Peter Taylor reflects on the directions in which social science has moved in the twenty years since the issuing of the Gulbenkian Commission’s report, Open the Social Sciences. While a strong case was made for interdisciplinarity in that report, Taylor, a member of the commission, highlights a different trend: the development of “corporate” social science. While not opposed to interdisciplinary work, this form of social science, argues Taylor, has established a well-resourced world of institutions and processes for the validation and dissemination of social knowledge parallel to universities and shapes social science in ways that serve private agendas rather than public goals or critical perspectives.
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.
David Engerman examines the historical origins and development of “area studies” in the United States as a key example of an interdisciplinary project. He argues that current debates on interdisciplinarity, focusing principally on research output and collaboration, obscure the central role of pedagogy in the development of area studies and the continued relevance of interdisciplinary approaches for teaching and training in today’s academy.
In this essay on interdisciplinarity from our archives, Diana Rhoten, then an SSRC program director, reports on the results of a project on collaborative practices in six interdisciplinary research centers. Focusing on identifying the enabling conditions for such collaboration, this National Science Foundation–supported study found that the main constraints on interdisciplinary research were neither funding nor the motivations of scholars. Rather, universities struggled in systematically establishing structures and processes that would allow centers to foster collaboration across disciplines in deep and sustainable, rather than cosmetic, ways.
Drawing on her recent book Anthropological Conversations, Caroline Brettell discusses the history of anthropology’s connections to other disciplines. Through examples of how anthropologists have collaborated with, influenced, and been influenced by historians, geographers, and psychologists, she traces intellectual exchanges that have been productive in understanding culture and difference.
Steve Fuller poses an inevitable question for this series on interdisciplinarity. He answers this question by providing an account of the proprietary and path-dependent nature of social science disciplines. One aspect of a potential solution, related to an earlier Items post by Jacobs, is to be more purposeful in the design of the criteria for research funding competitions so that scholars are able to demonstrate reading and influence across fields.
How do we recognize the interdisciplinary nature of research? In this piece, Jerry Jacobs addresses this question through thinking about the appropriate criteria for evaluating a research proposal. Instead of advocating a single scale, Jacobs argues that a proposal’s interdisciplinary qualities might be considered according to the scope of intellectual sources of the proposed project; the range of skills, methods, and interests drawn upon; and the breadth of potential impact of the research.
Harvey Graff challenges the perception that interdisciplinary scholarship is inhibited by disciplines; rather, he argues that they are inextricably connected and mutually dependent. Drawing from the insights of his recent book Undisciplining Knowledge, Graff makes the case that the practice of interdisciplinary research is productively diverse, and should be distinguished from an overarching scholarly ideology of interdisciplinarity.
In recognition of the twentieth anniversary of Open the Social Sciences, Items republishes Immanuel Wallerstein’s essay from 1996 that summarized that report’s key findings. Wallerstein, who chaired the commission that produced Open the Social Sciences, reflects on the nineteenth century origins of the social science disciplines, their historically contingent nature, and the need to transcend the ways in which they divide the production of social knowledge.
When scholars collaborate across disciplines, what shapes their perceptions of that experience? Drawing from their recent research on a range of interdisciplinary networks, Lamont, Boix-Mansilla and Sato find that cognitive and intellectual payoffs tell only part of the story. Emotional and social dimensions to collaboration intertwine with the cognitive in complex ways, while the research environment established by funders creates a frame within which participants experience a sense of achievement across disciplinary divides.