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The Interdisciplinarity Movement

My current reading about research collaborations presents the puzzle of why a movement for interdisciplinarity is occurring at this time. Certainly, if one examines the current set of unsolved world problems (e.g., income inequality, environmental impacts on society, terrorism), they all seem to clearly present themselves as complex systems of interrelated features. But, how could anyone ever have thought that they could be “solved” by interceding on only one of the features? Did not scholars always see these problems as requiring solutions-based knowledge from multiple domains? Were academics unmotivated to tackle such problems?

I have multiple hypotheses for why we see such current support for interdisciplinary work. First, the call for interdisciplinarity might be the unintended result of reductionist progress of all the disciplines. It’s pretty easy to document that academic fields tend to multiply, as knowledge evolves. We have more undergraduate majors and more graduate programs than we have had in prior decades/centuries. Human knowledge just doesn’t expand; it spawns relatively cohesive subfields, like the mitosis of cells. Subfields provide the environment for deeper and deeper study. Some of the divisions, however, take on more applied problems (e.g., computer science emerging from electrical engineering, finance programs emerging out of business schools and economics departments, environmental biology). Sometimes these sub-disciplines are better thought of as “inter-disciplines.” They then stimulate, in their journals and texts, a platform of thought compatible with interdisciplinary research. Once an openness to interdisciplinarity is bred, it tends to shape lifetime agendas.

A second hypothesis comes from the organization of funding agencies of central governments and international organizations throughout the world. One could make the argument that social and political oversight of these institutions has demanded greater societal benefit. Governments need to identify how academic research benefits the taxpayers. It’s easier, the argument goes, to justify research activities that solve well-documented societal problems. Application of knowledge thereby enjoys preference over the generation of basic knowledge. Hence, we see a disproportionate number of new initiatives in science funding agencies aimed at solving well-defined problems (e.g., search for a universal influenza vaccine). These problems demand interdisciplinary efforts.

A third hypothesis concerns a growing commonality of research methods. When two fields use the same research tools, it’s easier to implement collaboration across fields. The invention of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) devices has led to collaboration among biomedical researchers, cognitive and social psychologists, and even behavioral economists in ways that would be unimaginable prior to the invention. The growing use of social media data in the social sciences is another example, with data scientists, macroeconomists, social psychologists, political scientists, and communications science researchers using Twitter, blogs, and other data. One of the great problems of effective collaboration across disciplines is the lack of common language. Using the same research tools eliminates some of this problem.

A fourth hypothesis is the call on universities to become more relevant to the societies in which they are placed. (This is similar to pressures on research funding agencies.) The invention of land grant universities in the US in the 1860s created institutions with explicit missions of serving their communities. Jesuit institutions have explicit missions of service; some other institutions share this. But on the whole, as public opinion in the US reflects, universities are viewed by many as irrelevant to their day-to-day lives and ineffective in improving their lives. There are more calls by social and political leaders for university engagement in the critical issues of the day. Indeed, Georgetown’s efforts at interdisciplinarity are often motivated by our desire to improve the lives of others. Societal impact as an explicit goal breeds interdisciplinarity.

The movement toward interdisciplinarity is likely a complicated blend of all these features of modern life. Certainly, the “why” of interdisciplinarity in universities is equally important as the “what” of interdisciplinarity. Strong disciplinary knowledge is needed for interdisciplinary work. Sometimes basic findings in a single discipline find their interdisciplinary application decades later. Leaving one’s disciplinary home needs a lasting reason. When the “why” is a passion for solving an important problem affecting the world, collaborating across disciplines is most easily sustained. I like that about Georgetown.

3 thoughts on “The Interdisciplinarity Movement

  1. I was looking for a simple “like” button. Absent that, then this: Interesting post. Thanks for distilling and laying out the hypotheses.

    Given the somewhat obvious power and necessity of interdisciplinary research, I have always wondered how “anyone could ever have thought that [complex unsolved world problems] could be solved by interceding on only one of the features.”

    The answer for that had to be incentives, no? Or perhaps silo disincentives, of course. Because absent such postive or negative incentives, wouldn’t collaboration have been the natural default?

  2. I wonder if there is a fifth, more pragmatic reason for the heightened focus on interdisciplinarity viz. discoveries and inventions at the interface between disciplines are less well explored and therefore richer and more fruitful to investigate?

    Also, sustaining collaborations across disciplines probably takes more than just passion for solving an important world problem. Especially in the academy, territorialism by professional cultures (and professional societies/associations) and funding agencies can, and do, stifle innovation across disciplines.

    All in all a timely, thoughtful, and thought provoking post — as usual

  3. Although not central to this essay, the claim that computer science emerged from electrical engineering is incorrect. The founding figures of computer science were almost all mathematicians or mathematical logicians, including (among many others) Charles Babbage (who could also be identified as a part-time mechanical engineer), Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Alonzo Church, Norbert Wiener, and John von Neumann. There’s not an electrical engineer among them, and their work was highly abstract, and not concerned with details of circuits or electronic devices.

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