Are you being interdisciplinary for the wrong reasons?

The publication of interdisciplinary research has surged in recent decades, but is it commodifying academic research and weakening its rigour? Lakshmi Balachandran Nair asks

November 25, 2018
Merger

A majority of social scientists are going interdisciplinary. Meanwhile, the rest are thinking of going interdisciplinary. As Angelique Chettiparamb at Cardiff University recalls, interdisciplinarity was first proposed in the 1930s as a strategy to fill the gaps in a particular discipline or to surpass the limits of the focused methodological tools, theories and views offered by a single discipline. 

Following this lead, social scientists are immersing themselves in interdisciplinary studies to explore our contemporary, complex world. Funding agencies favour interdisciplinary research proposals, teaching programmes focus on developing interdisciplinary courses: interdisciplinarity is the talk of the town.

A keyword search in Web of Science shows a steep increase in the publication of interdisciplinary studies during the past 25 years. In 1994, the average number of interdisciplinary studies published per year was 553. By 2017, this number had risen to 5,207.

Several factors may have contributed to this boom – from the quest of scientists to transcend the limits of a single discipline to the increasing number of academic journals. Everything points to interdisciplinarity being the next utopia. So, what is the problem?

Interdisciplinarity for the wrong reasons

The observable boom in interdisciplinarity leads one to wonder whether it risks becoming the new orthodoxy. Is interdisciplinarity, initially a tool with which to tackle real-world questions, becoming a doctrine to which researchers now blindly adhere? Or is it something entirely different – the shiny, new, fashionable approach of its time? 

Interdisciplinarity as a tool for the commodification of research

American legal scholar Cass Sunstein discusses how academics are often prone to starting, joining and accelerating bandwagons. The pressure to publish and burnish their reputations causes them to indulge in activities thought to be helpful to achieving those goals. 

Academics thus end up being a part of the cascade or social movement in an effort to conform to group norms. According to Danny Miller, director of the Center for Research on Organization, Strategy and Governance at HEC Montréal, they contribute to the development and perpetuation of “academic fads”

The latest fad is interdisciplinarity. Not all interdisciplinary studies are made with the objective of finding solutions to problems. Some of them are tools for the commodification of research.

The commodification of research – or the interpretation and assessment of research on the basis of commercial criteria – implies the dominance of economic factors over research relevance. This is problematic, because the purpose of commodified research is contrary to the definition of interdisciplinary research: to advance knowledge or solve problems that are beyond the scope of a single discipline. Since the basic feature underlying commodification is money, interdisciplinary studies with this agenda will have their eyes set more on commercial gains rather than social or scholarly interests. This makes interdisciplinarity a “gold digger” rather than a “troubleshooter”.

Pseudo-interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinarity is often portrayed as facilitating the exchange of ideas, epistemologies, methods and theories between disciplines that have unbreakable boundaries. So, the question now is: can we consider any research that exceeds the boundaries of a discipline to be interdisciplinary?

Would we call a study adopting elements from religious studies and philosophy interdisciplinary? Or is this a case of interdependency between different yet related disciplines with similar scope?

Similarly, if a discipline fragments into smaller fields, subfields, or specialisations, which in turn merge with other similar fragments, are the hybrids that are formed interdisciplinary? Or is this a case of a discipline being dynamic and adaptive? For instance, is sociolinguistics an adaptation of linguistics, or is it an interdiscipline of anthropology, sociology and linguistics? 

Bryan Turner at the National University of Singapore offers a different take on this matter by suggesting that we are all living in a post-disciplinary world. In his opinion, there are no disciplines anymore. Then why do we need interdisciplines? And if that is the case, why do we make claims of interdisciplinarity?

Superficial interdisciplinarity

Another aspect of interdisciplinary studies is the superficiality or “dilettantism” that sometimes accompanies it. Many so-called interdisciplinary studies are shallow and artificial, rarely scratching beneath the surface of the involved disciplines. Victor Baker, regents’ professor at the University of Arizona, analyses the problems of this approach, noting how spreading oneself thinly across different disciplines may result in less rigorous science that does not meet the accountability standards of any of the parent disciplines. 

This could lead to anarchy. A discipline by definition offers the rules, checks and theoretical triangulation points that aid the production of knowledge. Without rules, there would be chaos.

A superficial combination of different disciplines may also result in studies trying to combine incompatible frameworks, indirectly overpowering the disciplinary work achieved by scholars up to that point. 

The problems do not end there. As Michael Burawoy at UC Berkley fears, this may lead to the overpowering of weaker disciplines by stronger, more powerful ones. In his own words: “So that’s the danger – that interdisciplinarity becomes a project for a unified social science that will prove to be economics.” 

I am not a disciplinary purist. In fact, as a management research methodologist, I often adapt theoretical and methodological assumptions from mature, related disciplines to meet the scholarly and societal demands of management research. This post is not intended to oppose interdisciplinarity altogether, but to point out that interdisciplinarity is not a one-size-fits-all solution for every type of research.

This blog was originally published by the London School of Economics.

Lakshmi Balachandran Nair is assistant professor in the methodology and statistics department at Utrecht University.

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