Concluding the Items series “Interdisciplinarity Now,” Ron Kassimir returns to some of its key themes—the distinction between interdisciplinarity as an abstract concept and how it looks in practice, and the relationship of the disciplines to interdisciplinary work. Kassimir discusses the continuities and breaks over time in the way interdisciplinarity is imagined. The growth of knowledge on how interdisciplinary research actually works (and when it doesn’t), exemplified in the contributions to the series, should inform how scholars “do” interdisciplinarity going forward.
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.
Originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and republished in Items & Issues in 2000 to kick off a symposium, Ken Wissoker’s piece examines the definition of interdisciplinarity and interdisciplinary research at the turn of the twenty-first century. He finds interdisciplinary research to be a balance between disciplines, one which is under tension from myriad forces, but in particular a territorial impulse, whether conscious or unconscious, to claim the primacy of one’s discipline. To work at the borders of disciplines, Wissoker concludes, scholars must be willing to face their own disciplinary biases.
Thomas Bender, in building on Wissoker’s essay, argues that interdisciplinarity “needs to be understood in the context of the social dynamics of academic culture.” Bender goes back to the SSRC’s early use of the concept as linked to addressing public problems, and an engagement with the world is still a vital reason for its practice today. At the same time, interdisciplinary work faces challenges in terms of both the criteria by which its quality can be judged and as a basis for training new generations.
Building on past contributions to our “Interdisciplinarity Now” series, Eduardo Brondizio emphasizes that interdisciplinary collaboration is fundamentally a reflexive intellectual and social process. Drawing from his own research and teaching experiences in environmental anthropology, Brondizio argues that disciplines, as domains of knowledge production, can serve as productive platforms of interdisciplinary work even as disciplinary organizational structures can be obstacles. A diversity of perspectives and approaches, even when in tension with each other, is essential for understanding fundamentally complex problems such as the environment.
Ho-fung Hung makes the case for the continued relevance of comparative-historical sociology to our “Interdisciplinarity Now” theme. In ways related Steinmetz’s earlier contribution to the series, Hung illustrates the multiple ways in which the combination of historical work with a macrosociological framework yields deep insights into long-term processes that generate inequality and the responses to it. He also argues that this long-term and large-scale perspective is critical in the formation of policies and the strategies of social movements that pursue progressive social change.
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.
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.