Discipline and structure: Knowledge boundaries and bridges in undergraduate coursework

A great deal of research has examined the structure of knowledge production, as expressed through networks of scientist collaboration and article citations. However, much less attention has been paid to knowledge is packaged and communicated through our primary engines of knowledge transmission—colleges and universities. Drawing on a diverse body of data containing millions of syllabi, course catalogs from hundreds of schools, and additional organization- and student-level data, this project examines the organization of knowledge in the context of the American field of higher education. Themes include the basic structure of knowledge across college courses, (inter)disciplinary innovation, knowledge and organizational status, and the role of gender in structuring fields and subfields.

More than a million syllabi projected into 2d space.
More than a million syllabi projected into 2d space. Labels are sample of courses. (Dimension reduction via Node2Vec and PaCMAP. Visualization via Seaborn.)

One goal of this project is to examine how disciplines and syllabi organize knowledge. Which disciplines contain the most amount of substantive overlap, and which areas of study are most intellectually isolated? How are disciplines organized internally? Is there an identifiable logic determining what subject matter is “introductory” and what is “advanced?” Answering these questions has the potential to reveal insights into what students learn, as well as how they are trained to think about the broader landscape of expert domains.

Careers, Status, and Organizational Fields

A career, in contrast with a job, typically consists of a series of positions held over the course of the individual’s time in the workforce. But despite some widely held expectations—steadily increasing responsibility and limited gaps in employment, for instance—the details of what constitutes a “successful” career trajectory vary widely from field to field. This project seeks to uncover these tacit expectations, and ultimately explain the factors upon which their differences depend.

In an article in Social Forces (with co-author John Levi Martin), I explore this issue by examining the career trajectories of chefs. Like many professionals, chefs understand their careers as a series of choices between taking the same (or lower) position with a more prestigious employer, or pursuing a promotion at an organization of lower status. To investigate how chefs navigate these tradeoffs, we gathered data on roughly 25,000 chefs and 30,000 restaurants from the website We begin by building a mobility network of personnel flows between restaurants, then assign each restaurant a status score using a unique measure that combines network centrality with an exogenous indicator of acclaim (i.e., a national award). Next, we use this mobility data to measure the status of each job title within the kitchen (line cook, sous chef, etc.). Together, these measures—which we refer to as “organizational” and “occupational” status—form a two-dimensional space that reflects the primary tradeoffs chefs manage throughout their careers. By situating each position in a chef’s career within this space, we can observe individual career trajectories, as well as patterns in the strategies chefs employ to get ahead.

Scientific Knowledge, Expertise, and Social Fields

What are the consequences of the growing use of scientific knowledge in new social contexts? This project (the basis of my dissertation) explored this question through a comparative analysis of science in finance and the culinary arts. Scholars of the professions have long observed the role of specialized knowledge in various fields. But beyond the research on professions, scientific expertise in particular presents new and unique sociological puzzles. How does applying a scientific approach to traditionally nonscientific domains influence the “human element” of these contexts? What role do intuition and creativity play in fields dominated by precise measurement and empirical evidence? Have the collaborative norms of academic science influenced the dynamics of competition and cooperation in fields where scientists are increasingly prevalent? How do existing organizations change to accommodate these new kinds of knowledge? And finally, what are the perceived strengths and limitations of scientific knowledge, and how are these perceptions shaping action and changing fields?

The answers to these questions have broad social implications. In an age of “big data” and rapid technological advance, previously esoteric forms of knowledge have been adapted for use in a wide range of contexts—from medicine, law, and public policy, to music production, baseball scouting, and art authentication. Finance and the culinary arts are two such fields. In the culinary arts, a movement known as “modernist cuisine” has adapted materials and equipment from the biological and chemical sciences for use in a fine dining context. While this movement has generated a host of radical innovations, a new focus on the physiochemical properties of food has also led chefs to eschew traditional culinary principles in favor of a more scientific approach to the creative process. In finance, so-called “quants” with academic training in disciplines such as physics, engineering, and mathematics employ sophisticated quantitative methods and vast data sets to value assets, forecast prices, and assess risk. Today, exotic assets require that even conventional traders have a working knowledge of sophisticated models, while new algorithmic routines effectively translate the trader’s intuition and judgment into measurable parameters to conduct trades at lightning-fast speeds. In both of these fields, there is no doubt that adopting scientific knowledge has enhanced technical capacities. But in the process, there is reason to believe that these shifts also upend longstanding institutions and challenge existing status orders.