My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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defining a discipline

Last semester, i took the first core PhD class in performance studies at Berkeley. This semester, i’m taking the second one. The structure of these core classes is brilliant and i’m still in awe of how valuable they are; i also admit that it’s making me addicted to that discipline. Performance studies, like information sciences, is a field defined by its interdisciplinary. It is still trying to define itself, express its meaningful contributions to knowledge and define its methodology.

Structurally, what they have done at Berkeley is set up a core methods + theory requirement. In the methods class, an overview is given that conveys how you address topics in performance studies methodologically. Attention is given to critical analysis, ethnography, oral histories, etc. The theory class throws you deeply into the roots of the discipline, asking you to constantly challenge the assumptions and terms put forward. From the onset, you’re asked to question the field and in doing so, define it.

The assignments prepare you to be an academic. You are required to do a book review (the typical first publication in the humanities) and a conference paper. You do a project built on a key methodology. You write a course syllabus for freshman. Finally, you define a term that is central to performance studies. (Note: defining a term is not as easy as it seems… this includes documenting its history, usage, applications, etc. Think 20 pages.)

What intrigues me about this process is that performance studies is doing an amazing job of asking its students to really define the field, to really think through the intellectual projects of the discipline and to come to terms with what it means for them. In essence, the discipline is active, constantly reflexive and redefining on a generational level.

This seems to me to be a brilliant way to actually indoctrinate students and i’m hoping to see this approach applied more broadly to interdisciplinary spaces. As a student of information, i’m still not entirely sure what we mean by information. Or more accurately, i’m not at all aware of what the different discussions are and have been. And the more time that i spend at CHI, the more i’m concerned that HCI isn’t entirely figuring out its identity either. And i never did figure out what the unifying knowledge projects of the Media Lab were. [I kind of wonder if performance studies is partially successful since it defines its discipline based on an active process rather than on a site / noun (performance vs. information).]

How do other interdisciplinary disciplines begin the process of scoping theory, methodology and site? Are there other good models out there that one should look to?

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5 comments to defining a discipline

  • The approach of the performance studies program does sound great. EVERY field should be constantly reevaluating itself. The process can only help scholars better understand what’s been said, what’s being said, how it’s said, why it’s said, and how all these are related. I wish that the IS program I was in at UNC was pushing these questions as much as it seems that SIMS is. Of course, SIMS had to give up accredidation in order to do these kinds of things. But now it’s also the most interesting IS program I know of.

    Having switched to Sociology I am extremely frustrated by how little my program pushes students to develop a general theoretical and methodological understanding of the field…or of the world and knowledge in general. Aside from the general definitional questions you mention, I think graduat students should all be required to take sociology and philosophy of science/knowledge courses as well. There are a few good folks here in the department who are really interested in the BIG questions but we are a small minority.

  • As a 4th year phd student in an HCI program (the first one in the country) I can attest that HCI has a serious identity crisis. Sometimes I wonder if it is a field at all in its own right, the way it seems to be hurriedly stitched together from random methods and a little bit of theory from different other disciplines.

    The HCI department here, at my institution, has been grappling with how to teach an HCI methods course. The three times it has been attempted, the results were fairly bad. Students remained confused, perplexed, and, eventually too frustrated to be interested. The class itself forces students to do a group research project (this is usually their first semester, of their first year in the program) that is “of publishable quality” whatever that means.

    In general, the class includes several weeks devoted to each of the three “aspects” of HCI – behavioral, design and CS. Different faculty teach each part, they rarely coordinate what they teach, and the class lacks a common goal or direction. It’s more a form of throwing a set of methods and studies at students and expecting them to understand a commonality between them and the value of each discipline alone and as part of HCI. It doesn’t work. In fact, I remember a class, when we tried to define HCI on the basis of what we heard in prior lectures. It turned into a frustrating and somewhat useless conversation that came down – we can not define this… thing…

    When people ask me, what HCI means, I usually say “I have no idea”. I am about to propose a dissertation, and I wonder, is my work HCI? It doesn’t really feel like it belongs, but I can’t put my finger on why. My peers tell me it is definitely “HCI-ish”… The faculty wondered for a while why I was doing what I am doing. I told them that Intel was very interested in this kind of project. Suddenly, my thesis gained credibility. Is part of what defines HCI, what industrial research finds reasonably interesting? Is academic HCI setting it’s pace by industrial research labs? I do not know… but this isn’t the first I wish I’d gone to a department that is less insecure in what its own definition is.

  • As a 4th year phd student in an HCI program (the first one in the country) I can attest that HCI has a serious identity crisis. Sometimes I wonder if it is a field at all in its own right, the way it seems to be hurriedly stitched together from random methods and a little bit of theory from different other disciplines.

    The HCI department here, at my institution, has been grappling with how to teach an HCI methods course. The three times it has been attempted, the results were fairly bad. Students remained confused, perplexed, and, eventually too frustrated to be interested. The class itself forces students to do a group research project (this is usually their first semester, of their first year in the program) that is “of publishable quality” whatever that means.

    In general, the class includes several weeks devoted to each of the three “aspects” of HCI – behavioral, design and CS. Different faculty teach each part, they rarely coordinate what they teach, and the class lacks a common goal or direction. It’s more a form of throwing a set of methods and studies at students and expecting them to understand a commonality between them and the value of each discipline alone and as part of HCI. It doesn’t work. In fact, I remember a class, when we tried to define HCI on the basis of what we heard in prior lectures. It turned into a frustrating and somewhat useless conversation that came down – we can not define this… thing…

    When people ask me, what HCI means, I usually say “I have no idea”. I am about to propose a dissertation, and I wonder, is my work HCI? It doesn’t really feel like it belongs, but I can’t put my finger on why. My peers tell me it is definitely “HCI-ish”… The faculty wondered for a while why I was doing what I am doing. I told them that Intel was very interested in this kind of project. Suddenly, my thesis gained credibility. Is part of what defines HCI, what industrial research finds reasonably interesting? Is academic HCI setting it’s pace by industrial research labs? I do not know… but this isn’t the first time I wish I’d gone to a department that is less insecure in what its own definition is.

  • I am going doing my Ph.D. at School of Information Studies in Syracuse Unviersity. My field (and I don’t know what it is truly) is also very interdisciplinary. I am taking a new course this semester that is allowing me to look at the different practices in school and understand my field. I am trying to use “conceptual maps” in order to do that. This effort of identifying a field isn’t new. It’s not just happening to you. In fact the resaerchers in the field go through that too. And also schools go through it to evaluate where they stand in the field, and by the way what the field is.

    I just read the first two chapters of Melanie Norton’s book called “Introductory concepts in Information Science”. It is very dry reading to be honest but it gives a great picture of how the IS field appeared, the theoretical discussions behind it and also gives a definition of Information. It’s surprising that the definition of information from 1960’s can still be relevant now.

  • Brian Grant

    The perspective I would like to lend comes from a slightly different interdisciplinary angle – Human Performance Technology (HPT). I recently completed a Masters in Instructional Technology with an emphasis in HPT at Wayne State University in Detroit (ironically one of the oldest and most venerable programs of its kind in the country). It primarily deals with how humans learn and perform, but is intimately intertwined with the technologies that continue to shape and enhance human performance in schools and the workplace.

    Important to your discussion is how HPT has grown (and continues to grow) from the roots of education, instruction, and behavioral sciences into a robust discipline and field that balances research and practice as it constantly evolves and works to define (and redefine) itself.

    The trick, in my opinion, to such a successful evolution lies in embracing the core roots from which ones field eminates, while at the same time reaching out just beyond the boundaries of accepted practice to interface with other domains.

    For example, in the process of try to determine a Masters project, I found myself most fascinated with social networks among people, communities, and using Social Capital methods to measure them in connection with human performance. I discovered during my research that while much on Social Capital has been written (even some pertaining to business and performance), little had been done to apply performance-based metrics to Social Capital. In the process of finishing this project I began carving myself a new niche in this field, while at the same time helping to redefine it.

    Ultimately, I think one will find that the definition of a field is simultaneously found by a process of negation (what ISN’T this discipline?) as well as recursion (how does the field reach back into itself?)

    Through the process of defining the boundaries of a shape, the space inside becomes the shape itself.