Rise and fall of great subjects

November 13, 1998

The popularity of disciplines waxes and wanes. Which will still be taught in 2050, asks Adrian Furnham

Which academic disciplines will have ceased to exist 50 years from now? And what new departments and professors will there be in the virtual university of tomorrow?

Can anthropology survive running out of primitive people and become a historical branch of sociology? Will zoologists be forced to reinvent themselves as biologists? Can classics survive the millennium?

My discipline, psychology, is riven by tensions so deep I am convinced that by 2010 it will have ceased to exist. There are already good words and bad words in psychology. The good words are "cognitive" and "neuro" and the bad words are "social" and "applied". Compare the department of cognitive neuroscience (good) with the department of applied social psychology (bad).

Psychology falls into three broad areas: physiological, cognitive and social. The physiologists are migrating to different departments. The cognitive psychologists are now cognitive scientists and working happily with linguists, computer scientists, ergonomists and even philosophers. The social organisational psychologists, depressed by their shrinking empire, are searching for a plusher home in business schools.

Why does the fortune of subjects wax and wane? Whence the popularity of sociology in the 1960s, psychology in the 1980s and business studies and computer science in the 1990s?

Several interrelated factors will determine the size, strength and even existence of disciplines in the future. The first is market forces - the existence of jobs as well as government subsidies to encourage any particular subject. The idea that an MBA usually means a 50 per cent rise in salary has been one factor in the growth of British business schools from one in the mid-1960s to 100 plus today.

Lucrative discoveries are likely to strengthen the originating disciplines. The physical and biological sciences seem on the brink of more discoveries with economic applications than the social and behavioural sciences. As for the arts faculty, probably film studies will grow as English declines, but film may have a bleak long-term future. And could an institution call itself a university without a department of philosophy?

A third factor that has created tectonic shifts in the disciplinary islands is the prevalence of postmodernism. The postmodernist cause has moved out of the philosophic debating chamber, colonised arts and social science departments and struck at the heart of the hard sciences. The great enlightenment project that valued reason, science and technology as primary vehicles for defining universal truths and guarding social values has been challenged.

Philosophical debates have split departments. Postmodernism has turned disinterested colleagues into bitter enemies. The empiricists form a traditionalist laager against the postmodernists, who also huddle together for warmth. This means that various individuals jump ship. The post-modernist English don might join the cultural studies department. The social geographer interested in constructivism might leave the vulcanologists and geologists for environmental studies.

Indeed, the words "studies" versus "science" are indicative of the future. We have cultural, feminist, film and media studies, while we have cognitive, neuro and visual science. Librarianism became information science, but political science became political studies. There has been a growth in "studies" departments, but they seem vulnerable to intellectual trends. Studies implies diversity of theories; science seems to celebrate unity and coherence. Studies come and go, sciences change but remain more constant. In 50 years there may be a dozen new sciences made up from a realignment of the older disciplines. But my job will not exist.

Adrian Furnham is professor of psychology at University College London.

* Which disciplines will have ceased to exist by 2050 and which subjects will have emerged? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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