The Chronicle Review

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?

August 29, 2010

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.