what is a field?

The following is a guest post by Joe Karaganis.

Thanks to  Jeff Lockhart for inviting this post.  Over the past couple years, he and I have discussed, on and off, the technical and ethical issues surrounding the development of statistical accounts of gender balance in the curriculum of different fields — potentially using data from Open Syllabus, which I direct.

I don’t want to focus on that here, however.  I’ll defer to Jeff’s excellent discussion of the issue from last summer and simply note a couple of our hand-coded forays into the topic with respect to business school assignments and assigned movies.  (In both cases, the percentage of assigned titles attributable to women is around 10%.)  Instead, I’d like to explore a question that has motivated Open Syllabus since its early days: What is a field?  I’m aware of the sociological history surrounding this question but will stick, mostly, to our brutally simple version of it, which for me begins with a story.

In the mid-2000s I ran a program at the Social Science Research Council whose main goal was to push early-stage academics to engage with media and communications policy debates — either directly in their research or by collaborating with advocacy and activist groups on ‘dual use’ projects.  The program also provided a home for what were, at the time, very active conversations about the identity and purposes of Communications as a field. Traditionally, Communications in the US had been a heavily professional field that prepared students for careers in broadcasting, journalism, and public relations.  That began to change in the 1990s, led by a handful of programs with scholarly and disciplinary ambitions derived from the ‘core’ social sciences.  Our work was aligned with efforts to promote more policy engagement in the field, but this was only one of the positions in the debate.  Should the field be more theoretical or more applied.  Should it be the home for emerging Internet studies or was that something different?  (The answer proved to be mostly yes, at the expense of the obvious alternative, Sociology.)  Was Communications the new liberal arts? What was the place of training in media and journalism professions? And so on.  Because Communications was still receptive to (and largely led by) refugees from other social sciences, it was only weakly disciplinary in the sense of shaping and policing methods and directions of inquiry.  Questions of field identity remained meaningfully open to an extent not possible in sociology, political science, and other adjacent fields.

As a relative newcomer to the field with a degree in literature, I was struck by the gap between the normative focus of these conversations and the comparative lack of descriptive accounts of the field.  Communications was a fragmented field, with multiple disciplinary associations, major differences in national traditions, and a lot of diversity in program structure.  In our SSRC work, we spent a lot of time on what were essentially mapping exercises, trying to identify and connect clusters of research on various aspects of media activism and policy, including clusters of related research spread across other disciplines.   In 2007, I proposed to a group of Communications program chairs that we might be able to use course content as a basis for a more descriptive account of the field.  Communications, at a minimum, could be viewed as the body of knowledge that faculty chose to transmit and reproduce.  This was my first attempt to organize research on syllabi.  But doing so across even a small range of programs proved logistically complex and lacked a strong constituency in the group.   My job at the SSRC had little scope for unfunded research, so I didn’t pursue it.

But I also didn’t forget it.  Some years after that, I started Open Syllabus (with several colleagues) at Columbia University.  Because syllabi had begun to appear online in large numbers, we were able to solve the problem of collecting at scale.  Because cloud computing and machine learning had begun to be more accessible, we were able to address questions computationally  that had previously required intense manual coding.  We now work with a corpus of around 10.5 million syllabi (and growing) and have spent a lot of time thinking about ways to visualize and explore fields within the data.  Of these, the Co-Assignment Galaxy is the conversation piece — a massive plot of over a million assigned titles.  Here’s a recorded talk by David McClure on the subject if you’re curious.

The Co-Assignment Galaxy represents titles based on the extent to which they appear together on syllabi.  Each title is a dot whose size is determined by the title’s total assignment count in the collection.  This simple principle structures a very detailed map of fields, subfields, and their boundaries.  It also combines what we could call content-based and institutional ways of thinking about fields.  By content based, I mean that the layout is derived solely from similarities in the assigned contents of millions of classes, with no a priori knowledge about how those classes divide into sociology or history or physics (we added the labels later).  At the same time, we developed tools that do sort syllabi into the classificatory schemas used by universities, which reflect a more administrative and institutional view of fields. This institutional account shows up in the graph through the use of color.  A title receives a color based on its predominant field of assignment. Field boundaries and border zones are represented in the Galaxy by this interaction between spatial layout and color.

This interaction is especially interesting for emergent fields that haven’t (yet) undergone strong ‘disciplinarization.’  These new fields are dominated by texts assigned across multiple disciplines—a status signaled by the color gray.  Environmental studies is a good example of a new field: strongly clustered but with lots of gray, reflecting the circulation of titles within its main contributing disciplines, including Political Science (purple), History (orange), and English (teal). 

For comparison, here’s English: a field with a huge corpus of titles whose use is almost entirely circumscribed by the discipline (and further divided into major national and chronological units—a.k.a., subblobs—of study).

Sociology is an interesting example.  It has two primary axes defined by social theory and a sort of thematic arc running from class to race to gender.  But it is also highly connected to other fields in all directions—something visible in the gray boundary zones that take over at its edges.  Social theory blends into political theory; socioeconomic literature leads toward social work; gender analysis leads toward a gender studies cluster that is close to a field of its own in terms of what we might call curricular mass.    

The complexity of this geography is partly the result of mapping the full collection of syllabi, which contains all fields.  But we can also shrink the lense to sociology classes proper and to a much smaller number of titles. These restrictions produce what I think is probably a more familiar landscape for sociology students: methods in green on the upper left; different flavors of social theory across the top center and right; gender in the bottom right; work in the middle; and various approaches to race, ethnicity, and class across the lower left quadrant.  These are, btw, available as large 3’x4’ posters from the Open Syllabus Print Store.

For me, these maps are a sort of externalization of my efforts to orient myself in the fields in which I’ve worked: Communications, before that, Sociology, and before that, Comparative Literature.  And I think that experience is common. A large part of graduate education is about building high-level maps of one’s field from its narrower instantiations in classes, research, preliminary exams, and especially conferences.  This is a hard and inevitably subjective process—especially in communities that cut across fields in their institutional and disciplinary senses.  

The pedagogical question I’d ask is whether these graphs can contribute usefully to that process of mapping.  These are relatively new forms of representation that have no strong connections to the institutional contexts where ‘sense of field’ is produced.  Our posters are an effort to change that a little by claiming a foothold in those spaces.  And if they do, what follows?  We know we can, in limited ways, reflect a field.  But what can new forms of representation do to a field?  
Joe Karaganis directs Open Syllabus.  You can read other Open Syllabus data stories here or follow his neglected Twitter account here.  The better-maintained Open Syllabus account is here.

Author: Jeffrey Lockhart

Jeff is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago. He tweets @jw_lockhart.

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