Does interdisciplinarity destroy academic freedom?

Here’s an interesting item: Thomas Docherty, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, has trained his guns at what he describes as the ‘new fashion’ of interdisciplinarity. Well, I suppose it all depends on what you consider to be ‘new’. As I argued in one of the early posts in this blog, you could say that in earlier ages almost all scholarship was interdisciplinary; and a spectacular example of an intellectual devoting himself to interdisciplinarity was Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, born 362 years ago.

In fairness, I think that Thomas Docherty has a more specific target: the attempt by research funding agencies to specify certain interdisciplinary themes in their funding programmes (he uses ‘science and heritage’ as an example). But he cannot really mean – and if we read further, we find he does not mean – that academics should not cast their eyes over the boundaries of the discipline into which they were trained. In fact, he goes on to recognise that his own ‘discipline’  of English grew out of other disciplines. So what is he on about? When stripped down to its essentials, his point really is that nobody, and in particular not those with money to fund research, should be suggesting to anyone else what aspects of life they should be researching. He believes that such funding programmes are all about securing the ‘compliance with policy’ of the academic community. So the latter should determine themselves what they propose to work on. Anything else erodes or destroys academic freedom.

There are two aspects to this, and both deserve a brief analysis. The first is Thomas Docherty’s attack on interdisciplinarity; and here he is on very shaky ground. Disciplines are all artificial to some extent, and reflect an understanding of knowledge at some point in history when they secured recognition. In the early development of universities, when they were essentially off-shoots of monasteries, the only disciplines were theology (the ‘queen of sciences’), philosophy and mathematics. It was only with the Enlightenment that other subjects were added. The biggest burst of new disciplines came in the 19th century with the growth of science and engineering, and then in the 20th century various ‘new’ profession-oriented subjects claimed the discipline label. Now there is a rather charming Wikipedia page that purports to ‘list’ all of the disciplines, and for what it’s worth (not much, I think) it comes up with 42. 

All of this is highly artificial. If we believe that disciplines are such because they can lay claim to unique intellectual tools that are different in each one, then we should think again. For example, Professor Docherty’s ‘discipline’ has (perfectly properly in intellectual terms) tried out all kinds of tools borrowed from other areas, such as political science, sociology, history, philosophy etc. It seems to me that there is no magic at all in the boundaries between disciplines, and they have merit (if they have that) chiefly because in each case the academy has created some pedagogical tools that have some use in educating students, and which might not be recreated effectively if a student’s education were to meander too much between all these areas. But that is almost entirely meaningless once you are talking about highly skilled academics undertaking expert research.

The second aspect is Thomas Docherty’s dislike of a set agenda for research. In a nutshell, he doesn’t think that the taxpayer has any business directing programmes of research. If taxpayers have any particular concerns or needs that research may solve, they should sit back and wait for the academic community to get there, all in their good time. But that is wholly unsustainable. We need to see academic research as fulfilling two functions, both of them deserving of funding and support. One is to push out the boundaries undirected; and the other is to answer those questions that society urgently needs to have solved. An example of an area of research that he really doesn’t think should be specifically funded by government is the environment; but we know that there are huge issues putting the planet in peril which the research community needs to address urgently, and it seems to me to be wholly silly to suggest that the government and its agencies cannot set out a ringfenced fund for this.

It is of course always right to be vigilant to ensure that academic autonomy is protected. But to argue that this precludes government from funding interdisciplinary research is absurd. There is nothing sacred about the subject areas we now sometimes call ‘disciplines’. Our academic ancestors would have been horrified to hear that, say, ‘management’  or ‘architecture’ might be considered a discipline. So let us not think that there is anything sacred about their boundaries; or that society as a whole has no business asking us questions that cannot be answered from just within one of them; or even less, that society has no business asking our scholars any questions at all.

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5 Comments on “Does interdisciplinarity destroy academic freedom?”

  1. Aoife Citizen Says:

    Of course he is rights in thinking that governments are very bad at inventing inter-disciplinary subjects; these most frequently are some artificial construct whose funding mechanism encourages those dissimulation, double talking and reinvention while genuine, organic, interdisciplinary work is often hampered by a grant system constructed around existing, outdated, disciplinary categories. Genuine inter-disciplinary research usually suffers the territorial biases of the grandees in all the disciplines it intersects.

  2. Jilly Says:

    I’d agree with Aoife in many ways. The structuring of large scale research funding around ‘themes’, which in turn provokes universities to (sometimes) pressure researchers to make their research fit the themes is highly problematic in many ways.

    Just one of these ways is the nonsense of the themes themselves. Looking at the titles dreamt up for my own area, it’s usually clear to me that they were thought up to sound good in press releases but mean little in intellectual terms.

    In the meantime, smaller-scale but original and useful research (especially but I’m sure not exclusively in the humanities) is barely funded any more. My own research for example isn’t expensive. All I need is some time, which would mean teaching/admin buy-outs. I don’t need equipment, teams of researchers or capital grants. But there’s currently no pot of cash for me to apply to for something so small and unsexy. Instead, if I want any research money at all, I’d have to fit myself into one of these big themes which often don’t mean anything, and which would involve so much research of dubious intellectual value in order to fit the theme, that I’d never get a chance to squeeze in my own ideas/projects.

    So I for one have given up on the idea of applying for research funding, and instead am making my own time for my research by working weekends and vacations. This does mean that projects take much longer to complete, but at least they’re still going to be under my control. This will also of course have a negative impact on my career, because promotion chances are increasingly tied to participation in large-scale research projects, but so be it. I’ve made the decision that for now, at least, the work is actually more important to me.


  3. Jilly, I don’t think it’s an either/or. I agree that small scale open research should be funded, and I agree also that current funding programmes don’t provide enough of that. However, I also think it is appropriate to pursue thematic research, not least because as a small country the only way we are going to have critical mass in absolutely any area at all is if we focus at least some of our efforts on key areas that we identify for these purposes. It’s only since we started doing this that Ireland has been at the races at all.

  4. Jilly Says:

    Yes, I agree that there can be both. But who sets the themes is clearly an important question. Looking at some of the current schemes (the latest PRTLI cycle, for example), I ask in all seriousness, who came up with some of those themes, and based on what knowledge/expertise?

  5. Quovadis Says:

    I agree with the point that disciplines are artificial to some extent. The issue is how to strike a reasonable balance between over arching themes and specific points of interest.
    Very often professionals become so immersed in their own narrow discipline that a research dimension becomes rigid in its’ practical application with each protecting its’ own territory at the expense of the community they are supposed to serve.
    For example psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists discipline very often overlap but each tends to look down on the other. E.g the psychologists criticising the proposed statutory registration of psychotherapists

    Mental health professionals such as psychiatrists historically saw addiction as “ a moral failing” and not a mental health problem so did not get involved in research of treatments.
    Despite the fact addiction is often caused by a mental health problem e.g. anxiety, depression, childhood abuse ADHD etc, these are treated as separate problems with different professional groups and services involved. (In Ireland very often untrained professionals )
    Up to 85% of alcohol abusers can have another mental health problem, yet psychiatrist involvement is very limited.
    For example, if you have difficulties abstaining from alcohol due to severe anxiety, you can not enter rehabilitation services (most residential drug services insist you must be “dry” before entry.) but you can’t get dry because you need alcohol to relieve the anxiety.
    Result is lower treatment success rates and wasted health expenditure spend.
    Because this problem is split between different disciplines, there is very little research in this area- the last major report was 2004!

    So research should sometimes be interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary , and also needs to have some value,(yes I know the issue of how to measure?) other than looking good on the researchers CV!


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