3Q: Harvey Graff
In Undisciplining Knowledge, Harvey Graff examines the ideals and practice of interdisciplinary research through 12 case studies, from genetic biology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to nanotechnology and cultural studies in the twenty-first. Here, the Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies and professor of English and history at The Ohio State University talks about the myth that interdisciplinarity demands the integration of entire disciplines.
Why did you write this book?
It goes back partly to the 1960s, when, as a history major with a minor in sociology, I was encouraged to cross fields and pursue questions widely. I’ve been fortunate since then to have colleagues across all parts of the university: I sit across history and English, but spend a lot of time talking with researchers in law, science and medicine. The tightrope I walk is being a strong believer in interdisciplinarity – but also a critic of what is promoted or pretends to pass as interdisciplinary research. I find an amazing similarity between the platitudes of some promoters of the term and the opinions of some of the anti-interdisciplinary camp. Both spend very little time talking about the complexities of how researchers can best work together across fields. The standard version of interdisciplinary research from research funders (such as this account from the National Institutes of Health), is a conflict-free, romanticized account neatly unconstrained by time, place and historical context. It also emphasizes stereotypical, now possibly outmoded notions of well-funded “big science.” But looking in detail at the history of efforts at interdisciplinary research – not just in the sciences, but also in the social sciences, humanities, arts and professions – I see that the social and political-economic contexts matter enormously. So do stages of disciplinary and subdisciplinary development and interrelationships. Major personalities, institutional advantages, and sheer good luck are central elements – from the unusual wartime circumstances that propelled the Manhattan Project, to the failed attempt to create a field called “social relations” (a quasi-department at Harvard in the 1940s and 50s, which disbanded after a decade).
What are the biggest myths or misunderstandings about interdisciplinarity?
I define interdisciplinary research as what emerges from the effort to develop new answers to questions (or approaches to problems) that require elements from different disciplines, subdisciplines and fields. The questions and problems are central. So, one myth is that interdisciplinarity is based on the “integration” of disciplines or requires “mastery” of multiple disciplines. Another is that there is one path toward interdisciplinarity – a large group and expensive science. As the case studies in my book demonstrate, there is no one formula that has a higher chance for success. Nor is interdisciplinarity new. It is part of the history of the modern research university and the development of disciplines from the late nineteenth century on. Too often we frame the disciplines and interdisciplinarity as opposed; the reality is that one depends upon the other. Finally, it has become common to oversell and inflate the promise of interdisciplinary research. It’s declared that all-out attacks on medical and social problems, such as the “war on poverty”, must be interdisciplinary. Yet often the research being done is not, and large claims – made to raise cash and bolster institutions and careers – are inappropriate or wasteful for the state of knowledge in certain areas.
What is your advice on building multidisciplinary partnerships?
Researchers, institutions and funding agencies need to be more honest and modest. Forsake endless typologies (trans-disciplinary, meta-disciplinary) and focus instead on specific questions and problems. Also, consider the physical and social organization of research. Universities I see as successful tend to use the model of “centres” or “institutes” that draw together practitioners in various fields. They link elements between fields rather than create new departments or impose “themes” or “initiatives”. Interdisciplinary efforts do put much greater demands on the quality of communication. In this context, problems of field-specific jargon are often mentioned, but I find them less an obstacle than more fundamental aspects of organizational and interpersonal communication, intellectual and authority relationships, institutional locations, and clarity in planning and conduct of research. Interdisciplinarity is hard to do well, but worth the effort, even when the results are not the “breakthrough” too often over-optimistically promised.
Interview by Richard Van Noorden, Nature‘s deputy news editor. He tweets at @RichVN.