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.
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.
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.
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.
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.