Acknowledging and responding to criticisms of interdisciplinarity / Reconnaître et répondre aux critiques de l’interdisciplinarité

By Romain Sauzet

A French version of this post is available

author_romain-sauzet
Romain Sauzet (biography)

What are the core arguments that critics of interdisciplinarity employ? Which of these criticisms can help to clarify what interdisciplinarity is and what it isn’t?

While some of the criticisms of interdisciplinarity stem from a general misunderstanding of its purpose or from a bad experience, others seem well-founded. Thus, while some must be rejected, others should be accepted.

I outline five different types of criticisms drawn from three main sources:(1) academic writings (see reference list), (2) an empirical survey on interdisciplinarity (Sauzet 2017) (3) informal discussions. These criticisms extend the ideas presented in an earlier blog post, Why We Should Not Ignore Interdisciplinarity’s Critics by Rick Szostak. I reflect on how interdisciplinarity could be improved by attending to key criticisms.

The five types of criticisms of interdisciplinarity are summarised below.

1. The problem of interdisciplinarity’s descriptive scope

  • Interdisciplinarity uses multifarious and unclear concepts for:
    • the definition of interdisciplinarity itself
    • its boundaries (eg., multi-, pluri-, trans- disciplinarity)
    • the main concepts that clarify the goals, processes and outcomes of interdisciplinarity (eg., complexity, integration, unification, pluralism).
  • There were already interactions amongst disciplines before the invention of interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity is a useless concept, except when used descriptively.

2. A normative ideal far from actual science

  • Interdisciplinarity is only an epistemological claim and a normative ideal. It promotes a particular conception of what science should be, but its ambitions are much too lofty. Moreover, it is only a theoretical approach to science, far from actual practice. Then, it can only propose dubious recipes.
  • Many activities are classed as interdisciplinary when in fact they are not. Furthermore, there are many other interesting interactions between disciplines, which do not fit into interdisciplinary categories.
  • Interdisciplinarity prioritizes a particular hierarchy of interactions (transdisciplinarity rated most highly, followed by interdisciplinarity, with multidisciplinary coming last), whereas profound scientific developments can result from interactions among disciplines for which this hierarchy is irrelevant.
  • Interdisciplinarity stems from external demand and not from an academic need or interest. But how important can the demand be if it does not fit its only resource, namely actual science?

3. Interdisciplinarity is not scientific research, but only a kind of popularization

  • Interdisciplinarity mainly has an educational purpose. It focuses on the organization and harmonization of what is known by various disciplines about a subject, rather than a better understanding of the subject itself. The coherent picture it produces is a simplification that can have an educational purpose but reduces the research potential of the subject.
  • Interdisciplinary projects do not practice interdisciplinarity. Many projects in fields that are ostensibly interdisciplinary, eg., nanotechnology, produce very interesting disciplinary discoveries, without actually being interdisciplinary in practice.
  • Interdisciplinarity stems from a general critique of science. In particular, it criticizes how disciplines are organized. However, interdisciplinarity is mistaken when it reduces disciplines to the product of social or institutional causes, rather than respecting disciplines as the principal vector of science.

4. It is impossible to evaluate interdisciplinarity

  • There is no consensus on the features by which interdisciplinarity could be measured (eg., the variety of disciplines? their disparity?), or how to measure them (eg., via bibliometric analysis? qualitative measures?), or even, what there is to be measured (eg., publications? research projects?).
  • Interdisciplinarity can only be evaluated by commensurable disciplines. Every interdisciplinary project is composed of several distinct disciplines and only researchers involved in another similar interdisciplinary situation will be able to understand and evaluate each discipline’s contribution. Without this, a substantial part of the scientific development would be missed, given that the expertise of any discipline is outside the competence of other disciplines’ specialists.

5. Institutionalizing interdisciplinarity is a failure

  • Interdisciplinarity is costly, both in time and money.
  • Interdisciplinary teaching does not provide enough substantial expertise on a specific subject. Students trained in interdisciplinarity, who do not also have disciplinary expertise, do not have sufficient knowledge or skills to tackle problems.
  • Interdisciplinary teaching is superficial. Interdisciplinary courses trade intellectual rigor for topic-based excitement. Such courses are a compilation of unique cases and the core of interdisciplinarity is composed of only very general advice, such as ‘keeping an open mind’.
  • Interdisciplinarity has become a discipline itself, with all the flaws of a discipline: new sets of intellectual boundaries, new journals, subspecialties, conflicts over university resources, and so on.
  • Interdisciplinarity generalizes a focus on short-term objectives and a managerial conception of the academic world. This undermines other longer-term academic projects, which are less easy to control.

Where next?

Having outlined these criticisms, I draw three conclusions which I suggest will aid the further development of interdisciplinarity:

  1. Interdisciplinarity must be a secondary objective and must stem from something else, whether it is previous knowledge or a discipline. It cannot work on its own, and attempting to do so risks creating a purely epistemological construction, with no connection with actual research.
  2. Interdisciplinarity should not be defined in a unique and homogenous way. It should instead be seen only in specific and contextual conditions in order to avoid: a) promoting an ambitious model that is unrealistic and b) failing to acknowledge actual interactions.
  3. Interdisciplinarity should be more self-critical. It is unnecessarily tolerant of many scientific activities that call themselves interdisciplinary when they are not, partly because being benevolent seems to be an essential epistemic virtue. Being more rigorous (or rigid) and firm in defining what interdisciplinarity really is would avoid many of criticisms cited above.

Which of the criticisms do you think are justified? Which ones should be responded to? Are there additional criticisms that have been missed?

References:
Benson, T. C. (1998). Five arguments against interdisciplinary studies. In, W. H Newell (ed.), Interdisciplinarity: Essays from the literature, College Entrance Examination Board, New York, United States of America: 103-108.

Jacobs, J. (2009). Interdisciplinary hype. Chronicle Review, B4-5, November 27. (Online): https://www.chronicle.com/article/Interdisciplinary-Hype/49191

Mäki, U. (2016). Philosophy of interdisciplinarity. What? Why? How?’ European Journal for Philosophy of Science, 6, 3: 327-342

Peterson, V. V. (2008). Against interdisciplinarity. Women and Language, 31, 2: 42-50

Rafols, I. (2007). Strategies for knowledge acquisition in bionanotechnology. Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 20, 4: 395-412

Sauzet, R. (2017). La pluralité scientifique en action, le cas du LabEx IMU, Thèse de doctorat en philosophie, Université Lyon 3. (Online): http://www.theses.fr/2017LYSE3011

Wang, Q. and Schneider, J. W. (2019). Consistency and validity of interdisciplinarity measures. Quantitative Science Studies, 1, 1: 1–25

Biography: Romain Sauzet PhD is a member of Institut des Recherches Philosophiques in Lyon, France. From a philosophical interest in interactions between disciplines, his research associates theoretical analyses with empirical surveys in various areas, such as urban sciences, nanotechnology and environmental sciences.

 


 

Reconnaître et répondre aux critiques de l’interdisciplinarité / Acknowledging and responding to criticisms of interdisciplinarity

An English version of this post is available

Quels sont les principaux arguments mobilisés par les critiques de l’interdisciplinarité? Quelles sont les critiques qui permettraient de préciser ce qu’est et ce que n’est pas l’interdisciplinarité?

Là où certaines de ces critiques proviennent d’une incompréhension générale de ce qu’est l’interdisciplinarité ou encore d’une mauvaise expérience, d’autres semblent bien fondées. Ainsi, si certaines de ces critiques doivent être rejetées, d’autres devraient être acceptées.

J’identifie cinq types principaux de critiques, à partir de trois sources principales : (1.) des sources académiques (voir la liste bibliographique), (2.) une enquête empirique (Sauzet 2017); (3.) des discussions informelles. Ces critiques poursuivent une précédente contribution, Why We Should Not Ignore Interdisciplinarity’s Critics par Rick Szostak. Enfin, je m’intéresse à l’amélioration de l’interdisciplinarité en se confrontant à ces critiques.

Les cinq types de critiques sont résumés ci-dessous.

1. Le problème de la portée descriptive de l’interdisciplinarité

  • L’interdisciplinarité mobilise des concepts divers et peu claires pour:
    • définir l’interdisciplinarité elle-même.
    • identifier ses limites (multi-, pluri-, trans- disciplinarité, etc.).
    • les principaux concepts qui explicitent ses objectifs, ses processus et ses résultats (complexité, intégration, unification, pluralisme, etc.).
  • Il y avait déjà des interactions parmi les disciplines avant l’invention de l’idée d’interdisciplinarité. Ainsi, c’est un concept inutile en dehors d’un usage descriptif.

2. Un idéal normatif éloigné de la science concrète

  • L’interdisciplinarité est avant tout une affirmation épistémologique et un idéal normatif. Il promeut une conception particulière de ce que la science devrait être, mais ses ambitions sont trop élevées. Qui plus est, c’est une approche seulement théorique de la science, éloignée de la pratique concrète. Ainsi, elle ne peut proposer que des recettes peu pertinentes.
  • De nombreuses activités sont considérées à tort comme interdisciplinaires. Par ailleurs, de nombreuses interactions pertinentes entre disciplines ne correspondent pas aux catégories de l’interdisciplinarité.
  • L’interdisciplinarité hiérarchise les interactions (la transdisciplinarité est la forme la plus considérée, suivie par l’interdisciplinarité et enfin la multidisciplinarité), alors que des développements scientifiques importants peuvent être issus d’interactions pour lesquelles cette hiérarchie n’est pas pertinente.
  • L’interdisciplinarité provient de demandes extérieures au monde académique. Comment cette demande peut-elle être satisfaite si elle ne correspond pas à la seule ressource dont elle dispose, la science concrète?

3. L’interdisciplinarité n’est pas de la recherche scientifique, mais une sorte de vulgarisation

  • L’interdisciplinarité a principalement une portée éducative. Elle organise et harmonise ce qui est connu par différentes disciplines sur un sujet, plutôt qu’elle ne tente de mieux comprendre ledit sujet. Le résultat, aussi cohérent soit-il, n’est qu’une simplification qui peut avoir une dimension éducative, mais qui limite le potentiel de recherche du sujet.
  • Les projets interdisciplinaires ne pratiquent pas l’interdisciplinarité. De nombreux projets dans des champs de recherche clairement identifiés comme interdisciplinaires, comme les nanotechnologies, produisent des découvertes disciplinaires intéressantes sans être pour autant interdisciplinaire dans leur pratique.
  • L’interdisciplinarité provient d’une critique générale de la science, notamment quant à la constitution des disciplines. Elle se trompe lorsqu’elle réduit ces dernières à leurs causes institutionnelles ou sociales, sans les considérer comme les principaux vecteurs de la science.

4. Il est impossible d’évaluer l’interdisciplinarité

  • Il n’y de consensus ni sur les caractéristiques qui pourraient être mesurées (la variété des disciplines? Leur disparité?), ni sur la manière de les mesurer (par des analyses bibliométriques? Qualitatives?), pas plus sur ce qu’il s’agit de mesurer (les publications? Les projets eux-mêmes?).
  • L’interdisciplinarité ne peut être évaluée que par des disciplines commensurables. Chaque projet interdisciplinaire est composé par des disciplines distinctes et seuls des chercheurs impliqués dans des situations interdisciplinaires similaires seraient à même de comprendre et donc d’évaluer la contribution de chaque discipline. Sans cela, une part substantielle des développements scientifiques serait ratée, tant l’expertise de chaque discipline est au-delà des compétences d’une autre.

5. L’institutionnalisation de l’interdisciplinarité est un échec

  • L’interdisciplinarité est coûteuse, temporellement et financièrement.
  • L’enseignement interdisciplinaire ne fournit pas d’expertise substantielle sur un sujet spécifique. Les étudiants de tels enseignements sans expertise disciplinaire associée n’ont pas suffisamment de connaissances et de compétences pour se confronter à des problèmes véritables.
  • L’enseignement interdisciplinaire est superficiel et préfère des sujets excitants à la rigueur intellectuelle. De tels cours consistent en une compilation de cas uniques et l’enseignement de l’interdisciplinarité elle-même se limite à des conseils très généraux, comme ‘garder l’esprit ouvert’.
  • L’interdisciplinarité est devenue une discipline elle-même, avec tous ses défauts: des limites intellectuelles, des journaux dédiés, des sous-spécialités, des conflits sur les ressources académiques, etc.
  • L’interdisciplinarité généralise les objectifs à court terme et la conception managériale du monde académique. Elle empêche de ce fait d’autres projets sur le long terme, moins facile à contrôler.

Et ensuite?

Après l’indentification de ces critiques, je précise trois conclusions générales pour aider le développement de l’interdisciplinarité.

  1. L’interdisciplinarité doit être un objectif secondaire et doit provenir d’autre chose qu’elle-même, que ce soit d’une connaissance ou d’une discipline précédente. Elle ne peut travailler à partir d’elle-même, au risque de n’être plus qu’une construction purement épistémologique, sans lien avec la science concrète.
  2. L’interdisciplinarité ne doit pas être définie de manière unique et homogène. Elle doit plutôt être mobilisée en relation avec des contextes spécifiques afin d’éviter: a) de promouvoir un modèle irréaliste par son ambition  b) d’empêcher la reconnaissance d’interactions concrètes.
  3. L’interdisciplinarité devrait être plus critique d’elle-même. Elle est trop tolérante à l’égard de nombreuses activités scientifiques qui se prétendent, à tort, comme interdisciplinaires, en partie parce qu’être bienveillant semble être une vertu épistémique essentielle. Être plus rigoureux et ferme dans la définition de ce qu’est vraiment l’interdisciplinarité éviterait de nombreuses critiques évoquées ci-dessus.

Parmi ces critiques, lesquelles vous semblent justifier? Auxquelles faudrait-il répondre? Manquent-ils d’autres critiques?

Bibliographie:
Benson, T. C. (1998). Five arguments against interdisciplinary studies. In, W. H Newell (ed.), Interdisciplinarity: Essays from the literature, College Entrance Examination Board, New York, United States of America: 103-108.

Jacobs, J. (2009). Interdisciplinary hype. Chronicle Review, B4-5, November 27. (Online): https://www.chronicle.com/article/Interdisciplinary-Hype/49191

Mäki, U. (2016). Philosophy of interdisciplinarity. What? Why? How?’ European Journal for Philosophy of Science, 6, 3: 327-342

Peterson, V. V. (2008). Against interdisciplinarity. Women and Language, 31, 2: 42-50

Rafols, I. (2007). Strategies for knowledge acquisition in bionanotechnology. Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 20, 4: 395-412

Sauzet, R. (2017). La pluralité scientifique en action, le cas du LabEx IMU, Thèse de doctorat en philosophie, Université Lyon 3. (Online): http://www.theses.fr/2017LYSE3011

Wang, Q. and Schneider, J. W. (2019). Consistency and validity of interdisciplinarity measures. Quantitative Science Studies, 1, 1: 1–25

9 thoughts on “Acknowledging and responding to criticisms of interdisciplinarity / Reconnaître et répondre aux critiques de l’interdisciplinarité”

  1. Thank you very much, Romain. I am curious about the foundations of your work. I agree with the way you classify the criticisms but I consider that we also need to take into consideration “who” and “from which standpoint” these criticisms are done. From my perspective, you focus on an epistemological analysis of criticism and we need to include other dimensions as well, for example the cultural one.
    If we agree on doing this, then some of your recommendations will be better justified.
    According to your study, is any of these criticisms more prominent than others? These nuances can also give us a clue on how to respond to criticism.
    Thank you very much!

    Reply
    • Thank you for your comment. The main foundation of my work is the empirical survey about epistemic interactions between disciplines that I have done during my PhD (Sauzet 2017 ; in French…). It was not focused on criticisms, but this subject seems to me very important. Thus, you are completely right about my epistemological focus.

      The ‘who’ is indeed very important when one wants to face these criticisms. What I try here is a previous step. I have seen many academics arguing against interdisciplinarity by using a mix of the criticisms. To clarify them seems to be a good start to avoid to be overwhelmed!

      There is also many other criticisms, from cultural, emotional, or social grounds, even from specific disciplines (think about the global pretention that can sometimes have philosophy!). An empirical work dedicated to this issue could show maybe that particular disciplines or members in the academic world use most of the time specific criticisms. It would be very useful to anticipate these specific criticisms and to start working on answering them before any confrontation.

      About the most prominent criticisms: it is difficult to answer, because as you know, it depends on the ‘who’. The criticism in 2, about how activities are classed as interdisciplinary when in fact they are not, is maybe the one I heard the most. It associates interdisciplinarity as a trendy institutional concept, with no content. With academic researchers, the criticism about the difficulties to evaluate interdisciplinarity is well grounded (4).

      Best wishes

      Romain

      Reply
  2. I really appreciate this discussion and diverse responses. These challenges of interdisciplinary studies remind me of the objections that community-based research (CBR) faced initially at its inception, and to some extent, still experiences, although it has been recently gaining more traction over the last several decades. For interdisciplinarity, it might be helpful to focus on the principles of this work, some of which include: the synthesis of ideas and characteristics from many disciplines, addressing individual differences, supporting the development of transferable skills (Appleby, 2019), and leveraging collective creativity for innovation (Hill, 2014). Gardner (2000), a developmental psychologist who developed the theory of multiple intelligences, agreed that the best thinking often happens when ideas, fields, disciplines, and cultures mingle. Many argue for a study of science inclusive of liberal arts and humanities; however, innovation through artistry and craftsmanship is seldom included in this discourse. The inclusion of the technologies and trades would reflect a truer picture of interdisciplinarity, and value different mindsets and skillsets for innovation.

    Appleby, M. (2015). What Are the Benefits of Interdisciplinary Study? OpenLearn. The Open University.

    Gardner, H. (2000). The disciplined mind: Beyond facts and standardized tests, the K–12 education that every child deserves. New York: Penguin
    .
    Hill, L. (2014). How to manage for collective creativity. [Video]. https://www.ted.com/talks/linda_hill_how_to_manage_for_collective_creativity#t-160115

    Reply
  3. Thanks very much Romain for the assembling these criticisms of interdisciplinary research. It is important for us to reflect upon these, and to critically assess which have merit and which who do not. Just as importantly we need to be able to dispense with any tropes which are advanced to ensure disciplinary status quo!

    I was interested in your comment that “interdisciplinarity prioritizes a particular hierarchy of interactions” with transdisciplinarity rated most highly and with multidisciplinary coming last. I think that this is a trap we fall into; perhaps the best way to overcome this is to ask what is the most appropriate level at which to address at research problem? Using this as a yardstick would be mean the multidisciplinary research may be the perfectly adequate and appropriate for answering some research questions, but we may need inter- or transdisciplinary for other questions.

    Best wishes,

    Paul

    Reply
    • Thank you Paul. I fully agree with your comment on the hierarchical tendency and how to avoid it. During empirical surveys on interdisciplinarity, I have seen many researchers losing themselves in descriptive terms. Sometimes, they were discrediting their own work on a specific project, by thinking that they could have done something more intense in term of interactions between disciplines. It is an important problem that interdisciplinarity has to take care, because according to the project’s objectives, the level of interaction was perfectly fine and they produce very interesting science!

      Rather than using the triumvirat multi-, inter-, trans-, I think that both interdisciplinary analysis and interdisciplinary research will do better by clarifying the hierarchy between disciplines, their organization, their link with action, and so on. But it is difficult to go beyond concepts that are well anchored in the academic world, while being wrongly used.

      Thank you again for your comment!

      Reply
    • Thanks very much Romain for your reply. I think that there would be some value in a type of simple “screening” for researchers from different disciplines that would assist them in establishing whether they need a disciplinary, multi-, inter-, or trans-disciplinary approach to answer the research question. Best wishes, Paul

      Reply
  4. Thanks again Romain; I would say that the three year research project and the shorter course would share the goal of integrating insights from different disciplines in order to address some complex problem(s) or question(s). There are a set of strategies that have proven useful for doing so in many different contexts.

    We need to be aware of both similarities and differences in interdisciplinary practice.

    Thanks again, Rick

    Reply
  5. Thanks for building on my concerns Romain.

    This is a handy list of criticisms. I am not sure, though, which criticisms you agree with. Only some of the criticisms you list merit a response.

    I am not sure how your three recommendations follow from your list of criticisms. I wholeheartedly agree with your third recommendation.

    I would disagree with your second recommendation. If we accept that there are a set of common challenges faced in interdisciplinary research, then it makes sense to seek strategies that may be useful in many different settings.

    I am not sure quite what your first recommendation means. I tend to favor a problem-oriented interdisciplinarity where interdisciplinary analysis addresses a problem or question that can be usefully studied by many disciplines. Interdisciplinarity is not pursued for its own sake but to better answer particular questions.

    Thanks again, Rick

    Reply
    • Thank you very much Rick for your comment.

      Interdisciplinary has to face many kinds of criticisms, and it is often discredited entirely because the combination of these criticisms becomes an overwhelming avalanche. First, it is important to organize them, and secondly to estimate them (i.e. to consider that some of them are inevitable, while other are not justified and must be fought). I keep for a closer work which arguments must be accepted and which of them must be responded, but I would consider roughly speaking that 2 & 4 should be accepted as inevitable while 1 ; 3 and 5 should be used as opportunities to precise what is interdisciplinarity.

      The final three recommendations have the objective to step aside of these criticisms and to justify the whole idea of this blog contribution: why should we be interested in the criticisms? The third one, about how interdisciplinarity should be more self-critical and less tolerant, is the key recommendation and I appreciate your agreement about it.

      About your disagreement about the second recommendation: my central issue is that it is rather impossible to give a simple and definitive definition of interdisciplinarity. A punctual research project of three years and an educational course of one year do not have the same goal, the same organization, the same objectives and so on. However, the very word interdisciplinarity remains important, and as you said, there is common challenges about it. But every answer to these challenges is dependent of specific situations. In other words, there is common checkpoints (e.g. level of interactions between disciplines; hierarchical organization between them; links with practical actions) and each interdisciplinary situation should be able to situate itself on them.

      About the first one: it is a common criticism against interdisciplinarity to consider it as a purely institutional creation or a promising way of doing science that eventually became a discipline, with all its flaws. To discuss about interdisciplinarity (as we are currently doing, my mistake!) leads sometimes to something isolated of its main purpose (i.e. to do a better science). Thus, my defense of a ‘’secondary objective” has for main goal to avoid that the interdisciplinarity practice lost itself on the road and become something on its own.

      Romain

      Reply

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