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Interdisciplinarity As A Critical Project

This raises the question whether it is possible to think of interdisciplinarity as cast adrift from any particular discipline, not simply the view from nowhere but from the point of transience, migration, betweenness. Is there an interdisciplinary practice not fixed or bounded by the disciplines but prompted from those spaces and gaps and interstices the disciplines inevitably fail to exhaust, their blind spots, even in their overlap? But what then is the force of the "inter" in interdisciplinarity (as opposed to focusing on the disciplines to which interdisciplinarity is a contrast)? What happens in the intellectual, conceptual, methodological spaces between disciplines? What is suggested here is a redirected focus for interdisciplinarity, from the disciplines between which there is exchange to the exchange to which the disciplines contribute and themselves change as they do.

Conceived thus, it may be asked whether interdisciplinarity is, or should be, committed first and foremost to a critical project. The preceding line of argument suggests it is. If so, a prime feature of such a critical project would be antireductionism. Very often reductionism and disciplinarity are bound up with each other, predicated thus always on its object of critique. Disciplines by definition are reductive. To know an object through or via the discipline is to know it reduced to the parameters determined by disciplinary constraints, conceptual, methodological, or theoretical. If knowledge through disciplines is perspectival in this way, interdisciplinarity seeks to pluralize the sources, perspectives, dispositions, and determinations of knowledge. If disciplinary knowledge seeks objectivity through constraint, interdisciplinarity seeks knowledge through relationalities.

To learn a discipline, it might be said, is to learn a language. It is not enough simply to learn the vocabulary, though that surely is necessary. This means that keen attention also must be paid—especially—to what could be called the syntax and semantics of the discipline, and to the cultures it conjures and projects. Approached in this way, the contrast between disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity may begin to be discerned. To become fluent interdisciplinarily is not simply to learn more than one language, to multiply the syntactical and semantic structures and cultures known. Rather, it means to assume a different, if related (even derivative), mode of speaking, to inhabit a different culture, and in that inhabitation to see differently. It is in more than an idle sense to learn—to inhabit—a creole culture (and perhaps to be treated as creoles so often have).

It follows from all of this that there is not simply a singular correct or proper (form of) interdisciplinarity. There are, in short, interdisciplinarities rather than one interdisciplinary model or method. Were interdisciplinarity to become the currency of the academy, as Marjorie Garber has warned, it would tend to the conventional, to devolve into its own kind of disciplinarity. Heterogenizing the practices and their institutional arrangements encourages, by contrast, renewed possibilities, promotes institutional settings sustaining rather than delimiting robust knowledge promotion, even invites a more heterogeneous inhabitation of the academy. Such interdisciplinary institutional arrangements would come and go, transact and transform in vigorous relation to the vicissitudes of the problematics—the objects of study and analysis—for which they exist and serve to illuminate. Such robust interdisciplinarities are seen as relational, flexible and transformative, self-confident and open-ended, suggestive and servicing, rather than deterministic and delimiting. Historically grounded without being historicist, they are heterogeneous and not reductionistic in assumption and scope, pluralizing and radically nonessentializing, facing heterogeneous worlds with curiosity, generosity, and sensitivity rather than with narrow introspection and incessant denial. Such robust interdisciplinarities, vigorous without being arrogant, engaged without being imperialistic, look to make connections across every area of the university—including the sciences, engineering, and the professional schools in their reach.


Garber, Marjorie. Academic Instincts. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Gibson, Mark, and McHoul Alec. "Interdisciplinarity." In A Companion to Cultural Studies, edited by Toby Miller, 23–35. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Klein, Julie Thompson. Crossing Boundaries: Knowledge, Disciplinarities, and Interdisciplinarities. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996.

——. Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990.

Lattuca, Lisa R. Creating Interdisciplinarity: Interdisciplinary Research and Teaching among College and University Faculty. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2001.

Sachs, Jeffrey. "Poor Man's Economist: Questions for Jeffrey Sachs." New York Times Magazine, 12 December 2002, 45.

Wissoker, Kenneth. "Negotiating a Passage between Disciplinary Borders." Chronicle of Higher Education, 14 April 2000, 4–6.

David Theo Goldberg

Cathy N. Davidson

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