“‘Interdisciplinary’ was probably born in New York City in the mid-1920s, most likely at the corner of 42nd and Madison. The word seems to have begun life in the corridors and meeting rooms of the Social Science Research Council as a kind of bureaucratic shorthand for what the Council saw as its chief function, the promotion of research that involved two or more of its seven constituent societies. ‘Interdisciplinary’ started out with a reasonably bounded set of senses. Then, subjected to indecent abuse in the 50s and 60s, it acquired a precocious middle-aged spread. Now not only is the word everywhere but no one can pin down what people have in mind when they utter it.”1Roberta Frank, “’Interdisciplinarity’: The First Half Century,” Items 42, no. 3 (September 1988): 73.
So begins Roberta Frank’s 1988 excavation of the term “interdisciplinary,”2To be clear, neither Frank nor the SSRC claims that the Council was the originator of the concept of interdisciplinarity, but possibly of the term. which we quoted in our introduction to the Items series “Interdisciplinarity Now.” Frank’s essay reflects on the giddy highs of discourses about interdisciplinarity and the inevitable skeptical responses to big dreams of the integration of knowledge and the sciences. In a 1937 report on the SSRC’s early years, the eminent sociologist Louis Wirth throws some cold water on “interdisciplinary”:
“It may also be said the Council has allowed itself to some extent to become obsessed at times by catch phrases and slogans which were not sufficiently critically examined. Thus there is some justification for saying that much of the talk in connection with Council policy, especially in the early years, about cooperation and interdisciplinary research turned out to be a delusion.”3Social Science Research Council, “Report on the History, Activities and Policies of the Social Science Research Council. Prepared for the Committee on Review of Council Policy,” 145, quoted in Frank, “’Interdisciplinarity’: The First Half Century,” Items 42, no. 3 (September 1988): 74–75.
Unclear from Wirth’s withering comment is the source of the failure as he perceived it. From then until now, explanations for the obstacles to interdisciplinary work have fallen on a continuum. One end focuses on the obstructive power of disciplines. This critique has both a substantive dimension—i.e., disciplines as intellectually and epistemologically narrow and static—and a strategic one—the age-old academic quest for status and more faculty lines. The other end lays blame on the fuzzy nature of interdisciplinarity as a concept, and the compromises that get made in its practice—partly due to the power dynamics present when its practitioners come together.“The essays in our Items series land on different places on this continuum, but very few on its ends.”
The essays in our Items series land on different places on this continuum, but very few on its ends. Partly this was the result of our own curatorial preferences. But, and perhaps optimistically, it may also demonstrate an orientation toward interdisciplinary work that is simultaneously positively disposed and realistic, and increasingly based on growing empirical knowledge of its actual practice and its relation to disciplinary training and structures. These essays demonstrate how wide-ranging, diverse, and sometimes fraught interdisciplinary work can be in tracing, for example, the development of and transformations in historical sociology (Steinmetz; Hung), environmental research (Brondizio; Sanders and Hall), and global and area studies (Kennedy; Engerman; Adelman and Fajardo). They provide insight into how to evaluate interdisciplinary research proposals and criteria to identify “interdisciplinarity” in a research design (Jacobs; Fuller; Desai). And they analyze the stresses that the imperative to “be” interdisciplinary places on academic careers, in particular women’s careers (Leahey; Smith-Doerr and Croissant). Sharpening our understanding of the real-world complexities of interdisciplinarity helps us learn from its past while imagining new possibilities and, hopefully, mitigating the negative consequences that inevitably follow when something of value is “everywhere and no one can pin down what people have in mind when they utter it.”
Obstacles to interdisciplinarity, real and imagined“Not only is interdisciplinary work not going away, but it isn’t clear anyone wants it to.”
Let’s first take the end of the continuum that critiques the concept of interdisciplinarity itself. Very few scholars today, I imagine, would agree with the skeptic in a 1930 SSRC meeting who posited, as Frank reports, that “concern with ‘cooperative research’ or ‘inter-discipline problems’ should not be allowed to hamper the first rate mind.”4Frank, “’Interdisciplinarity’: The First Half Century,” 74. Not only is interdisciplinary work not going away, but it isn’t clear anyone wants it to. Present concerns about the concept lie not in the importance of some research crossing disciplinary borders, but in the use of “interdisciplinarity” as an ideology, one deployed not only by fellow scholars but also university administrators, funders, and policymakers. The truism that says important public problems cannot be fully understood, or addressed, without the attention and, ultimately, collaboration of multiple disciplines has, in some accounts, been used as a top-down cudgel. This distorts the cross-field interactions that have always characterized the development of research in the social sciences and elsewhere.5See, for example, Scott Frickel, Mathieu Albert, and Barbara Prainsack, eds., introduction to Investigating Interdisciplinary Collaboration (Rutgers University Press, 2016). These points have been made in important recent books by two of our contributors, Jerry Jacobs and Harvey Graff.6→Jerry A. Jacobs, In Defense of Disciplines (Chicago University Press, 2013).
→Harvey J. Graff, Undisciplining Knowledge (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).
Differentiating between interdisciplinarity as ideology and as it actually exists in practice opens a space for justifying the essential need for interdisciplinary research, and identifying the real disincentives to doing it, without reference to a teleological integration of knowledge.
One of the most frequently cited disincentives is that other end of the continuum: the disciplines. That disciplinary structures—i.e., academic departments—can hinder cross-boundary work is apparent to anyone with an ethnographic eye who has spent any time at a university. Additionally, the stories of younger scholars—both graduate students and junior faculty—who are encouraged to avoid risk until they get a job and eventually tenured are too widespread to dismiss as campus fake news.7Indeed, the SSRC, through its fellowships and other programs, puts a light thumb on the side of incentivizing interdisciplinary work in the face of such risks.
Yet, demonizing disciplines is problematic not simply because it paints with too broad a brush, but it also ignores history—that interdisciplinary work actually has happened through disciplinary training—including the realization by some of its practitioners of that training’s limits. As Jacobs, Graff, and others have demonstrated, disciplines themselves arose from the mixing of different fields, and are far more dynamic than their detractors portray. There is no necessary contradiction between, on the one hand, disciplines serving as the intellectual building blocks and departure points for interdisciplinary research and field development and, on the other, departments institutionalizing disciplines within universities in ways that can favor self-preservation and reproduction.8As Jacobs (2013) shows, interdisciplinary fields, once constituted as departments with faculty lines and other resources committed to them, tend to mimic disciplinary-based departments.
This dynamism within disciplines, I would add, is itself part of the process of interdisciplinary collaboration, at least of a sort. By this I mean that some disciplines, at least in the social sciences, are divided into camps that debate, productively or not, the scope and identity of their fields.9For a now classic analysis of these divisions, see Andrew Abbott, Chaos of Disciplines (University of Chicago Press, 2001). These tend to cleave toward more scientistic or more interpretivist wings. Sometimes good fences make for good neighbors within these disciplines, but if the fences break down then the camps may struggle with each other for survival or advantage. Often, these camps ally and collaborate with like-minded scholars in other fields. These forms of “interdisciplinarity” are sometimes labelled “thin” or “easy,” although in spite of real limitations their achievements should not be discounted (see area studies). Just because something is relatively easy doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. But the point is that epistemological differences and debates about the nature and purpose of research are the obstacles here to a “thicker” interdisciplinarity, not disciplines.
“A space for work between disciplines”
This phrase, both more modest and more tangible as way of thinking about interdisciplinarity, is how Ken Wissoker described cultural studies in an essay from 2000 published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.10Ken Wissoker, “Negotiating a Passage Between Disciplinary Borders,” Items & Issues 1, no. 3–4 (Fall 2000): 7. Items republished this terrific reflection on interdisciplinarity by Wissoker, Duke University Press’s editorial director, and invited an extraordinary group of scholars—Lisa Anderson, Arjun Appadurai, Thomas Bender, Jeffrey Goldfarb, Michele Lamont and Joshua Guetzkow—to contribute. This symposium was intended as a jumping-off point to contemplate “interdisciplinarity then”—i.e., at the turn of the millennium—and serves as a more proximate reference point for “Interdisciplinarity Now.”
The year 2000 was a complicated moment for the SSRC to call attention to this question. Changes in the Council’s signature “area studies” work had confused and even angered extant constituencies at the time, although its regional work continued in different but still deeply interdisciplinary forms.11Full disclosure: I directed the Africa program at the time. Other large interdisciplinary programs at the Council, on topics as diverse as Sexuality, Global Security and Cooperation, and Migration, were thriving.
In juxtaposing the “Interdisciplinarity Now” series to the Items discussion in 2000, two things stand out. First, the social science of interdisciplinarity was still in its infancy in 2000. Wissoker noted that, compared to understanding the formation of disciplines, “we’ve given far less thought to understanding the histories and sociologies of interdisciplinary work.” As “Interdisciplinarity Now” amply shows, this has changed. Indeed, in 2000 Lamont and Guetzkow describe a project on evaluating interdisciplinary work still in its early stages that became an important touchstone of a growing research area.12This culminated in Lamont’s book How Professors Think (Harvard University Press, 2010), which included an SSRC fellowship program as one of its case studies of how scholars evaluate interdisciplinary research proposals. With her colleagues, Lamont kicked off the “Interdisciplinarity Now” series with an essay on the social and emotional dimensions of interdisciplinary collaboration. Later in that decade, the Council developed its own project of research on interdisciplinarity, and created the Dissertation Proposal Development Program to support interdisciplinary doctoral research design.“Through their insights and those of others, we know much more now about what interdisciplinary work is and does, and how it relates to the disciplines.”
In “Interdisciplinarity Now,” we see the continued fruits of interdisciplinarity itself as a space of empirical inquiry and theoretical reflection. The essays focus on a wide range of topics—the experience of collaboration, gender dynamics, productivity and innovation, evaluation, and the historical evolution of interdisciplinary fields. Approaches include ethnography of collaborative work, surveys, bibliometric studies of publications patterns, and deep dives into archives (including the SSRC’s). Several contributors reflect on their own experiences as interdisciplinary team members, mentors, and reviewers. Through their insights and those of others, we know much more now about what interdisciplinary work is and does, and how it relates to the disciplines.
Second, as it turned out, 2000 was still the early days of interdisciplinarity as an ideology. The Gulbenkian Commission’s report Open the Social Sciences, Donald Stokes’ Pasteur’s Quadrant, and the formulation and promotion of the notion of Mode 2 knowledge13Michael Gibbons et al., The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies (Sage, 1994). (collaborative, interdisciplinary, practical research) had just started to intersect with the agendas of university administrators, funding agencies, and practitioners. By the 2000s, the idea that disciplinary and/or basic research was either inferior to interdisciplinary and/or solution-oriented research, or not worth investing taxpayer money in, became conventional wisdom in parts of the higher education and research policy worlds. Some of the essays in “Interdisciplinarity Now” engage this development. At stake, I would argue, is not whether interdisciplinary work should be supported and encouraged, but how. As Frickel, Albert, and Prainsack have recently argued, the top-down pressures to “be” interdisciplinary can have unintended consequences on scholars, institutions, and perhaps the practice of interdisciplinarity itself.14Frickel, Albert, and Prainsack, eds., introduction to Investigating Interdisciplinary Collaboration. While the accountability questions raised in these debates on research funding are necessary, their cautionary point is a welcome one.“The reciprocal and dynamic relation between disciplines and ‘interdisciplines’ is an essential tension.”
Partly because we now have growing evidence of what interdisciplinarity looks like in practice, we have a more realistic view of what makes interdisciplinary research possible. If the current degree and kind of such work is deemed insufficient, we are now gaining a better sense of how to get “there” from here. This brings me back to disciplines. If they are not, or not only, obstacles to interdisciplinary work, but also necessary conditions to it, then demonization is not a constructive strategy to get “there” (wherever that may be). The reciprocal and dynamic relation between disciplines and “interdisciplines” is an essential tension. Wissoker wrote that “interdisciplinary work needs to be seen as a compromise, a hybrid between disciplinary forces and the desire to use concepts and methods from—or speak to—other disciplines.” In his response, Bender reminds us that this hybrid, however difficult to foster, is itself a necessary condition for the renewal of disciplines: “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.”