The heterogeneity of academic writing

On looking more closely at examples of academic writing across disciplines, it becomes quite clear that each discipline has its own special norms and customs when it comes to text and information structure. To some extent, this is true also for grammatical and lexical aspects. No doubt, the aforementioned norms stem from a long, historical process in which disciplines follow ontological and epistemological traditions and ideals.

Academic Disciplines and Disciplinary Domains

Hyland (2009: 62-63) argues that the dividing line in the history of science and scholarship has run between natural sciences and technology on the one side, and humanities and social sciences on the other.


HARDER  <------------------------------------->SOFTER
Empirical and objective                   Explicitly interpretative
Linear growth of knowledge Dispersed knowledge
Experimental methods Discursive argument
Quantitative Qualitative
More concentrated readership More varied audience
Highly structured genres More fluid discourses

A Continuum of Academic Knowledge (taken from Hyland 2009: 63)


Hyland's schematic distinction between the more comprehensive disciplinary domains, as he calls them, offers a general, and perhaps predominantly general view, but a view which at the same time is problematic. To say that some disciplines belong to a more hard or soft domain obscures the fact that a subject within a discipline can have one foot in each camp. Hyland emphasises the fact that the distinction should be seen as a continuum rather than a unidimensional scale. If nothing else, the continuum serves as a background to understanding the existing variation and heterogeneity in an academic community.

Variation in preferred genres and text types

Various disciplines and their subjects are more or less strongly linked to the different knowledge criteria presented in the table above. This also has repercussions on the writing in these disciplines. If there is variation in the way knowledge is constructed, we can also expect to see a variation in how this knowledge is reported in writing. One clear example of this variation can be seen in the preference for different text types that disciplines and subjects exercise. Indeed, students of mechanical engineering, for example, will differ from students of comparative literature, political science and biochemistry, in the types of academic texts they are normally required to write. The following example comes from Coffin et al. (2003), showing what genres and text types are favoured in different disciplines, covering both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.

SciencesSocial SciencesHumanities/ArtsApplied Fields
Physics, Geology,
Biology, Chemistry
Sociology, Politics, Economics,
Media studies, Psychology
English, History, Languages,
Classics, Fine arts, Religion
Business, Health and Social welfare,
Music, Engineering
Typical Genres:Typical Genres:Typical Genres:Typical Genres:

Lab reports,
Project proposals and reports,
Fieldwork notes,

Project reports,
Fieldwork notes,
Critical analyses,

Case studies,
Project reports


Similarly, in a survey carried out in the UK, Nesi and Gardner (2006) investigated what text types and genres were used as university assignments. The survey shows that a large variety of text types were used across disciplines, for example essay, report, laboratory report, book review, case study, and marketing proposal. To see the full list, click on the link below.

Text types used in certain disciplines in the UK (Nesi & Gardner 2006)

Essay                                                                                  Anthropology, Archaeology, Biology, Computing, Economics, Engineering, English, Food Sciences, Health, History, Hospitality and Tourism, Law, Mathematics, Medicine, Philosophy, Psychology, Publishing, Theatre Studies
Report Computing, Food Sciences, Hospitality and Tourism, Law, Psychology
Laboratory report Archaeology, Biology, Physics
Project report Biology, Economics, Engineering, Mathematics, Sociology
Research project Biology, Mathematics, Theatre Studies
Dissertation Anthropology, Archaeology, Biology, Computing, Law, Medicine, Publishing, Sociology, Theatre Studies
Group project Archaeology, Engineering, Health, Physics, Publishing
Poster Anthropology, Biology, Engineering, Mathematics, Physics, Psychology
Book review History, Psychology
Website evaluation Medicine, Theatre Studies
Problem sheets Biosciences, Economics, Food Sciences, Hospitality and Tourism, Mathematics
Case studies Health, Publishing
Case notes, draft appeal to house of Lords, Advice Notes to a client, Submissions in preparation for a case, Moots, Problem Question (judgment) Law
Field study Sociology
Patient case report Medicine
Letter from publisher to author Publishing
Reflective writing/journal/blog      Engineering, English, Hospitality and Tourism, Philosophy, Medicine, Theatre Studies
Critical evaluation (of own production or practical task)      Anthropology, English, Computing, Theatre Studies
Marketing proposal/plan Engineering, Publishing
Narrative fiction Sociology (several modules)
Press Release, Fact Sheet, Technical Abstract, Persuasive Writing Physics (communicating science module)
Letter of advice to friend written from 1830s perspective; Maths in Action project (lay audience) Mathematics

Commenting on the wide range of text types reported in Nesi and Gardner (2006), Etherington (2008) points to the fact that only learning the standard essay format is not sufficient. She also emphasises that the text type report can be differentiated widely, as seen in the use of report, laboratory report and project report.

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