During my first year as a lecturer in 1981 I attended a workshop on ‘the protection of academic disciplines’. The event had been organised by a group of academics from various subject areas who wanted to draw attention to the risk, as they saw it, of scholarship and knowledge being put at risk by an obsession with interdisciplinary studies and research. In the opinion of these colleagues such work would compromise academic excellence because those doing it would have to know something about too much, and so their knowledge of anything would not be very deep; ‘skimming across the surface of knowledge’ was how one participant described it.
At the time this was of more than passing interest to me. I had been an undergraduate law student, and had then written a PhD thesis that covered law, sociology and economics; and subsequently I began my academic career as a lecturer in industrial relations in a business school. In fact that business school had amongst its senior staff a philosopher, another lawyer, and a mathematician. We used to meet most mornings in the School Head’s office and discussed books we were reading. But outside of this congenial circle it was often a different story. I remember attending a law conference during that period and finding myself under sustained attack by a very senior academic from another well known university for ‘pursuing a cheap and unscholarly route’ in my publications. He presumably felt I was skimming.
In any case interdisciplinarity was, for me at least, soon put back in its box. I changed jobs and joined a law school, and at about the same the powers that be in the UK introduced the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE – now the Research Excellence Framework, or REF). The law school did have some interesting interdisciplinary work, but the RAE didn’t recognise such stuff (review panels were always overwhelmingly or even exclusively made up of single-discipline people), and with us as elsewhere the focus moved back into the disciplines.
But more generally the search for insights going beyond just one intellectual frame of reference never stopped, and advances in various areas made excursions across disciplinary boundaries more and more desirable. In the United States interdisciplinarity was promoted increasingly by funding agencies. The National Science Foundation has for some time recognised ‘the value of interdisciplinary research in pushing fields forward and accelerating scientific discovery.’ But in the UK it has been argued that any early career academic going down that route may find it difficult to gain recognition and promotion.
Nobody says any more what I was told in the 1980s – that interdisciplinary work is intellectually deficient. But actually doing it can still be just as frustrating and can still fail to find proper recognition. We are too often emotionally committed to particular boundaries between areas of knowledge which were often, in their origins, entirely arbitrary. It is time to think again.