Who believes in interdisciplinarity?

We are frequently encouraged to be interdisciplinary. Indeed, UBC now has an entire college devoted to interdisciplinarity, established by an injunction from UBC’s Senate and Board of Governors “to support interdisciplinary research and teaching across UBC.” And interdisciplinarity is a key part of this website’s vision and raison d’être, dedicated as it is to explore and further “connections between the sciences and the humanities.” It’s the mantra of our times.

But I am skeptical.

Please note that I regard my own research and teaching to be highly interdisciplinary. I was trained in one field (English) but teach in another (Spanish and Latin American Studies), while my research draws on and aims to be in dialogue with others (Political Science, Philosophy, History…).

But perhaps this is precisely why I am skeptical.

I have seen and experienced how difficult genuinely interdisciplinary work is, even between fields as apparently similar as Literature and History, or Anthropology and Political Science. When I meet and talk with my colleagues from these adjacent disciplines, we soon find that we have very different assumptions, quite distinct ideas about methodology, and perhaps most fundamentally our work is informed by readings that only partially overlap.

Heck, even between researchers in any one Humanities discipline there are often vast differences that at times become huge obstacles to the articulation of common projects.

Of course, it is still important that there be dialogue between disciplines. But this is hard work if it is to be done seriously and properly. No amount of mandates from above or even good intentions from below can lessen the amount of effort required. And again, I am talking about dialogue between disciplines that are, on the face of it, very similar.

So who believes interdisciplinarity? In a word: scientists.

Here I am talking in very broad terms, of course, but it is both my experience and also part of the historical record that on the whole those who are most prone to gestures towards the broadest forms of interdisciplinarity come from the Sciences (or from the most scientific end of the social sciences) rather than the Arts and Humanities.

At first sight, this is odd indeed. The Arts and Humanities encompass the Sciences in a way that is almost entirely unreciprocated. For instance, there is a Science Studies program in Arts, but there is no Arts Studies program in Sciences. Indeed, on the whole scientists pour scorn on the very notion of “Science Studies.” See for instance their typical reaction to the hoax perpetrated by physicist Alan Sokal a decade or so ago.

But in fact, I think, this is the key. For scientists, interdisiplinarity means learning something new, adding to what they already know, rather than questioning the principles of their knowledge itself. Whereas those of us in the Arts and Humanities know that true interdisciplinary work worthy of the name must always mean taking a risk of finding the very ground on which you stand to be fatally undermined. For the Sciences, interdisciplinarity is supplementary; for the Arts and Humanities, it is fundamental. It is precisely because we are aware of what interdisciplinarity really means, that we are quite rightly more than a little fearful of it.

So who really believes in interdisciplinarity?

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Jon Beasley-Murray is an assistant professor in the Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies. He teaches Latin American Studies.

7 Responses to “Who believes in interdisciplinarity?”

  1. Dave Semeniuk

    My studies are scientific (oceanography), and practically defined by it’s embrace of an interdisciplinary approach to research (from analytical chemistry, to genomics, from geology and paleoceanography to complex fluid dynamics, and everything in between). After having spent some time immersed in this type of research (3-4 years), I’ve realized how much more difficult it is to be an interdisciplinary scientist than it is to do interdisciplinary science. As you’ve pointed out, many scientist view interdisciplinary work as complementary, as a means of answering interesting questions more effectively. However, I feel many people find themselves treading a fine line between answering and arm-waving when addressing scientific problems outside their specialty. Sometimes you work through it and become enlightened, and other times you crash and burn. Indeed, at times I’ve felt entirely unjustified in tackling some of the questions I’ve been interested in, and have experienced both of the latter results. In either case, my ignorance of the certainties of the field (i.e. the sort of knowledge taken for granted by those specialized in the field) has always dragged me (and others I’ve observed) down. So, although scientists aren’t questioning their peer’s collective knowledge, perhaps they should be questioning their own.

  2. Jon Beasley-Murray

    Dave, thanks for this. Indeed, there’s much more to be said on this topic. I hoped for my post to be a (somewhat polemical perhaps) beginning.

    But you’ve pointed to something that’s certainly been part of my experience: it is definitely a risk to step outside your discipline and face the judgment of others. I’ve been in that situation often, and while sometimes I feel it’s gone OK, at other times I’ve definitely felt like I’ve been crashing and burning.

    I should also say, however, that sometimes an “ignorance of certainties” can be important and useful. Because perhaps those certainties shouldn’t be quite so certain. But those are relatively rare occasions.

    Again, I don’t want to pour cold water entirely on interdisciplinary endeavours. Far from it. Just to point out that they are (or should be) difficult and risky.

  3. Tiffany Pan

    Interesting read, as I am considering doing my BA in interdisciplinary studies. Does it matter much if I believe it though? As long as I say it do and name it as such, then it necessarily becomes interdisciplinary…. That’s what I’m learning in English class anyone.

  4. Andre Malan

    I feel that in order to be truly interdisciplinary you have to sacrifice a lot from the separate disciplines involved. For instance I decided not to take take part in the Cognitive Science program simply because I knew I would not be able to explore as much Computer Science as I wanted to. However, I do feel that you can carve a niche for yourself by being an expert on the intersections of the different disciplines. Your work will not be really interdisciplinary as you will still be limited by your capacity to learn, instead you will be working in one discipline, a new discipline bounded by different boundaries to most.

  5. Scott Newson

    I believe, at a very fundamental level, that being forced to think outside your personal box is inherently a good thing. Good for you, as you will gain an alternative perspective on what you usually think about, and good for collective discourse in the field because you bring a fresh approach and an “ignorance of certainties”, as Jon said. In fact, I generally assume that any interdisciplinary questioning and curiosity is automatically beneficial and should always be supported.

    (I’m in science, officially, but I would claim that this holds true in all faculties and areas of thought.)

  6. Jon Beasley-Murray

    Tiffany, ah, I wouldn’t believe everything you’re told in English class… 😉 But go ahead, enroll in the Interdisciplinary Studies BA! Though it’s an interesting phenomenon, as Andre suggest, when interdisciplinarity becomes a discipline in its own right.

    Andre, I take two things from your comment: first, that you have to work especially hard if you are to be interdisciplinary, especially if you don’t want to lose your footing within your “home” discipline. But second, that interdisciplinarity involves compromises, inevitably so. My way of thinking about it is to ask myself what would it take to do “good enough” History (say) as a non-historian. (There’s no obvious answer, I don’t think.)

    Meanwhile, I’d like to agree with Scott, and on the whole I do… But I’m not sure about interdsciplinarity being “automatically beneficial,” at least not in the short or even medium term. It comes with costs and sacrifices. I would (and do) hesitate before recommending it to graduate students, for instance, who at some time are going to have to apply for jobs… and jobs come in disciplines, on the whole not in “inter”disciplines.

    In short, my argument then is to suggest that the “rah rah” encouragement of interdisciplinarity that we hear all too often coming from above is too shallow, too unthinking, too… well, too easy and as such not very “interdisciplinary” at all.

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