How to study a department and its place in the field

I got an interesting query from a student who wanted to design a comparative research project about two criminology departments and the ways they each construct different versions of their field.

I wrote back with a number of methodological thoughts. I thought I might also post them here, as they sketch out one way to approach this kind of question.

My general intuition is that any academic department is suspended within a number of separate social fields. These would include the disciplinary field, the institutional field of its own university, and the internal field of the department itself. So I essentially suggest that one could start out by mapping these different fields. One could then show how different images of a given discipline themselves emerge from different social locations.

Data gathering

I think you would want to think about finding a balance between archival or documentary research, interviews, and first-hand observation. Interviews can be very rich but it’s also very valuable to do things like see how the department presents itself on the website, what happens at events for new students, the atmosphere in department meetings or seminars, the physical spaces of the department and their moods…  Photos are good memory aids for later description.

Disciplinary fields, departmental fields and hierarchy

I would try to read up a little in the scholarly literature on the relationship between disciplines and departments, since this is often a complicated relationship. It’s worth gaining tools for thinking about how university departments maintain a specific position within a disciplinary field (which may evolve over time, etc). It could be worth reading papers such as Mario Small’s Departmental Conditions and the Emergence of New Disciplines: Two Cases in the Legitimation of African-American Studies, Charles Camic’s Three Departments in Search of a Discipline: Localism and Interdisciplinary Interaction in American Sociology, 1890-1940, or Judith Butler’s Against Proper Objects. Some more general books about disciplinary formation that could be interesting are Andrew Abbott’s Chaos of Disciplines, Ellen Messer-Davidow’s Disciplining Feminism, Karin Knorr Cetina’s Epistemic Cultures, or Fabio Rojas’ From Black Power to Black Studies. In your particular case, definitely read up on the history of criminology as a field, and in its relations to other fields/professions (and to the state).

The question is further complicated because there is generally a field within the department too. Usually different people in a department are going in strategically different directions, and they may have significantly different understandings of their field (or indeed come from different fields and belong to different fields). Part of your objective would be to map the space of positions within the department, and then check out how differently positioned actors construct criminology. Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social fields is very useful in this context.

I think the socialization perspective on disciplines is very important and if I were you, I would think about whether you want to privilege professorial or student perspectives. You can look at both, to some extent, but it helps to have a focus.

Studying the university context

The question of a department’s relationship to its university is also a major topic of its own. Students don’t always know much about the institutional politics of this relation; if you get a good relationship with professors you might be able to inquire directly. It’s often good to find out whether there are institutional metrics that weigh heavily on departmental policy and curriculum. Some places give funds in proportion to student enrollments, for instance; definitely check out any obvious steering mechanisms like this. Remember that institutional power is often indirect in higher education. It may be better not to focus on this question in your research design, because it gets vast and complicated, and may lead you away from the relationship between department and discipline.

Internal hierarchy in departments

There is always a hierarchy of belonging within a department as well. As you map the different actors in a site, try to keep track of which ones are dominant actors/public spokespeople, which ones are more “ordinary,” and which ones may be getting pushed out. It’s good (ethically and methodologically) to notice who is particularly socially excluded. In my graduate program, unfortunately, this often tended to be minoritized students (both ethnoracially and in social class terms).

How to get started with a research proposal

I don’t think it is too ambitious to write in your proposal that you want to study how criminology is differently constructed in two criminology departments. I would go with that as a framing question, and then narrow things down in terms of which actors do you want to talk to and which contexts are the most important. Also, start collecting interesting tidbits of data, stories, rumors, images, etc, that could serve as points of departure for your proposal. A good proposal needs some empirical information to work with, not just theory and methodology!


As a concluding thought: Obviously there are many possible approaches to this question. If you would advocate a different approach, feel free to say so in the comments!

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

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