Crossing borders can be risky but rewarding

April 2, 2004

Interdisciplinarity is necessary and can lead to new insights but it must retain a critical edge, says Stephen Rowland

The most exciting areas for research lie between and across disciplinary boundaries. These boundaries also have to be crossed if academic knowledge is to address the problems of the wider world, for the world does not present itself to us in disciplinary chunks. The pressure to work with those from different disciplines is increasing. With discussions of university research and research training becoming governed by utilitarian principles and economic imperatives, interdisciplinarity is fashionable, but it has its dangers. How can cultures with different ways of doing things and different assumptions engage with each other helpfully yet critically?

Use of ordinary language is a problem. Take the controversy over James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis. For some, his idea that the planet Earth is alive and should be treated with the respect due to life was a triumph in interdisciplinary insight, a new paradigm for a humanitarian science. For others, it was an abuse of scientific method. The problem arises from how the word "alive" is used. Evidence, knowledge, research and truth are other words that, in ordinary language, or in discussion with people who share our standpoint, give us no problem but that, in the context of interdisciplinary discussion, can cause confusion.

Interdisciplinary collaboration requires an understanding of the slipperiness of language when it is put to work in unfamiliar contexts. It also demands that we attempt to clarify our terms. But even the concept of precision varies in different disciplinary frameworks. Scientists and lawyers value a clear definition of terms, but for the poet precision depends more on richness of evocation, connotation and association.

Lovelock's hypothesis may have lacked definition, but it was powerful. It reminded us of the ethical, spiritual and aesthetic considerations of earthly life. But are such considerations aspects of science? And are scientists the best people to tell us? Are artists the most reliable informants about the nature of art? Are doctors authorities on what it means to be healthy? Or is there much to be learnt about our own discipline from the inhabitants of a different disciplinary "country"?

The question is sharpened when we think about policy. What is the role of biotechnologists in developing policies on the use of genetic modification? Scientists and statisticians may inform us about the causes and risks involved in their innovations, but can they help us to evaluate responsibility and levels of acceptability? When is an outsider's view to be welcomed rather than dismissed as ignorant?

Some suggest that the disciplines have become an irrelevant mode of knowledge production geared more to the concerns of academics to preserve their elites and to solve their problems than to engage with the world outside. The terms "transdisciplinary" and "multidisciplinary" have been used to describe knowledge that is geared to the solution of practical problems by transcending disciplinary boundaries. But there is a danger.

Even if we could remove disciplinary boundaries, would we not remove the forms of critique that characterise disciplinary thinking? Academics value critique, and society needs innovation founded upon critical understanding.

Concerns for the grounds for criticism, however, are fundamental to any discipline. Education, research or problem-solving that too readily transcend disciplinary boundaries without any disciplinary home or commitment are in danger of lacking a critical orientation. The ability to solve technical problems may be gained, but an awareness of the value of solutions may be lost.

We should not be seduced into believing that we can leave behind the disciplinary roots that nourish our critical faculties. Interdisciplinary work can be exciting, but it is hard. It involves negotiating disciplinary boundaries, not removing them. It is conducted in a spirit of openness and contestation with a preparedness to listen and learn. But it does not give up on the need for critical judgement.

Marcel Proust said that the real voyage of discovery is not about seeking new lands but about seeing with new eyes. Interdisciplinary work provides not so much the opportunity to learn about new things but to open our eyes to different ways of knowing the familiar. The boundaries may lie in our own ways of seeing and our own ways of listening. And they are not easy to cross.

Stephen Rowland is professor of higher education at University College London and co-founder of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies of Higher Education,  www.ucl.ac.uk/cishe

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