Disciplinary Topologies: Using dissertations to map deviant interdisciplines

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Devin Higgins

    Michigan State University

  2. 2. Scout Calvert

    Michigan State University

  3. 3. Shawn Nicholson

    Michigan State University

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With this proposal we explore the question: How can we characterize disciplines by looking at the discursive flows between scholars in university departments, and thus describe interdisciplinarity amid shifting topologies of knowledge? Taking as a provocation the premise that “every field of knowledge is the centre of all knowledge” (Frye 10), we explore paths of connectedness between disciplines, as constructed from a dataset of approximately 5,000 theses and dissertations (ETDs), in order to elucidate the boundaries, shapes, and concentrations of disciplinary knowledge in the making.

Analyzing the content and metadata of our institution’s collection of ETDs has allowed us to draw suggestive connections about disciplinary groupings locally and in broader contexts, highlighting both points of sturdy disciplinary borders and points of porousness, where boundaries are fading or non-existent. Boundaries, but also passages, between disciplines form and re-form depending on the mode or scale of analysis, which can shift between an entire corpus of disparate texts, a single ETD as rhizomatic agglomeration of its author’s disciplinary (and extra-disciplinary) experience, and the shared metadata features linking them together.  

Thus far we have cleaned and normalized metadata, and built network graphs based on shared features among dissertations, and among academic programs. Still to come is a text-analytic component to model similarity among the full text. The resultant maps of interdisciplinary connectedness have been rendered in terms of specific features, including the ETD’s author-defined keywords (text freely entered by the author to describe their work), author-selected topical descriptions (choices from a controlled vocabulary of options), librarian-supplied Library of Congress subject headings, departmental affiliations, shared advisors and committee members, and topic models generated by analyzing the full text of all ETDs. The messy or chaotic connections that emerge are in contrast to the neatly hierarchical model of colleges, departments, and programs that is used to define the disciplinary structure of the university at an administrative level. Yet network graphs themselves constitute knowledge models that belie the complexity of a
, reducing slopes, rifts, and dunes to a set of nodes and edges, circles and lines, often, with a limited set of visual features.

Attempts have often been made to classify disciplines based on theoretical “knowledge categories,” wherein “hard-pure” disciplines, such as physics, are described as “cumulative, atomistic (crystalline/tree-like), concerned with universals, quantities, simplification, resulting in discovery/explanation,” while the “soft-pure” disciplines, such as history, are described as “reiterative, holistic (organic/riverlike), concerned with particulars, qualities, complication, resulting in understanding/interpretation” (Becher 278). As pleasing or poetic as descriptions such as these may be, there has been a strong trend toward seeing disciplines as more or less
groupings with shared discursive traits: If the “essence of discipline formation and evolution is self-referential communication,” as Weingart suggests, then for interdisciplinary projects to be successful, there must be ways of breaking into hermetic epistemic groupings (8). Groupings are not just based on shared knowledge structures or methodology, but something like a culture, “each with its own tradition of thought and practice,” meaning that succeeding in interdisciplinary work is “much about coming to an understanding of cultures that are different from one’s own” (“Interdisciplinary Research”), and navigating the structures of power that maintain it. Undertaking such a mission of cultural outreach is especially difficult if Latour’s description of group formation applies, wherein the “spokesperson looks rather frantically for ways to
them…rendering the group definition a finite and sure thing, so finite and sure that, in the end, it looks like the object of an unproblematic definition” (33). Breaking down these cultural boundaries is just the precondition to setting up new ones, in an ongoing cycle of shifts and ruptures.

Fuller coins the term “deviant interdisciplinarity” to describe projects that “aim to recover a lost sense of intellectual unity, typically by advancing a heterodox sense of intellectual history that questions the soundness of our normal understanding of how the disciplines have come to be as they are” (50). If we admit that any discipline could (in theory) be connected to any other, that the terrains of knowledge we construct are contiguous, then what are the divisions which prevent these maps from actually existing? Can the features around which disciplines coalesce at this moment be changed? Our analysis of ETD metadata will mediate between high-level disciplinary constructs and the “on-the-ground” reality, exposing the blind-spots of each. Visualizing these connections in network graphs has allowed us to highlight the difference, for instance, between the “potential” and “actual” disciplinary collaborations underway, and to measure the distance between Mode 1 disciplinary grouping, wherein “increasingly specialized disciplines are seen as the natural outgrowth of the knowledge production process” and Mode 2, which is the result of exposing the “collective blindspots” of the Mode 1 process (Fuller 51).

An initial interactive graph highlights several possible models of interdisciplinarity instantiated through an ETD collection, partially revealing that underneath the tidy departmental websites and faculty listings are a multitude of micro-cultures in the form of collaborations, research labs, and interdisciplinary courses: the makings of deviant irruptions of non-disciplines and future-disciplines.


Becher, Tony
(1987) “The Disciplinary Shaping of the Profession.” In Clark, B. R.
The Academic Profession: National, Disciplinary, and Institutional Settings
. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Frye, Northrop
. (1988).
On Education
. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Fuller, Steve
. (2010). “Deviant Interdisciplinarity.” In Frodeman, R.
The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity
. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

“Interdisciplinary Research.”
The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods


. (Accessed 1 Nov 2013).

Latour, Bruno
. (2005).
Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory
. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Weingart, Peter.
(2010). In Frodeman, R.
The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity
. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2019

Hosted at Utrecht University

Utrecht, Netherlands

July 9, 2019 - July 12, 2019

436 works by 1162 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (14)

Organizers: ADHO