What does it mean to be interdisciplinary?


This semester, I took a class where we spent a lot of time talking about what it means to be an interdisciplinary scholar. The class was kind of a mess. We talked about being interdisciplinary all semester, but never got anywhere. In fact, on the last day of class we collectively realized that we still did not have a working definition of interdisciplinary research, let alone a definition of science or the humanities.

So, in an effort to construct some value from this class, I’m going to write my thoughts down – with definitions – and go from there.

As I’ve made clear in the past, I am a scientist. Depending on the day or my mood, if pressed harder I’d tell you I’m either a psychologist or a cognitive scientist. Frankly the distinction is pretty vague from my vantage point. But what does it mean to do science or to be a scientist? What are the underlying assumptions? What do I even do?

One thing I was surprised to learn early in grad school is there is no clear definition of science. As an outsider, I was confounded. All I really knew about science leading up to that point was The Scientific Method, skepticism, and an attempt to explain reality through observation. When you don’t think about it too hard, that seems to paint a pretty clear picture science. Closer inspection, however, shows that this definition is incomplete. More than incomplete, there is disagreement about what science is! So, I’ll share with you where I’m coming from.

There are three primary texts from which I draw my current understanding of science: Susan Haack’s Defending Science – within reason, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and Alfred Crosby’s The Measure of Reality. (I have Annie Lang to thank for introducing me to all three.)

My main take-away from Crosby is that societal constructs that work under the surface can greatly impact our understanding of the world. Crosby calls this our mentalité. Mentalité is so insidiously subtle that attempting to define your own mentalités are exceedingly difficult. So, I’ll use one of Crosby’s examples to illustrate something seemingly bizarre by our standards: time.

In Ye Olde Days, prior to the prevalence of clocks, people viewed time as fluid and vague. Think about it. Information could only travel distances as fast as the fastest horse. News from far away would be difficult to collect and analyze in a specific order for people living now. But for people living then, it wasn’t really a concern because that’s just how things worked. Time was inconsistent and relative.

I can’t wrap my brain around that. I can read about it, I can think about it, but I can’t empathize with it. I can’t try it on and think like that. Crosby argues that I can’t do it because the people in this example have a different mentalité about time. Mentalités are not hard wired from birth, but they’re learned implicitly and are constantly reinforced. Undoing that kind of statistical learning would take immense work.

What all of this says to me personally is that humans are incapable of being objective, and also incapable of being aware of their blind spots caused by mentalités. Mentalités even help dictate what kinds of questions are asked and how they are answered. Powerful stuff.

Kuhn’s work on the history of science is profound and highly contentious, even some 55 years after it was first published. Kuhn says, in short, that everything you learned about the history of science was wrong. In grade school, I was taught the history of atomic theory. The story starts in Greece (and India!) in philosophy. Then Dalton with the first measures of atomic weights in the 18th century. Later there was Avogadro and Bohr and so forth.

Kuhn says that’s all crap. Bohr has nothing to do with Ancient Greece. Kuhn argues that scientific knowledge isn’t cumulative. Instead, it is destructive. Kuhn talks about paradigms as a way to describe eras of scientific knowledge. Ancient Greece and India may have been talking about similar things to Bohr, but Bohr’s knowledge does not come from them. Let me use another example: Newtonian physics.

Physics is a staple of the high school curriculum. I remember my Physics teacher, Mr. Pettit, explaining early in the class that we would be learning Newtonian physics but we should keep in mind that Newtonian physics is wrong. (Of course, it’s still useful in day-to-day life and that’s why it’s taught!) Einstein didn’t build on Newton: he blew it up. Einsteinian physics is fundamentally incompatible with Newtonian physics. Countless minds kept poking at Newtonian physics and finding flaws. Efforts were made to patch these flaws, but it was clear this was a sinking ship long before Einstein. The problem was, no one had a better answer until then.

This old notion of cumulative knowledge of science commonly uses a metaphor of building a house, but Kuhn says this is flawed. If Newton built the foundation with round pegs and round holes, Einstein’s first floor using square pegs and square holes won’t work. Also, this metaphor of house building suggests that there is a clear goal. But is that reasonable? If so, what is that goal? Is the goal to know everything? I doubt even the most hard-nosed objectivist would ever assert that humans as a species could ever actually know everything. If, instead, the goal is to better explain reality than previously possible, there is a direction, but there isn’t a goal.

And remember Crosby? As mentalités shift, so do the kinds of questions we ask. Mentalités provide implicit structure to science, and paradigms are the next layer. They’re much more explicit, but they too provide structure. Anyone could go out and study alchemy, but the field isn’t exactly thriving anymore. The prevailing paradigm does not include Alchemy.

Finally, my favorite: Haack. I want to someday give Haack the full attention she deserves, so I’ll be brief here. Haack attempts to contextualize science in society. She synthesizes Crosby and Kuhn, and puts them into the current social and political landscape. In short, Haack says that science can do a lot of things, but because we are imperfect human beings, we need to stay skeptical. Science is not fact. Science does not “prove” anything. But science is the best we’ve got and it’s incredibly powerful. Good science acknowledges and limits subjectivity, but it never claims to eliminate it.

Whew! So there you have it: a primer on my epistemology and ontology. And I basically co-opt Haack’s definition of science wholly.

Don’t worry. My definition of the humanities will be much more brief (and probably cringe-inducing to those that know better than I do). All I know about the humanities is conjecture. I spent some time as a member of a digital humanities scholar group – how I got in is unclear to me – and I am learning from my humanities classmates in the new Media School at IU.

Subjectivity and interpretation seem to be at the core of the humanities scholarship I’ve been exposed to. There is no attempt to answer questions directly but instead craft compelling arguments. I have to assume this means the humanities assume there is no objective reality and everything is relative. The story or argument is the answer itself.

And so now the question: what does it mean to be interdisciplinary?

My view of science argues that there is an objective reality and we can interact with and measure it. We probably get it wrong some/most/all of the time, but through empirical evidence and rigor, we can at least demonstrate our findings and produce things that reliably work. I am typing this on a computer, after all. Clearly, scientific knowledge can at least be functional.

My understanding of humanities says that there is no objective reality and everything is relative. Answers are not interesting, but the arguments that precede them are. I think humanities scholars may disagree with this, but if everything is relative then I don’t see how answers actually matter.

Before I can attempt to reconcile these two fields, I need to first define what it means to be interdisciplinary. In the class I was talking about at the beginning of this post, we read a profoundly awful book about interdisciplinary research. It was Really Egregiously and Profoundly Knavish and Oafish. I won’t name it, but maybe you can figure out what I’m talking about. The book didn’t really put in the effort to define interdisciplinary research. So I’ll try.

“Inter” is a prefix that means between. So interdisciplinary research can first and foremost be thought of “between disciplines.” So what is a discipline? I’ll use some shorthand and say that the classic institutional departments more or less align with disciplines: English, Physics, Psychology, etc.

Interdisciplinary research is when a scholar or scholars produce a work that synthesizes two or more disciplines into one example of research in such a way that elements from the two disciplines are intertwined and impossible to separate without rendering the research fundamentally broken.

In other words, a large report on the impacts of shortages on rainfall that has sections dedicated to ecology, sociology, and chemistry is not interdisciplinary. It is multidisciplinary. The section of sociology could be dropped without fundamentally breaking the other sections. Of course, the scope of the research would be narrower, but it would still “work.”

To me, interdisciplinary research is rare and often game-changing. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid comes to mind. Hofstadter brought together comparative literature, cognitive psychology, philosophy, and mathematics in such a way that they could not be disentangled. I don’t think it is incidental that this book is also one of the founding texts of Cognitive Science. Interdisciplinary research makes something fundamentally new from old parts.

I do think there are varying levels of analysis, though. For example, the Media School at IU is interdisciplinary. It combines vastly different scholars that all study media in radically different ways. The Media School wouldn’t be the Media School if one kind of scholar was removed from the mix. It would be fundamentally changed.

However, as a scholar in the Media School, I do not see myself as interdisciplinary. Sure, I seek sources of outside inspiration like any other inquisitive mind but at the end of the day, I’m doing Psychology. I might borrow from Music, but I twist it around and mold it to fit into Psychology.

It would also be possible for me to contribute psychology research to a larger work that another scholar synthesizes with another discipline in such a way that it becomes an interdisciplinary work. But I still didn’t do the heavy lifting.

To purposefully understate it: interdisciplinary work is very hard and very rare. Let it come to you. Don’t force it.

In the preface to GEB, Hofstadter talks about feeling like he had a question that couldn’t be answered within any one discipline. So he set aside all of those boundaries and struck out on his own. I can’t fathom the risk he took. I would be willing to bet that for every GEB, there’s thousands of malformed monstrosities and failed experiments out there.

There is a lot of pressure  to be (and in turn, evaluative sentiments about) interdisciplinary, as if it’s a desirable goal. And sure! I’d love to achieve a truly interdisciplinary work. But I don’t feel like I have an itching urge like Hofstadter. At least not yet. I also don’t feel like I know enough about my own discipline to feel constrained. This is probably because I exist in two interdisciplines: Media and Cognitive Science. The disciplines are defined by their object of study and not much else. There is little, if anything, that is out of bounds. To be interdisciplinary, I think you need to fight your way out of your box. I haven’t found the walls of my boxes yet, and I’m not sure I ever will.

So what does this all mean? Attempting to be interdisciplinary is a waste of time and effort. It’s also disingenuous scholarship. Instead, seek to answer questions you have in whatever way you think best serves the question.

Thanks for reading.