Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Doing Domains

Yesterday I took at stab at answering a colleague's seemingly innocuous question: what is a domain?

This topic arose as we were discussing potential ways to organize our graduate courses. As you might imagine, the topic is both banal and fraught. Initially one would imagine that, really, there's not much at stake in the name and write-up of a college course. But when faculty members get involved, every jot and tittle risk becoming a Big Deal.

Part of the problem, as I see it, lies in the political terminology of paradigms. Defining one approach (rhetoric, critical studies, whatever) as a paradigm creates a power relationship with other approaches that may be called (mere) methods or traditions. One is centralized; the other risks being marginalized. In response, I proposed that we seek a less loaded term. My vote: domains.

A domain is a top-level taxonomic order of related ideas, approaches, methods, paradigms, communities, schools of thought, and traditions; an organizing category that is widely recognizable to an educated (but not necessarily a specialized) audience.

To illustrate, Carl Woese proposed three domains of life: archaea, bacteria, and eukarya. One may need to be a biologist to understand (or simply pronounce) "archaea." Yet anyone knows that a staph infection is different than a starfish; these things interact with each other, but each belongs in a different domain.

Domains are regularly broken into sub-domains, but adding a new domain is rare.

Indeed, while any attempt to define a domain is inherently persuasive its terrain should be viewed as settled by even the most partisan observer. Put another way, one does not create a domain; one recognizes its existence. Put still another way, one might recognize a domain of a particular universe by asking whether it could serve as a section (composed of several chapters) to an introductory textbook.

Anyway, I started my response in this manner before exploring how we might organize the "universe" of Communication Studies into domains: the kinds of decisions we'd make as educators rather than as partisans. It's a reasonable enough idea, I think. Still, I expect that domains will fare no better than paradigms.

It's hard to name without pain.

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