Alphabet Thoughts Ɪ
To discipline1 is to prompt rule following behavior, using punishment as the response to rule breaking.
A discipline is also akin to a field or an area of study.
This is no coincidence. Areas of study were not sent down from the Heavens, nor were they discovered at the dawn of time. The differentiation of fields is the result of social pressures. Oftentimes these pressures amount to prompting of rule following behavior, using punishment as the response to rule breaking.
For example, there is a norm within scientific writing that one ought to avoid using “I” statements because they confound the objective and impartial aesthetic that is routinely desired within the field. At the educational level, this norm is often translated into a rule, where undergraduates are demanded to conform to the passive voice style, with their grades on the line.
One major issue with this style of disciplining is that it can take on a mind of its own. If the rules aren’t questioned, they can be passed down the generations of field participants even if they have become obsolete or were never helpful in the first place.
The more complex the rules of a field, the more arcane the outputs become. Technical language allows for efficient transmittal of thought within the field’s disciplined community, however it also builds insularity via creating language barriers. These barriers push away outsiders by mitigating their ability to understand the discourse within the field. Technical language can also develop into pointless jargon, resulting in the creation of unnecessarily complicated language which only serves to push non-disciplined actors out of the field (In my experience, law is a particularly good example of this occurrence, as is political science).
Sometimes the result of field disciplining is relatively benign, for in certain esoteric contexts the only people interested in a particular piece of content are ones who already have the requisite rule understanding and can dive in. Other times the result is alienating or even blatantly harmful. Plenty of information is needed by folks who don’t exist within the fields that create it. Scientific advances have bearing on us all, as do political investigations. The translation process from published document to publicly consumable news is often fraught with oversimplification and fearmongering, and that is when the translations occur at all.
Perhaps the opposite of disciplinary is interdisciplinary. Immense achievements can be made via combining seemingly disparate areas of study, however such combinations require breaking out of the conformist rule following and field differentiation. For example, if you combine chemistry and cooking you get molecular gastronomy. Part of the benefit of interdisciplinarity is that you bring outsiders into contact with the internal rules of fields. This allows fresh perspectives on the usefulness of the rules, as well as bringing in additional content to apply.
Finally, field differentiation is not necessarily bad. Different groups of people are often interested in different kinds of questions, and often desire to use different methods to investigate and explore their own particular fields of choice. There arise issues when the borders between fields become habitual, invisible, and unexamined. There also arise issues when the rules within fields become uselessly complex, insular, and archaic.
This piece is deeply indebted to Michel Foucault’s work, especially Discipline and Punish.