Interdisciplinarity is not about knowing more: it’s about knowing differently.

Within the Interdisciplinary Studies literature, it is frequently asserted and/or implied that disciplines are the basis of interdisciplinarity, and from a definitional standpoint, this makes sense. But definitions can be limiting.

Two types of interdisciplinarity are typically identified: instrumental and critical. Lattuca (2001, 3) writes:

It is difficult to separate the willingness to question conventional disciplinary perspectives from the growth of knowledge in the past century; each drives and is driven, at least in part, by the other. Both developments, however, have moved interdisciplinarity from the academic periphery to a more central scholarly location. The border crossing of early interdisciplinarians was largely instrumental, that is, it was motivated by the need to solve a given problem using borrowed theories, concepts, or methods. Early interdisciplinarians were also fewer in number and generally acted as trespassers, not warring parties; they crossed disciplinary boundaries, but they rarely tried to demolish them. Many of today’s interdisciplinary scholars are more revolutionary in their ideas and ideals and are eager to interrupt disciplinary discourse and to challenge traditional notions of knowledge and scholarship. In the sciences and related professional fields, such as engineering and medicine, interdisciplinarity is still largely instrumental. There is also a good deal of instrumental interdisciplinary work in the social sciences and humanities and in professional fields such as education, business, and social work. However, an increasing number of faculty in the humanities and social sciences pursue interdisciplinary work with the intent of deconstructing disciplinary knowledge and boundaries.

This passage is indicative of the dichotomy that is typically set up in this literature between the two types of interdisciplinarity, and this causes several problems (not the least of which is that it establishes a monolithic ‘legitimate’ form of interdisciplinarity that is threatened by alternatives).

One problem is that this dichotomy black boxes the disciplines and grants them a degree of solidity beyond what is warranted. In other words, it ignores the messiness of the development and operations of the disciplines and treats them as some sort of natural kinds. Now, I would not go so far as to suggest that the literature ignores the history of science and the development of disciplines. In fact, every introductory IDS textbook thus far includes a chapter on this very topic, but this history is by and large merely the means of setting the stage to explain and justify the arrival of interdisciplinarity. Although the organic nature of the disciplines is at times footnoted, the notion that one is either building or destroying disciplinary structures elides the adaptive history of knowledge in general, and in essence extends the reductionist paradigm to interdisciplinary studies contrary to the complexity theory that underwrites contemporary interdisciplinary studies.

The second problem (which is really just a different perspective on the first problem) is that this dichotomy mischaracterizes disciplinary boundaries. Disciplinary boundaries are shifting and changing all the time, and thus the construction/deconstruction metaphor is unhelpful. Indeed, some would argue that disciplinary boundaries are so porous that they are practically illusions, and this thing that we are now calling “interdisciplinarity” is merely a contemporary label for the natural politics inherent in the exchange of knowledge and information that has characterized the doing of knowledge for as long as we have being ‘doing’ knowledge.  In the context of complexity theory that  compels a focus from objects to relationships, interdisciplinarity is not about simply mixing disciplinary ingredients (regardless of whether we’re talking about a fruit salad or a fruit smoothie; the only difference between the two is the size of the chunks). It’s about examining disciplinary-ish negative space, which is neither construction nor deconstruction. It’s not about knowing more or less. It’s about knowing different.

There is another way that for many years I have been calling “strategic interdisciplinarity.” More on this coming soon.



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