Interdisciplinary Action

Scott McLemee reviews Catherine Lyall's Being an Interdisciplinary Academic: How Institutions Shape University Careers.

July 26, 2019

Discussions of interdisciplinary scholarship run hot and cold. Hot meaning, in this case, in the publicist’s sense. Interdisciplinary research enjoys a presumption of excitement, innovation and cutting-edginess. It is at the frontiers of knowledge almost by definition. Rare is the branding exercise that would neglect to mention a university’s interdisciplinary efforts -- or at least its commitment to encouraging faculty to undertake them.

But the proposal often meets with a chilly reception, as Catherine Lyall acknowledges in Being an Interdisciplinary Academic: How Institutions Shape University Careers (Palgrave Macmillan). Research cutting across departmental lines may look ill defined and methodologically suspect from a variety of specialist perspectives. Suspicions of interdisciplinarity as just so much hype or dilettantism are not uncommon. Even when the value of interdisciplinary work is acknowledged, it tends to be in a monitory tone: a scholar who is well established in a recognized field can afford to venture into the borderlands, but going there early in one’s career is risky, at best.

Yet some do so anyway, and Lyall -- a professor of science and public policy at the University of Edinburgh -- is unabashedly one of them. “I have never felt a strong disciplinary affiliation,” she writes, nor “ever felt a particularly good ‘fit’ with the sociologically informed STS [science and technology studies] environment in which I have worked for the past 20 years … Perhaps I am now at a stage in my career where I feel less need to apologize for this.”

Here the reader might anticipate some combination of memoir, manifesto and handbook for the interdisciplinarian’s intellectual self-defense. What the author presents instead are her findings from an investigation into the experience of scholars caught on the horns of the “paradox of interdisciplinarity” -- i.e., the academic world’s mixed signals about interdisciplinary work as both worthwhile and of dubious institutional legitimacy. She conducted interviews with a sampling of Ph.D. students who received funding between 1999 and 2008 from a U.K. Research Councils program “designed to build interdisciplinary research capacity” in “the social/environmental sciences and the social/medical sciences.” (The pool of “awardholder interviews” was limited to those who had remained in the British university sector, though many Ph.D.s found employment elsewhere.) In addition, Lyall interviewed 10 administrators from “research-intensive” British universities, while also drawing on about 20 years’ worth of scholarly and journalistic literature on the status of interdisciplinary work.

Some points from that ongoing discussion are important to keep in mind. One is the distinction between “problem-focused” and “academically oriented” forms of interdisciplinarity. The former addresses “social, technical and/or policy” issues (e.g., climate change or aging populations) that can only be addressed through a number of forms of expertise. The “academically oriented” variety of interdisciplinarity seeks to expand the range and depth of knowledge by formulating new methodologies (any number of digitally enriched research initiatives in the humanities and social sciences come to mind) or creating new areas of study, such as synthetic biology or medical anthropology.

The problem-driven and academic varieties of interdisciplinary work are by no means mutually exclusive. And either form may be carried out through collaboration between researchers from two or more disciplines -- team interdisciplinarity, we might call it. Everyone on the team can go back to a departmental home. By contrast, the pool of scholars Lyall interviewed for the book identified their research interests as interdisciplinary no later than while working on their Ph.D., running the risk of becoming, as one commentator put it, “academic nomads without a tribe.”

Lyall restricted her study to those who eventually found or carved out some academic niche for themselves, but only after following a more nomadic existence than their monodisciplinary peers. “The structures of the university don’t fully understand it,” says one of the interview subjects. “So you spend a lot of your time explaining … what you’re trying to do, what the importance is and the benefits of that are, to a whole range of people who will often say, ‘yes, we’re completely committed,’ but then when it comes to sign on the dotted line, that’s when it gets even trickier.”

It sounds as if the most common career trajectory involved determining which part of one’s scholarship could be stressed as fitting with the demands of the job market and leaning into it. One interviewee says she learned to avoid using the word “interdisciplinary” to describe herself, “unless writing a grant application,” she says, “in which case, I say it 20,000 times.”

Institutional rhetoric can celebrate interdisciplinarity -- and policy makers can even fund it -- without the advancement of scholarship being all that high on the list priorities. “They tend to be about trying to get us to work with technology,” in the words of another interviewee, “basically something that can produce intellectual property that they can then spin off and get some money from.”

The author keeps her eye on “the issue of academic identity (and the potential loss thereof),” but her perspective also makes the case for interdisciplinarity as something necessary and valuable in its own right -- first of all, as a cognitive style or intellectual resource worth cultivating. She disputes familiar perspectives on it as something that should be pursued only after a scholar has become unimpeachably certified in an established discipline -- and then, preferably through team interdisciplinarity.

“The crux of good interdisciplinary research,” she writes, “lies not in a shallow knowledge of myriad topics but a detailed understanding of how to make different forms of knowledge work together.” That requires the development of “tacit, integrative skills and panoptic perspectives” that are better developed early in a scholar’s career -- rather than a decade or two later, as an afterthought. Or in the words of one of the scholars she interviewed: “It makes sense to get involved in interdisciplinary research sooner rather than later … It’s about being exposed to different ideas and different approaches … The longer you go without experience of these things, they’re more difficult” to acquire.

But disciplinary control and the cultivation of a rigorously narrowed focus of attention are not unfortunate side effects of the modern research university. If anything, they are the cement and the girders giving the edifice its durability. What does Lyall propose instead? We'll consider that next week.

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