Because the Social Science Research Council is so committed to advancing interdisciplinary research (indeed, the idea of interdisciplinarity was practically born here; see David L. Stills, “A Note on the Origin of ‘Interdisciplinary,’Items [March 1986]) we read with special interest Ken Wissoker’s “Negotiating a Passage Between Disciplinary Borders” when it appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in the spring of 2000. Because Wissoker’s focus was on cultural studies and the humanities, we asked several social scientists to extend his argument into the social sciences. His article, and their responses, follow.

How interdisciplinary is interdisciplinarity? Is the literary critic who analyzes five novels and a film to understand the rise of consumer culture doing interdisciplinary work? Is the environmental scientist who borrows a model from game theory? We might ask about both: Is their work interdisciplinary, or are they simply expanding the tool kit of their own disciplines? Perhaps we have now reached a time to pause and consider what interdisciplinary work is, and what it is not.

“What do we mean by interdisciplinarity, anyway?”

By now, we know a good deal about the intellectual and institutional histories of academic disciplines and even subdisciplines. But we’ve given far less thought to understanding the histories and sociologies of interdisciplinary work. What do we mean by interdisciplinarity, anyway? Is it an attribute of the author? The work? The audience? If an art historian employs theories from philosophy and psychology in a study of Impressionism, are the methods recognizable to readers in those disciplines? Must they be, for the work to be considered interdisciplinary? Is this “inter” a bridge connecting two ways of working? Or is it some third way, one that is beyond them?

We tend to talk about interdisciplinarity as if it always has the same meaning. From my vantage point as an editor, however, I see different fields taking recognizably different approaches. Interdisciplinary work by an art historian looks markedly different from that by a sociologist of art. Sometimes the differences are glaring, sometimes subtle. They are traces that reflect choices made along the way: how to frame a question, or what weight to give various forms of evidence.

Indeed, I believe it is nearly impossible to produce work that does not bear the marks of the discipline of its origin. The literary critic Donald E. Pease speaks of a “disciplinary unconscious” that frames our thinking. Far from being surprised, I consider that an anthropological insight, one that takes seriously the cultures, categories, and valuations of particular disciplines. Intention is no more the guarantor of “escaping” one’s discipline than it is of escaping one’s race or gender. While some causes of disciplinary power are structural and exterior to a scholar—such as departmental pressures and expectations—many others result from internalizing the standards and values of normal scholarly practices.

“When one writes for an interdisciplinary audience, one is trying to please readers both outside and inside one’s own discipline.”

Let’s examine how interdisciplinary work is produced. When one writes for an interdisciplinary audience, one is trying to please readers both outside and inside one’s own discipline. Sometimes those outside are real readers, a group of colleagues from other departments who share an intellectual quest. A sociologist working on the civil rights movement, for example, might be a member of a reading group composed of historians, political scientists, and literary critics studying the same topic.

Sometimes the outsiders are phantasmatic: what a sociologist anticipates a historian or critical-race theorist would expect to see. Our sociologist might imagine a reader over the shoulder asking, “Why did you choose that archive?” “Did the concept of race mean the same thing in the 1940s as it does today?” Scholars balance such expectations from other fields with the familiar rules, needs, practices, and understandings of their own discipline. After all, they want their cohort, as well as outsiders, to appreciate their work.

That relates to the exterior pressures to which I alluded. Scholars have to worry about how their work will be seen in professional, career contexts. Will it help them obtain a job that carries with it the possibility of renewal, tenure, promotion to full professor? Will it bring an invitation to lecture at the prestigious School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell? To give the distinguished Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures in anthropology at the University of Rochester?

“Academics enforce the norms of their disciplines themselves, often consciously, intentionally, strategically, but just as often, unconsciously.”

Interdisciplinary work, then, needs to be seen as a compromise, a hybrid between disciplinary forces and the desire to use concepts and methods from—or to speak to—other disciplines. Good individualists, scholars tend to think of their discipline as exterior to themselves: One joins the American Historical Association, the Modern Language Association, the American Anthropological Association, etc. and the discipline includes you, giving you part of your identity. In fact, disciplinarity is a form of capillary power (to cite Foucault’s notion of an internalized, dispersed form of discipline). Academics enforce the norms of their disciplines themselves, often consciously, intentionally, strategically, but just as often, unconsciously.

It is not hard for scholars engaged in interdisciplinary projects to remember that their own work must balance disciplinary and interdisciplinary impulses, and they can usually recognize similar tradeoffs in work in their own field. They recognize when an author is pushing boundaries and when he or she is staying within disciplinary conventions. However, when scholars go to evaluate interdisciplinary work from another field, they often forget the forces that helped structure that work, and read it as if it were a direct representation of the author’s beliefs.

For example, many junior people in literature departments are trying to make sure that their projects look literary enough to assure long-term success in academe. Even though they may be writing about constructions of race at the end of Reconstruction, or wedding ceremonies, or the gendered nature of Indian nationalism, they still want to include a sufficient number of close readings of texts (at least some of which are canonical) and enough literary history to have something that will be seen as the proper object of study for a person in a literature department.

“The carefully contrived balance, which is understood from within the discipline, may be read from outside as failure.”

But when literary critics criticize the piling on of archival material in a historian’s work as positivist and underinterpreted, it rarely occurs to them to ask why the historian put the material there, or to think that the reasons might be similar to the ones that motivate all those close readings. The carefully contrived balance, which is understood from within the discipline, may be read from outside as failure. “Sadly, despite the challenging ideas, too much of the interpretation rests on the reading of a few texts.”

I have come to see how such a failure of understanding operates to distinguish scholars as interdisciplinary writers from scholars as interdisciplinary readers, especially when they read something that crosses into their own disciplinary practice or subject area. As writers, many scholars inclined to interdisciplinary work are happy bricoleurs, trawling other disciplines for useful theories, methods, and information. They are pleased to enrich their own work by using those practices in their own bricolage, picking up bits and pieces as needed. Generally, they have a reasonable degree of trust in their own ability to use tools and practices for good purposes. Far from being sloppy, that is seen as doing the extra work that creative scholarship requires.

However, a whole different set of responses comes into play when the same scholars read work from another discipline that uses theory or practice from their own discipline badly (and isn’t it always bad?). Thus, for instance, one might hear anthropologists say things like, “Hasn’t she ever heard of the critiques of Mary Douglas—which are, after all, 25 years old?” Or, “You call this ethnography? All he did was read websites.” Similarly, a literary critic might say, “Fine ethnography, but this work doesn’t seem to have a theory of representation.”

In other words, the work is often seen as careless, using tools from the discipline without understanding their attendant histories, contexts, and shortcomings. Scholars turn out to have great affective attachments to the methods of their own fields, even if they spend much of their academic lives grumbling about them or picking them apart. Do they ever wonder why people in their own discipline are so much better at creating hybrid methods? Why they always make better choices than people in other disciplines?

“Scholars treat interlopers from other disciplines as if they were engaged in a war for territory, as if interdisciplinarity were a zero-sum game.”

There is something about academic training that makes people insistent that one disciplinary approach must be right and others wrong, or at best, misguided. How rarely one hears statements like: “Isn’t it great for Indonesian studies that Dutch philologists are so picky while the anthropologists are so analytically creative?” Scholars treat interlopers from other disciplines as if they were engaged in a war for territory, as if interdisciplinarity were a zero-sum game. There are certainly some institutional contexts in which that is realistic—for example, when one has to convince administrators that an available line is needed more in one’s own field than elsewhere. However, the attitude surfaces on far too many occasions—in, for instance, grandstanding questions at public lectures. Such a territorial attitude belies the intellectual values that academics always trumpet: a dedication to producing new knowledge and the free exploration of ever more creative and complex ideas. Scholars who could be learning from each other spend their time knocking each other down.

Territoriality is often redoubled when interdisciplinary spaces are at stake. Perhaps that is because such spaces are new, with boundaries less clear and less ritualized than in traditional disciplines. Take the case of cultural studies. Like many other such areas, it was set up as a place for interdisciplinary work, but it is often attacked by people in a variety of other fields as if it were a marauding discipline. I realize that cultural studies is a very particular example, but hope that an analysis of how such a relatively visible area has been embraced and attacked will be helpful in the consideration of interdisciplinary projects in general.

Cultural studies is organized around some common themes, questions, and politics—what the connections are among cultural forms, and between culture and politics, or how culture is produced, circulated, consumed. It boasts email lists, book series, and journals. Cultural studies is not a discipline; it has no organization, no annual meeting, and very few departments. Most of the departments that do exist are renamed versions of other disciplines. Most of the practitioners—those who would say “I do cultural studies”—are in some other discipline: communications, literature, film studies, anthropology. For the most part, cultural studies is not an institutional or professional space; it is an interdisciplinary one, an intellectual one. What cultural studies has become is a space for work between disciplines.

Yet most anthropologists see cultural studies as replacing ethnographic studies with textual readings, replacing studies of actual others with theories about the “other”—in short, they fault it for becoming less anthropological and more like literary criticism. Many literary critics, on the other hand, see cultural studies as replacing text-based studies with historically or culturally based ones, and replacing aesthetic judgments with political ones. In other words, they see cultural studies as replacing literary criticism with anthropology (and/or history and sociology).

To borrow the jargon of each discipline, we might ask whether the cultural studies “othered” by anthropologists is the same as the cultural studies “othered” by literary critics. The answer, clearly, is no, but so few scholars realize that. My point here is that, rather than seeing cultural studies as an intellectual project composed of scholars from their own and other disciplines, many people see it only from their own perspective: as a competing discipline trying to take over their academic space.

In some ways, cultural studies has come to be used interchangeably with postmodernism (which, by now, is almost an epithet; seemingly, it has no adherents) or some other sign of the looming apocalypse. Generally, much of this loose talk turns out to have little to do with cultural studies itself, and instead serves primarily to reinforce the disciplinary solidarity of the complainers.

I’ve dealt with cultural studies at some length here, because I think the responses to the field—which are sometimes both positive and negative from the same people—have much to teach us about the prospects of interdisciplinary spaces in general. If scholars are unable or unwilling to learn how to read work that draws on other disciplines—to become aware of their own disciplinary biases, and to hold them in check—all the talk of interdisciplinarity will be just that.

We must acknowledge that interdisciplinary spaces are hard to construct and hard to maintain. It is relatively easy to produce disciplinary versions of purportedly interdisciplinary spaces: literary cultural studies, sociological cultural studies, etc. Those do nothing but reshape the boundaries and methods of the existing disciplines. The real challenge is to find a way to hold the interdisciplinary and the disciplinary in view, not only as authors, but as readers, listeners, and participants in academic institutions. Only then will truly interdisciplinary work flourish.

Responses to Wissoker

Response by Lisa Anderson
Published in Fall 2000, p. 8.

Response by Arjun Appadurai
Published in Fall 2000, p. 9.

Response by Thomas Bender
Published in Fall 2000, pp. 9–10.

Response by Jeffrey Goldfarb
Published in Fall 2000, p. 11.

Response by Michèle Lamont and Joshua Guetzkow
Published in Fall 2000, pp. 12–13.

Republished with permission from the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 14, 2000.

Ken Wissoker is the editorial director of Duke University Press, and he is director of Intellectual Publics at the Graduate Center, CUNY in New York City.

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.