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.