Though in a literal sense interdisciplinarity refers to a set of intellectual practices, it needs to be understood in the context of the social dynamics of academic culture. Let me explain by introducing a bit of history. Interdisciplinarity entered academic discourse (and, perhaps more important, that of foundations and educational administrators) in the 1920s. The SSRC was founded in this context, and the promotion of interdisciplinary research was one of the reasons for its founding. Beardsly Ruml, who provided the initial funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, worried that the institutional maturation of the new disciplines limited their social usefulness. Rivalry and sectoral division made it difficult, if not impossible, for them to address the common problems of human life that were, to put it schematically, whole and not sectoral. Interdisciplinarity, he thought, would better match modern scholarship with the experience of the world; the landmark volume, Recent Social Trends (1933), best represents that ambition.
However naive Ruml and the founders of the SSRC might have been, they were close to the nub of the continuing meaning of interdisciplinarity: Are academic disciplines (collectively or singly) intended to describe and explain the world, or is their work to develop working paradigms (to use a now outmoded phrasing) that allow disciplinary practitioners to keep at work creating new knowledge and new disciplinary problems to solve?
The incorporation of theories or methods from other disciplines to advance one’s own does not in these terms amount to interdisciplinary work, though it may be enormously fruitful. Indeed, one can argue that most of the important disciplinary innovations of the past century, and especially the past half-century, derive from the incorporation of concepts or methods from other disciplines. That is a powerful argument against disciplinary parochialism, or, to put it more positively, a call to a disciplinary cosmopolitanism that allows and encourages serious participation in a more general intellectual culture. But it is not necessarily a call for interdisciplinarity as I am defining it.“Interdisciplinarity, understood as intellectual engagement with the world we share with our nonacademic neighbors, is a means, however crude, of counterbalancing this endgame of professional insularity.”
The disciplines rule. Tenure committees seldom ask whether the candidate’s work effectively describes the world (to say nothing of whether if is “true”). Rather they ask whether the methods and theories are original, innovative within the discipline and likely to stimulate further work in the discipline. At a faculty meeting a few years ago at New York University, a member of the economics department declared that teaching students about the economy had no appeal for him, but he was passionately committed to teaching them about economics. Those who seek reliable explanations of the world often (and ought to) feel a bit unfulfilled by this line of thinking. But they must agree that the academy rewards it. Interdisciplinarity, understood as intellectual engagement with the world we share with our nonacademic neighbors, is a means, however crude, of counterbalancing this endgame of professional insularity.
If we accept Ken Wissoker’s argument for cultural studies—“a space for work between disciplines”—one has a contemporary version of the founding idea of the SSRC. He rightly points out that many who today fly under the banner of cultural studies are addressing issues they consider to be (and surely are) of social significance. These concerns do not, however, seem to fit in any adequate way into the protocols of the established disciplines. Cultural studies provide a space for such inquiries, and that is doubtless the explanation for strong foundation support of the field.
Yet interdisciplinary scholarship is as problematic as it is essential. How is one to judge its validity? Who is to judge its merit? It is true that the past two decades have witnessed the proliferation of interdisciplinary journals. None, however, claim a role equivalent to the traditional disciplinary journals. As newcomers to the academic marketplace and aware of the competition for resources, these journals and their editors are often as concerned with promoting the “field” as building “networks” as with judgment.“The individualism of the marketplace is transformed in academe into a kind of expressive individualism that values the performance of difference.”
Although there is much evidence that the established disciplines are not so effective as their founders might have hoped in keeping the market and its values at bay, interdisciplinary studies are even more vulnerable to the perverse forms the market assumes in academe today. The individualism of the marketplace is transformed in academe into a kind of expressive individualism that values the performance of difference. To some extent, the disciplines can moderate this. But interdisciplinary fields, partly because of their defining virtues, exhibit some of the worst aspects of contemporary academic culture. Far from C.S. Peirce’s or even John Dewey’s weaker vision of a “community of inquirers” cumulatively enriching a common knowledge base, reputation and advancement derive from solo performances of originality and differentiation.
More serious yet is the question of training. Pioneers in an interdisciplinary field are often granted licenses to proceed with a fairly thin knowledge of the second or third or fourth disciplines being drawn upon. Since these scholars were trained in a discipline, quite visible traces of that discipline inform their work and provide a way of evaluating it—both for promotions and for its credibility. More is (rightly) expected of participants in the second and third waves, many of whom begin with a commitment to cultural studies and thus may not have even the benefit of the originating discipline that sustained the work of their mentors. Yet they are expected to have much fuller grounding in the various bodies of scholarship upon which they draw. How is this to be done?
If we locate cultural studies, as I have, within the context the public concerns that framed the establishment of the SSRC, there is a further complexity—or irony. It turns out to be more difficult than anticipated to return to the public with scholarly findings in the language of the public rather than as academic jargon.
It is all very worrisome, even discouraging. Yet if we wish to keep addressing the issues of contemporary life and if we wish to maintain intellectual vitality in the disciplines, we must keep advocating and doing interdisciplinarity, however impossible.
Thomas Bender is a retired professor of history and University Professor of the Humanities at New York University.
This essay originally appeared in Items & Issues Vol. 1, No. 3 in the fall of 2000. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.