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Academic Tribes and Territories: Notes

Becher, T., & Trowler, P. R. (2001). Academic Tribes and Territories (2nd Ed.) Buckingham: Open University Press.

1: Landscapes, Tribal Territories and Academic Cultures

HE in the post-industrial environment

Mapping the territory of academic knowledge
academic disciplines into which knowledge has coalesced
cultures of the academics engaged in them

HE as a post-industrial environment:
turbulent change, information overload, competitiveness, uncertainty organizational decline, new identities
impact of broader socio-economic contexts within which HE operates

The globalized landscape

Globalization is a term with contested meanings (Cole 1998)

Becher and Trowler (2001) understand it as “global flows of information and resources along networks transcending nation-states’ influence and disturbing nationally-organized systems and practices.” (P.2)

Networks - physical, social and economic characteristics.

Knowledge media: the convergence of computing, telecommunications and the cognitive sciences 
change fundamentally the relationship between people and knowledge

The need to be competitive / cost effective

The phenomenon of massification

Increased volume of students

Martin Trow’s (1970) classic formulation of HE systems as having an elite, mass or universal character
(Mass 15% universal 40%)

changing demographic of students

academic staff:
  • professions outside academia 
  • vocational subjects 
  • new disciplines and domains of knowledge 
Such characteristics are typical of post-industrialism more generally: the shifting boundaries and relativization of knowledge-claims, social status

increasing emphasis in government policy and rhetoric on the vocational functions of HE

The regulatory state

expansion of HE towards a mass system

growing proportion of public expenditure

increase in accountability and an emphasis on efficiency and economy
loss of the exceptional status and individual autonomy of HE

The triple helix

now-outmoded disciplinary structures which make up ‘mode 1’ knowledge. 
Increasingly science involves ‘mode 2’, transdisciplinary, problemoriented knowledge

Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff (1997)
‘triple helix’ of academia–industry–government relations

innovations are increasingly likely to be trans-national and interdisciplinary - develop holistically rather than in a linear

Marketizing knowledge

Deregulation of the system, reduction in the monopolistic position of universities
customers: students, employers and the government
increased rivalry among competitors
reduction in funding for students – student fees – 'student as consumer' 
universities are becoming more entrepreneurial
greater emphasis on mode 2 knowledge to be competitive

Commodification of knowledge: 
Knowledge as a ‘thing’ capable of being bought and delivered in module-sized chunks, with learning outcomes being the unit of currency

Economy, efficiency and effectiveness

Managerialism involves a framework of values and beliefs about social arrangements and the distribution and ordering of resources.

Oriented to efficiency, economy and market responsiveness

in education, a conceptualization of knowledge and learning is adopted which is atomistic, mechanistic and explicit

“deprofessionalization of academic life is clearly occurring, while traditional ideas about the special status and knowledge claims of academics have rapidly become outdated.” (p.13)

increasing bureaucratization and managerialism, central control of the curriculum

Patterns of growth and fragmentation

growth in knowledge
growth in disciplines and their fragmentation into sub-disciplines
subject dispersion
domain based curriculum

“Knowledge organization and expansion can operate in its ‘well-muscled’ organizational form independently of, and sometimes counter to, trends in the student market, managerialist imperatives, government policy and other structures. The resulting changes are largely internal to universities and can be very powerful.” (p.15)

Clark (1993) - structural differentiation and a closely related elaboration of academic professionalism within which academics ‘specialize their interests and commitments in a widening array of subjects and institutions’ (p.266).

Such a position could, however, be said to ignore the larger forces shaping academic institutions and academic life: those associated with post-industrialism and postmodernity

Changing landscapes, shifting territories

These shifts in the landscape of HE have significant implications for academics, their various tribes and disciplinary territories

“the relationship between the identifiable shifts in the landscape on the one hand and academic cultures, work conditions and disciplinary communities on the other is dynamic, complex and far from tightly-coupled” (p.16)

‘If knowledge is power, then new knowledge is new power, expanded knowledge is expanded power, and fragmented knowledge is fragmented power’ (Clark 1987a: 273).

However according to Clark there are ‘interlocking cultural communities’ – a collective comprehensiveness that is integrative despite the forces for specialization. 
integration through overlap.
despite disciplinary fragmentation there are still unifying factors, sustained by intellectual exchange

Organizational, cognitive and social frameworks can be seen to interact and at some points to interpenetrate, affecting the working lives of academics in different ways according to context.

Traditional forms of knowledge generation are being phased out in favour of Mode 2 knowledge collective, applied transdisciplinary developments which take place mainly outside academia.

well-established areas of pure, monodisciplinary knowledge as anthropology, history, philosophy  are reasonably certain to survive under the assault of advanced technology

Diversity of knowledge forms and their associated knowledge communities, and hence to question the widespread tendency to assimilate them to the large-scale and headline winning developments whose main home is in the applied sciences

2. Points of Departure

Cultures refers to: “sets of taken-for-granted values, attitudes and ways of behaving, which are articulated through and reinforced by recurrent practices among a group of people in a given context” (p.23)

The way in which academics engage with subject matter, and develop narratives = structural focus in formulation of disciplinary cultures

2 Factors
  • Disciplinary epistemology – Actual form and focus of knowledge within a discipline 
  • Phenomenology of that knowledge – Ideas and understanding about their (and other) discipline 
Academic cultures and disciplinary epistemology are entwined

Categorising Academic Knowledge

Many, diverse taxonomies of knowledge

Becker and Trowler suggest:

2 Directions

Hard < > Soft
Pure < > Applied

4 Categories

 Combination Category Example
 Hard / Pure Pure Sciences Physics
 Soft / Pure Humanities History
 Hard / Applied Technologies Mechanical Engineering
 Soft / Applied Applied Social Sciences Education, Law etc.

3. Academic Disciplines

Debate over what constitutes / defines a discipline

Variations / diversity through factors of:
  • Structural / institutional / organisational / departmental 
  • Historical 
  • Geographical (national / international) 
“Despite their temporal shifts of character and their institutional and national diversity, we may appropriately conceive of disciplines as having recognisable identities and particular cultural attributes.” (p.44)

Tribal aspects of Academia


Differences apparent in:
  • Artefacts 
  • Language / discourse 
“The professional language and literature of a disciplinary group play a key role in establishing its cultural identity.” (p.46)

Employ a variety of devices to exclude others

Devices (cultural elements):
  • Traditions, customs, practices, rules etc. 
  • Linguistic and symbolic forms of membership 
Induction into disciplinary culture:

“To be admitted to membership of a particular sector of the academic profession involves not only a sufficient level of technical proficiency…[but also]…loyalty to one’s collegial group and of adherence to its norms” (p.47)

Relationship with Learning Theories

NeoVygotskyist and Postmodernist approaches:
New members construct rather than adopt ways of being – identity, values, knowledge and practices etc.

Constructivist Approaches:
Agency – role of individual
Identity / cultural construction

Culturalist (Situated practice) Approaches:
Agency – role of community
Historical / social context specific learning
(e.g. Wenger, Engestrom)

Bourdieu (1979):
Cultural capital one can inherit in acquiring membership of disciplinary community

Types of knowledge:
Experiential, tacit etc.

4. Overlaps, Boundaries and Specialisms

“It seems natural enough to think of knowledge and its properties and relationships in terms of landscapes, and to saturate epistemological discussion with spatial metaphors: fields and frontiers; pioneering, exploration, false trails, charts and landmarks.” (p.58)

Natural adjoining territories and overlaps


Can be constantly shifting and sometimes poorly demarcated
Boundaries denote territorial possessions that can be encroached, colonised and relocated.

Discipline boundaries can be:
  • Tightly knit / convergent / defended 
  • Loose / divergent / open 
Areas of common ground - not necessarily a conflict
Can be division of interest or developing unification of ideas and approaches

Interdisciplinarity - actively promoting unification at an institutional level


Provides alternative to disciplines
Filling in gaps
Microscopic level of knowledge

  • Theory-based 
  • Technique / methods-based 
  • Subject matter 
Boundaries and specialisms defined by social and cognitive processes and aspects of knowledge

5. Aspects of Community Life

Focus on tribes rather than territories
Taking a social rather than cognitive perspective

Formal / explicit recognition in academia – e.g. formal publishing
Tacit / informal recognition

‘Pecking order’
Elites (leading academics) – self-reinforcing through academic processes
Gatekeepers – determine access or non-access to academic communities
Peer groups – not well defined 

Networks / Social Circles

Mulhay (1977) (cited p.90-91)

“Research networks are amorphous social groupings which, partly due to migration…and partly due to overlapping membership…are in a state of constant flux. At any one time the research community as a whole, as well as particular disciplines and specialities within it, is composed of numerous networks at various stages of formation, growth and decline.”

Two interdependent nodes:

Operational Mode
What academics do
Working to the development of knowledge
(e.g. networks)

Normative Mode
Values, aspirations and loyalties
Working to professional norms
(e.g. Peer group)


Internationalisation and globalisation in HE
Research funding structures
Fashion / (paradigm) shifts

6. Patterns of Communication

Communication is the ‘lifeblood of academia’

Cognitive – the promotion of knowledge
Social – establishing reputation

“Social interaction, communication of all sorts and the partly socially constructed nature of disciplines that is associated with them are the forces that bind together the sociological and the epistemological, giving shape and substance to the links between knowledge forms and knowledge communities.” (p.104)

Urban and Rural Research

Research ‘population’
  • Urban – tightly composed, intense, competitive 
  • Rural – spread out, less overlap 
Formal and Informal Modes
  • Formal communication – published literature 
  • Informal communication – word-of-mouth, drafts (blogging?) 
Effect of Web / digital media

Speed, frequency length of publications – dependent on disciplinary traditions

7. Academic Careers


8. The Wider Context

Knowing How – performative knowledge
Knowing What – propositional knowledge 


Macroscopic Level
Knowledge Domains
Hard, Soft, Pure, Applied

Intermediate Level

Microscopic Level
Individuals and Specialisms


Hard Pure
General laws governing areas of human understanding
Clustered around limited number of small problems

Hard Applied
Focus on product orientated techniques

Soft Pure
Personal and specific
Study the particular rather than the general
Does not attract large PR
Less reliant on funding requirements

Soft Applied
Directed by non-academic interests
Needs to be relevant (to practitioners)
Research funding – focus on ‘useful topics’

“No part of the world of learning is immune from interaction with its environment, but the form that interaction takes will both reflect and influence the nature of the knowledge domain in question.” (p.179)

9. Implications for Theory and Practice

Identifiable relationship between knowledge forms and associated knowledge communities / cultures
But no neat correspondence between the two

“Academic communities are subject to influences from wider society as well as from the inherent nature of epistemological issues on which they are engaged” (p.181)

Disciplines and Specialisms

Different levels of specificity
Both combine cognitive (epistemological) and social (sociological) characteristics

When we speak of discipline or specialism we refer to notions of field of knowledge and groups of academics

  Cognitive Component Social Component
 Disciplines Subject Disciplinary Community
 Specialisms Segment Network


Applied to disciplines or specialisms

Cognitive Component
Hard < > Soft
Pure < > Applied

Social Component
Urban < > Rural
Convergent < > Divergent

(scale values – e.g. can be mainly hard or soft or somewhere in between)

Applying Taxonomy

Hard < > Soft
Pure < > Applied

Tend to think as combined categories

 Combination Category Example
 Hard / Pure Pure Sciences Physics
 Soft / Pure Humanities History
 Hard / Applied Technologies Mechanical Engineering
 Soft / Applied Applied Social Sciences Education, Law etc.

Urban < > Rural

Tightly composed, intense, competitive
Teamwork and close-knit communities

Numerous themes of enquiry
Little overlap between areas of focus

Convergent < > Divergent

No set factors – can vary (see examples)

Physics – collective kinship, mutuality of interests and beliefs
History – fraternity, scholarship, mutual identity
Mathematics – common discourse

Sociology – ideologically fragmented
Mechanical Engineering – Diffused across wide field, Lack of central theory
Modern Languages – cluster of related disciplines

No clear correlation between (Urban < > Rural) and (Convergent < > Divergent)
Though patterns emerge e.g. Urban tends to be hard (especially hard pure)


Tribes share the same ethnicity

Territories are part of the same land mass

Aim of Book

Enhancing mutuality between disciplines
Maintain academic autonomy – liberty from intrusive managerialisation
Recognition in wider society