The Chronicle Review

Interdisciplinary Hype

Doug Paulin for The Chronicle Review

November 22, 2009

Recently we've heard a lot of talk about interdisciplinarity, along with claims that traditional academic departments are limiting the ability of the modern university to meet the world's most daunting intellectual challenges. Will the disciplines soon be seen as anachronisms, holdovers from an outdated 20th-century model? In my view, efforts to reorganize academe based on interdisciplinary principles would have disastrous consequences in the short term—and would end up reproducing our disciplinary or departmental structure in the long term.

While calls for stronger interdisciplinary ties have a long history, in recent years the movement has had a strong wind behind its sails. The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have set aside funds for interdisciplinary research, and leading research institutions have undertaken sweeping efforts. For example, in late 2007, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor announced plans to hire 100 faculty members over five years "in areas that advance interdisciplinary teaching and research." A national survey of faculty members in American colleges, conducted before the current economic crisis by the sociologist Neil Gross, of the University of British Columbia, and colleagues, reveals that interdisciplinarity as a concept is broadly popular with faculty members as well.

According to research by Steven G. Brint, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Riverside, in good times deans see seeding interdisciplinary projects in areas like neuroscience and nanotechnology as a way to generate streams of grant support. In leaner times, they may turn to interdisciplinarity as a way to produce efficiencies, stretching academic resources by focusing energies on common efforts.

Advocates claim that interdisciplinary research holds the potential for major breakthroughs in problems like global health and climate change. Disciplines are seen as disconnected silos that stifle innovation and restrict inquiry. Some critics, including Columbia University's Mark C. Taylor, in a New York Times essay, have gone as far as calling for the end of departments as we have known them for the past 100 years.

Alongside the image of academic departments as barren silos is another image of interconnected knowledge—a web. Indeed, that is the dominant metaphor in bibliometric analysis: Researchers examine patterns of citations and other ties among scholarly research to reveal a web of connections, with no discipline standing completely apart from the others. For example, the National Science Foundation reports cross-disciplinary citation rates in a broad group of 11 fields, ranging from highs of 38.3 percent in biology and 34.5 percent in psychology to lows of 18.3 percent in physics and 16.8 percent in earth science. Detailed analyses of specific fields show even higher rates of external reference. In the social sciences, area studies draws most heavily from other fields, with a substantial majority (71.7 percent) of citations coming from journals in other disciplines, while economics is the most insular, with only 18.7 percent of references to outside research.

In the humanities, the data strongly support the contention of Diana Crane, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, that some concepts successfully diffuse across the humanities and sometimes the social sciences as well. For example, the term "postmodern" appears in thousands of journal articles across disciplines in the humanities (literature, religion, philosophy), the social sciences (sociology, political science, psychology), and various applied fields, like education. If "postmodern" is too broad a concept for assessing the question of diffusion, the same point can be made about the work of specific figures and technical terms. The writings of the humanists Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault, along with prominent social scientists like Charles Tilly and Robert Putnam, come to mind. While each of those authors has been influential in a somewhat different set of disciplines, each has been the subject of articles in many fields in the social sciences and humanities.

Ideas flow without great impediment as well from arts and sciences departments to professional schools. In my research on graduate schools of education, I am finding that ideas from psychology and sociology appear in education journals with very little time lag. The main exception is economics, which may reflect the very small numbers of economists on the faculties of schools of education.

Research methods, especially statistics, are particularly apt to traverse disciplinary boundaries. Consider the case of Cox regression, a statistical approach designed for understanding the duration of survival until a terminal event. When the technique was being developed, during the 1980s, it was the focal point of discussion in a small number of journals, mainly in statistics and biostatistics. After 1990, and especially since 2000, Cox regression has been used by thousands of researchers, mostly in biomedical fields like oncology and surgery, as well as in public health. Less than 5 percent of the articles on Cox regression in recent years have appeared in statistics journals. It is hard to see evidence of academic silos that impede the diffusion of methodological innovation. Was the diffusion too slow? Perhaps, but it is hard to specify what the "right" rate would be.

Consider as well: Research centers and institutes, ubiquitous at colleges, facilitate contact and communication across departmental lines. While academic departments bear the brunt of critical scrutiny, such centers—often organized around applied topics, like the problems of an aging society or the challenges of bioethics—are often ignored by critics of the academic system. Data from the Gale research group indicate that nearly 10,000 research centers are based at American colleges. The top 25 research universities average nearly 100 research centers (94.6) per institution. There are thus often more research centers than disciplinary departments on such a campus. The vast majority of those centers are interdisciplinary, at least in name and self-presentation. The point is that they coexist with academic departments.

If disciplines are not the suffocating cloisters their critics have portrayed them to be, what about the other side of the coin: whether interdisciplinarity is likely to achieve the goals that have been set out for it. Is an interdisciplinary structure likely to overcome division and provide a more synthetic understanding of our natural and social world?

We can approach that question by asking whether existing interdisciplinary fields are truly interdisciplinary—whether they result in the creation of a new set of intellectual boundaries, new journals, subspecialties, conflicts over university resources: in short, the same fragmentation that advocates of interdisciplinarity hope to overcome.

Studies of the emerging field of nanotechnology suggest that rapid growth leads to internal differentiation. While an early bibliometric study showed a high degree of interdisciplinary citations in nanotechnology research, a more recent study of co-authorship patterns suggests that nanotechnology is a not a single field but rather offshoots of physics, chemistry, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and materials science. The author of the study, Joachim Schummer, a member of the philosophy department at the University of Karlsruhe, in Germany, concludes that nanotechnology's "apparent interdisciplinarity consists of largely mono-disciplinary fields, which are rather unrelated to each other and which hardly share more than the prefix 'nano.'"

Academic specialization is due in no small part to the sheer volume of new publications. Ulrich's Periodicals Directory lists over 25,000 peer-reviewed scholarly journals, and the annual compounded growth rate of journals has been estimated at more than 3 percent. While surveys of faculty members typically report high levels of job satisfaction, the challenge of keeping up with new scholarship ranks among the leading complaints.

The topical focus of many interdisciplinary schemes may well also lead to fragmentation. For example, many observers have called on universities to focus on combating contemporary concerns like global warming. But there are many aspects of global warming, and it is likely that cutting-edge research in that area will divide into numerous specialties.

A recent example from Pennsylvania State University is instructive. Penn State has promoted research on homeland security, but the pursuit of that worthy goal has resulted in the proliferation rather than the consolidation of specialized units: no fewer than 21 research centers on various aspects of homeland security. They include units on terrorism, computer security, crisis management, infectious diseases, and nonlethal defense technologies. Each of the centers may represent a noble undertaking, but their proliferation underscores the fact that there are many aspects of complex issues, and that interdisciplinary efforts can lead just as easily to the multiplication of academic units as to their consolidation.

American studies represents another example. As a field, it has existed since the 1930s; the American Studies Association has thrived since it was chartered, in 1951; and American-studies programs are in operation in nearly 50 countries. The field has always had an interdisciplinary vision, although the nature of that vision has shifted over the decades. During the 1950s and 1960s, American studies achieved a distinctive synthesis built around the "myth and symbol" approach that identified major themes in American culture. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, scholars began to focus more on the experiences of diverse groups in the American tapestry, and the field became more multicultural. Indeed, American studies has been far more ambitious in its intellectual scope and more dynamic and enduring than most interdisciplinary fields.

Here again interdisciplinarity coexists with scholarly specialization. A look at American-studies dissertations makes clear that they are every bit as specialized as dissertations in English and American history. Furthermore, American-studies topics have proliferated. The 2008 program of the field's annual meeting reveals the remarkable scope and specialization of researchers: Papers were organized by period (early American, 19th century, 20th century); by ethnicity (African-American, Asian-American, Chicano, Native American, Pacific Islander studies); and by place (border studies, cultural geography, landscape and the built environment). The conference included a variety of approaches to gender issues (gender and sexuality, queer studies, transgender studies) and global perspectives (global, transnational, cross-cultural, postcolonial studies, studies of U.S. colonialism). The examination of culture included popular culture, print culture, material culture, food, music, film, television and media studies, performance studies, and visual-culture studies.

There are undoubtedly many accomplished scholars in the field—including Drew Gilpin Faust, a Penn Ph.D. in American civilization who is president of Harvard University—and many valuable pieces of research, but that does not mean that the field has achieved a more unified vision of American culture than those of its closest neighbors, history and English. (American studies has never ventured too far into the social sciences.) Indeed, if a unified theory of American culture were to be advanced, the current generation of American-studies scholars would be the first to challenge it.

Another serious concern about interdisciplinarity is that any promise it holds depends on the presence of strong disciplines. Going too far down the interdisciplinary path by ending academic departments, as some have suggested, would be a disaster. Departments teach techniques needed to conduct high-quality research. Disciplines establish a hierarchy of problems. Interdisciplinarity cannot exist without disciplines and departments. What happens when that structure is broken? Will all problems be equally important? How will quality be judged, and how will the most important advances be communicated?

There are countless potential connections among different kinds of work. Which will be selected? The temptation may be to organize them around today's broad problem agendas. But as we have seen, that is not necessarily a recipe for consolidation. And what of tomorrow's problems? Great research universities must maintain a diverse portfolio that will continually generate new knowledge to address today's concerns as well as to inform challenges not yet identified or understood.

Dynamic tensions exist in all fields, between traditionalists and the avant-garde, young Turks and old-timers, and among diverse methods, techniques, and guiding paradigms. Calls for interdisciplinarity are just one manifestation of the chafing against the old ways, not necessarily the solution to all intellectual challenges.

The present arrangement of discipline-based departments, combined with interdisciplinary research centers, provides an inelegant but practical way to nurture disciplinary skills while allowing the flexibility for scholars to come together around new and topical areas. Occasionally the results are so compelling that a new discipline is formed. Successful interdisciplinary endeavors are thus transitional. Once they settle into maturity, they increasingly resemble the disciplines they sought to overthrow, at least in their organizational form. Promising new areas of inquiry should be nurtured whether or not they happen to cut across disciplinary lines. They should be encouraged because of their intellectual and practical promise—not because they are interdisciplinary.

Exciting interdisciplinary opportunities undoubtedly exist in some fields, and individual scholars will continue to borrow insights, concepts, and techniques from a diverse portfolio of sources. There is no reason to prohibit creative interdisciplinary projects. Wise deans, provosts, and presidents may be able to attract distinguished scholars precisely because those individuals work on specialties that span adjacent fields or even colleges. The intellectual boundaries of today's research may not map neatly onto disciplinary frameworks developed long ago.

Yet interdisciplinarity is not a panacea. Some interdisciplinary experiments will be stillborn; some interdisciplinary units will prove unwieldy and fracture of their own accord. Remember a cautionary tale from the past: Harvard's department of social relations proved unable to unify anthropology, psychology, and sociology and finally agreed to a divorce in 1972 after more than 20 years of marriage.

In the end, a wholesale reorganization of academe around interdisciplinary themes would revert over time to some form of divisional or departmental structure. The scope of contemporary scholarship is beyond the reach of any realistic interdisciplinary training program. The only questions are how long such organizational reshuffling would persist, how much disruption would ensue, and how many careers would be diverted or derailed in the process.

Jerry A. Jacobs is a professor of sociology and education at the University of Pennsylvania and a former editor of the American Sociological Review.