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Interdisciplinarity

Creating Disciplines

The definitions and elaborations of the terms of the human, the humane, and the humanistic were the stuff principally of the dominant disciplines in the humanities—philosophy and classics, national languages and literatures, history, and art history. The terms of the psychological, social, political, and cultural, by extension, were the domain of the social sciences. The prevailing objects of analysis in the humanities accordingly were conceptual, linguistic, artifactual, or textual; those in the social sciences were largely empirical (at least in the broad sense, both quantitative and qualitative). In both cases, objects and methods of analysis were distinctly disciplinarily driven and far from universal, as they more often than not assumed themselves to be. By the middle of the twentieth century, these disciplines tended to be self-contained and self-referential, methodologically streamlined, if not singular. Disciplinary training consisted of analytical, epistemological, and methodological apprenticeship. This included the ability not only to apply the analytic apparatus and methodology thought properly constitutive of the discipline but also to determine what was considered, from inside the discipline, to be the right questions to ask. This after all was what it meant to acquire (a) discipline.

Intellectual hegemony within the humanities and social sciences was never complete nor was it ever completely stable. Intellectual resistances, for example, emerged in the 1930s, complementing the political ones. Entangled intellectual and political countermovements ebbed and flowed between the 1930s and 1960s. Intellectual diversification within and across the academy was boosted by the growing class, ethnic, racial, and gendered diversification of those entering at least the American university in the wake of World War II, bolstered initially by the GI Bill and then by the rising tide of middle-class aspirations. These developments unleashed novel interests and demands for different knowledges and new forms of representation that cut across the traditional epistemological organization known as disciplines. It is this rich mix that has come to be recognized as "interdisciplinarity."

Often implicitly, sometimes overtly, this emerging inter-disciplinarity assumed humanistic configuration from its inception, even when not specifically noted as such. The University of Chicago's influential "Great Books" program insisted that any understanding of basic human problems had to be informed by "a select number of classic ancient and modern texts" independent of their disciplinary origin. What discipline, precisely, is responsible for the standard Great Books syllabus that includes Aristotle and Aquinas, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Hegel, and Freud? Chicago's Committee on Social Thought, while proposed primarily by social scientists in 1941, singles out contributions that would ordinarily be called "humanities" as the basis and preparation for serious intellectual work. In fact, this humanistic basis for inquiry is so much a given that it is not even labeled as such.

Many scholars working in the academy in the intervening decades have reached for new constructs that could encompass the intellectual and social energies, interests, and problematics of their day while providing foundations that are both historically and culturally expansive. This imperative toward humanistic interdisciplinarity recalls the nineteenth century, when, as Lisa Lattuca argues, many intellectuals insisted on more expansive forms of inquiry not organized along the strict(ly) disciplinary lines being routinized, regularized, and institutionalized by college administrators concerned to develop "coherent and integrated courses of study." And yet nineteenth-century versions, while precursors, are really "pre-disciplinary," to use William Newell's term, not really amounting to interdisciplinarities (Lattuca, pp. 5–6). The disposition was perhaps there, though not quite yet the thick institutionalization of disciplines to which interdisciplinarity is a response, a resistance, a need, a challenge. Graduate and professional education and certification at the end of the nineteenth century also helped to create disciplinary boundaries, structures, and institutional bureaucracies that concretized intellectual borders. These developments served over time to transform complicated and interwoven histories of ideas (the blurred boundaries between science, anthropology, philosophy, and literature, for example) into discrete "departments" with specialized training and networks of professional affiliation (including learned societies and journals) along with the criteria of credentializing to which they gave rise and which in turn further reified disciplinary determinations.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Incomplete dominance to IntuitionismInterdisciplinarity - Humanities And Social Sciences, Creating Disciplines, Toward Interdisciplinarity, Models For Interdisciplinarity, Interdisciplinarity As A Critical Project