The power of disciplines within the academy is one of the driving forces for knowledge advancement. The freedom of scholars to pursue their imaginations to ever-deeper understanding of the natural world, human creativity, and societal processes, is a key facilitator for the advancement of civilization. It is a powerful force that universities offer the world.
It is interesting, therefore, to compare various fields with regard to their cohesion of purpose in scholarly inquiries. Indeed, when one peruses the different fields of inquiry, whether they’re organized into departments (as in most Colleges of Arts and Sciences) or other units, they tend to exhibit vastly different levels of internal unity.
Some fields seem to agree on what are the key questions facing the field and how to go about answering them. The prime example over the past two to three decades is the consensus within astronomy of key challenges and steps to take to make progress. When those fields exhibit this consensus, attention coalesces around the focal issues. Such fields often produce deeper and deeper insights in the agreed-upon areas.
Other fields seem to be in turmoil. There are intense debates across subfields questioning the wisdom of their pursuits. I recall a fist fight between two colleagues at a party prompted by snide remarks about the legitimacy of one’s research approach. (Passions based on intellectual disagreement can turn ugly.) Such fields risk missing opportunities for insight that flow from combining approaches.
One way to think of different fields is to parse their work into a) questions pursued, b) research methods used, and c) scholarly products produced. Reflecting on fields that seem to be undergoing turmoil, the use of different methods often seems to be a source of the discomfort. For example, debates about the relative merits of qualitative and quantitative methods in several social science fields plagued the groups for several decades in the 20th century.
When these intellectual conflicts are raging, one often sees individual departments choosing sides, building strength in only one school of thought. Those departments that find a way to resolve the conflict, however, integrating the best parts of different sides, generally achieve prominence in the next era of the discipline. Conflicts resolved by new integrative solutions often produce long-lasting advances.
An interesting challenge and benefit of working in problem-oriented, interdisciplinary research arises around choice of research methods. The challenge is that such work usually involves researchers with allegiances to different methods. Each must learn a bit about another method; this is difficult. The benefit is such work enriches our understanding of the phenomena in question, using multiple methods. Inevitably, in the hands of strong scholars the work leads them to innovative theoretical thinking in their home discipline. In this way, interdisciplinary work enriches the constituent disciplines.
In this sense, researchers entering into interdisciplinary spaces internalize some of the conflicts that plague full disciplines. They choose to have their allegiance to method challenged by alternative ways of thinking. They are intellectually brave, but also enjoy the benefits of new insights difficult to achieve without that choice.