The heterogeneity of academic writing

On looking more closely at examples of academic writing across disciplines, it becomes quite clear that each discipline has its own special norms and customs when it comes to text and information structure. To some extent, this is true also for grammatical and lexical aspects. No doubt, the aforementioned norms stem from a long, historical process in which disciplines follow ontological and epistemological traditions and ideals.

Academic Disciplines and Disciplinary Domains

Hyland (2009: 62-63) argues that the dividing line in the history of science and scholarship has run between natural sciences and technology on the one side, and humanities and social sciences on the other.

     SCIENCES

SOCIAL SCIENCES

HUMANITIES

HARDER  <----------

-------------------------

----------->SOFTER

Empirical and objective                  

Explicitly interpretative

Linear growth of knowledge

Dispersed knowledge

Experimental methods

Discursive argument

Quantitative

Qualitative

More concentrated readership

More varied audience

Highly structured genres

More fluid discourses

 A Continuum of Academic Knowledge (taken from Hyland 2009: 63)

Hyland's schematic distinction between the more comprehensive disciplinary domains, as he calls them, offers a general, and perhaps predominantly general view, but a view which at the same time is problematic. To say that some disciplines belong to a more hard or soft domain obscures the fact that a subject within a discipline can have one foot in each camp.

Hyland emphasises the fact that the distinction should be seen as a continuum rather than a unidimensional scale. If nothing else, the continuum serves as a background to understanding the existing variation and heterogeneity in an academic community.

Variation in preferred genres and text types

Various disciplines and their subjects are more or less strongly linked to the different knowledge criteria presented in the table above. This also has repercussions on the writing in these disciplines. If there is variation in the way knowledge is constructed, we can also expect to see a variation in how this knowledge is reported in writing.

One clear example of this variation can be seen in the preference for different text types that disciplines and subjects exercise. Indeed, students of mechanical engineering, for example, will differ from students of comparative literature, political science and biochemistry, in the types of academic texts they are normally required to write.

The following example comes from Coffin et al. (2003), showing what genres and text types are favoured in different disciplines, covering both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.

Sciences
Social Sciences
Humanities/Arts
Applied Fields

Examples:

Examples:

Examples:

Examples:

Physics, Geology, Biology, Chemistry       

Sociology, Politics, Economics, Media studies, Psychology

English, History, Languages, Classics, Fine arts, Religion

Business, Health and Social welfare, Music, Engineering

Typical genres: 

Typical genres:  

Typical genres:

Typical genres:

Lab reports, Project proposals and reports, Fieldwork notes, Essays, Theses

Essays, Project reports, Fieldwork notes, Theses

Essays, Projects, Critical analyses, Translations

Essays, Case studies, Theses, Project reports         

 Favoured text genres in different disciplines (taken from Coffin et al. 2003: 46)

Similarly, in a survey carried out in the UK, Nesi and Gardner (2006) investigated what text types and genres were used as university assignments. The survey shows that a large variety of text types were used across disciplines, for example essay, report, laboratory report, book review, case study, and marketing proposal. To see the full list, click on the link below.

Common text types in certain disciplines (Nesi & Gardner 2006) (click to expand/contract)

Text types used in certain disciplines in the UK (Nesi & Gardner 2006)

TEXT TYPES

      

DISCIPLINES

Essay                                                                                 

Anthropology, Archaeology, Biology, Computing, Economics, Engineering, English, Food Sciences, Health, History, Hospitality and Tourism, Law, Mathematics, Medicine, Philosophy, Psychology, Publishing, Theatre Studies

Report

Computing, Food Sciences, Hospitality and Tourism, Law, Psychology

Laboratory report

Archaeology, Biology, Physics

Project report

Biology, Economics, Engineering, Mathematics, Sociology

Research project

Biology, Mathematics, Theatre Studies

Dissertation

Anthropology, Archaeology, Biology, Computing, Law, Medicine, Publishing, Sociology, Theatre Studies

Group project

Archaeology, Engineering, Health, Physics, Publishing

Poster

Anthropology, Biology, Engineering, Mathematics, Physics, Psychology

Book review

History, Psychology

Website evaluation

Medicine, Theatre Studies

Problem sheets

Biosciences, Economics, Food Sciences, Hospitality and Tourism, Mathematics

Case studies

Health, Publishing

Case notes, draft appeal to house of Lords, Advice Notes to a client, Submissions in preparation for a case, Moots, Problem Question (judgment)

Law

Field study

Sociology

Patient case report

Medicine

Letter from publisher to author

Publishing

Reflective writing/journal/blog     

Engineering, English, Hospitality and Tourism, Philosophy, Medicine, Theatre Studies

Critical evaluation (of own production or practical task)     

Anthropology, English, Computing, Theatre Studies

Marketing proposal/plan

Engineering, Publishing

Narrative fiction

Sociology (several modules)

Press Release, Fact Sheet, Technical Abstract, Persuasive Writing

Physics (communicating science module)

Letter of advice to friend written from 1830s perspective; Maths in Action project (lay audience)

Mathematics


Commenting on the wide range of text types reported in Nesi and Gardner (2006), Etherington (2008) points to the fact that only learning the standard essay format is not sufficient. She also emphasises that the text type report can be differentiated widely, as seen in the use of report, laboratory report and project report.