March 02, 2004

Semi-Open Thread: Interdisciplinarity

While I was away, the recent Jane Bast thread turned into a conversation on the value (or lack thereof) of interdisciplinarity. What does it mean? What is it worth? An empty buzzword, or a bright and shining future for the humanities?

(Regular blogging will resume shortly.)

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 2, 2004 11:08 PM

The thing about interdisciplinarity is, for people to be interdisciplinary you need disciplines.

Posted by: Kieran Healy at March 3, 2004 02:00 AM

Interdisciplinarity: the required password to obtain funding if you're doing work in philosophy. Apparently, if what you're researching has not potential relevance for (a) linguistics, (b) psychology, (c) computer science, (d) all of the above, it's not worth even looking at.

Posted by: anna at March 3, 2004 08:01 AM

interdisciplinarity is the use of tools, methods, theories, etc. of a variety of traditional disciplines in pursuit of a topic that is not covered adequately by any discipline.

transdisciplinarity is the logical extension of interdisciplinarity when it is faced with complex and global topics of study where each discipline or interdiscipline can only give uncertain perspectives about the topic. it requires mastery of many disciplines and from them creates models, contexts, and perspectives that allow the topic to be understood as a whole instead of the sum of its parts.

can you guess what i've been writing this week?

Posted by: jeremy hunsinger at March 3, 2004 09:18 AM

Ideal prerequisite for participating in this conversation: reading Stanley Fish's 1989 essay "being Interdisciplinary Is So Very Hard To Do." Failing that, just read Kieran's first post here, which is basically Fish's argument reduced to a Zen koan. Interdisciplinarity works -- that is, is productive of knowledge, enables purposeful discourse -- when it is grows from a solid understanding of the norms and procedures of ONE discipline. The interesting stuff comes when those norms and procedures come into contact with those of other fields and can thereby be evaluated, negotiated, tested.

This is why it is almost impossible for people in my field (literature) to be genuinely interdisciplinary. We have no agreed upon norms and procedures: we just borrow indiscriminately from other fields. A literary theorist who quotes philosophers or anthropologists isn't being interdisciplinary: he or she is just pretending, for a while, to be a philosopher or an anthropologist. It's so fun and easy! -- you get to use all of the vocabulary without bothering with any of the training!

Posted by: Ayjay at March 3, 2004 09:25 AM

I think "interdiscipinarity", from the perspective of a late middle-aged boomer, is what you get from the effects of a successful liberal education. It is a product, not a process. So I wouldn't want or expect an individual prof to have it. I would expect a graduating senior who'd been more or less (less is often OK) paying attention for four years to have it.

Posted by: John Bruce at March 3, 2004 10:33 AM

I'm at the extreme end on this one. A century ago there were no "disciplines". Look at the social scientists of that time, and you'll find that they mostly got their degrees in Classics, Philosophy, Law, or Divinity -- all sort of faute de mieux.

I frequently see disciplinary rules used to justify ignoring aspects of a question. Psychologists, economists, and analytic philosophers are the worst. "Properly speaking, the n-ologist has nothing to say about x, which is a purely m-ological question".

It's made to seem that different things are being studied, but ultimately psychologists, political scientists, sociologists, and economists are studying the same thing. In many respect they are competing explanations of the same thing, but to the degree that they're allowed to ontologize their methodological fictions and presuppositions, the become incommensurable and impossible to choose between.

Since disciplines have their own bureaucratic organization and realistic stakes, the battle then becomes the struggle for grant money and students in the common-sense world of public opinion.

Interdisciplinary work based on trying to weld two versions of two different disciplines together can be pretty clunky. Didn't someone once try to weld Freud onto Talcott Parsons? Was it Parsons himself? In that case my guess would be that the outcome shared the blind spots of both disciplines.

Posted by: Zizka at March 3, 2004 10:55 AM

I'm in ecological economics which is a "transdisciplinary field". I studied both geography and economics so I'm not a single discipline person and I ahve published in both economics and geography and natural science journals. The usual debate/fight I am in is whether any single individual can be truly transdisciplinary. Most people seem to think "no - you need to work with people in another discipline to do interdisciplinary work and there is no such thing as transdisciplinarity" (so we won't give you any money, publish your paper etc. unless you do). The other issue is the one I've raised that funding agencies etc. say they want interdisciplinary proposals but then send them to single discipline reviewers - all in the same discipline.

Posted by: moom at March 3, 2004 11:08 AM

My ideal career arc for academics would be that they would begin by training in the procedures of one discipline--keeping firmly in mind that those procedures are heuristics designed to keep the questions and methodologies at hand manageable--and then face a choice a few years out about whether to deepen their specialization or broaden to be generalists, knowing that both choices have advantages and disadvantages. I'd further argue that there ought to be a division of labor between teaching institutions that prefer generalists and research institutions that prefer specialists, and opportunities to connect the two populations productively with each other in various ways.

This is a different frame than disciplines/interdisciplinary and I think more productively descriptive of the real pathways that people might travel. In one of the jobs I held before I came to Swarthmore, I met an older academic who I thought was very wise if also somewhat entertainingly cantankerous.

He once sat at a seminar that some of us newly minted doctoral types held on promoting interdisciplinarity and eventually stirred himself to say, "You guys are full of it. You're talking about interdisciplinarity as something you want people to do in their scholarship. Well, they already do it--all of them. Find me any scholar who is even modestly well-regarded and I'll show you that they regularly cite a variety of research outside their discipline. Everybody's already interdisciplinary and they always have been. What you guys are all pissed off about is not disciplines but departments: you're complaining about the way that academic institutions *administer* disciplines."

Which I thought was perfectly true. The real source of most of the problems attributes to disciplines is the administrative conventions and power wielded by departments and by extra-departmental professional networks that edit journals, hold conferences and so on. The problems are not in the intellectual praxis of disciplines per se.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at March 3, 2004 11:12 AM

I think that the institutional/ bureaucratic/ departmental definition of discipline tends to harm the intellectual one, partly by fossilizing methodological stipulations.

I often hear people using a combination of disciplinary thinking and area-of-specialty thinking to just refuse to think about something. Obviously, everyone can't think about everything, and in order to do useful work you have to define your goals, but the academic system seems to encourage narrowness, and to write certain sorts of blindness into the methodology ("trained incapacity").

Posted by: at March 3, 2004 01:32 PM

Since I am new to this comments section, a bit of background: I teach in a political science department at a liberal arts college but have also served as the Chair of the Asian studies department. My writing of late has veered significantly outside of academia to include a memoir that calls upon Chinese philosophy and regular journalistic pieces. I do not consider myself a scientist of any sort, political or otherwise.

Pace Timothy above, I think that the "intellectual praxis of disciplines per se" is a problem. I was in graduate school from 1979-1986 and my most memorable experience is having to read all sorts of bad books that had little intellectual value (anyone remember Gabriel Almond?) outside of a small circle of political scientists. When I should have been reading more widely in history and sociology and economics, I was instead slogging through bad book after bad book simply to be able to say I had "mastered the field." The vaunted "depth" gained by specialization in a field is, I am afraid, vastly overrated when compared to what could be gained from opening oneself to the best scholarship in other fields. I know, I know: someone is going to say that those other disciplines have to be constituted as disciplines in order to produce good work. But I still disagree. Instead of discipline and field, perhaps we would simply speak of research focus and interests. What discipline is Marx in, anyway? Or Weber? Or Barrington Moore, for that matter (settle down sociologists, he is as much a historian and political scientist as anything else). Or even James C. Scott? Strict adherence to disciplines is, we might say, simply punishment....

Posted by: Sam at March 3, 2004 01:53 PM


I kind of agree with you, but I could offer a justification for the pedagogy you describe in one sense, and that's that a discipline, as a heuristic, is organized partly by a cumulation of all past work in that discipline, even the "bad little books". I often find in my honors seminar on African history that I have to explain to my junior-senior undergraduates why a particular question or point arises with such urgency in a recent fairly good book, and in explaining, have to trace back the history of that question through many much more boring books and through intellectual confrontations that seemed terribly urgent at the time but aren't especially relevant now. I can only do that because I was trained intellectually within my discipline and read (most) of the boring old books that condition and constrain the newer interesting books.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at March 3, 2004 01:59 PM

Well zizka,
the interdisciplinary work that combines psychology and economics is sometimes called "marketing" or perhaps "management science". Combination of sociology, political science and economics? Its called "public policy" (usually offered as a graduate program) ;)

Successful interdisciplinary fields often share a common language, usually mathematics. It allows statisticians to talk to economists (econometrics), engineers to talk to medical doctors (biomedical engineering), biologists to talk to computer scientists (computational biology), economists to talk to political theorist (public policy) and so on. Attempts to "create" cross disciplines is very difficult if there is not a common language for people to communicate ideas in.

Posted by: Passing_through at March 3, 2004 02:50 PM


So maybe we should organize our knowledge around the question "what have you read?" as opposed to "what discipline are you in?" We would have "reading groups" instead of "disciplines." This may seem silly, but, in fact, it might be more enlightening in a field like "political science" where there is really no disciplinary core. Our shameful secret, which is obvious to all who look, is that political science has always been parasitic on the current intellectual trend of the time (systems theory, behavioralism, game theory, etc.) Is history much different? Beyond the general desire to return to original sources, is there really a widely held sense of what all historians must know and teach?

As for teaching, I find that I rarely assign political scientists in my classes on East Asian International Politics or Chinese Politics or East Asian Political Economy. And that is OK, because I long ago realized that I am not training a new generation of political scientists, but, simply am trying to draw a roomful of 18-22 year olds into what I consider to be the most intereting and pressing questions under those rubrics.

Posted by: Sam at March 3, 2004 02:52 PM

My undergrad major was in an interdisciplinary area. When I was looking for grad school programs, one of our program's directors strongly recommended that I not enter a similar graduate program. She said that it was best to have and be able to claim a grounding in a single field. She noted that people from interdisciplinary programs were usually limited to jobs in similar programs, while people from more traditional disciplines would always be considered for both disciplinary and interdisciplinary positions.

Did I follow her advice? Not exactly, but the program I am in has a strong track record of feeding people into a particular disciplinary area, plus there are ties to other interdisciplinary programs as well.

Posted by: oliviacw at March 3, 2004 03:44 PM

In #7, moom points out that calling for interdisciplinary proposals and then sending them to reviwers from a single discipline is a problem. The alternative has been no kinder to projects I've known of - if a grant proposal or research paper crosses X and Y, the X reviewers dismiss the X as trivial, ignoring the Y, while the Y reviewers dismiss the Y as trivial, ignoring the X, not paying attention to the complexity of their interaction. I've seen this in enough different situations and from enough high-quality grant/research writers (and in situations where I wasn't involved) that I believe that it wasn't just proposals/papers that did a poor job of explaining the X/Y interface: reviewers seem to put on disciplinary blinders, and grant officers and journal editors don't compensate.

(Groups I've been on have done work with physics, biology, chemistry, materials science, medical school, education, and psychology - more than half of those collaborations have had trouble with a lack of appreciation of the complexity of interdisciplinarity. This is pretty obviously not the humanities slant that many readers have, but I'd like to try to map Invisible Adjunct onto my experiences.)

Posted by: ABD Instructor at March 3, 2004 04:59 PM

Actually, I think that is sort of what disciplines are--reading groups. I don't think it's necessarily shameful, nor is political science that different from many others. Maybe it's because I'm a historian, but I see most disciplines as historically constituted accidents, but useful accidents that by their existence help make the production of knowledge pragmatically possible by limiting the class of questions and methods to be deployed at any one moment.

As for what we assign to undergraduates, though, I long since gave up the proposition that I should assign either "coverage" (e.g., works that reflect the history of my discipline) or "perfect disciplinary monographs". Neither gives you any pedagogical traction. Most of what I assign is interdisciplinary or nondisciplinary, and I often assign books that are "productively bad", e.g., those that have rough edges to them, because they make for a good discussion.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at March 3, 2004 08:20 PM

"Maybe it's because I'm a historian, but I see most disciplines as historically constituted accidents, but useful accidents that by their existence help make the production of knowledge pragmatically possible by limiting the class of questions and methods to be deployed at any one moment."

Nice. I guess I would add that though they're somewhat accidental, they're not completely (perhaps not even mainly) arbitrary.

"Beyond the general desire to return to original sources, is there really a widely held sense of what all historians must know and teach?"

Good question. I suspect historians tend to exaggerate the methodological coherence of history. But I believe there may be something distinctive to historical understanding (which is not necessarily confined to academic history, and which certainly predates the professionalization of history as a discipline). It's not necessarily the desire to return to original sources, which is probably not the end in itself but rather a means to another end. That end has to do, I think, with the relationship between past and present: the desire to understand the passage of time, or the situation of humans moving through time.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 3, 2004 08:35 PM

In those rare instances when I get to actually teach one of my primary areas of specialization-Northern Irish Lit.--I confess to making several shameless raids into the archive of historical texts on N.I. I have three very clear aims: 1. to accomplish the "overview" and introduce undergrads. to Irish and Northern Irish history; 2. to complicate the "standard" story by showing them examples of the very different historical narratives that traverse the statelet of Northern Ireland; 3. to show the utter impossibility of historical narratives to do anything other than exacerbate the extant tensions and divisions within Northern Ireland. (all due apologies to the historians here)

Posted by: Chris at March 3, 2004 08:57 PM

It sounds like we all agree with each other for the most part....but we all also know that there are those crease-faced defenders of the disciplines out there, looking to bat down an imaginative foray with a frosty "but that's not History (complete with Hegelian H)..." or whatever. I often remind certain of my polsci colleagues that knowledge of politics is shallow-to-the-point-of-meaningless without historical context and understanding. And some of them sneeringly reply, "but that is not Political Science..." But these are mostly fogies older than me; so I am happy. From this thread it seems that younger fogies have much less trouble with interdisciplinarity. Is it a generational thing? Maybe not completely but you all have soothed my heart. And remember what Chuang Tzu says: "Those who divide things cannot see."

Posted by: Sam at March 3, 2004 10:05 PM

Before we all sign off in agreement, is there agreement that this thumbs up for interdisciplinarity really refers to undergraduate teaching? That seems to me to be indicated in Tim's comments about a strong distinction between a research university and a liberal arts college. Are his choices of readings appropriately interdisciplinary because he teaches in an undergraduate setting? His reference to the heuristic value of being grounded in a discipline suggests, to me at least, that he might make quite different choices were he teaching graduate students. It seemed to me at the time that of the difference between KC Johnson's position on disciplinarity or even area specialization and Tim's position was difference of institutional reference.

Posted by: ralph luker at March 4, 2004 01:28 AM

Comment number 1 is right. To be confidently interdisciplinary you need to be secure within a discipline otherwise you'll feel positively rootless. (I'm doing an interdisciplinary PhD so I know)

Posted by: Claire at March 4, 2004 04:20 AM

After I talked about the difficulty of writing interdisciplinary grants/papers, Sam in #19 makes me feel really guilty. We're hiring now, and I've among the ones who said of Candidate #2 "Interesting work, but doesn't it belong in department X? It's just using our techniques to answer their questions."

It's a tough problem; I'm probably susceptible to that criticism myself. We try to make a distinction between using the techniques of field X to answer questions about Y, and actually contributing to the understanding of X in the process of investigating Y. My dissertation (should be writing) is all about using my field to contribute to physics, but there are only two pages of discussion of results from physics - the other 200 are about how the process of applying my field to physics sheds light on my field.

Sometimes I think we're justified in insisting on that. I have had colleagues who were trained in other fields, got into my department on the grounds of interdisciplinarity, then turned out to not be very good at teaching students anything except their field-of-birth.

Posted by: ABD Instructor at March 4, 2004 09:31 AM

Ralph, let me push back a bit. I would hesitate to accept an academic division of labor as such: undergraduate liberal arts colleges do interdisciplines while graduate research universities do disciplines. The strong objection would be something like this: it is precisely the overemphasis given to disciplines at research universities that causes knowledge to be artificially limited by out-dated bureaucratic structures. Moreover, since disciplinarity is the ruling ideology of those who own the academic means of production (don't know how many will buy the analogy...), it also plays a part in the overproduction (underconsumption?) of Ph.Ds. The prime function of graduate programs is to reproduce themselves, and "contributing to the discipline" is the key rationalization, masking the reality of admitting and turning out more Ph.Ds. than the market can bear. As long as we can say we are "advancing the discipline," we can believe that admissions policies are virtuous.

ABD, hiring is certainly at the heart of the matter. I now argue in my department that we should look beyond political science Ph.Ds for people who can teach and write about politics. Shouldn't we prefer the best mind, whether or not its education is called by a disciplinary name?

Posted by: Sam at March 4, 2004 12:47 PM

"Maybe it's because I'm a historian, but I see most disciplines as historically constituted accidents, but useful accidents that by their existence help make the production of knowledge pragmatically possible by limiting the class of questions and methods to be deployed at any one moment."

I agree, except that if the boundaries are fossilized and treated as anything more than expediencts -- as some kind of truth about reality -- they can be harmful.

"The interdisciplinary work that combines psychology and economics is sometimes called "marketing" or perhaps "management science". Combination of sociology, political science and economics? Its called "public policy" -- these examples don't really work for me."

Those examples don't really work for me, msotly because from what I've seen they're narrowly vocationally oriented and sort of mushy. But that might be a historical accident and that perhaps could change. (Though I'll always have my doubts about the art or science of "marketing"). But the examples in your second paragraph look pretty good.

Geography is an example of a defined discipline that's intrinsically interdisciplinary. I've seen a lot of interesting stuff coming out of geography recently. One of their strengths is that they grab whatever they can find anywhere that's usable and use it.

The whole "common language" thing, somewhat echoing Quine's "incommensurability", strikes me as the problem here. A question-defined, topic-defined, or subject-matter-defined program of study can scavenge around between various supposedly incommensurable disciplines for useful tools, and then produce a new body of inquiry which is supposedly methodologically eclectic, but actually has a unity defined on the questions it asked. I think that that's what geography and history do, which to me makes them the master disciplines, not despite their lack of a rigorous central methodology, but because of it.

I think that methodology in social science and humanities is an imposition based on physics envy. It's not the borrowing of sharp tools from science, but the formal mimicking of science by adopting its appearences. The stronger a science, the less reluctant it seems to be to do inter-disciplinary work: e.g. biophysics, physical chemistry, and biochemistry.

Posted by: at March 4, 2004 04:46 PM

Lots of good interesting comments here. One thing I have to comment on. The combination of economics and psychology is called "behavioral economics". Smith and Kahneman one the Nobel Prize in economics for it last year.

Marketing also uses both (I took exactly one lecture in that and then I quit business studies in my first week as an undergrad and went to study economics as well as geography - I've worked as a market researcher though :) ).

Posted by: moom at March 5, 2004 09:35 AM

Actually it is quite common for marketing, public policy,economics and finance graduate students to take the same classes in microeconomics. In fact, if one were to look at the faculty teaching marketing and public policy, you will find that a significant proportion of them have phds in economics. There are psychology phds who teach marketing as well.

(As a side note, marketing is usually broadly divided into quantitative or behavorial. The quantitative side hires economics and sometimes math phds in addition to marketing phds. The behavorial faction do go for psych. phds)

It might be the case that "newer" disciplines are more open to interdisciplinary work than the more "traditional" ones. Disciplines like computer science, almost all engineering, modern biology, chemistry and physics, most social sciences are relatively new compared to history or literature.(physics and computer science are offshoots from mathematics, engineering an offshoot of physics and so on.) A philosopher or historian can claim to be the direct decendents from philosophers or historians thousands of years ago. Scientists today can only clam to be the illegitimate child of mathematicians that far back or the decendents of alchemists, not exactly flattering.

Posted by: Passing_through at March 5, 2004 11:03 AM

I'm currently in an interdisciplinary PhD program at UC Berkeley in "Logic and Methodology of Science". The departments involved are math and philosophy, both of which I majored in as an undergrad. Mostly the group seems to exist to justify particular work in mathematical logic and philosophy of mathematics. There's definitely some cross-pollination, but it doesn't seem to be more than a mathematically oriented philosopher would already hope to do. Definitely, most people take either the methodology of philosophy or the methodology of mathematics, rather than some "interdisciplinary methodology".

However, it seems to me that interdisciplinary programs in things like cognitive science may work differently, because they really are on the verge of creating a new discipline, and thus create new methodology that is distinct from that of all ancestral disciplines.

Posted by: Kenny Easwaran at March 6, 2004 07:48 PM

Alas, the very mention of "(inter)-disciplinarity" seems to lead to hopeless fuzziness, at least in my own head.

First of all, there's the intellectual vs. administrative dimension already mentioned. When a dean talks about "interdisplinarity", it often means something very very different than when someone writing a book does it. Disciplines are easily reduced to departments at actual universities, however distorting that may be.

Then, even in terms of research and reflecction, there's "apples and oranges" problems of various kinds.

There are totalizing disciplines (history, anthropology, literature as practiced nowadays), vs. disaggregating disciplines (economics, sociology, political science). Whatever it is that makes each of these a discipline, it's not always the same.

Or should we make distinctions about the type of object of study: "African American Studies" versus "Ethnic Studies"? Are molecular biology and developmental biology disciplines? Fields? Divisions of "life sciences"? It can be very hard for people whose work spans the two, though at the same time the genetics revolution has swept away lots of formerly firm disciplinary lines in the sciences.

Then there's disciplines as "mental practice" versus discpline as "research community". One could be Fishy about it and simply say that discipline is a comprehensive power structure possessed of means of enforcement (hiring committees, journals, etc.), but there _feels_ like there's more to it than that. It's true that hiring committees and admissions committees often impose a de facto "walk the walk, talk the talk" test, leading to distinct "disciplines" in one sense. (I've been there, and done that more than I like to admit.) Yet most people doing research in fact read and think in ways that take account of a much wider range than their own discipline in the narrower sense -- even if much of what they do is _translating_ into the language and conventions of their own "reading group".

What I worry about is that while academics busily debate and self-deconstruct themselves over the second set of issues, cost-sensitive managers of various types (from legislatures to campus adminstrators) are happily using the "interdisciplinary" mantra to deconstruct institutional barriers that they find inconvenient while trying to run a corporate university. This may even be done in good faith, to produce a "more competitive product", but it takes little account of epistemological, community, or intellectual authority issues that "interdisciplinarity" raises, to say the least.

Posted by: PQuincy at March 7, 2004 12:24 PM