Undisciplining knowledge

Guest post by Harvey J. Graff

graffThe ubiquitous appearance of the term “interdisciplinary” in current academic and educational writing suggests that it is rapidly becoming the dominant form of scholarly work. Major newspapers and periodicals create the same impression, especially in discussing research on current issues ranging from health care to the environment and national security. Commentators disagree about whether this trend is positive or negative. They also disagree about what they mean by “interdisciplinary.” There is much more hype, and heat, than light, and there is also loss.

Recognizing that interdisciplinary work demands a greater command of knowledge and methodologies than individual scholars may possess, universities contend that the organization of learning, and of work, depends on and advances collaboration. These statements reveal the particular discourse of interdisciplinarity, which asserts its transformative power and vital importance. They also suggest implicit tensions between applied research and fundamental problems of knowledge or theory, as well as conflicts between existing disciplines and emerging ones. It is true that universities also deal inadequately with problems of organization and career tracks. Interdisciplinarity can be a cover for downsizing faculty numbers and programs.

These complications—but not the ideology—underscore the fact that disciplinary and interdisciplinary work are inextricably linked, regardless of the assumptions of many proponents and opponents of interdisciplinarity. That each usually depends on the other is not often appreciated. In a discourse sharply divided by dichotomies, some commentators see the recent rise of interdisciplinarity as primarily a reaction against overspecialization and fragmentation in the disciplines. They urge integration and synthesis. Others declare that critical problems demand collaboration among specialists from different fields and disciplines. A more complete appreciation of interdisciplinarity’s development needs a longer look backward, at least to the late-nineteenth-century origins of modern disciplines in the developing research university and the relationships among them. Disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity stimulate, shape, and inform each other, as the making of biology, among other foundational fields, shows.

Despite the diversity of interdisciplines, “big science” has become a normative model that shapes expectations for and evaluations of interdisciplinarity in nonscientific research as well. Large-scale, team-driven, expensive experimental science is hegemonic in current thinking. With expectations for costs go judgments of importance. General education curricula, integrated media across the arts, or digital humanities pale in comparison. So does the interdisciplinary work of individual scholars and small groups, more appropriate to other fields and many problems. Efforts to claim the trappings of big science multiply mimetically. Many interdisciplines, including communications, cognitive studies, and operations research, have at one time or another attempted to pass as sciences. Attesting to the power and lure of science as a badge of identity, this effort has confused questions about the wider applicability of different approaches.

How well does this paradigm fit the most important research breakthroughs? Unusual wartime circumstances propelled the Manhattan Project, which invented the atomic bomb. Should credit be assigned to leading scientists or to military and civilian organizers? Watson and Crick’s collaboration in identifying the structuring of DNA’s double helix was relatively informal, as their exclusion of coworker Rosalind Franklin indicates. Close coordination among many laboratories in separate institutions contributed to mapping the human genome. How do we assess the crucial roles of external circumstances, nonscientific influences, institutional elements, leadership, and specific circumstances, as they interacted with intellectual breakthroughs and the marshaling of resources? Certain factors emerge as especially significant, chief among them the location, relationships, and organization of the interdisciplinary effort and its historical context. Preconditions, particularly research pointing the way to the critical moment and the social and political-economic context, matter enormously.

Lost in the rosy recipes and dire warnings is a different story with very different implications. At different times, in different contexts, interdisciplinarity takes different terms, forms, and locations and faces different chances of success or failure. I explore them in my new book Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century. By far the greatest amount of interdisciplinary research and teaching lay in specialized and advanced studies. In contrast, the emphasis in general or so-called integrative work is in curricular and program development, especially for undergraduates. Both general, nonspecialized, and specialized work can be integrative. But the ways we talk about and praise, or criticize, interdisciplinarity confuse this.

Contrary to most views, Undisciplining Knowledge begins with the understanding that interdisciplinarity is part of the historical making and ongoing reshaping of modern disciplines. It is inseparable from them, not opposed to them. The organization, production, and dissemination of knowledge around universities, disciplinary departments, and research institutes, especially in the United States and Europe, have long given rise to interdisciplinary efforts and movements. Over time, those endeavors have crossed disciplines and disciplinary clusters in different ways and with differing outcomes. This is seen in the histories on which my study builds, ranging from genetic biology and sociology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to molecular biology, nanotechnology, and cultural studies in the mid to late twentieth century.

In my view, interdisciplinarity is defined and constructed by questions and problems of theory or practice, conditions of knowledge, and the means developed to answer those questions in new and different ways. Interdisciplines are fashioned from elements of different disciplines to form distinct approaches, understandings, or contexts. Interdisciplines are themselves historical constructs. Questions and problems are the focus, not the number of disciplines that are supposedly “mastered,” “integrated,” or “transcended” or the claim that normative disciplinary practices are bypassed. While avoiding dichotomies that interfere with our understanding, I recognize key conflicts and underlying contradictions. In the making of interdisciplinarity, disciplinary elements are interactive, not additive. Similarly, interdisciplinarity derives from the selection of appropriate and relevant ideas, approaches, theories, concepts, methods, and comparisons from different fields or disciplines. Those choices, whether successful or not, influence central questions and problems. In no way does interdisciplinarity depend on knowledge of entire disciplines or on global notions of the unity of knowledge. There is no single path to interdisciplinarity, no single model, no single standard for successful development. The process and results vary across disciplines and clusters. Like disciplines, interdisciplines are diverse in paths, locations, relationships to disciplines, organization, and institutionalization.

The long and complicated history of interdisciplinarity supports a strong argument to limit use of the word and its associated vocabulary. This is necessary in order to advance its provenance and power. Those who pronounce transdisciplinarity or, more recently with respect to bioscience, convergence to be “beyond interdisciplinarity” are seldom aware of the baggage that both those terms carry. Abuse of interdisciplinarity follows from a lack of familiarity and knowledge of the fields supposedly interrelated. This is particularly evident in the humanities and social sciences with respect to “cognitive science” as well as within the sciences themselves. Metaphors too commonly take the place of understanding.

These are very real questions in 2015, just as they were in 1980, 1950, or 1910. What is at stake is nothing less than the framing of efforts to make progress on major intellectual and social problems; issues of public policy; expectations and anticipations; the allocation of resources, including the time and efforts of people and institutions; the articulation of organizations and structures; and professional careers and human lives.

Harvey J. Graff is the Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies and a professor of English and history at The Ohio State University. He is the author of Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century, The Literacy Myth: Literacy and Social Structure in the Nineteenth Century City, The Legacies of Literacy: Continuities and Contradictions in Western Society, and other books.