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A Call to Embrace Silos

February 26, 2014

Everyone, it seems, wants to promote interdisciplinary work. College and university presidents love to announce new interdisciplinary centers. Funders want to support such work. Many professors and graduate students bemoan the way higher ed places them in silos from which they long to free themselves, if only they could get tenure for interdisciplinary work.

Jerry A. Jacobs, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, wants to end the interdisciplinary love fest. His new book, In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University (University of Chicago Press), challenges the conventional wisdom that academe needs to get out of disciplines to solve the most important problems and to encourage creative thinking. The most significant ideas (including those related to problems that cross disciplines) in fact come out of specialized, discipline-oriented work, Jacobs argues. Further, he says that the idea that disciplines don't communicate right now is overstated -- and that such communication can be encouraged without weakening disciplines.

In an interview, he said common sense shows that interdisciplinary problems require many disciplines to work on them -- from the strength of their scholarly backgrounds.

Take climate change. The approach in vogue today would be to say that the problem should be tackled by environmental sciences programs, which indeed have proliferated. Jacobs said that a research university doesn't need such a program to contribute. "We need people to drill into Arctic ice. We need people to come up with cap-and-trade agreements. We need people to develop better solar panels. And we need people to study ocean currents," said Jacobs, ticking off just a few of the areas of expertise that some universities would group together.

Jacobs doesn't dispute that all of these types of expertise are important. He just questions whether the cap-and-trade expert should be removed from the political science or economics department, and whether the person drilling into the ice needs to be hanging out with the scholar focused on the sun. "Really, does the solar panel guy need to know how to go up to the North Pole? If they learn more about the North Pole, will that make them better at solar panels?"

There is some irony to Jacobs offering a critique of interdisciplinary work. He wrote the book while serving as the founding president of the Work and Family Researchers Network, an interdisciplinary association itself. He said that he's not so much "against interdisciplinarity" as he is trying to defend disciplines. "Interdisciplinarity depends on strong disciplines," he said.

He said he became interested in the topic while serving as editor of American Sociological Review. He wanted to see if the articles in that journal were showing up as citations in the work of non-sociologists, and found that they were, leading him to question the idea that disciplines don't communicate with one another. Using National Science Foundation data, he looked at where science journals are cited, and found that a "substantial minority" of citations come in other fields.

Citation Outside of Disciplines

Discipline % of Citations From Outside Field
Physics 18.3%
Chemistry 31.0%
Earth and space sciences 16.8%
Mathematics 22.6%
Biology 38.3%
Biomedical research 24.6%
Clinical medicine 28.6%
Engineering and technology 38.1%
Psychology 34.5%
Social sciences 22.7%

Jacobs then analyzes the various social sciences, and finds that scholars in the interdisciplinary field of area studies are more likely to cite non-area studies work than their own fields, while economics scholars are mostly likely to cite their own field. "These data on cross-field citations raise an important question for advocates of interdisciplinarity, namely whether the fields that are most open to external ideas are also the most intellectually dynamic," Jacobs writes. "If this were true, area studies would be the envy of the social sciences, and economists would be busy trying to figure out how best to emulate the success of areas studies scholars. In fact, the reverse is true: economics is the most influential field in the social sciences, and it is also the most inwardly focused."

This doesn't mean that scholars should look down on other fields, Jacobs said. As a sociologist, he depends on the work of statisticians, for example, but that doesn't mean that statistics and sociology should be a single discipline.

Disciplines, he said, should award doctorates and teach undergraduate majors, and have departments that hire the Ph.D.s trained in the field. This, he said, produces a coherence that is needed and a differentiation from other disciplines that allows them all to make contributions.

Jacobs devotes considerable space to American studies and questions whether it has become a discipline. He notes that much of the work it publishes comes out of literature and history departments, and many of the the instructors come from literature or history Ph.D. programs, and that these Ph.D. programs must remain close to those fields to place their graduates. This suggests a lack of independence, he writes.

There is no dispute that good scholarship has appeared through American studies and other interdisciplinary programs, so why worry about the trend?

First, Jacobs said it is important to note that there are many different types of interdisciplinary programs, each with their own risks and rewards. But one division he makes is between "rich man's interdisciplinarity" and "poor man's interdisciplinarity."

The rich version is "let's go build a nanotechnology center," and this is the kind of effort that "presidents and provosts love to talk about." These efforts are typically well-funded, although Jacobs warns that, in many cases, true success at building such a center may take longer than a president's tenure, potentially leaving a program without backing by the next administration.

Then there is interdisciplinarity that involves grouping together departments that are viewed as too small (sociology and anthropology on some campuses, physics and astronomy on others, many language programs). "This is about programs that don't have quite enough students getting smushed together," Jacobs said. "It usually doesn't save a lot of money unless faculty lines are cut, but it cuts a secretary's position" -- hardly enough to balance a college's budget.

And both types of interdisciplinarity involve ceding control from faculty-led departments to administrators. "When we hire a sociologist, that's my field, and I have some say in that," said Jacobs. "If we are going to appoint someone with the Wharton School and sociology, the dean is involved." And when new units are created, senior administrators are involved in selecting topics, areas of expertise and the curriculum. While many faculty members are excited about interdisciplinarity, they should be more skeptical, he said.

The push for interdisciplinarity "fits with current managerial ideology, and increases the power of administrators."

His goal with the book is not that academe should shut down all interdisciplinary programs, but that professors and administrators shouldn't rush so quickly to assume everything interdisciplinary is good or that we would be better off in a post-disciplinary world. "Research universities are one of the greatest things ever created, and they are build on disciplines," he said.

Jacobs is well aware that not everyone is convinced.

Another new book on interdisciplinarity takes a much more favorable review of the landscape. Sustainable Knowledge: A Theory of Interdisciplinarity (Macmillan) is by Robert Frodeman, who is founding director of the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity at the University of North Texas.

He sees a very different future than does Jacobs. "Disciplines will not disappear. But disciplinarity, the belief that academic work is complete when it has met standards internal to a given discipline, will," he said, via email. "We live in an age where academic autonomy will increasingly be hemmed in by demands for greater accountability to society. Academics would do well to recognize these trends and work with them, rather than mindlessly opposing them."

 

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