Separate Academic Fields as a Tactic of Discipline

Originally Written for Key Contemporary Thinkers: Michel Foucault at Emerson College, taught by Dr. Samuel Binkley


This academic paper will analyze and discuss the way in which academic fields are made to seem completely separate from each other. These fields discipline the academics (researchers, professors) to both act as docile bodies and actors of “positive” power through participation in their field, as well as to create new docile bodies as they instruct their students. I propose this exists as a method of creating a hierarchy and method of observation, normalizing judgement and examination, and removing discussions about power to avoid resistance.

I discuss Foucault’s “micro” understanding of the world-as-individuals rather than “macro” institutions. In this discussion, I propose the “solution” of encouraging academics to work in an interdisciplinary manner. Though there is still power imposed on any categorization or subject of study, it is a) unlikely that as a society we will be able to remove these categorizations, and b) difficult to come to concrete consensus on whether or not that power is inherently bad. As such, this paper will encourage changes to make things better. (I do all of this in a writing style that I hope might mimic that of Foucault’s, in an attempt to show how my addition to the reading fits directly in with his work).

1. Introduction

If teen dramas are anything to go by, humans have been inclined to categorize themselves since the dawn of time. Any movie shows the use of those categories as methods of differentiation, and eventually, systems of hierarchy—the jocks, the cheerleaders, the art geeks, the punks, the stoners, the nerds. And yet, e qually common is the “we’re all friends” happy ending—the cliques merge and realize they’re not so different after all, and can actually learn a lot from each other. Most academics like to believe they’re more serious and evolved than the teenagers they teach, and yet, these cliques seem to follow us: rather than jocks and nerds, we have business and computer science departments; rather than cheerleaders and art geeks, we have marketing and theater departments; and somewhere on the continuation, we have the sociology department (probably stemming from the yearbook staff). And yet, we don’t often see the come-together happy ending. This process of continuous separation is so common in the academic world that one begins to wonder if it’s inherent to the structure of academia. You don’t see your local coffee shop workers separating and warring amongst themselves—the barista and the cashier work together, and often trade places. Businesses are often hierarchical, but they’re still constantly cycling information throughout the corporation to make important decisions. These, of course, have their own power dynamics and methods of discipline, but those are often different and building on what employees learn in education.

In this paper, I propose that academia is uniquely situated to create docile bodies and exercise positive power, through the tactic of separated academic fields. This, in turn, acts to create a hierarchy and method of observation, normalize judgement and examination, and remove discussions about power in order to avoid resistance. The rest of the paper is as follows: section two overviews the existence of the separation of academic fields and some terms that Foucault uses that I am adopting; section three applies Foucault’s concepts specifically to the academic institution and discusses how Foucault’s “micro” focus on the individual plays into this; section four suggests the solution of interdisciplinary work, while also recognizing Foucault’s stance on utopia-ing and the impossibility of a perfect fix; section five concludes.

2. Literature Review

Academic Fields

There has been extensive literature discussing the existence, importance, and irrelevance of individual of academic fields (often called academic discipline, but because of Foucault’s specific use of the word discipline, I’ll stick to field). 

Kakooza et al (2019) research in the common vein of pitting fields against each other. Their study sought to find a correlation between the topic of a graduate’s field and their productivity, and found that workers who graduated from arts-related fields are almost as productive as workers who graduated from science-related fields. Aškerc (2018) looked at professors in different fields and the ways they differ in terms of pedagogical training: soft science professors thought of themselves as better teachers and participated more in teacher training than hard science professors. 

McCully (2018) made the argument (both recently and in reference to the same argument he made over 45 years ago) that academic fields are naturally individualistic, and believes academic institutions should focus on one field (a university), rather than becoming what he called a multiversity (which is one institution that teaches multiple fields). He argued that fields come together and work hand-in-hand naturally, and shouldn’t be forced together by institutional policies. Benson (1982) makes five (that really feel like one) arguments as to why academic fields should exist and be studied separately rather than in an interdisciplinary matter. His arguments break down to the idea that interdisciplinary studies don’t work because there’s no singular field for students to master, and thus the discussions within the interdisciplinary work are un-backed and/or confused as you try to combine multiple fields into one. Benson also mentions that interdisciplinary studies are highly costly, in that professors and departments have to constantly be creating new combinations of fields and often rely on team-teaching methods. Galt (2015) argues that fields exist to create varied understandings of the human existence, and that interdisciplinary work only serves to make academics compromise on their views and methods. 

Opposite McCully, Benson, and Galt: it’s been shown that collaboration and interdisciplinary work promotes communication skills (Dallimore et al 2008), improves learning (Davis 1993, Huerta 2007), and improves critical thinking (Garside 1996). Newell (1992) did an extensive study into Miami University, Ohio’s highly regarded interdisciplinary program. Newell’s paper also found that interdisciplinary work and study resulted in higher critical thinking skills, and that taking interdisciplinary courses benefited student’s understanding of any specific fields they were studying in. Sawyer and DeZutter (2009) found that creativity is not a purely mental process, and thus, collaboration contributes to creativity. Lundström et al (2016) found that academics across fields use mostly the same methods of assessing student theses. Frost (2003) conducted research to explore faculty’s views of the effects of sustained communication across fields. They found that interdisciplinary communication encouraged faculty to develop and try new teaching and research methods, which enhanced their appreciation for colleagues in other fields.

Foucauldian Terms

Just as there are contrasting views on the purposes of academic fields, there are contrasting definitions to many of the topics and terms Foucault (1995) uses and discusses. In order to easily discuss them later in congruence with academia, I’ll define the ones I’ll be referencing. 

Foucault contrasts our typical understanding of physical punishment with what he calls discipline. Foucault’s discipline does not act in a punitive and destructive way, it is not taking things away from those it is being enacted on. Instead, it is “positive”—it adds to the subject and builds them into a “better” person. This builds on Foucault’s understanding of “Pastoral Power” which is based on a desire to save the subject and make them holy—they’re just looking out for you. 

With this understanding of positive, disciplinary power, Foucault discusses the concept of a “Docile Body”: “a body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed, and improved” (136). It is a person of which this positive power may be applied to. A docile body is created through the art of distributions (methods of physically arranging and separating individuals) and control of activity (methods of segmenting time to control the body and make it as efficient as possible).

Finally, Foucault discusses the methods in which discipline is enacted. He explains that a disciplinary institution must have hierarchical observation and normalized judgement, which both serve to turn the positive discipline into parts of everyday life (170-184). Today, we just expect to have bosses and professors “above” us, and we expect that they, as well as everyone else, judges us for our actions and beliefs. Foucault says these two strategies of discipline combine to prime individuals for an examination which, “makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish” (184). The examination doesn’t have to be a sit-down test like we expect in school, it’s the individual, day-to-day rankings we all engage in as we interact with people. It is the ultimate action of power because it is everywhere even without trying, so the purposeful implementation of the examination, like we see in many academic institutions, is an interesting display of power that we’ve come to accept.

3. Application

Now that we’ve established that academia is obsessed with its individual fields and have gotten the basics of what specific Foucauldian terms mean, it’s time we get into the bulk of this paper: how the separation of academic fields is a method of creating docile bodies, a tactic of positive power, and a perfect example of the examination. 

(Re)Creating Docile Bodies: 

It’s no question that the institution of academia as a whole creates docile bodies—Foucault uses education specifically, alongside prison and hospitals, to demonstrate his explanations of discipline and power. And yet, there’s something specific about the separate fields of academia in this power relation in creating docile bodies: on top of controlling time and the body through segmentation, academic fields segment and control the mind, all in the name of efficiency. (To be sure, the body and time of academics is still regulated, from when they’re allowed to teach, how long they have to teach, what they must do with their free time, where they can interact with students, etc. But that is all experienced by most professions). 

As many have noted (Benson 1982, Galt 2015, and McCully 2018), academic fields hold value because the professionals within them hold in-depth knowledge about a particular subject. They’re masters over it, and know all of its nuances; and yet, they know very little about most other subjects. Maybe the well-read academic knows about tangentially related fields—the computer scientist knows about robotics, the sociologist knows about gender studies—but they’re encouraged all through their career to become more adept at knowing the breadth of their field (more efficient). The time it takes someone who has a PhD in economics to explain supply and demand is drastically different than someone who has taken one principals class or read one article. Academics are constantly striving to become better and “develop” themselves so they may be better professors, better researchers, and better working subjects. Academics themselves become docile bodies, through the very institution and research that they believe will give them control: they think they’re breaking new ground and discovering new things, and maybe they are, but they’re doing it while having power enacted upon them; they’re internalizing the power of docility with each instance of field-specific learning they do. 

As professors are created into docile bodies through the control of their mind, they are also the perfect tools of producing new docile bodies through their instruction. Again, this does happen through the segmentation of time and management of their bodies: students have to show up to class at certain times, have to do homework in their “free” time, have only so many minutes to complete a test, must sit in their seats, etc. But students of different fields also have the segmentation of their minds being enacted on them. Most professors teach students who are studying the same subject they did, students are encouraged or required to pull from that field when doing graded work (as examples: X number of peer reviewed political science journal articles required, or the simple necessity to know the field to answer quiz questions), and students are often taught a hierarchy of fields—often from most to least useful and/or most to least employable (business or marketing on top, gender studies or journalism on bottom)—which only further encourages the attachment to one individual field. 

A Tactic of Positive Power:

And so, as academia creates docile bodies, it also uses the “higher ranking” docile bodies to create new “entry level’ ones, which may then move through the system and continue the cycle. It’s a cycle that is constantly encouraging both students and academics to become better and more specialized, so they may contribute more to the world or their field, so they may become more useful once they leave academia, so they have a deeper understanding of a subject they’re passionate about. And once you finish one level, one ranking, you almost feel obligated to enter the next level: high school to undergraduate, undergraduate to postgraduate, postgraduate to professor. The academic cycle is the perfect example of positive power, because all it wants is for you to realize your potential. 

An Entire System of Examination:

Finally, the examination becomes the method in which students and professors become docile and accept the positive power acted on them. And this, too, is separated. In every classroom there is the professor and the students—a very clear hierarchy, designed around the professors observation of the students, so they may enact judgement on them. Does a given student know the material well enough, did the student pass their same-field prerequisite, is the student engaged and excited about this field they have to learn everything about? Students will be tested on their separate knowledge: one lecture building on the last, one upper level course building on its prerequisite, until you know all you can know about that field in the span of four years, until there’s no more room for anything else. Students can only move onto the next step once they’ve passed the examination of the previous one and proven their docility—their internalization—of that field. 

Professors, too, face this examination based on their field. They do receive some judgement and observation from their students, but most of it comes from the colleagues they have within their field of study. Professors can only advance in their careers if they’re publishing research, which, to be considered valid, must be peer-reviewed—judged and examined in a temporary hierarchy, considered as to whether it is worthy enough for the field-specific journal the professor is attempting to publish it in. For academics, it is less useful to their career to publish in an interdisciplinary journal, or to publish a simple broad-audience summary of the field, than it is to publish hyper-specific, novel work. It is most useful to remain docile and stay complacent to the power of positive discipline.

This system is what the entire academic institution is based on: providing examinations to students and professors as methods of ranking them amongst peers and encouraging field distancing. This segmentation of the mind and examination of the ranking in any given field wouldn’t work as well if all fields built off each other—fields are purposefully kept separate so this power may be enacted, and so individuals cannot discuss their experiences of power or inspire revolt. We’re encouraged to see fields different from our own as anti to our work. (There’s a reason everyone hates business majors and art students, unless you’re a business major or art student). 

Microphysics of Power: 

Foucault built his career in studying specific instances of power, rather than large, overarching applications of it (ie the concept of docility as a tactic of power over individuals, versus the Marxist idea of capitalism as domination over everyone). Though this understanding of academia as a whole might differ from Foucault’s specificities, the basic premise is still that individuals are turned into docile bodies through specific tactics of power. That premise is simply applied to the whole institution (rather than making the argument about the institution and then manipulating it to fit each individual). 

4. Solutions

I’ve hinted at it throughout this paper, but my answer to “solve” this tactic of power is to make academia (more) interdisciplinary. This answer is, of course, incomplete, and its mere existence as an offered solution combats Foucault’s understanding of change: that you cannot imagine and strive for a utopian ideal without enacting further power over others. And yet, in its incompleteness, I think I manage to stay in Foucault’s graces. 

Making academia (more) interdisciplinary wouldn’t get rid of the power structures entirely. Any form of categorization will still create power, even if that category is interdisciplinary. And, interdisciplinary work still creates docile bodies in the methods that are intrinsic to institutional life as a whole: the time schedules, the observation, the exams, etc. However, interdisciplinary work would, at least, de-segmentize the mind. Rather than seeing the world as only an economic entity, or as only an inspiration for creating art, individuals would be encouraged (there’s that positive power again) to hold multiple truths at once, and would be constantly coming to new understandings of their beliefs. Foucault discouraged the idea of defining oneself, because that makes you a subject. So how better to try and avoid that than by constantly having your mind changed about the way the world works. 

So too, this solution avoids the utopian ideal problem that Foucault fears. By being incomplete, by being imperfect, interdisciplinary work simply strives to make things better than they are now. And “better than it is now” is a constantly moving target—there’s no end-goal to get stuck on and enforce. This is particularly helpful since it would be difficult to convince the general public that all forms of power or categorization are inherently bad, so the solution must exist only to get rid of the “worst” pieces of power. 

5. Conclusion

Through this paper, I’ve attempted to show the methods in which separated academic fields are tactics of discipline: through the use of positive power and the examination, these fields create docile bodies which are controlled by segmentation of time, the body, and the mind. I’ve offered a, somewhat obvious, good-enough-for-now solution to this in the form of interdisciplinary academia, and yet, I know there are still some problems to be dealt with. 

I myself am in an interdisciplinary program, and I’ve internalized some of the fears that individualized-field-advocates bring up. Sometimes I worry I don’t know enough about any one topic, sometimes I wonder if I’ll be useful in the “real world,” sometimes I have a hard time defining myself, or I reduce myself into one small definition, in order to accommodate others. I’m going to graduate school for a very specific sociology program, and though I say I want to do research on interdisciplinary education and accessible knowledge, as I write this paper, I wonder if I, too, have fallen victim to the positive powers that be. And I wonder if there’s a “better than it is now” solution if my method is already that of interdisciplinary studies. 

More, constantly evolving, research and wondering will have to be done to fill in the gaps that Foucault left. But that was probably his point. For now, we’ll just have to reason with the fact that seemingly every method of escaping power is also a force of power being acted upon us. We’ll have to reason with the fact that Foucault couldn’t, and didn’t want to, leave us the answers—only the open-ended, interdisciplinary questions.

Works Cited

Aškerc Veniger, Katarina and Sebastian Kočar. “The Impact of Academic Discipline on University Teaching and Pedagogical Training Courses.” Croatian Journal of Education 20 no. 4 (2018).

Benson, Thomas. “Five Arguments Against Interdisciplinary Studies.” Issues in Integrative Studies 1 (1982): 38-48

Dallimore, Elise J., Julie H. Hertenstein, and Marjorie B. Platt. 2008. “Using discussion pedagogy to enhance oral and written communication skills” College Teaching, 56 no. 3 (2008): 163–172

Davis, T.M. and Murrell, P.H. “Turning teaching into learning: The role of student responsibility in the collegiate experience” ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 8. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development (1993).

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Frost, Susan and Paul Jean. “Bridging the Disciplines: Interdisciplinary Discourse and Faculty Scholarship.” The Journal of Higher Education 74 no. 2 (2003): 119-149

Galt Harpham, Geoffrey. “Defending Disciplines in an Interdisciplinary Age.” College Literature 42 no. 2 (2015): 221-240

Garside, C. “Look who’s talking: A comparison of lecture and group discussion teaching strategies in developing critical thinking skills.” Communication Education 45 no. 3 (1996): 212–227.

Huerta, J.C. “Getting active in the large lecture” Journal of Political Science Education, 3 no. 3 (2007): 237–249.

Kakooza, Victoria et al. “Are Graduates from the Arts-Related Academic Disciplines More Productive than Those from the Science-Related Disciplines?” International Journal of Higher Education 8 no. 3 (2019): 226-234

Lundström, Mats et al. “Assessing Student Theses: Differences and Similarities between Examiners from Different Academic Disciplines.” Practitioner Research in Higher Education 10 no. 1 (2016): 217-226

McCully, George. “Academic Disciplines: Synthesis or Demise?” New England Journal of Higher Education (2018).

Newell, William. “Academic Disciplines and Undergraduate Interdisciplinary Education: Lessons from the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Miami University, Ohio.” European Journal of Education 27 no. 3 (1992): 211-221. 

Sawyer, Keith R. and Stacy DeZuter. “Distributed Creativity: How Collective Creations Emerge From Collaboration” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 3 no. 2 (May 2009): 81-92.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *