People talk about interdisciplinarity, but will we ever really do it?

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.

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5 Comments on “People talk about interdisciplinarity, but will we ever really do it?”

  1. paulmartin42 Says:

    Indeed the best member of staff at Aberdeen College used to work at Aberdeen University as well and, at the latter those that worked elsewhere as well were conspicuously better, in several respects. Similarly IBM used to stand for I’ve Been Moved and ARM seems to operate a rotation program for new graduates which seems to imbue loyalty. Sticking with one discipline/organisation/… seems to be the road to inevitable Brexit.

  2. David Watts Says:

    I would be interested to see a study that looked at the consensus on disciplinary identity over time and on what is considered interdisciplinary. I suspect there is a wide diversity of views and that these are not concrete. My old department debated before the last RAE which of 3 possible subject panels was most suitable.

  3. Vince Says:

    What was/is it they are worried about. They are surely not thinking some odd pollution will contaminate.
    I do know for certain that Classics has never been richer since they got over their fixation on a purity concocted in common-rooms of northern Europe that left the scholars wandering about Greece and Italy utterly bemused.

  4. I feel in health and social care subjects the issue of interdisciplinarity in practice education and research is not one of choice but rather a requirement as the ethos of integrating health and social care gains ground. However I also feel that when we consider graduate attributes and global citizenship the issue of interdiscipliarity is crucial for all disciplines. Our graduates should be able to articulate their disciplines to each other contributing their expertise as appropriate and reesearchers should seek out disciplines which complement or enhance their research strategies.

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