On Managed Interdisciplinarity

by Jonathan Sterne on January 7, 2009

In an earlier post, I discussed the evacuation of meaning from the term “interdisciplinarity” and some forms that I consider to be more authentic attempts to get beyond limits of traditional–and nontraditional–disciplines.

One question often left unasked is why universities are now so interested in fostering certain kinds of interdisciplinarity. When I was first learning about university disciplines in the late 80s and early 90s, it was still very much in the “Theory” moment (to use Frederic Jameson’s term) and there was a lot of writing that assumed that remaining in one’s disciplinary space was fundamentally conservative (hence the proliferation of metaphors like “disciplinary silo”) and interdisciplinarity was fundamentally radical in some way.

Today, the world looks very different to me. Just as many interdisciplinary initiatives come from university administrations as they do from actual researchers working together. Sometimes, it’s a matter of efficiency: create a PhD in cultural studies and you can potentially avoid having PhDs in each of the humanities. Or if you’re in Ontario, create an interdisciplinary PhD and get more money flowing into your university while not expending additional resources (though of course your faculty will have to work harder). Or if you get people in business, liberal arts, and science working together you can bring in more grant money. None of these goals is inherently bad or regressive. I am not arguing that interdisciplinarity has been “sold out” in any of these cases. But it is worth noting that in each of them, the justification is institutional rather than intellectual and the ideas come after the fact: “here’s a group of people who should work together on a project: now make up a project.” Sometimes great good can come out of these kinds of initiatives. For instance, I have always thought every university needs an interdisciplinary humanities center, just so people can have occasions to come together and talk. But for every one of those, there are plenty of other plans hatched by administrators or grant agencies that have more to do with someone moving around institutional chess pieces or trying to get “more value for their money” as opposed to a genuine intellectual project. Maybe this was always the case and I just was unaware of the institutional dimensions as a student (or too eager to believe the radical posturing of capital-T-Theorists, which is also a possibility).

No matter how it happened, it has led me to a kind of double consciousness as a scholar. Yes, I believe my work is interdisciplinary (not the least because any field I could reasonably call a “home”–communication studies, cultural studies, science and technology studies–has a weak sense, if any, of itself as a discipline). It aspires to the kinds of interdisciplinary I mentioned in my first post on the subject, but it is always driven by specific intellectual questions (as opposed, for instance, to the need to speak for a field of “sound studies” or whatever). At the same time, I am more suspicious than I would like to be when others laud the interdisciplinarity of their own work or when I hear of a new interdisciplinary initiative. My first question now is always “why?”

tV January 9, 2009 at 12:14 am

I’m with you, especially in projects that claim to radically merge the arts, sciences, humanities, industry & *cough* some tech-capital of the day, such as the seemingly eternal ‘new’ media. Interdisciplinarity for me means developing a bridge between knowledges and practices. This means a deep proficiency in each kind of knowledge, a sense of its arguments and questions, its history and background.

Andrew Piper January 14, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Hi Jonathan and Happy New Year! You’ll be happy to know I’ve launched my own blog called The Book Report, relating to all things having to do with books around the globe. I will be rolling out some fancy statistics in the near future about book consumption habits once my RA gets finished crunching the numbers.

In the meantime, on interdisciplinarity: you know the thing is, just when you think it’s on the wane, that term keeps coming back. Sure, now people like to talk about transdisciplinarity (any ideas for an even newer prefix? paradisciplinarity anyone…), but here’s what I think is going on:

administrations (or institutes or whatever money holders) are usually the drivers of this these days. While this may be a money shell game, I actually think it has more to do with the fact that administrators usually have their ears closer to the “outside world.” Administrators listen to alums and board members and politicians and what they constantly hear, I am supposing, is this popular discourse about breaking down walls, increased collaboration, etc. in the corporate world.

So naturally we should do it too.

On the one hand, this confirms my suspicion that interdisciplinarity was always a code word for yet another feature of the corporatization of the university. But I actually can’t help and think that it also could represent (“could” is key here) a type of knowledge that was once historically very valuable and that we have lost touch with.

Specialization would simply not have made sense to someone like Goethe. It stood for everything that was wrong with understanding ourselves in the world. That specialization has assumed great scientific and thus industrial practicality, well, that may be a good thing no longer to support.

Critics, or even supporters of disciplinarity, always hang on to notions like deep or thorough, as though “disciplinarity” should just get bigger. But what happens if we just get rid of all the presuppositions upon which disciplinarity itself is built — what kind of knowledge do we get then?

I work in a national language department. Our role has traditionally been to support the coupling of territory, polity, and language. I can’t say I’m that psyched to uphold this particular outcome of disciplinarity.

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