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.