In September 2015, the journal Nature published a special issue on “Interdisciplinary Science.” Its contributions renewed calls for working across fields and intellectual borders, reiterated that no single discipline can address the complexity of contemporary problems, and emphasized the ways that structures of academic organization create obstacles to interdisciplinary collaboration. In the twenty-first century, it is rare not to hear claims for interdisciplinary research’s central role in the future of knowledge production, and the purpose and impact of higher education. This Items theme enters the fray, and brings needed attention to what interdisciplinarity looks like when it is practiced.
The SSRC has historically not merely been an observer in these debates. In 1988, Items (then the SSRC’s newsletter) published “‘Interdisciplinary’: The First Half Century.” Its author, Roberta Frank, traces the first known use of the term “interdisciplinary” to a 1926 meeting of the Council and its subsequent expansion in the academic lexicon.
“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.
Frank tracks the genealogy of the term into the 1980s, and presciently concludes her piece: “’Interdisciplinary,’ now entering its seventh decade, shows little sign of fading away. Indeed, it is hard to imagine getting through the rest of the century without it.”
We cannot be certain that the term “interdisciplinary” was first used by the Council, although Frank gives some pretty strong evidence. In any case, as Frank and others have made clear, the “idea” of interdisciplinarity was already in the scholarly ether. Indeed the invention of the SSRC and a range of sister organizations in that historical moment was intended, in part, to give that idea both scholarly legitimacy and institutional form.
Given the Council’s origins, a key matter we hope to address is the relationship between interdisciplinary scholarship and the disciplines. How one imagines this relationship shapes decisions on intellectual directions, training new generations, resource allocation for research, and the intersection of scholarship to public policy and practice. In the current moment, interdisciplinarity is often depicted as the means to the “integration” of knowledge and envisioned as the inevitable future of all scholarship. In such a vision of interdisciplinarity, disciplines are put on the defensive, seen as obstacles to progress. Recent social science research into the practices of interdisciplinarity reveals a more nuanced relationship. Disciplinary structures may not demonstrate great flexibility, but few scholars today would agree with a comment made by a participant in an SSRC meeting in 1930 that “concern with ‘cooperative research’ or ‘inter-discipline problems’ should not be allowed to hamper the first rate mind.” Today, almost all social scientists maintain the critical importance of interdisciplinary ventures, although questions about the conditions and criteria for excellent interdisciplinary research persist.
Over the coming months, Items will feature a range of reflections on the continuities and transformations of the concept of “interdisciplinary” into the present. Has the “middle-aged spread” continued to expand with time? Should we try to make it more robust, or is the value of “interdisciplinary” tied to its expansive qualities?