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Why Disciplines Are Becoming Less Important

Are disciplines becoming less important? I think they are. Universities are gradually changing how they operate as disciplines become less central to the construction of knowledge.

Historically there are several universities that have tried different ways to organize their academics. In Britain, they include the University of Sussex, which for a long time divided itself into “Schools of Study,” so that students could benefit from a multidisciplinary teaching environment. In the United States, Arizona State University has done something similar with its degree programs.

But these kinds of large experiments with disciplinary mix are still comparatively rare. What has happened at most universities is something different: a slow shift in the gardening of knowledge, moving from strict formal borders to drifts. In this vein, five changes come to mind.

One is a slow but decisive shift towards interdisciplinary work. In Britain, this has been hastened in part by an attempt by the Research Councils UK to train postgraduates in ways that cross fields of study. Many doctoral training centers have been successful, for example by training postgraduates using interdisciplinary teams. The research councils also tend to count interdisciplinary efforts as a boon when judging grant proposals.

Another factor is the spread of various kinds of priority research programs that attempt to solve grand global challenges, like climate change. In Britain, the University College London pioneered the approach, but it is now common in most British research-intensive universities.

One more is the growth of “proto-subjects” like life sciences, genomics, and materials science that stretch across many disciplines. Universities are often housing such work in new multidisciplinary, prestige buildings.

Then there is the formation of new subdisciplines which may well morph into the disciplines of the future. A recent provocative article in The New York Times by Nicholas Christakis mentions behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology, among others. Although I think Christakis may over-egg the pudding in part, he is surely right that there is no natural reason why social-science disciplines should be counted as immortal or why new contenders should not set up shop.

Finally, there are changes to scholarly inquiry that may well end up changing whole areas of academe. Perhaps the most obvious of these is in the social sciences, where a second quantitative revolution is taking place, this time based on the ability to analyze big data. This is in its early days, but as the world becomes covered with a skein of numbers it seems clear to me that being able to analyze them is likely to become as much a part of the social scientist’s toolbox as a facility with words. The digital humanities might form another possibility.

Of course, disciplines will continue to exist, but, at the very least, they will become more porous and are more likely to mutate. It could be argued that they have always done so, but the rate of change does seem to have sped up of late. Thus, in Britain many disciplines would now consider hiring from outside their areas of expertise occasionally. Only a few professional disciplines and those with particularly strong epistemic forms still rely on a strict demarcation.

So, these are interesting times but, unlike in the case of the old Chinese curse, they really do produce possibilities—possibilities we can look forward to and even relish.

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