Are Threshold Concepts Discipline Specific?

As I am reading my way through the literature about threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge for my next research project, I am reading this work through the lens of Jack Mezirow’s Transformative Learning framework. However, this does not seem to be what Jan Meyer and Ray Land (2005) are talking about, though there are certainly similarities between the two. More about this later.

Meyer and Land focus their threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge in a disciplinary-specific manner, where there seems to be support to suggest that common experiences related to a field of study present a threshold to fully entering into the conversations in the field itself. One example they give is hegemony, which is a threshold concept within cultural studies. Learners often struggle with this concept, though once the “get” it, their transformative, irreversible, and integrative experience will change their conceptual framework.

Now, I am still working my way through this, and have a lot more to read about it. However, why should these concepts live only within certain disciplines? Isn’t that a rather traditional way of looking at learning, only through the perspective of what fits within this or that field? For those of us who are transdisciplinary (especially within the world of the social sciences) and don’t want to live within a silo or in a box, it seems a bit limiting to hinge this framework within a specific discipline. My field is not cultural studies, though when I (as an educational researcher) finally “got” hegemony, I had that transformative, irreversible, and integrative re-framing of a worldview. The difference is I like to give attention to hegemony from the perspective of how people learn, rather than how they live and express themselves within a culture.

Thinking about this from another perspective, perhaps this related to how some people, such as Foucault, Baudrillard, Gramsci, and the like are used within several of the social sciences, as their works seem to transcend a single, narrow, area of human study and endeavor? Will have to play with this a bit more later as well.

I think there may be value in recognizing how some fields have these elements, while others have other ones. Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable in having a clearly definable list of these (though, to be fair, there are some concepts that fit better within some disciplines, but not as readily as others). Mezirow’s work is not discipline-specific at all, and certainly I have more reading to do to claim I really understand what Meyer and Land are proposing.

How have others struggled with the issue of threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge being discipline specific?

2 thoughts on “Are Threshold Concepts Discipline Specific?

  1. It seems to me that a large segment of undergraduate higher education is committed to a liberal arts base that is designed to provide a broader theoretical background for later, more specific study. It’s at the higher levels that people tend to focus more narrowly to the exclusion of the interrelationships. Once a person delves into a specific area of study, does the sheer amount of information almost force a person to narrow his/her focus?

    1. Interesting question about the sheer amount of information. I am not sure about this, but my guess is that we (people) are not too good at dealing with things that we cannot classify (e.g., What do you mean you are not a Democrat or a Republican?) or readily name (e.g., What is this interdisciplinary studies or communication studies, anyway?).

      I am not sure why, but people seem to like living in boxes and being surrounded by other boxes.

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