What is interdisciplinarity?

Maybe not what you think.  Louis Menand writes:

Interdisciplinarity is not something different from disciplinarity.  It is the ratification of the logic of disciplinarity.  In practice, it actually tends to rigidity disciplinary paradigms.  A typical interdisciplinary situation might bring together, in a classroom, a literature professor and an anthropologist.  The role of the literature professor is to perform qua literature professor, bringing to bear the specialized methods and knowledge of literary study to the subject at hand; the role of the anthropologist is to do the same with the methods of anthropological inquiry.  This methodological constrast is regarded as, in fact, the intellectual and pedagogical takeaway of the collaboration.  What happens is the phenomenon of borrowed authority: the literature professor can incorporate into his work the insights of the anthropologist, in the form of "As anthropology has shown us," ignoring the probability that the particular insight being recognized is highly contested within the anthropologist's own discipline.

Because professors are trained to respect the autonomy and expertise of other disciplines, they are rarely in a position to evaluate one another's claims.  So there is nothing transgressive about interdisciplinarity on this description.  There is nothing even new about it.  Disciplinarity has not only been ratified; it has been fetishized.  The disciplines are treated as the sum of all possible perspectives.

Here is my previous post on Menand's new book.


Here we at least recognize this process - when we team teach our courses are listed as Bidisciplinary. For instance, my English department medievalist friend and I teach a course numbered "Bidis 291: Medieval Art and Literature" (with a rotating subtopic, like "the Anglo-Saxons" or "Laughter in the Middle Ages").

It's better than nothing.

Now, for fun, compare to multi-disciplinary, trans-disciplinary, post-disciplinary and meta-disciplinary. :) (I thought I made that last one up, and then google'd it and found it in use. Sheesh.

Also, the author's description is more of a best case scenario, in most "interdisciplinary" courses I've taken it simply means the professor/department/college has added a buzzword to the description.

Yes, but what about crossdisciplinarity?

Um, I work in an interdisciplinary field and for us, it's having people with backgrounds in multiple fields working on a problem (in our case, physics and neuroscience, which is itself in a sense interdisciplinary).

Perhaps it's different in the humanities, but it sounds like this guy is just looking at crappy interdisciplinary programs.

I'll second "adam at Feb 3, 2010 11:14:16 AM".

In my work (bioinformatics/genomics), we use methods from multiple areas (computer science, statistics, biology) to try to address a problem. We don't say "Computer science tells us...".

And, FYI, we actually do these things called "experiments" to validate predictions from our interdisciplinary work. So if the hardly-understandable (to a biologist) statistical model produces a lot of predictions that fail... we toss it. (And, yes, I have done this).

Menand seems to see all of academe as only the humanities - his stuff bears little relation to the sciences as practiced in academe, as far as I can tell...

I have to agree with adam, marcela, alex. Interdisciplinarity is not merely citing another discipline. Most problem-solving is moving this way because problems are too complex for one field to tackle. Furthermore there's so much depth in any one field that each specialist needs to work extensively just to master that. Climate Science is another example, and global warming is a complex problem necessitating physicists, economists, statisticians, biologists, etc.

"As engineers, we..."
Which goes to show that one answer to what's interdisciplinarity is -- marginalrevolution.

I'm afraid I'm in the camp that all that quote shows is that Menard has never done real work. Borrowed authority? That is, in essence, the entire basis of civilization, and is encompassed by any number of adages such as "reinventing the wheel". And if you can progress a single day without having to evaluate someone else's claim, then I've got a bridge to sell you in . . .

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