What is interdisciplinarity? Opinions differ. The Collins English Dictionary matter-of-factly defines it as “the quality or state of involving more than one discipline”, while the Oxford English Dictionary seems to spurn its very existence, drawing the line at having been forced to accept the adjective “interdisciplinary” into the modern English lexicon.
To many sceptical researchers diligently advancing their own well-defined subdiscipline, it is the latest in a long line of unrigorous, unhelpful sentiments foisted upon them by trendy academic administrators anxious to demonstrate how modern they are.
To many of those same academic administrators, on the other hand, it is a vital, often underused mechanism to prod typically tunnel-visioned investigators into absorbing new techniques and ideas.
The fault lines are clear. And yet there is much common ground. Most will unhesitatingly agree that truly innovative discoveries are, by their very nature, those that involve an element of unexpected cross-disciplinary engagement, bringing together different concepts or approaches that were once thought distinct into a common framework. Recent examples include cognitive psychology, molecular archaeology and medical imaging. Historians, meanwhile, are quick to remind us that some of today’s more canonical theories, such as electromagnetism, are made up of the amalgamation of two or more areas that were once thought to be entirely distinct.
A real breakthrough in our understanding, in other words, is bound to change the way we look at things by linking the previously unconnected, either within or across disciplines; and it stands to reason that most researchers, either out of disposition or lack of opportunity, don’t tend to expose themselves to wildly different perspectives all that often.
But it hardly follows that simply “bringing people together” – sticking an economist, computer scientist and historian in a room together for a few hours, say – will result in anything more significant than a minor, temporary, loss of productivity of economics, computer science and history.
What to do? Well, it’s tricky. As a former academic administrator myself, I know all too well the temptation to overestimate one’s own ability to create meaningful impact. The key, I believe, is to let nature take its course and try to identify some specific opportunities for commonality that might already exist. Or, better still, somehow create a framework where those best able – specialists, students and others – can naturally step in and make the relevant connections themselves.
It’s not, as they say, rocket science. Find smart, knowledgeable people. Put them at ease, in a relaxed, unthreatening environment where they feel that they can indulge in a larger view of things. Ask them questions. Listen to what they have to say. Report back. At Ideas Roadshow, as it happens, this is precisely what I am lucky enough to be engaged in myself.
Joseph Curtin in conversation with Howard
So what have I found?
Well, historian David Cannadine points out that contemporary historians need to listen to geneticists and neuroscientists. Tennis pro Janko Tipsarevic tells us that studying Nietzsche doesn’t help your backhand (or your forehand). Psychologist Diana Deutsch describes how auditory illusions can help us understand how the brain works. Social historian Nile Green examines the overlap of economic theory and Islam. Legal scholar Nita Farahany uses neuroscience to shed light on the 5th Amendment to the US Constitution. Intellectual historian Martin Jay finds a link between Hannah Arendt’s thinking and contemporary political liars. Psychologist Ellen Bialystok connects bilingualism with (preventing) dementia.
Violin maker Joseph Curtin examines the cultural legacy of Stradivari using scrupulous science. Mathematician and writer Ian Stewart demonstrates how the Portuguese have successfully addressed the gender gap in the hard sciences. Marine biologist Edie Widder demonstrates how bioluminescence can be used by high school students to measure environmental degradation. Intellectual historian Quentin Skinner rigorously investigates the link between rhetoric and political philosophy. Philosopher Angie Hobbs declares that philosophy makes us better citizens. Primatologist Frans de Waal combines morality, religion and evolutionary biology. Political scientist (and classicist) Josiah Ober contrasts California referenda with Aristotle. Business prof. Andy Hoffman addresses environmentalism, capitalism and cultural values, while philosopher Susan Wolf contrasts Sisyphus with sudokus.
The list goes on and on.
Interdisciplinarity? I suppose so. But mostly just interesting.
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