American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 5

Learned Societies and the
Evolution of the Disciplines


David Bromwich

George W. Stocking, Jr.

A Question of Boundaries: The Response of
Learned Societies to Interdisciplinary Scholarship

Saul B. Cohen

University Professor of Geography, Hunter College and
the Graduate Center, CUNY
Executive Secretary, Association of American Geographers

It may be helpful to engage the topic of  “Learned Societies and the Evolution of the Disciplines” through the following questions—“How can a discipline retain its roots, traditions and intellectual integrity, while responding to strong inter- and cross-disciplinary currents that enrich the discipline and yet may undermine its unity?” and, “How can the learned society guide this evolutionary process so that the development leads to positive, not counter-productive results?” It’s the age-old problem of searching for a balance between those energies that contribute to the healthy, integrated evolution of a discipline, and those that lead to its fragmentation. In addressing the problem and trying to shape the direction of change, the learned society must guard against becoming so protective of its organizational territory as to become an end unto itself, thus abandoning its proper role as the means for achieving the expressed needs and desires of its disciplinary practitioners.

Learned societies are under substantial pressure to find new structural solutions in promoting the continuing development of their respective disciplines. The mission hasn’t changed. Scholarly associations are still charged with guiding, from a discipline’s perspective, the process of problem articulation, theory generation, data handling, and knowledge content organization. But as each society pursues its role of disciplinary core and boundary definition, in an age of interdisciplinary thought and communication, it runs the risk of becoming overly defensive in warding off the perceived encroachment of other disciplines.

As disciplines evolve, their representative organizations adapt to new needs. Sometimes the adaption process is painful because scholarly societies tend to be defenders of the status quo. One element that reflects this defensiveness is the “guild mentality.” Some organizations abuse credentialling in order to maintain a monopoly position. Even in the absence of credential lint, we tend to behave as tight networks, setting scholarly standards and identifying employment opportunities for our members, as well as providing the peer review processes which the academic world generally accepts as the basis for judging meritorious scholarship.

The learned society has a partner in its efforts to maintain the status quo—the university. Ties between the scholarly society, and the university are intimate and synergistic. While clearly many members of a society are drawn from outside academia, it is the university that serves as training ground for entry into the discipline, and as breeding place and home base of its intellectual leadership.

To be sure there is competition between the university and the learned society. Especially in periods of teaching and research manpower shortages, a society offers members avenues of mobility through a national system of job-placement and cooperative research networking that undermines the efforts of the university to protect its individual territorial base.

But the effects of such competition are minor, compared to the shared benefits that both systems enjoy in maintaining the structural status quo through the university department. The department is an efficient and comfortable way of organizing the university, and of maintaining the political as well as academic status quo.

The department also provides the learned society with the university territorial base within which it can advance the interests of the discipline. Despite the growth of interdisciplinary and divisional structures within the academy, the overall impact of these non-departmental bodies is still marginal. The organizing core remains the department. Both the learned society and the university have a large stake in preserving this structure.

In light of the foregoing, it is no wonder that the emergence of formal new disciplines as amalgams of subdivisions of existing ones, takes a very slow, sometimes painful evolutionary course. But if new disciplines are difficult to create, informal clusters are not. Creative and restless scholars are constantly in search of fresh ways of looking at problems and of generating knowledge. The result is that the segmenting of disciplines and the breaking of traditional disciplinary bounds, a process that has always characterized the advance of scholarship, is now increasing at an unprecedented rate. As individuals, teams and small networks of scholars reach across disciplines to communicate with one another, the tendency is to formalize these links, to create new structures. Twenty scholars who communicate across the world through BITNET, using computer telecommunications to communicate ideas and share data, form a social as well as intellectual network. These electronic mail “clubs” offer the basis for a far more intense set of interpersonal contacts than can the far larger, more cumbersome and impersonal learned society. It is up to the society to enhance this process, not to seek to stifle it.

Let me turn to the discipline that I know best—geography, to illustrate how a learned society has responded to the evolution of its discipline, and to social-political forces that have characterized its memberships’ behavior.1 The struggle to preserve an identifiable intellectual core for the field—a common way of thinking—is unending. The more complex the discipline has become, the more diverse and specialized are its parts, and the greater the challenge to achieve integration.

The evolution of geography can be viewed intellectually and structurally in organismic-developmental terms.2 From the Association of American Geographers’ establishment in 1904 to the end of the First World War, it was a highly undifferentiated learned society that responded to the needs of a simply defined discipline. Geography was physical geography and the body of theory was causation. The handful of members were led by William Morris Davis—they were, indeed, his “clones,” drawn from Eastern universities and mostly with geology backgrounds. This was the first stage—undifferentiation.

The second stage can be described as early differentiation. It covered the period until the Second World War. Land management, regional geography and field studies, with a shift in emphasis from causation theory to empiricism, developed from the base of Mid-Western universities to coexist with the Eastern physical geography base. The Midwesterners were now formally trained in geography, and the center of power within the AAG had shifted to them. The Association remained what it had been from the onset—a very small, elite band of scholars concerned with research at the university level, and centering its publication efforts around the Annals. In 1941, AAG membership was only 167, and its function was still what a committee, chaired by Charles C. Colby a decade before, had reported on the topic of papers to be presented for the annual meeting—“The purpose of the Association is to serve as clearing house for ideas among mature geographers. It is not a training school for young geographers.”3

The third stage, which we might call advanced differentiation, took place from World War II until the late ’50s and early ’60s. First, the Association had to accommodate the needs of hundreds of young geographers, many in the applied field, who had been excluded. During World War II, they created their own organization, the American Society of Professional Geographers, with their own journal, the Professional Geographer. The ASPG, formed in 1944, was the successor to the American Society for Geographical Research that had been established the previous year and, in turn, was the offshoot of the Young Geographers’ Society, first organized in 1937.4 ASPG was a multi-purpose service organization, serving the needs of the many geographers who had been drawn into government service and at the war’s end, were seeking university posts.

When the AAG and the ASPG merged in 1948, the former had 306 members and the latter 1,094 members. Now the AAG combined both the research selectivity of the learned society and the multi-purpose services of the professional association. These two functions have retained their adherents to this very day, occasionally in an atmosphere of competition and tension. But, overall, and to its credit, the Association has succeeded in providing a balanced response to the needs of both camps. This was also a period of disciplinary development with the introduction of spatial analysis and quantitative techniques, and the rejection of area differentiation as the essential and “ordained” way of conceptualizing geographic problems.

The fourth stage, from the 1960s to the present, is that of specialization. Not only did the discipline embrace new approaches behaviorism, ecology, perception, Marxist analysis, phenomenology, humanistic geography—it also began to spin off a number of interest groups, first informal ones and then more formal, many with newsletters, and a few with journals. The organization grew to a peak of 7,072 members in 1973 (it has since leveled off at close to 6,000), and its regional organizational framework has increased in vigor—with regional meetings and publications playing an important role in the life of the Association.

Specialty groups receive support and encouragement from the Central Office, operating under specific guidelines which include a floor of 100 members. There are currently 39 such specialty groups, as diverse as Africa; aging; geographic information systems; historical, political, socialist, and urban geography.

Geography is on the verge of entering the next and higher stage of development—the stage of hierarchical integration. At this stage of the process, the system is mature, nodes can interconnect through a variety of subcenters and the system can absorb outside influences without becoming destabilized. Thus, geographic subspecialties will be linked more closely to the core of geography, its regional organizational subdivisions will adopt functions related to the ongoing need for frequent personal interaction and cooperative research and service functions, and ties with external bodies will strengthen the AAG as a whole as well as its specialty groups through more frequent exchanges of ideas and resources.

A survey has yet to be made of AAG membership in other traditional learned societies. The numbers of Association members of such organizations as the AAA (American Anthropological Association), the AEA (American Economics Association), the AHA (American Historical Association), the APSA (American Political Science Association), the APA (American Psychological Association), or the MLA (Modern Language Association) is probably quite small. Area studies organizations may have somewhat larger proportions of geographers. A review of the topics of interest to geography specialty groups indicates that most members of at least two-thirds of these bodies would benefit from being drawn into networks of fellow scholars in cognate fields.

Many members of the AAG look to other societies for certain services. For example, a recent survey of cross-membership in certain selected organizations shows that 28% of the AAG’s U.S. and Canadian members also belong to such organizations in the geographical field as the AGS (American Geographical Society), the CAG (Canadian Association of Geographers), and the NCGE (National Council for Geographic Education); in cognate fields to the ACSM (American Congress of Surveying and Mapping), ASPRS (American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing), RSA (Regional Science Association), and to the AAAS (American Association for Advancement of Science).5

Geographers favor publishing in non-geographic journals because they feel that they can reach out to larger audiences, accumulating more citations and therefore enhancing their reputations and that of the field. But while such awareness exists, especially among physical geographers, Lee and Evans’ survey of journal quality and familiarity raises certain concerns. The 172 American geographers who responded to the questionnaire (from a total of 500 sent) showed considerable unfamiliarity with many leading non-geography journals. The 32 non-geography journals that were included in the study because they were mentioned more than once included very few of the leading social science or humanities journals.6 The problem, from this perspective, is to acquaint geographers more broadly with outside literature.

On the other hand, it is important from the discipline’s perspective that such outreach not become a centrifugal force. As B.L. Turner, II has pointed out in the Professional Geographer, a small discipline like geography must make its mark on the broader academy, but what is critical for the discipline is that there be a proper balance of publication outlets for those who publish in subfields within and without the discipline.7

So geography as a discipline faces the essential questions that all traditional learned societies are facing—how can geography specialty groups become more integral parts of the discipline as a whole, and how can these groups advance the interests of their members through more sustained contact with scholars in cognate fields who are concerned with similar issues? The response to the problem of integrating geography’s diverse subfields has been to rely upon annual and regional meetings, and the two general journals to bring people together. This has not been entirely successful, witness the growth of meetings and published materials of the specialty groups. For example, many in a specialty such as political geography find it more useful to read journals in international affairs, as well as the specialized one in political geography, while only scanning the general geography journals. And our national meetings are so overwhelming in numbers of paper presentations, that the meetings serve essentially as times for affirming social contacts or seeking jobs, other than where given over to specialty group sessions.

The challenge of linking specialty groups requires that the AAG become proactive in shaping its organizational development strategy. Stronger regional organizations will help, but so will conferences between geographical specialty groups. For example, a medical or political geographer might appropriately join in with the group on aging, and members of the environmental perception group might find common ground in discourse with members of the Native American specialty group.

The other challenge, the flip side of the coin, is to encourage formal links between geography specialty groups and scholars within other learned societies without undermining the respective turfs. Clearly the need is for interpersonal access and for specialized materials. Again, one cannot be particularly sanguine about the efficacy of large annual meetings as the basis for creating networks. Some useful approaches could include a survey of specialized groups in cognate fields, and a mapping of potential intersections of interest, coupled with journal exchanges at reduced costs. At least, this is something to be pursued on an experimental basis.

In summary, the operational environment of the academic discipline is an open system, and the discipline changes rapidly as external inputs are sought out and absorbed by scholars. The learned society is usually a step behind these changes. But if its leadership reacts quickly and sensitively, the society can help direct this development in positive ways, thus best serving the interests of the discipline.


1) P.E. James and G.J. Martin, The Association of American Geographers—The First Seventy-Five Years, Washington, DC: AAG, 1978. [Back to text.]

2) Heinz Werner, “The Concept of Development from a Comparative and Organismic Point of View,” in D. Harris, ed., The Concept of Development, Minneapolis: Minneapolis University Press, 1957, and Heinz Werner and Bernard Kaplan, “The Developmental Approach to Cognition,” American Anthropologist, 1956, 886–880. [Back to text.]

3) P.E. James and G.J. Martin, op. cit., p. 84. [Back to text.]

4) Ibid, pp. 85–112. [Back to text.]

5) From data provided by Association of American Geographers. Correspondence with Dr. Robert Aangeenbrug, 3/21/88. [Back to text.]

6) D. Lee and A. Evans, “Geographers’ Rankings of Foreign Geography and Non-Geography Journals,” Professional Geographer, 1985, 37:396–402. [Back to text.]

7) B.L. Turner, 11, “Whether to Publish in Geography Journals,” Professional Geographer, 1988, 40:15–18. [Back to text.]