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In Defense of Disciplines

I’ve written in the last post about the interdisciplinary movement in universities and what may have prompted it. This is a post about the necessity of the disciplines to fuel any interdisciplinary movement.

First, definitions matter in this discussion. Are disciplines limited to those departments/units/fields that existed 100 years ago in most universities? Most definitions include the notion that a discipline requires an academic curriculum, a professional organization, a journal or named set of publication outlets, as well as other features. US universities clearly have increased the number of organizing units that have such features. We are approaching 30,000 different scholarly journals, with more proliferating on the Internet each year. There are thousands of professional organizations. So, definitions are tricky in this discussion.

Indeed, over the years, interdisciplinarity has already altered the organization of academic units. Biology, for example, as a discipline, has transformed itself on many campuses into a larger set of departments with an adjectival modifier (e.g., environmental biology, microbiology). Economics is earlier in the same evolutionary process, with health economics and behavioral economics, among others, developing as distinct subfields, with growing split-offs into separate departments. In short, defining disciplines by what departments exist is probably unwise. The set is constantly changing.

Second, from afar, disciplines may appear homogeneous. From another perspective, the expansion of academic departments reflects the continuous dynamic nature of disciplines. All are constantly in a state of change. The pressing issues of the field change. What is novel and important evolves over time. New knowledge from other fields is brought to attention and forces a rethink of central assumptions. Subfields emerge, morph, and are combined.

The churning reflects a thirst to solve the unsolved. Some of the problems are remaining questions in one field whose answers can be unlocked by adding knowledge from another field (e.g., the detection of gravitational waves with LIGO). Therefore, some of the interdisciplinary actions can be categorized as new ways to do “basic” not “applied” research. Other problems are imported from society as needing a solution, and thus are more “applied” syntheses of different fields.

Third, when a new combination of disciplines can address a large set of issues, the combination tends to survive. Books and journals start to proliferate. New professional organizations support the interaction of those crafting the combination. Academic classes form, and the education arm arises. Later new departments bloom. Scholars begin to describe the new filed as a discipline.

In this regard, disciplines ironically are the engines of interdisciplinary activities. This belies Foucault’s famous quote: “The disciplines characterize, classify, specialize; they distribute along a scale, around a norm, hierarchize individuals in relation to one another and, if necessary, disqualify and invalidate.” We need to add that disciplines, in their search for truth, also motivate and empower interdisciplinary work.

So, yes, unsolved problems often need multiple knowledge domains for their solution. But without deep work in those domains, there’s nothing useful to combine.

3 thoughts on “In Defense of Disciplines

  1. A discipline requires a career path for its practitioners, and especially for its graduates, or it will not take off, no matter how important it may be. Disciplines like energy and environment emerge as much from the interest of the public, the demand of students and the needs of employers as from the expansion of existing academic disciplines, which may even be hostile or indifferent to a new field.

  2. Another provocative and interesting post, and heartwarming to see Georgetown leadership championing more interdisciplinarity. Some interesting history that is perhaps worth noting as we peruse the possibilities: one of the earliest (first ?) and most dramatic examples of a new discipline emerging from interdisciplinary work is the discipline of biochemistry (in the broadest sense, studying things at the intersection of biology and chemistry). Some put the field’s origins with the ancient Greeks, some with Lavoisier and Pasteur in the 19th century, some with Fischer’s Nobel prize (the second Nobel prize in Chemistry, awarded for sugar and purine syntheses) but for many of us practitioners, “modern” biochemistry as a hard – core academic disciple starts for real in the 1940’s with the Coris. Carl and Gerty Cori and their famous laboratory at Washington University St. Louis. Gerty was the first american woman to win a Nobel prize in medicine. The Cori & Cori lab trained 6 other Nobel laureates and birthed a far reaching web of science that we are still enjoying to this day. As a new discipline, the tools and concepts of biochemistry quickly promoted numerous major advances in many other fields from genomics to microbiology to molecular dynamics and everything in between. It is arguably one of the more productive and impactful new disciplines ever forged from interdisciplinarity. Regardless where one places the origins, 70 years ago to perhaps 170 years ago (sure, the Greeks knew their stuff and were quite imaginative but we had not yet discovered DNA or proteins in those days so it’s not clear that they were talking about real biochemistry) it wasn’t until 1997 that Georgetown College even offered a major in biochemistry, and to this day there appears to be little if any College level interest in developing the major further. There is no dept. of biochemistry on the main campus; there is of course an excellent dept. of biochemistry on the medical campus but no formal cross campus faculty appointments that leverage that proximity or that brings GUMC biochemistry expertise into the undergraduate curriculum. There are at least two dozen main campus scientists that do biochemistry research and/or teaching, scattered across at least 4-5 depts. Biochemistry is probably not alone, but is perhaps just a particularly dramatic example of the challenges we face; without appropriate administrative structure, promoted and championed by administrators, even the most mature and advanced “new” disciplines born from interdisciplinary vision do not benefit our students to the extent that they could.

  3. I don’t understand in what sense the detection of gravitational waves with LIGO is an example of remaining questions in one field being unlocked by adding knowledge from another field. Gravitational waves are a prediction of the general theory of relativity, first derived by Einstein in 1916, and the general theory of relativity has been regarded as a core area of theoretical physics since its birth in the previous year.

    The detection of gravitational waves has also been recognized as an open problem of physics, and all modern experimental efforts at their detection have been led by physicists, beginning in the late 1960s with Joseph Weber, professor of physics at the University of Maryland, and ending with the three physicists who received the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for the observation of gravitational waves by LIGO. The reports of the first two detections of gravitational waves were published in “Physical Review Letters,” the premier journal of the American Physical Society. LIGO was funded, from its beginning, by the Gravitational Physics Program of the NSF Division of Physics. And LIGO itself is a modern version of the Michelson Interferometer, developed by the American physicist Albert Michelson to answer fundamental questions about the speed of light, and for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1907 (the first received by a U.S. physicist).

    The crucial new ingredient of LIGO is the use of a laser light source, but the laser was also invented and initially developed by physicists, based on prior theoretical work by the physicists Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow. Although many engineers of many sorts were involved in the actual construction of LIGO (as is true for any large modern scientific instrument, such as LIGO or the LHC or synchrotron light sources), the project is solidly within the traditional boundaries of physics as they have long been understood. So, in this specific case it appears that both the remaining question and the knowledge used to answer it came from a single traditional discipline.

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