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Models For Interdisciplinarity

There has been a good deal of what one might call the mantric recourse to interdisciplinarity as something that ought to be done in the humanities and theoretical social sciences. And yet the seminal work on conceiving the nature and scope of interdisciplinary work confirms the extensive representational power of the sciences. The natural sciences especially, complemented by the empirical social sciences, have provided the dominant model for the nature of interdisciplinarity. This has been at once liberating and delimiting. In some instances science interdisciplinarity has been robust. Information science and policy and genomic research, policy, and ethics offer two good examples. But there are other models of interdisciplinarity not well served by the model of science. The report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences, "Open the Social Sciences" (1996), rightly points out that the humanities in some formations may be far more interdisciplinary in fact than the empirical social sciences. Jeffrey Sachs rightly insists in a New York Times Magazine interview discussing his commitment to "sustainable development" that interdisciplinarity is the only way to solve world problems. The need, he asserts, is "to focus not on the disciplines but on the problems and to bring together five main areas in an intensive dialogue: the earth sciences, ecological science, engineering, public health, and the social sciences with a heavy dose of economics" (Sachs, p. 45). Jeffrey Sachs notwithstanding, economics is hardly the model of interdisciplinarity that one should strive to emulate. Political economy, for instance, has suffered in the shadow of its more positivistic cousin. There are practices and ways of thinking about interdisciplinarity, and so models for it are not narrowly reducible to the prevailing conceptions in the sciences and empirical social sciences.

While some scientists embrace a vigorous interdisciplinary perspective, it is not unusual to find scientists referring both conceptually and in their exemplification of interdisciplinary practice exclusively to the sciences—biology, chemistry, the cognitive sciences, and so forth. Humanists often speak with equal and equally intense insularity: interdisciplinarity all too often is delimited to literature and history, with a grudging nod perhaps to anthropology or a facile invocation of sociology or political economy. It is important, then, to pay attention to the fact that there are different conceptions, models, and practices of interdisciplinary venture. Of particular interest are the robust senses of interdisciplinarity across the more traditional divides between the humanities, the sciences, the applied sciences and technology, the arts, and the social sciences.

These shifts are evidenced by the fact that the regime of interdisciplinarity has occasioned tremendous changes in habits of reading. Under the ancien régime of robust disciplinarity, reading was driven mostly from within the discipline. This included who and what one read (or at least professed to have read) and discussed within seminars and colloquia, at departmental affairs, in oral dissertations, and so on. A scholar was socialized into and by the disciplinary bounds of reading and through conversation around and about these sets of readings. It is revealing to notice that in the late twentieth century this boundedness of reading broke down rather dramatically. Twenty-first-century scholars read with little, or far less, attention to disciplinary constraint and concern, more readily drawing on work that speaks to the problematics and themes with which they are concerned. Work in literature might readily draw on historical studies, obviously, but also on reading from women's or critical gender or race studies, from visual studies, art history, and philosophy traditionally conceived, as well as from sociology or politics or anthropology. The history and philosophy of science are no longer the only endeavors in the humanities to engage with the sciences, as the distinctions between nature and culture and the social and biological increasingly blur, and one looks for new languages of representation and novel vocabularies of reference. Science and technology studies are the natural outgrowth of this convergence of interests. The first generation of digital humanities that has focused almost exclusively on digital collections of cultural heritage, important as they have been, are now leading to more robust, mutually transformative engagements between engineering, information technology, humanities, and the arts.

Obstacles to pedagogy.

One obstacle to vigorous interdisciplinary pedagogy concerns methodological and epistemological considerations. There is, of course, the pedagogical tension between the clean slate proposed by John Locke (1632–1704) and the historicality associated with the legacy of Wihelm Dilthey (1833–1911). It is difficult to train students in interdisciplinary modes of analysis and thought when they have yet to grasp the intellectual histories, historically prevailing questions, and thematics prompting the interdisciplinary disposition to begin with. It is no doubt easier to introduce rigorous interdisciplinary modalities in teaching at the graduate level than at the undergraduate level, notwithstanding the consideration that less-formed minds tend to be more open to new possibilities. And a good part of the restraint on interdisciplinary pedagogy has to do with the fact that teaching in universities and colleges tends so largely to be ordered around disciplinarily organized departments with relatively few possibilities provided for recognized and credited cross-disciplinary pedagogical partnerships.

There are various ways to sharpen the contrast between disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. One of course is methodological. But there are also deep epistemological distinctions. Disciplines produce knowledge according to different criteria than does interdisciplinary practice, and they credentialize that knowledge on different grounds. There does seem to be a contrast between the positive sciences, broadly conceived, as engaging in the practice of "looking for" and the humanities, for which "thinking about" or reflection, for want of better terms, is the driving modality. Disciplinarity, relatedly, is often thought to produce so-called positive knowledge through constraint and boundedness, a "knowing that," to use Gilbert Ryle's (1900–1976) term, in contrast to a "knowing how." Interdisciplinarity, no doubt, can sometimes be as limited and specialized as any disciplinary project, if one is simply bringing to bear different methodologies on one highly focused question or problem (a commonplace of multidisciplinary experiment in the sciences). The sort of robust interdisciplinarity for which we are making an argument here concerns ways of combining different methodologies and approaches in seeking new yet still systematic ways to address large and complex problems not susceptible to analysis (or solution) from a single perspective.

The humanities often embrace affective aspects of intelligence, such as imagination, play, improvisation, and serendipity, as much as they embrace conventional rationalist forms of inquiry, such as logic, analysis, deconstruction, and critique. They value aesthetics as much as politics. The romance of these artful aspects, after all, revealing of one of the two major humanistic traditions, prompts a loosening of disciplinary bounds, further softening entrenched lines between humanities and the arts.

Mark Gibson and Alec McHoul talk relatedly of the constitutive incompleteness of disciplines. In large part a product of disciplinary boundedness, insularity, self-containment, and (often productive) delimitations, this constitutive incompleteness suggests epistemological partiality on the part of disciplines, both a necessarily incomplete and a relatedly one-sided knowledge of the object in question. From within the boundaries one knows an object as no more than the discipline would have it. Epistemological curiosity, if not the epistemological drive to complete knowledge, to know it all, so to speak, suggests too an epistemological push or ontological pull beyond disciplinary boundaries. This dispositive draw—the "need" of the knowing subject, qua knowledge, to know it all, the "necessity" of the object to be known—conjures or points to the beyond that might critically be called interdisciplinarities.

Less grandiosely, Kenneth Wissoker has suggested that interdisciplinarity varies by discipline: questions asked of an object of analysis, methods considered legitimate, and the conceptual apparatus deemed appropriate vary from one discipline to another, and so the practice of interdisciplinarity prompted from different disciplinary sites will vary accordingly. Interdisciplinarity prompted or practiced from within disciplines is likely to look different from interdisciplinarities the starting points for which are, say, problem-or issue-promoted (where the problem or issue is not simply discipline-specific).

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