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Research Guides

INFO 2010: Information Literacy in the Disciplines

This guide contains some of the readings for INFO 2010: Information Literacy in the Disciplines.

Dissecting Your Discipline

Group of teenage students wearing blue gloves bent around a table working on dissecting owl pellets.

Dissecting owl pellets by VSPYCC (CC BY 2.0)


Universities are typically divided up into a number of different disciplines or fields of study that manifest themselves as departments that are grouped together in various colleges. For example, the biology department and is part of the College of Science and the anthropology department is part of the College of Humanities & Social Sciences. Each of these disciplines has a group of professors who are experts in that particular discipline. These faculty members research and teach their particular branch of knowledge here at SUU. At some point during your academic career you declared a major and now have a home department and a core set of courses to take within that major or discipline. Upon receiving your diploma you will become an official member of the discipline.

Each discipline has their own unique perspective or lenses through which they study and interpret the world. This perspective determines what phenomena are being studied, how they are being studied, and what theories exist to explain, predict, and understand these phenomena. A sociologist might study anti-vaccination behavior during a pandemic, something that would probably not interest a physicist in the slightest.

In Module 2 we are delving deeper into our disciplines and sub-disciplines to discover what phenomena are being studied and what concepts and vocabulary your discipline uses. What are the kind of questions that excite the people in your field? What are the big questions? What are the topics that interest you? How do you formulate a research question relevant to your discipline?

Let's take another look at the six defining elements of a discipline (Repko & Szostak, 2021). They are:

  • The phenomena it studies
  • Its epistemology or rules about what constitutes evidence
  • The assumptions it makes about the natural or human world
  • Its basic concepts or vocabulary
  • Its theories about the causes and behaviors of certain phenomena
  • its methods (the way it gathers, applies, and produces new knowledge) [1]

Now let's define some of these terms to expand our understanding of these six elements:

  • Phenomena are essentially things that can be perceived through the senses, so they can be almost anything. Different disciplines focus on different parts of the world, different things or events or patterns, and build knowledge to explain and understand them. 
  • Epistemology is the "theory of knowledge and understanding, esp. with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion." [2] In other words, it's how we determine what counts as valid knowledge, or knowledge that is supported by evidence and is not merely speculation or opinion.
  • What is an "assumption?" This may seem obvious, but let's define this anyway. The OED actually has twelve definitions for this term. The one that makes the most sense in this context is "the taking of anything for granted as the basis of argument or action." [3] So, people in different disciplines take certain things for granted as they study phenomena and construct knowledge. It's common for people to think of assumptions as a bad thing, but in the context of a discipline, many assumptions probably come from the deep body of "stuff we already figured out" rather than "stuff we just made up."
  • The basic concepts and vocabulary of a discipline were likely constructed over a long period of time. Specialized terms may come about because no word existed before, or terms are the names of devices or tools, or they are words related to methods. For example, a biologist might use the term "populus tremuloides" for a quaking aspen tree (Utah's state tree, by the way). A pianist looking at sheet music will recognize a double-f symbol as "fortissimo," which means to play loudly. The specialize vocabularies of different disciplines serve an important function and you will need to learn yours to succeed.
  • A theory is "an explanation of a phenomenon arrived at through examination and contemplation of the relevant facts; a statement of one or more laws or principles which are generally held as describing an essential property of something [and the] conceptual basis of a subject or area of study. Contrasted with practice."[4] We see from this definition that theories are developed as a result of studying a particular phenomenon and in turn influence the way people think about the phenomena they study in their discipline. Theories can also become part of the assumptions mentioned above.
  • Finally, a method is a "way of doing anything, esp. according to a defined and regular plan; a mode of procedure in any activity, business, etc." [5] The methods disciplines use are often standardized, or at least, formalized, and developed based on what is required in order to study the phenomenon. For example, using a microscope is a required part of the method of studying certain kinds of cells. 

In the Module 2 Assignment, you will start to explore your discipline more deeply and come up with a research question about something that interests you. Having a better understanding of the what and how of your discipline will help.

End Notes:

[1] Repko & Szostak (2021). Interdisciplinary Research : Process and Theory

[2] "epistemology, n.". OED Online. September 2021. Oxford University Press. (accessed September 11, 2021).

[3] "assumption, n.". OED Online. September 2021. Oxford University Press. (accessed September 11, 2021).

[4] "theory, n.". OED Online. September 2021. Oxford University Press. (accessed September 11, 2021).

[5] "method, n.". OED Online. September 2021. Oxford University Press. (accessed September 11, 2021).