Interdisciplinarity is not about the humanities aping the sciences

Uncritical and misinformed imitation of physics or biology is a misconception of collaboration, says Harvey J. Graff

September 7, 2021
Two people examine brain scans on a computer
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Nicholas Dirks is by no means the first academic or administrator to learn from their own history, but it is notable that such a senior figure has become the latest.

In his recent article for Times Higher Education, Dirks proffers a goal of disciplinary unification as if nothing had transpired since physical chemist and novelist C. P. Snow’s anachronistic The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution of 1959. Dirks – a historian and former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley – ignores numerous inter- and cross-disciplinary collaborations across the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.

Not that these collaborations have always been celebrated. For decades, regardless of qualifications or research foundations, academics have spoken out loudly for but also against one notion or another of interdisciplinarity. The specific form of interdisciplinarity (or transdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity and so on) is seldom defined or understood critically, in its historical context, and proponents rarely address each other. But these strong statements revolve around a common trope: the centrality of science as a model either to avoid or, more often, to emulate or imitate.

Science has a long and contradictory allure to humanists and social scientists – and a chequered legacy. “Following science” has an intellectual appeal, but the urge to do so also stems from inaccurate, stereotypical or outdated ideas about science’s status, recognition and funding.

On the one hand, certain “models” of science contributed to successful developments in many subjects, including social science history, historical demography, new political history and economic history, analytical bibliography, digital humanities, reader-response theories, and much more.

On the other hand, science can be a false and misleading goal/god. This is particularly true when academics imitate an image of “science” uncritically and outside its historical and intellectual context. Consider these examples.

First is the persisting confusion of interdisciplinarity as rhetoric and metaphor, as opposed to conceptualisation, methodology and analytical practice. For instance, one of the long-standing leaders of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies, Julie Thompson Klein, conflates interdisciplinarity with a whole roster of related but distinct concepts within the span of several pages in one article in the association’s in-house journal. These include integration, transdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transcendent interdisciplinary, interaction, intersection, relationality and translation, professionalisation, interprofessionalism, expansion, holistic and multilevelled, problem-solving, policy studies and team science. None of these terms is defined, but it is clear that some relate to concepts while others relate to practice. 

A second example is “quantum social science”, a newly minted enthusiasm replete with “summer boot camps”. Among its contradictions is its misunderstanding of both the historical origins of modern social science at the turn of the 20th century and the meaning of the term “quantum” in the context of the transformative quantum revolution and the shifting subsequent status of quantum physics in that discipline.

So often in the history of the humanities and social sciences, envy of the “hard sciences” exerts a superficial appeal to academics who suffer from an inferiority complex. This cultural phenomenon is also evident in my own field of literacy studies, with its proliferation of “new literacies”, such as blogging or podcasting. There, too, science is called into play in a number of the exaggerated claims of the uniqueness and power of each proclaimed new “literacy”.

“Quantum social science”, meanwhile, finds a rival in “neuroscientific literary criticism”. This is another metaphorical – not theoretical or analytic – misapplication from the sciences. As Deborah G. Rogers wrote last month in a review of Angus Fletcher’s new book on the topic, “When science wags literary criticism, the results are unfortunate...literature becomes a form of psychotherapy that releases oxytocin and cortisol. Reading stimulates neurotransmitters... unfortunately, most of these neurological claims are unsubstantiated and unsupported.”

To the contrary, Rogers advocates sound interdisciplinary research and interpretation, alongside knowledgeable interchanges between the humanities and the sciences. She emphasises relevant scholarly research and literary criticism, including cognitive theory-of-mind approaches and reader-response/reception theory.

We exist at a moment of suspended animation. Despite at least two generations of ground-breaking interdisciplinarity that draws on the sciences when relevant, scholars in the humanities and social sciences continue to succumb to the temptation of imitating reductionist and/or outdated conceptions of science without regard to their exemplars’ current status. 

This is faux interdisciplinarity. These professors do not do investigate the basics of their subject and alternative approaches to it. Crooked paths advance without signage or road maps, as if the past half century were absent or if their advocates could not visualise or locate the history. 

As for the non-debate over interdisciplinarity versus disciplinarity, the compelling question for our own times is how best they can cooperate and collaborate. This differs in fundamental ways from the much earlier “two cultures” debates, from which scholars must finally move on.

Harvey J. Graff is professor emeritus of English and history at Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history, including Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

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Reader's comments (2)

Yes. Beware bio-anthropogical determinism too. Using it even as a metaphor is risky.
The Author terms C.P. Snow's two cultures anachronistic...it should be, but perhaps it still persists here and there. An example just a few years ago is the reportedly frosty, indeed hostile, reception of K. P. Hardin (behavioural geneticist) while on sabbatical to the Russell Sage Fndtn, whose normal stable includes economists, sociologists etc. She was a test case for inclusion of biological science scholars to widen the remit of the Fndtn, and the outcome of the test was for the Fndtn to in future exclude any such genetics-based applicants.

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