• January 26, 2015

Abandoning Disciplines

For the 10th-anniversary issue of The Chronicle Review, we asked scholars and illustrators to answer this question: What will be the defining idea of the coming decade, and why?

How can we prevent environmental devastation? How can we treat cancer more effectively? How do we understand religious experiences? Those questions seem to be the domain of one discipline but delve deeper: Answering any of them requires intimate knowledge of more than one field. To protect the environment, we need to understand both the science of climate change and things like the religious motivation to care for the environment. Cancer treatment has as much to do with access to medical care as it does with the etiology of cells gone awry. And religious experience is now the domain of neuroscience as well as of anthropology and history. By training, I am a sociologist, but my scholarship draws on insights from the social sciences, humanities, and even the natural sciences.

If we are ever going to meet the scholarly and public challenges we face, we may want to abandon disciplines. How else will scholars learn to think beyond old boundaries?

Breaking down disciplines will be tough. As the historian Myron P. Gutmann of the National Science Foundation has observed, many universities have a hard time embracing interdisciplinary work in part because the tenure and promotion process is not designed to properly evaluate interdisciplinary scholarship. In fact, our entire tenure and promotion system is controlled by disciplinary review boards that measure how individual scholars stack up against other scholars in the same field. How can we evaluate the tenure cases of interdisciplinary scholars? How can we incentivize interdisciplinary work when research money, departments, and promotion committees are constructed along disciplinary borders?

Those are the questions that we must answer in the next decade if we are going to restructure universities around research problems rather than disciplines (which can sometimes be quite arbitrary). Universities have traditionally prized disciplinary purity and specificity, but that approach is ill-equipped to nurture the kind of expansive, creative, multipronged thinking that is needed to meet our biggest, most pressing problems.

Elaine Howard Ecklund is an assistant professor of sociology and director of the program on religion and public life at Rice University's Institute for Urban Research.


1. badke - September 01, 2010 at 08:59 am

Elaine is correct that interdisciplinary emphasis is required in order to address many of the pressing issues we face. There are, however, two problems:
1. With the massive growth in available information, our ability to master even the basics of our own disciplines is compromised. Gaining expertise in several is virtually impossible.
2. Disciplines define an area of study while interdisciplinarity loses the significance of a defined expertise. Disciplines are not just defined bodies of knowledge but specialized expertise that can be lost if we actually abandon disciplines.

May I suggest that we need to get out of our bubbles and form cross-disciplinary teams rather than abandoning disciplines.

2. kurtx - September 01, 2010 at 01:06 pm

I agree with badke, here. Disciplinarity still does some work for us. Perhaps it's a question of emphasizing the more general disciplines, those with a history and tradition of tackling the big questions, rather than trying to suture together a collection of specialized technical areas?

3. marvchron - September 02, 2010 at 09:31 am

It seems to me that if true interdisciplinarity work is to take place our disciplines need to be strengthened rather than "broken down". Interdisciplinarity has a meaning only in the context of well-defined, vibrant disciplines. The abandoning of disciplines and their scholarly standards is likely to lead only to academic chaos.

4. keitaro202 - September 24, 2010 at 04:20 pm

Interdisciplinary emphasis need not force us to abandon disciplines. At the same time however, interdisciplinary emphasis does not need to translate to expertise in more than one discipline. A mathematician does not need to be an expert in 18th century art to tell us something valuable about how some art in that period owes its aesthetic beauty to mathematical developments. The mathematician could help us see something quite beautiful that the art historian may have overlooked. But this does not require expertise in more than one discipline.

As kurtx said, there are plenty of examples of general disciplines which seem to have the expressive power to tackle "big" questions. I'm personally thinking about "philosophy." Philosophy itself can hardly be designated as a "subject-matter" with strict boundaries. It is broad enough to do some serious interdisciplinary work.

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