs and knowledge became increasingly complex with the passing of each generation. The different types of skills, crafts, cultural practices and activities available then were the earliest forms of human knowledge. Each generation, since the very beginning of human existence, has sought to pass on cultural and social values, traditions, morality, religion and skills to the next generation. This formed the very basis of consciously and unconsciously establishing the concept of disciplinarity that has evolved to the system that we have today.

The contributions of disciplinarity to knowledge and society

There is a structural relationship between knowledge and academic disciplines, the focus and scope of disciplines get narrowed in the whole sum of knowledge. Bringing knowledge under a discipline will define the boundaries of knowledge of different nature. Therefore, a discipline defines boundaries and establishes the structure for knowledge, it’s a determinant of whether a particular block of knowledge can be brought within or outside the framework of that particular discipline. Disciplinarity has helped society to hasten the process of growing and developing knowledge through the specialization that disciplines provide. This helps to identify principles, laws, concepts and theories which helps to deduct new knowledge and bridge existing gaps within disciplines.

A continuous and further exploration into the discipline leads to the advancement of knowledge which serves the general interest of the public by helping us to understand our world better, this is the primary reason for the survival and evolution of the human race. Disciplines build on themselves, applying past knowledge to new situations and phenomena in a constant effort to improve understanding of the specific field of study. Different disciplines often look at the same facts in different ways, leading to wholly different discoveries and insights.

Disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, and cross-disciplinarity

Interdisciplinarity is a process by which ideas, data and information, methods, tools, concepts, theories from two or more disciplines are synthesized, connected, or blended. Interdisciplinarity or interdisciplinary studies can also be defined as a process of answering a question, solving a problem, or addressing a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline and draws on other disciplines to integrate their insights to construct a more comprehensive understanding.

The distinction between disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity has begun to wane in recent years with the emergence of interdisciplines. Interdisciplines are fields of study that cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries and involve a wide variety of interactions and integration ranging from informal groups of scholars to notable well-established research and teaching communities. Examples of interdisciplines are neuroscience, biochemistry, environmental science, nanotechnology, geobiology, sustainable development, psycholinguistics, ethnomusicology, women studies, and urban studies.

Interdisciplinarity differs from disciplinarity in terms of their origins, character, status, and level of development as they involve borrowing across disciplines, engaging in collaborative problem-solving (e.g. a health-care team of university researchers, clinicians, policymakers, corporate officials, agency staff, and citizens as can be seen in the case of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic or preparation of a city or regional development plan), building bridges between existing established disciplines, developing theories, model and principles that cut across different disciplines, which results in creating new fields (interdisciplines) from overlapping areas of separate disciplines.

In all its differences and distinctions from disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity is an approach to avoid the difficulties created by excessive specialization of disciplines and isolation of information in silos. This is achieved by thinking across different disciplines when solving problems. However, interdisciplinarity would not exist without disciplines, as there would be no information and researchers to consult, thus disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity have a complementary relationship.

Interdisciplinarity evolves from disciplinarity in this manner:

  • Researchers detach a subject or an object from existing disciplinary frameworks due to a perceived notion that the existing framework is unable to address the problems.
  • This leads to efforts to bridge gaps in knowledge due to a lack of attention by the existing and established disciplines.
  • If the attempted research produces results, boundaries are redrawn with new knowledge spaces and new professional roles created.

Multidisciplinarity on the other hand can be referred to as the study of a topic that involves a form of dialogue or interaction between two or more disciplines with each discipline making separate contributions unlike interdisciplinarity and without any attempt of integration of the insights from various disciplines in the process. This helps to develop a detailed understanding of the topic being studied. Multidisciplinary approaches tend to be dominated by the method and theory preferred by the home discipline spearheading the process.

In transdisciplinarity, the traditional boundaries of disciplinary research are transcended to converge inherently different disciplines to form a new unified framework beyond the disciplines. The goal of transdisciplinarity is to have an understanding of the present world through the unifying of knowledge and “the solution of mega and complex problems by drawing on and seeking to integrate disciplinary and stakeholder views based on some overarching theory” (Baker 3). Transdisciplinarity synthesises new disciplines and theories to form a hybrid concept shared equally among the disciplines. Transdisciplinarity “represents the highest form of integration”; it involves “the application of cross-disciplinary concepts as well as scholars from multiple disciplines to combine knowledge and skill from diverse disciplinary domains” (Dellaportas, et al.). Transdisciplinarity moves beyond discipline-specific approaches to form new concepts and ideas which address a common problem or issue. According to Jeffrey Evans, a good example of transdisciplinarity might be “the early discussions of general systems theory when it was being held forward as a grand synthesis of knowledge.”


From a presentation given by Tamath Rainsford at the IPAS Planning Workshop at the National Wine Centre in Adelaide, South Australia in September 2009. CC BY 2.0


Crossdisciplinarity refers to research and creative practices that involve two or more academic disciplines working together, it views one discipline from the perspective of another discipline. These activities may range from those that simply place disciplinary insights side-by-side to much more integrative or transformative approaches. The term encompasses the following approaches: multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity.

The advancement of knowledge is a continuous process and as societies develop, there is the formation of new knowledge which leads to the emergence of new disciplines and interactions between disciplines, it’s, therefore, necessary to have a proper understanding of these approaches for effective utilization and advancement of knowledge.


Areekkuzhiyil, Santhosh. (2017). “Emergence of New Disciplines.” Edutracks. Vol: 17, No:4, pp 20-22.

Dellaportas, Steven, Lina Xu, and Zhiqiang Yang. “The level of cross-disciplinarity in cross-disciplinary accounting research: analysis and suggestions for improvement.” University of Nottingham.

Evans, Jeffrey. “What is Transdisciplinarity?” Purdue Polytechnic Institute blog, 2014.

Parker, Kelly A. “Interdisciplinary Research and Problem-Solving: A Guide for Students”, Grand Valley State University, 2016.

Repko, Allen F. Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory. Sage Publications, 2011.

Shumway, David and Ellen Messer-Davidow. (1991) “Disciplinarity: An Introduction.” Poetics Today. Vol: 12, No: 2, pp. 201-225.


Further Readings

Academic discipline – Wikipedia

Defining Interdisciplinary Studies

Disciplinarity and Interdisciplinarity (Queen’s University)

Exploring Academic Disciplines | College Writing Handbook (Lumen Learning)

Outline of academic disciplines (Wikipedia)

“Discipline: Meaning, Evolution and Classification.” Development of Education as a Discipline An Analytical Study. Chapter 4. by Arti



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A History of Disciplinarity by Isaac Oloruntimilehin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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