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.