Why we should not ignore interdisciplinarity’s critics

Rick Szostak (biography)

Community member post by Rick Szostak

A handful of recent books have made surprising and misguided critiques of interdisciplinarity. How should interdisciplinarians respond? It is tempting simply to ignore such works. As academics, we too often encounter publications that are sadly ignorant of relevant literatures. Yet it seems to me that there are a couple of key reasons not to ignore them.

First, there is clearly an audience for these works, or they would not be published. The fact that university presidents and granting agencies regularly sing the praises of interdisciplinarity can too easily comfort us. There is clearly a constituency that sees interdisciplinarity as a threat to disciplines. If we do not try to speak to that constituency, they may seek to reassert disciplinary hegemony within universities and granting agencies.

Second, it is all too easy to misunderstand the nature of interdisciplinarity.

Jacobs (2013), for example, identifies interdisciplinarity with adisciplinarity, arguing that interdisciplinarians are hostile to disciplines. The literature on interdisciplinarity instead generally advocates a symbiotic relationship with disciplines, where interdisciplinary scholars integrate across ideas generated within disciplines, and then feed back to disciplines ideas about how they might usefully broaden their approach.

Frickel and colleagues (2016) suggest that interdisciplinary scholars see themselves as superior to disciplinary scholars. At the same time they also argue that interdisciplinarians seem oblivious to on-going interactions among disciplines, as well as disciplinary status hierarchies.

Graff (2015) suggests that scholars of interdisciplinarity have never performed historical or comparative studies, recognized synergies between disciplines and interdisciplinarity, identified relationships across disciplines, identified institutional impediments, criticized multidisciplinarity, recognized conflicting definitions of interdisciplinarity, or articulated the importance of guiding questions or problems for interdisciplinary research (Klein 2015).

Sadly, many who should be our friends also misunderstand us. Granting agencies often have a limited understanding of interdisciplinarity and thus reward research that is at best multidisciplinary and at worst produces no useful results. University administrators, too, often have limited understanding of how to translate fine talk into institutional support.

As a consequence, the quality of what is called interdisciplinary research is highly variable. Many scholars who self-define as interdisciplinary seem unaware of the literature on interdisciplinarity.

There is an irony here in that poor policies and practices that have been criticized by interdisciplinary scholars (eg., Lyall et al., (2011) on granting agencies and administrative practices) may then be taken as representative of interdisciplinarity. Multiple chapters in the book by Frickel and colleagues do precisely that.

What do interdisciplinary scholars need to do?

Many of us became interdisciplinary because we did not like being disciplined. There is thus an understandable hesitance to place limits on interdisciplinary scholarship. Yet if we do not attempt to distinguish excellent interdiscipinarity scholarship and distance ourselves both from poor scholarship and misguided administrative practices, then the last two will define us. We do not want to discipline interdisciplinarity the way that disciplines constrain scholarship: we must celebrate openness to diverse theories, methods, and phenomena. But that does not mean that researchers should be free to ignore either the literature on interdisciplinary best practices or relevant disciplinary scholarship.

We also need to recognize areas in interdisciplinarity that need improvement. In particular:

  • The literature is widely dispersed across different fields, journals, and organizations.
  • There is no one international organization that can speak authoritatively about the nature of interdisciplinarity.

Collaboration between existing associations and networks – such as the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies, td-Net (Network for Transdisciplinary Research), and Integration and Implementation Sciences (I2S) – can form the basis for an authoritative international organization. The challenge is to avoid being bogged down in disagreements about minutiae and recognize the large areas of agreement, especially growing consensus about best practices. If we do not trumpet the existence of interdisciplinary best practices we cannot be surprised when interdisciplinarity is identified by worst practices.

Who should be involved in identifying common ground around the meaning of interdisciplinarity? How can we effectively advertise the efforts of many groups and scholars over the last decades to identify best practices? What could be the criteria for deciding international and inter-organizational agreement on best practices? I hope I have inspired some reflections around questions that I see as critical.

Frickel, S., Mathieu, A. and Prainsack, B. (eds.) (2016). Investigating Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Theory and Practice across Disciplines. Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick New Jersey, United States of America.

Graff, H. (2015) Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, United States of America.

Jacobs, J. (2013). In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, United States of America.

Klein, J. T. (2015). Graff book overstates claims but contributes ‘deep understanding’ of case studies. Integrative Pathways: Newsletter of the Association of Interdisciplinary Studies, 37, 4: 1, 3, 6-10. (Online): https://oakland.edu/Assets/Oakland/ais/files-and-documents/Integrative-Pathways/Integrative Pathways_Vol. 37_No. 4_December 2015.pdf (PDF 1.7MB).

Lyall, C., Bruce, A., Tait, J., and Meagher, J. (2011). Interdisciplinary Research Journeys: Practical Strategies for Capturing Creativity. Bloomsbury: London, United Kingdom.

Biography: Rick Szostak is Professor and Chair of Economics at the University of Alberta, Canada and past President of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS). He is the co-author of ‘Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory’ and ‘Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies’, and coordinated the development of the About Interdisciplinary and Interdisciplinary General Education pages listed under resources on the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies website.

This blog post is based on Rick Szostak’s contribution to a panel entitled ‘Beyond rhetoric: constructive dialogue on interdisciplinary futures’ at the International Conference on Transdisciplinarity at Leuphana University, Luneburg, Germany in September 2017.

16 thoughts on “Why we should not ignore interdisciplinarity’s critics

  1. My last post crossed with Steve’s last post. I talk at conferences to people who pursue interdisciplinarity outside the academy. It would be good for us to know more about the particular challenges and strategies associated with that sort of interdisciplinarity.

  2. Thanks Steve and Julie;

    The sort of recognition that Steve speaks of does not yet translate into the sort of administrative practices that Julie recognizes as necessary.

    We are at this bizarre historical moment in which interdisciplinarity is more often applauded than understood. It is widely appreciated that there are complex problems that require interdisciplinary analysis. It follows that interdisciplinary research and teaching are valuable. But university administrators and granting agencies have not yet appreciated that there is a large (if dispersed) literature that outlines best practices for interdisciplinary research, teaching, and administration. They tend to think that interdisciplinarity is easy until they fail to get the results that they seek.

    Part of me thinks that eventually a recognition of interdisciplinary best practices must spread — so that we can better address complex issues. But as my original post argued, I worry that the host of worst practices masquerading as interdisciplinarity discourages people from recognizing best practices and thus the feasibility of quality interdisciplinary teaching and research.

    Readers of this blog may have ideas on how to best bridge the gap between applauding interdisciplinarity and institutionalizing interdisciplinary best practices.

  3. In response to Steve and other postings more generally, my question was not posed for insiders looking out, rather both groups. Interdisciplinarity parallels other discourses both within and beyond the academy today, including “innovation,” “problem solving,” “complexity,” “systems thinking,” and “accountability.” In each case, echoing Rick’s concern, superficial thinking is an inadequate substitute for rigor. We need to be thinking across these and other boundaries to accomplish shared goals.

  4. Thanks all for your comments; I think that there is a big problem inherent in the confusion between a broad definition of interdisciplinarity that means “any contact across disciplines” and a narrower definition that I favour which involves a deep engagement with disciplines and integration of disciplinary insights. A great deal of very superficial research and teaching gets called “interdisciplinary” which would not fit my definition of what interdisciplinarity is about. And then interdisciplinarity is unfairly criticized.

    I think that an increasing number of people do read the literature on interdisciplinarity. But far too many still perform supposedly-interdisciplinary teaching and research without reflecting on what this means. They often produce questionable results.

    I very much like Steve Grey’s point about narrative. I agree that people tend to think in terms of stories. There are certainly stories that could be told — both of people reflecting on the nature of interdisciplinarity and producing good teaching or research outcomes; and of people not reflecting on the nature of interdisciplinarity and producing regrettable outcomes. The Frickel et al. volume has many of the latter kind of story: I just wish the editors had seen those stories as a critique of bad interdisciplinarity rather than of interdisciplinarity as a whole.

    I agree with Larry Creech that many supposedly interdisciplinary teaching programs are not really interdisciplinary. I am suspicious of any program that just throws students into a wide range of courses and leaves integration entirely up to them. I think it is now so easy to teach integrative strategies that it is irresponsible not to do so [The “Interdisciplinary General Education” pages on the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies website describe how this can be done.]

    There is a chicken-and-egg problem with interdisciplinary programs: We need to create interdisciplinary teaching jobs for the graduates of interdisciplinary graduate programs. There are now some interdisciplinary teaching jobs but not as many as I [or Andi!] would like to see. It is useful for interdisciplinary graduate students to be able to sell themselves also to disciplines. At the undergraduate level there is lots of evidence that employers like graduates with an interdisciplinary degree.

    Thanks much to Beris for appreciating both humility and the importance of quality!

    Julie: I think “we” is people who study interdisciplinarity or at least reflect on what it means and how it is best performed?

    • Great points Rick, and I wholeheartedly agree. The problem is with the variety of things that are being called interdisciplinary when they are not.

      And, as someone with a degree in IDS who IS actually teaching in an IDS program (and there are a few of us now), I obviously feel a deep sense of duty to create more such opportunities for our students. When we respond to the critics, as you suggest, by showing the value of true integrative scholarship rather than passing off superficial multidisciplinarity tagged with the term interdisciplinary just because it’s become a buzzword, then we will begin to create an environment that responds to that value. I don’t think we realize how critical this is becoming.

      Of course, part of being an interdisciplinarian is also learning how to package yourself. It goes both ways.

  5. Rick, thanks for the post, but it addresses the ‘interdisciplinarity’ of research and not pedagogy. There are hundreds of colleges advertising ‘Interdisciplinary Studies (IDS)’ programs as undergraduate and graduate degree granting programs, but closer examination shows in some cases an eclectic course mix thrown together advertising an interdisciplinary program, but unclear on what it offers a student in career opportunities. In our haste to fill university coffers with research grant money we forget who our original ‘customer’ is in the corporatized university; students. The truth in packaging leaves a lot to be desired. Try getting a job teaching at any college with an interdisciplinary degree. Or try getting a job anywhere with an interdisciplinary degree.

    It’s a misrepresentation to offer IDS programs where students are misled to think they may be hired as a member of a department at a university. Even colleges with IDS or Liberal Studies programs or departments are staffed by…you guessed it, Disciplinarians.

    In answer to Steve’s question, the people outside of the ‘interdisciplinary community’ is growing rapidly and they are paying attention, mostly with a lot of questions and getting few answers. I’m referring to graduates of IDS and LS programs who are finding they have been misled. Money is certainly important in a corporatized university, but with all the taxpayer cash and corporate payments for researchers to do corporate research for companies, can’t we find a little room for students?

  6. A welcome injection of humility into the hubris that sometimes accompanies our confident but superficial embrace of the next “best solution” to complex and potentially lethal challenges. Given the United Nations’ juxtaposition of integrated complexity (Agenda 2030) and silo’d specialisation (in competing institutions), greater investment is needed in partnering and partnership brokering – across sectors, constituencies and disciplines. Until we measure quality of process rather than profit/loss or technical outputs, we are doomed.

  7. I keep forgetting that comments made on other platforms are not reflected back into the original post, so here is my comment made on LinkedIn.

    I stumbled across this blog a while ago and watch it from time to time. It strikes me that, apart from here, I have only heard the term interdisciplinary in the context of Agile development teams where it’s not controversial. People know its a good idea so they do it and get on with things.

    Does anyone outside the interdisciplinary movement pay any attention to the subject? I’d be interested to know how the discussion, in general not just this post, fits into the world at large. I am beginning to suspect that, putting it provocatively to make a point, it’s a more or less closed conversation between a small group of enthusiasts. Is that too harsh?

  8. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I joined Rick in a recent session on this very topic. He is a close and valued colleague. The critical question I hope we can explore in responses to Rick’s important post is who “us” and “they” are in this debate. Julie

    • Julie – That seems like a question for the insiders looking out. The question it raises for me is ‘Why does it matter if the field is understood or not?’, with ‘Why does interdisciplinary thinking and research matter?’ following close behind.

      In the field of complexity science, many are stuck in the language and attitudes that welled up when the subject really started to take off, as far as I can see about 15-20 years ago. Their discussions still embody a sense that the surprise and wonder they experienced when some useful insights emerged will be felt by all because the contrast with what they superseded is self evident.

      It is clear to me that very few people grasp the significance or value of these ideas unaided and expositions of the shortcomings of past ways of viewing the world or the theoretical underpinnings of new ideas are not engaging or persuasive. I am coming to feel that something from the field of story telling, as practiced by people like Shawn Callahan (http://www.anecdote.com/) may be required to make progress. Otherwise, it is not hard for the most talented practitioners to put on a good song and dance show or build enthusiasm in a group of people but this rarely persists and leads to action.

      Perhaps this interdisciplinary research is in the same position.

  9. Fantastic piece Rick, and thanks for sharing it Gabriele! I hope this does inspire some reflections about what we are all trying to accomplish, and I think this is an especially important conversation for us to have on behalf of our students. It is increasingly critical for us to stand up for the academic value of the interdisciplinary education we are providing in an environment that still makes hiring decisions largely based on disciplinary affiliations and achievements.


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