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Seeing academic disciplines as brands
I used to think that being in an academic discipline was like standing in the corner of a room. When you are in it you know you are and so does everyone else. But once you start to drift… it’s not so clear whether you are in or out. These days, in many areas of academic study, the important discussions are happening in the middle of the room, not the corners.

As a physicist who has worked in departments of physics, engineering, water resources and geography, I guess I’ve moved towards the middle of the room (at least the one I occupy). And as a consequence, I’m starting to notice that disciplines are more like brands than they are corners of the room.

I meet disciplinary devotees who like to display it on their (metaphorical) T-shirt, or as a badge, and some even have it tattooed on their chest, lest they forget, or worse, lest someone question their loyalty to the cause. The discomfort of straying from the security of the corner of the room makes these ‘brands’ all the more important.

Now we can debate for hours what an academic discipline is, and how it may or may not be just like a ‘brand’, but that might be too tedious. Instead, let me simply list some properties of both.

First, academic disciplines…

An academic discipline is more than just a label. A discipline has a story. It has a culture and an ethos.

Disciplines are a key tool for differentiating a field of study in a way that allows students, or research funders, or indeed practitioners, to feel confident they are making the right choice – they know what they are going to get from a particular discipline.

The discipline expresses the culture of the field of study. Disciplinary culture is formed through sharing stories, images and associations. Often these have their own meanings that are relevant only within the discipline. Over time, these meanings become conventional wisdom, widely accepted as ‘truths’ about the discipline.

At this point, the discipline has acquired a culture. This disciplinary culture acts as a perceptual frame through which practitioners and students understand, value and experience the field of study. Disciplinary cultures can have a powerful influence on the student experience.

Disciplines are ‘sticky’. Once they have been accepted, people are usually reluctant to abandon the conventions of their discipline. This durability is a result of the human mind’s natural desire to simplify the complex world around us and provide us with easier choices.

Once a discipline ‘works’ for us, we are not interested in seeking out or exploring other disciplines.

Disciplinary cultures are shared by many people and expressed in a variety of contexts (talks, student experiences, societies, journals and so on). Disciplinary cultures are maintained as the discipline’s stories, images and associations are reinforced through these networks.

Now, brands…

According to brand and innovation consultants the Cultural Strategy Group, brand is more than just a label. A brand has a story. It has a culture and an ethos.

Branding is a key tool for competitive advantage for it differentiates products or services in a way that allows customers or clients to feel confident that they are making the right choice – they know what they are going to get from a particular brand.

The brand expresses the culture of the product (or service). Brand culture is shared, taken-for-granted stories, images and associations, often with their own meanings. Over time, these meanings become conventional wisdom, widely accepted as ‘truths’ about the product (or service).

At this point, the product has acquired a culture. This brand culture acts as a perceptual frame through which customers understand, value and experience the product. Brand cultures can have a powerful influence on the experience of the product.

Brand cultures are ‘sticky’. Once they have been accepted, people are usually reluctant to abandon the conventions of the brand culture. This durability is a result of the human mind’s natural desire to simplify the complex world around us and provide us with easier choices.

Once a brand culture ‘works’ for us, we are not interested in seeking out or exploring other brand cultures.

Brand cultures are shared by many people and expressed in a variety of contexts (talk, product experiences, ads and so on). Brand cultures are maintained as the brand’s stories, images and associations are reinforced through these networks.

My point?

Recognising disciplines as another form of branding allows us perhaps to reflect on the ways in which we view the world through our own disciplines. It might also allow us to think again about how we project disciplines to the world outside academia.

And it might allow us some individual freedom to question the established ‘truths’ of our own, traditional disciplines…even if only once in a while.

* Iain Woodhouse is a senior lecturer in radar remote sensing at the University of Edinburgh. This article was first published on his blog.
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