GLOBAL: Rethinking academic tribes and territories

The notion of 'academic tribes' has entered the discourse around university management, academic development and the discussion of university life generally. The original source of the idea was Tony Becher's book Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual enquiry and the culture of disciplines, first published in 1989.

The empirical research for that book, conducted in elite universities in the UK and US, took place in the mid-1980s. Its focus was on well-established disciplines and on leaders in their fields, interrogating their approach to research and the influence of the structure of knowledge on research practices in those different disciplines.

The book argued that disciplinary knowledge characteristics, their 'territories', were very influential in determining whether researchers operated alone or in large groups, what the character was of the object of their research, how and to whom the research product was disseminated, and so on.

The territories, in short, shaped practices so that distinct 'tribal' characteristics were discernible within disciplines, even going beyond research into other areas of professional and personal life.

Moreover, the argument was 'what happens in Yale (and other elite universities) today shapes what will happen at less prestigious universities tomorrow': the vision was of a kind of academic progression up a ladder, with the Ivy League and Oxbridge leading the way. Tribal rituals, rites and rhythms would eventually permeate the higher education system.

A new edition of Academic Tribes was published in 2001, and I was lucky enough to be asked to make a substantial contribution to it. Very sadly my friend and colleague Tony Becher died from a long-standing illness not long after that. The second edition stepped beyond differences in research practices and also looked at learning and teaching in universities and the question of the 'territorial determination' of those.

It noted that the shape of universities was changing, with interdisciplinarity and new fields of study with a practice focus becoming increasingly important. It also questioned the trickle-down thesis and raised issues of gender and other factors that condition practices within universities, beyond simple epistemological ones.

A certain degree of scepticism about epistemological determinism crept in, but in a way the title of the book delimited how far one could step beyond the argument that discipline shapes practices.

The metaphor of disciplinary practitioners living in tribes has a lot of purchase. There are sometimes border raids and territorial disputes, for example, between sociology and anthropology. There are tribal elders, and figures from earlier generations are venerated. And yes, to some extent one can identify distinctive 'ways of thinking and practicing', as Velda McCune and Dai Hounsell put it, within disciplines.

But there are problems with the metaphor too which go beyond, for example, the colonial connotations and associated problematic history of the term or the fact that actual 'tribes' are not significantly shaped by their geographical territories. That metaphor implies a relatively coherent set of practices, assumptions, values and a taken-for-granted approach to certain things.

Yet on the ground within the 'same' discipline we often see diversity and conflict, paradigm wars and the strong influence of different educational ideologies. Academics as individuals draw on different sets of discursive and value-laden resources which mean their focus may be on students, on the discipline itself (which was the underlying assumption of the original tribes and territories thesis), on the world of commerce and industry, or in some cases on challenging the status quo through their intellectual work.

Such ideological influences mean that academics in the 'same' discipline take very different stances towards what they do and how they do it. As a result there is often more commonality between individuals across disciplines than within them, certainly on some issues, as well as in terms of the approach they take to their teaching, research and other professional practices.

But beyond this rethinking of the essentialism inherent in the tribes and territories argument, it is very clear that the higher education world today is very different from that in the mid-1980s when Tony Becher conducted his research.

There are very powerful influences on academic practices across all disciplines and they operate right across the world. These have reshaped the significance of disciplinary knowledge structures, and squeezed their influence. What academics do is now more diverse than it was, and there has been an intensification of academic labour so that academic staff have to do more varied types of work in less time.

Meanwhile theirs is no longer the only game in town; they are joined by other professionals of different sorts who are intimately involved in the processes and practices that go on in universities. These people are not influenced by disciplinary differences, except insofar as they impinge on their professional training.

Meanwhile, the rise of new managerialism has meant that academics have less control over what they do and how they do it. This is, of course, compounded by the quality audit culture which conditions so many aspects of professional work in the academy - by the rise of what Guy Neave calls the 'evaluative state'.

Technological change, too, has reshaped practices and in some areas there has been homogenisation as a result of the use of tools which are common across the disciplines. Massification of higher education has also been almost universal across the world, and dealing with this has reshaped practices in ways that cross what we previously thought of as disciplinary boundaries.

So, a variety of forces, together with what Oxford University's Stephen Ball calls the 'global policy ensemble' of government interventions that have been reshaping higher education across the globe, have had very significant influences within almost every university. In addition there have been only-regional innovations that have also reshaped practices, the most obvious example being the Bologna process in Europe.

So what does this mean for the tribes and territories thesis today? I would suggest that the tribes metaphor has probably outlived its usefulness and new metaphors are required.

Chris Rust, head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development and deputy director of the directorate of human resources at Oxford Brookes University, has suggested the metaphor of nations (and associated 'states', their institutional articulation) as allowing for greater diversity, conflict, political division and change.

In their chapter in Tribes and Territories Angela Brew and Catherine Manathunga, by contrast, have gone for more watery metaphors echoing Zygmunt Bauman's notion of 'liquid modernity'.

Whichever metaphor you choose, there is no doubt that the influence of the knowledge structures of different disciplines on academic practices generally is considerably weaker than it was, and that other forces powerfully shape how academics behave, how and about what they talk and think and, very importantly, what they care about.

* Professor Paul Trowler is director of research at here@Lancaster, in the department of educational research at Lancaster University in the UK.

* His upcoming book (edited with colleagues), Tribes and Territories in the 21st-Century: Rethinking the significance of disciplines in higher education, is published by Routledge.