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.


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