Gaurav Desai contributes to our "Interdisciplinarity Now" series by reflecting on his experiences on the selection panel of the Council’s largest fellowship competition, the International Dissertation Research Fellowship (IDRF) Program. Desai highlights a number of elements that make a research project interdisciplinary—drawing on the conceptual frameworks and methods of multiple disciplines (especially those fields not immediately proximate to one’s home discipline) and framing the research in ways that would resonate across a range of fields and approaches.
Our first featured theme, Interdisciplinarity Now, seeks to explore interdisciplinarity both in rhetoric and in practice. In doing so, it both builds directly on the SSRC’s origins as a catalyst for interdisciplinary inquiry while also holding up the concept of interdisciplinarity to critical scrutiny.
Over the coming months, Items will feature a range of reflections on continuities and transformations in the meaning and uses of interdisciplinarity, the occasionally fraught nature of the relationship between interdisciplinarity and disciplines, analyses of the practice of interdisciplinarity itself, and more.
Based in part on research in the SSRC’s archives, Jeremy Adelman and Margarita Fajardo chronicle an important moment in both the history of social science and the political economy of Latin America—the Council’s Joint Committee on Latin American Studies' work on the roots of bureaucratic authoritarianism. Through the 1970s, an interdisciplinary network of scholars from across the Americas interrogated the political and economic dimensions of military rule in Latin America. At the same time, insights from Latin American social science both informed the democratic transitions to come and reshaped research agendas in US scholarship.
Delia Wendel, a fellow of the SSRC’s International Dissertation Research Fellowship program, demonstrates how spatial and social research strategies can be combined through her work in post-genocide Rwanda. Wendel’s contribution engages issues raised in our "Interdisciplinarity Now" theme through a critical analysis of Rwanda’s villagization policy as part of its peacebuilding efforts after a devastating civil war. Wendel’s work speaks directly to the concerns of the SSRC’s African Peacebuilding Network (APN) and its blog Kujenga Amani.
Based on intensive research in interdisciplinarity in the natural sciences, Laurel Smith-Doerr and Jennifer Croissant engage the question of gender differences in the practice of interdisciplinary collaboration. This is a topic that receives relatively little attention, and the authors identify mixed signals for women scientists—a catch-22 in which women are, often simultaneously, expected to work in interdisciplinary ways (partly due to gender stereotypes), while also advised that doing so is too risky for career development.
Todd Sanders and Elizabeth Hall bring our debates about interdisciplinarity to climate change, a major global issue for which the need for interdisciplinary perspectives is taken for granted. How, they ask, “do we imagine and practice 'interdisciplinarity’ to save the planet?” The authors describe and critique a range of contrasting modalities for doing interdisciplinary work on climate change and the assumptions under which they operate. Sanders and Hall also reflect on the complexities of studying interdisciplinarity when its practitioners and observers are part of the same milieu—both being “natives” in the world of research.
How Interdisciplinarity Works: Field Theory and the Study of Interactions between History and Sociologyby George Steinmetz
George Steinmetz takes a critical look at how interdisciplinary fields emerge and evolve. Drawing from a larger work-in-progress on how history and sociology have intersected in Europe and the United States, he provides a case study of the meeting of these fields in France before and after World War II. Steinmetz argues interdisciplinary projects tend to be born out of subfields within different disciplines and that successful ones are developed organically among peers rather than engineered from above.
In 1997, as the SSRC moved to more purposefully develop research collaborations across world regions, Arjun Appadurai contributed an influential Items essay that called for critical reflection on the concept of “research” itself as it emerged out of the evolution of scientific and intellectual thought in the West. In a piece relevant to our series on “Interdisciplinarity Now,” and especially to the essays by Kennedy and Engerman, Appadurai challenges US social scientists to be self-conscious about the criteria they use to identify “new knowledge” produced by the ethics and procedures of American scholarship. Doing so would generate deeper (more mutual) and better research collaborations with colleagues outside the West.
In order to get beyond the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity, Erin Leahey has designed a series of research projects that address the actual impact of interdisciplinary work on scholars and institutions. In this essay, Leahey discusses how interdisciplinary research affects academic careers, the visibility of research, and scholarly productivity. She also reports on an ongoing project that explores the ways in which universities support interdisciplinary work among their faculty.
Reflecting on his recent book, Globalizing Knowledge, Michael Kennedy examines the affinities and interconnections between interdisciplinarity and efforts by scholars and institutions to shape global knowledge cultures. The ability to participate in cross-contextual research and debates, and to engage broader publics across boundaries, requires an interdisciplinary sensibility that can enhance scholarly reflexivity and innovation.
In a contribution relevant to both our features on inequality and interdisciplinarity, Kim Weeden and David Grusky examine how tendencies to analyze inequality within disciplinary frames may make it difficult to address key questions about the forms that inequality takes across societies. The authors, who direct centers on inequality at Cornell and Stanford, respectively, focus principally on the assumptions and measurement strategies of economics and sociology and provide suggestions on how these fields can collaborate to provide a deeper understanding of how inequality is structured and how it changes.