Interdisciplinary Hype

Photo_2490_landscape_largeJerry A. Jacobs in The Chronicle of Higher Ed:

The present arrangement of discipline-based departments, combined with interdisciplinary research centers, provides an inelegant but practical way to nurture disciplinary skills while allowing the flexibility for scholars to come together around new and topical areas. Occasionally the results are so compelling that a new discipline is formed. Successful interdisciplinary endeavors are thus transitional. Once they settle into maturity, they increasingly resemble the disciplines they sought to overthrow, at least in their organizational form. Promising new areas of inquiry should be nurtured whether or not they happen to cut across disciplinary lines. They should be encouraged because of their intellectual and practical promise—not because they are interdisciplinary.

Exciting interdisciplinary opportunities undoubtedly exist in some fields, and individual scholars will continue to borrow insights, concepts, and techniques from a diverse portfolio of sources. There is no reason to prohibit creative interdisciplinary projects. Wise deans, provosts, and presidents may be able to attract distinguished scholars precisely because those individuals work on specialties that span adjacent fields or even colleges. The intellectual boundaries of today's research may not map neatly onto disciplinary frameworks developed long ago.

Yet interdisciplinarity is not a panacea. Some interdisciplinary experiments will be stillborn; some interdisciplinary units will prove unwieldy and fracture of their own accord. Remember a cautionary tale from the past: Harvard's department of social relations proved unable to unify anthropology, psychology, and sociology and finally agreed to a divorce in 1972 after more than 20 years of marriage.