The Vexing Failures of Interdisciplinary Research

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4 Responses

  1. Steve says:

    I think part of the problem lies with comfort. Few people are truly comfortable with interdisciplinary research since it takes an understanding of two worldviews. Thus, despite all of the lip service paid to interdisciplinary work, most institutions go with where the comfort lies: the status quo.

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    There’s much truth in the post about why interdisciplinary work is hard to accomplish, but it doesn’t amount to a denial of the reasons why interdisciplinary work has distinct cognitive and explanatory virtues. Interdisciplinary work is parasitic or dependent upon strong disciplinary organization and ‘knowledge production,’ so it presumes disciplinary training in the first instance. But when one thinks of many of the intellectual giants in the social sciences and humanities it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the creme de la creme in our day remains work of an interdisciplinary nature. The following individuals, while often identified with a particular discipline, have produced significant work of an inter- or trans-disciplinary nature: Clifford Geertz, Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, Jon Elster, Jurgen Habermas, Gananath Obeyesekere, Jonathan Lear, Edward Said, Cass Sunstein, Deirdre McCloskey, Ninian Smart, Cornel West, Ian Hacking, E.O. Wilson, Robert E. Goodin, C. Fred Alford, Peter Gay, Mary Douglas, Philip Mirowski, Steve Fuller, Jerome Bruner, Philip Kitcher, Roy Bhaskar, Larry Laudan, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (especially their collaborative work), Sudhir Kakar, Dale Jamieson, Cristina Bicchierie, Paul Thagard, Stanley J. Tambiah, etc., etc. I admit the list is idiosyncratic (these were off the top of my head, and I’ve left out many historians, philosophers, legal theorists, and natural scientists) and incomplete, still, I think it testifies to the value of interdisciplinary work, even if such work is produced by a minority from within the respective fields of inquiry; and comes easiest only after the securities of tenure. Incidentally, you might have linked to previous discussions of this subject here at CO (posts by Nate, for instance) and by Larry Solum at his Legal Theory Blog.

  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    There’s much truth in the post about why interdisciplinary work is hard to accomplish, but it doesn’t amount to a denial of the reasons why interdisciplinary work has distinct cognitive and explanatory virtues. Interdisciplinary work is parasitic or dependent upon strong disciplinary organization and ‘knowledge production,’ so it presumes disciplinary training in the first instance. But when one thinks of many of the intellectual giants in the social sciences and humanities it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the creme de la creme in our day remains work of an interdisciplinary nature. The following individuals, while often identified with a particular discipline, have produced significant work of an inter- or trans-disciplinary nature: Clifford Geertz, Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, Jon Elster, Jurgen Habermas, Gananath Obeyesekere, Jonathan Lear, Edward Said, Cass Sunstein, Deirdre McCloskey, Ninian Smart, Cornel West, Ian Hacking, E.O. Wilson, Robert E. Goodin, C. Fred Alford, Peter Gay, Mary Douglas, Philip Mirowski, Steve Fuller, Jerome Bruner, Philip Kitcher, Roy Bhaskar, Larry Laudan, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (especially their collaborative work), Sudhir Kakar, Dale Jamieson, Cristina Bicchierie, Paul Thagard, Stanley J. Tambiah, etc., etc. I admit the list is idiosyncratic (these were off the top of my head, and I’ve left out many historians, philosophers, legal theorists, and natural scientists) and incomplete, still, I think it testifies to the value of interdisciplinary work, even if such work is produced by a minority from within the respective fields of inquiry; and comes easiest only after the securities of tenure. Incidentally, you might have linked to previous discussions of this subject here at CO (posts by Nate, for instance) and by Larry Solum at his Legal Theory Blog.

  4. I have a vested interest in this topic, since I am in interdisciplinary training, but I generally concur with Patrick. I find interdisciplinary to be of immense value in an explanatory and illuminative context. I also suspect that, as valuable as I find organizational theory to be, its analyses of power, weakness, and competition are neither intended to nor can possibly capture all that is “powerful” about interdisciplinary work.

    I evaluate power has having an epistemic component, one in which its explanatory potential affects cultural authority (there are many good sources on this, but Starr’s social history of medicine is particularly useful).

    All that said, I do have what I term a cognate discipline (law), and I am acutely aware of the competitive power such training confers.