Tony Becher and his disciplinary differences

Becher, T. (1994) The significance of disciplinary differences. Studies in Higher Education, Vol. 19 Issue 2, pp151-162

Phew… it’s taken me a few days to get through this one – at first I blamed Tony Becher for writing what I thought was such a mind-numbingly dull article, but now I’ve got through it I think it’s me… I’ve actually just found it really hard to concentrate this past week.

I’ve already spent too long on it so here’s the essence of it:

Becher argues that there are key differences between academic disciplines that are often ignored in educational research at all levels; macro level research that examines interactions between the academy and the outside world (funding, social relevance, access & employability), meso level research that examines phenomena within the academy (management, evaluation, development & assessment), and micro level research that examines variations in departmental practice (research and teaching practice, roles & responsibilities). While in macro and meso level research these differences tend to be overlooked, in micro level research the problem is more to do with the specificity of the findings not being acknowledged. Becher recommends that micro level research could benefit from being extended to cover more that one discipline in order to draw contrasts, and gives the example of Marton’s work in economics and engineering.

Here are a few choice examples of disciplinary difference:

Impact of need for perceived social relevance of research (& funding!):

  • Hard pure disciplines (e.g. physics) may display epistemic drift towards areas of social relevance.
  • Hard applied disciplines (e.g. engineering) may display academic drift towards more theoretical (perceived as higher status) aspects
  • In soft pure disciplines (e.g. history), social justification for research can be elusive – this leads to a lack of funding and a more individualised research culture
  • Research in soft applied disciplines (e.g. education) may be heavily influenced by practitioners’ associations and other stakeholders (clients etc).

Teaching practices:

Hard disciplines tend to be taught using en masse teaching methods for a collective understanding, while soft disciplines utilise more personalised and individual methods in order to privilege the development of personal interpretations. Becher explains these differences are historical as well as epistemological, and they extend up to doctoral teaching, where a science PhD topic will often be determined by the supervisor and the student’s biggest challenge is being treated as a ‘dogsbody’ by the rest of the team. Doctoral students in the humanities get more autonomy over their topic but often have to cope with the challenge of loneliness and lack of support.

As to why disciplinary differences like these are so often overlooked, Becher proposes three hypotheses: firstly that HE researchers are akin to ex-pats who are cut off from their original context and culture and are now working in a field of study rather than a discipline. They have lost their own culture and therefore fail to discern one in others. The second and third reasons appear closely related – 2) generalising is far easier than picking apart the detail of what is truly there, and 3) there is a basic human need to make the messy seem rational and ordered.

Becher argues that in ignoring disciplinary difference we lose an opportunity to learn from cross-fertilisation between the different levels of research. Macro-level knowledge about the physics community, for example, may have relevant insights for the operation of a single physics department. In the other direction, approaches to learning and teaching in a specific department will have implications for the development of performance indicators and study skills programmes.

There we go… Becher in a nutshell. Wasn’t that hard really.

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