[SIGCIS-Members] keyword: 'domain'

Nathan Ensmenger nathan.ensmenger at gmail.com
Tue Oct 18 10:49:52 PDT 2016

David —your question about the history of “domain knowledge” stirred some memories and I did a quick search through my primary source documents.   The word “domain” occurs regularly from the mid-1960s on.  The earliest uses are what you might expect — narrow mathematical definitions ("what is the domain of this function") or broadly professional ("what ought to be the proper domain of the computer sciences”) — but in terms of the specific usage that you are interested in (i.e., the idea of their being different “problem domains” to which computational techniques can be applied), the real origins seems to have been the late 1960s.

For example, "The expert programmer should be familiar with such modeling techniques and the necessary assumptions and domains of their applicability…” (Bruce Arden, "The Role of Programming in a Ph.D. Computer Science Program,” ACM Communications 1969) or "algorithms which are inherently known and available within a specific problem domain.” (Jean Sammett, "Programming Languages: History and Future”, also ACM Communications 1969).   The term “problem domain” seems to have originated with expert systems in the early 1980s.  See J. McDermott "Domain Knowledge and the Design Process” (1981) or J. Ramanathan and C.J. Shubra "Modeling of problem domains for driving program development systems” (1981).

But leaving aside the specific words (domain scientist, domain knowledge), the larger debate about which knowledge/expertise was most essential to the successful application of computing power goes back to at least the late 1950s, when a discussion about whether it was best to train computer people in business or business people in computing became a hot topic in the electronic data processing literature.  They do not use the “domain” language, but the question of overlapping (or possibly incommensurate) disciplinary territory is clearly an issue…


Nathan Ensmenger 
Associate Professor of Informatics 
School of Informatics and Computing 
Indiana University, Bloomington 

> On Oct 18, 2016, at 1:19 PM, David Ribes <dribes at gmail.com> wrote:
> Can anyone offer some leads on the use of the term 'domain' within computing and information circles? Such as 'domain scientist' or 'domain knowledge'...
> I've used the term for years as an in vivo category drawn from my fieldwork, but have little sense of its historical genealogy. It was already well in place by 2003 when I started fieldwork in the worlds of cyberinfrastructure, and I have some suspicion it may have come from knowledge management/business ...
> --
> David Ribes
> Associate Professor
> Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE)
> University of Washington
> http://davidribes.com
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