A call for a new language for interdisciplinarity

Why do we still need to fight for the idea of interdisciplinarity? I recently reported on the Wellcome Collection Hub and Reading Room renovation for CultureLab. These two new spaces mark a watershed for active interdisciplinary research and its dissemination into the wider community.

In my article, I juxapose this most contemporary enterprise with that of the Gaberbocchus Common Room, set up in 1957 by Franciszka and Stefan Themerson – a project that has been brought to public attention by an excellent exhibition at London-based gallery GV Art.

What is striking when you read the Common Room paraphinalia, is that the rhetoric its users applied to collaborations between disciplines is almost word-for-word the same as that which we use today in debates around the globe on the future of art and science collaborations. What’s also striking is that the misappropriated Two Cultures rhetoric, which often used as a justification of the division between the disciplines of science and arts (rather than the call to bridge the differences between science and literature as it was intended by CP Snow), is the one most commonly applied to these interdisciplinary endeavours. As I recently asked UCL Natural Sciences and BASc undergraduates and post-grads at my seminar on interdisciplinarity – the benefits of sharing knowledge from many disciplines on a common theme seem so obvious, it’s a wonder we have to so constantly justify it.

So why does a divisive paradigm persist? It’s something I have discussed widely and have come to the conclusion that it is perpetuated by 3 main factors:

1) Institutional structure
* physical boundaries get in the way of people meeting and exchanging knowledge* a lack of flexibility in demands on time, deliverables and top-down structures for courses and assessment hinder exploration of ideas

2) Funding models
* eligibility requirements can stymie good ideas
* bias towards institutions conferring legitimacy for applicants – in an era of portfolio careers, interdisciplinarity and start-ups this loses a lot of good people
* assessment criteria for the success of a project are usually outcome-oriented and fairly immediate. they often neglect value in information exchange, networking and longer-term delivery or inspiration

and most importantly:
3) An inadequate lexicon for interdisciplinary endeavours, and interdisciplinary researchers
By naming something we make it real to ourselves. But by naming we also tie something down into a generalisation that loses its uniqueness and nuance. Negotiating this problem is an issue in interdisciplinary research, for which there is no established language. It is time to develop a new language for interdisciplinarity – something that allows those practicing a multi-faceted approach to knowledge to name themselves and thus persist in the social consciousness. It’s something that Giles Lane recently had a stab at with his notion of Public Agent, but I think we maybe need to move beyond an amalgamation of existing words, to create a new description of people who seek to know the world in a multi- or interdisciplinary way – focussing on their way of knowing, not their means of production.

This perhaps would have helped the Themerson’s endeavour, and their own historical reputations too.

So, I’m going to kick off with a suggestion to get the conversation going. I think we need to keep familiar syllables to make a new word – but you can by all means disagree and go elsewhere with it.

How about: Netknower ?

OK, your turn.


3 thoughts on “A call for a new language for interdisciplinarity

  1. Hi Kat,

    I think this is an important question for all of us who want to champion the many exciting things that are going on in the name of interdisciplinarity.

    For me, ‘being interdisciplinary’ (perhaps even ‘interdisciplinarity’) is a stance against over-specialisation and the less savoury aspects of academia that come from bureaucratisation or political or economic pressure.

    This stance embodies a thread – perhaps the principal thread – of Western education which holds to a holistic view of knowledge and education; it is believed that somehow the perfectly educated person (a being to which one aspires) is able to unite all knowledge within themselves.

    Thus we have the ‘universal man’ of the Renaissance, the Polymath of the 17th century, 19th century German Bildung, and so on. I think many 21st century interdisciplinarians can happily be placed in this tradition.

    Why might there be a new and concerted search for holism in knowledge and education at this point in history? Yesterday I was struck by @lucaturin ‘s comment here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cfvjNH1L1A about the use of the word ‘interdisciplinarity’ lagging ‘specialism’ by about nine decades. This is, he says, because ‘the more specialists you get the more desperate you are to have interdisciplinary people’. Certainly there is a desire amongst many to attempt to unify knowledge in the face of fragmentation – and this is to be lauded.

    However, there is another aspect to interdisciplinarity, which is perhaps peculiar to this age, something that distinguishes it from attempts at ‘holism’. And that is the desire, quite explicitly, to put existing disciplines together to get new knowledge, form new ideas, create new products. So we have economics and psychology giving us behavioural economics, engineering and ecology looking at one aspect of sustainability, human computer interaction involving computer scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists and others, and, of course arts/science collaborations.

    These sorts of interdisciplinary ventures rely on the existence of existing disciplines to give shape to their research programs. Many of these interdisciplinary partnerships grow organically from people simply pursuing their interests but some are a self-conscious attempts to clash silos together in the hope that something interesting will come out. I would say that this sort of interdisciplinarity is not much bothered about holism or universality, but what it has in common with that other stance is a healthy disregard for bureaucratic or artificial boundaries of knowledge.

    So I think we have two distinct but connected views of 21st century interdisciplinarity.

    This doesn’t help us much with the label, though! I’ve thought a lot about the label, but I don’t have another one yet.

    When I think of other rather general labels, like ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’, they seem to come with a bunch of attitudes and beliefs – albeit that these become widely contested, even perverted, over time.

    So might we look for some cluster of attitudes and beliefs that interdisciplinarians can get behind? What might these be?

    This is an unscientific list, but I think interdisciplinarians are for most of the following: creative endeavours, an openness to intellectual exchanges across established epistemic boundaries, a belief that knowledge can connect in surprising and revealing ways, an avoidance of jargon, an embracing of the popular or relevant – so long as it is not crassly populist, an embracing of amateur values and a suspicion of ‘deformation professionnelle’, less methodological analysis, collaboration, open-ended projects, less anxiety about vagueness, an ease with uncertainty, a generally progressive attitude to knowledge and learning.

    Do you agree with this as a partial list, at least?

    Where does this leave us with names? I’m still not sure. I do like the Connectivism of Downes and Siemens, though. This seems to capture much of the tenor of the age and links with your ideas about networks. Connectivism seems a necessary condition for interdisciplinary working, if not a sufficient one.

    But are we happy with being ‘Connectivists’?

    I’m not sure.

    More suggestions, please!

  2. I think the point you make about the lexicon for interdisciplinarity is important in moving beyond the silos in which we seem to find ourselves. I think that there is an interesting tension between the need for increasing interdisciplinary research, combined with the ever increasing need to become specialist in order to make significant discoveries in any given field– and that often interdisciplinary research thrives on the unexpected fireworks that arise when specialists (who speak in different languages) interact. So I think one important question is the degree to which we are looking for interdisciplinarity in research more generally — or indeed within one individual.

    In some ways I think the Common Room speaks to the interdisciplinary impulse within the individual, whereas funding models speak to interdisciplinarity within research more generally. On the latter, I think that ‘interdisciplinarians’ (such as ourselves!) can be great connectors, important bridges. That said, subject specialism is still absolutely necessary across the board (though I suspect that ever-narrowing-down on a particular subject area is at expense of individual interdisciplinarity). However, I think that increasing specialism begets the need for individuals who can act as translators, bridges, ‘net-knowers’, what-have you. Whose wide-ranging knowledge and interests should be appropriately channeled, supported, funded…

  3. Hi Kat, my notion of “public agency” was more about describing the ethos and aspiration of the kind of trans/interdisciplinary work I do (and less about new kind of job title). I feel that the barriers to interdisciplinary are as much to do with people’s sense of what they can cope with as with issues of tradition, structures and power etc. Years ago CASA / Space Syntax (at UCL) did some research into different ways people navigate through urban spaces; from memory, it broadly broke down into two types: most people prefer to follow the flow of main streets and other people towards a destination, whilst a much smaller proportion prefer to weave their own paths through small streets and alleyways using landmarks to guide them. Perhaps we are seeing a similar thing with interdisciplinarity : maybe a majority of people are more comfortable working within clearly defined constraints (such as a single discipline) whilst a smaller group prefer to strike out into the less familiar territories of collaboration and interdisciplinary working. I’ve been working in this way for over 20 years… I’ve heard countless people talk of their desire to embrace collaborative and interdisciplinary ways of working, but when push comes to shove they nearly always settle into a more traditional silo-based form of multi-disciplinary practice. Not everyone, it seems, wants to be a navigator; many are content to fulfil their role while someone else plots the ship’s course. The key is being able to explain why we (as interdisciplinarian’s) have the kind of privileged knowledge necessary to plot these kinds of courses to persuade both crew and captain to trust us.

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