Best outcomes for interdisciplinary goals: Double-down on silos?

I teach and research in Communication Studies, which has been described both as an academic discipline and an interdisciplinary field. Even those who insist on the “discipline” label as a matter of scholarly identity will admit that the discipline is internally quite “interdisciplinary”: there are not only numerous and diverse sub-fields (e.g., relational/interpersonal, organizational, rhetoric and public address, mass communication, cultural media studies, etc.), but numerous and diverse approaches to study (e.g., close textual analysis, qualitative ethnography, quantitative content and audience analyses, experimental design, etc.). One of the things I love about my discipline is the potential it has to put diverse scholars in conversation with one another in areas of common interest — for me, for example, political communication, media studies or visual communication. But like any discipline, it has its devotees of narrow research silos as well. And these folks are often accused of insularity and an unwillingness (perhaps an incapacity?) to speak to others outside their silo when cross-silo collaboration should be encouraged.

Moreover, some of my best friends are in interdisciplinary area studies! (How’s that for a backhanded compliment?) Fields such as gender studies, Africana studies, environmental studies and so on are rich with possibility not just for interdisciplinary research, but for teaching and public advocacy as well. And the growing economic and social pressures on colleges and universities have sometimes led to the encouragement of interdisciplinary collaboration for scholars in disciplines whose silos are having difficulty meeting market demand in areas such as student enrollment (he said with some distaste).

But while interdisciplinarity is enjoying a moment of seemingly uncontroversial approval in higher education, the champions of academic disciplines are pushing back… and with some compelling reasons. From my tomorrows-professor e-mail listserv (have you subscribed yet?), here’s a provocative piece originally in Inside Higher Ed (which you should also follow… details below).


The posting below offers a counter argument to the emphasis on interdisciplinary research in higher education. It is by Scott Jaschik and it appeared in the February 26, 2014 issue of Inside Higher Ed, an excellent – and free – online source for news, opinion and jobs for all of higher education. You can subscribe by going to: Also for a free daily update from Inside Higher Ed, e-mail <>. Copyright 2014 Inside Higher Ed. Reprinted with permission.

Rick Reis  (

A Call to Embrace Silos

Everyone, it seems, wants to promote interdisciplinary work. College and university presidents love to announce new interdisciplinary centers. Funders want to support such work. Many professors and graduate students bemoan the way higher ed places them in silos from which they long to free themselves, if only they could get tenure for interdisciplinary work.

Jerry A. Jacobs, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, wants to end the interdisciplinary love fest. His new book, In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University (University of Chicago Press), challenges the conventional wisdom that academe needs to get out of disciplines to solve the most important problems and to encourage creative thinking. The most significant ideas (including those related to problems that cross disciplines) in fact come out of specialized, discipline-oriented work, Jacobs argues. Further, he says that the idea that disciplines don’t communicate right now is overstated — and that such communication can be encouraged without weakening disciplines.

[more after the jump]

Take climate change. The approach in vogue today would be to say that the problem should be tackled by environmental sciences programs, which indeed have proliferated. Jacobs said that a research university doesn’t need such a program to contribute. “We need people to drill into Arctic ice. We need people to come up with cap-and-trade agreements. We need people to develop better solar panels. And we need people to study ocean currents,” said Jacobs, ticking off just a few of the areas of expertise that some universities would group together.

Jacobs doesn’t dispute that all of these types of expertise are important. He just questions whether the cap-and-trade expert should be removed from the political science or economics department, and whether the person drilling into the ice needs to be hanging out with the scholar focused on the sun. “Really, does the solar panel guy need to know how to go up to the North Pole? If they learn more about the North Pole, will that make them better at solar panels?”

There is some irony to Jacobs offering a critique of interdisciplinary work. He wrote the book while serving as the founding president of the Work and Family Researchers Network, an interdisciplinary association itself. He said that he’s not so much “against interdisciplinarity” as he is trying to defend disciplines. “Interdisciplinarity depends on strong disciplines,” he said.
He said he became interested in the topic while serving as editor of American Sociological Review. He wanted to see if the articles in that journal were showing up as citations in the work of non-sociologists, and found that they were, leading him to question the idea that disciplines don’t communicate with one another. Using National Science Foundation data, he looked at where science journals are cited, and found that a “substantial minority” of citations come in other fields.

Citation Outside of Disciplines

Discipline                                      % of Citations From Outside Field

Physics                                                    18.3%

Chemistry                                               31.0%

Earth and space sciences            16.8%

Mathematics                                       22.6%

Biology                                                     38.3%

Biomedical research                       24.6%

Clinical medicine                               28.6%

Engineering and technology     38.1%

Psychology                                            34.5%

Social sciences                                    22.7%

Jacobs then analyzes the various social sciences, and finds that scholars in the interdisciplinary field of area studies are more likely to cite non-area studies work than their own fields, while economics scholars are mostly likely to cite their own field. “These data on cross-field citations raise an important question for advocates of interdisciplinarity, namely whether the fields that are most open to external ideas are also the most intellectually dynamic,” Jacobs writes. “If this were true, area studies would be the envy of the social sciences, and economists would be busy trying to figure out how best to emulate the success of areas studies scholars. In fact, the reverse is true: economics is the most influential field in the social sciences, and it is also the most inwardly focused.”

This doesn’t mean that scholars should look down on other fields, Jacobs said. As a sociologist, he depends on the work of statisticians, for example, but that doesn’t mean that statistics and sociology should be a single discipline.

Disciplines, he said, should award doctorates and teach undergraduate majors, and have departments that hire the Ph.D.s trained in the field. This, he said, produces a coherence that is needed and a differentiation from other disciplines that allows them all to make contributions.

Jacobs devotes considerable space to American studies and questions whether it has become a discipline. He notes that much of the work it publishes comes out of literature and history departments, and many of the instructors come from literature or history Ph.D. programs, and that these Ph.D. programs must remain close to those fields to place their graduates. This suggests a lack of independence, he writes.

There is no dispute that good scholarship has appeared through American studies and other interdisciplinary programs, so why worry about the trend? First, Jacobs said it is important to note that there are many different types of interdisciplinary programs, each with their own risks and rewards. But one division he makes is between “rich man’s interdisciplinarity” and “poor man’s interdisciplinarity.”

The rich version is “let’s go build a nanotechnology center,” and this is the kind of effort that “presidents and provosts love to talk about.” These efforts are typically well-funded, although Jacobs warns that, in many cases, true success at building such a center may take longer than a president’s tenure, potentially leaving a program without backing by the next administration.

Then there is interdisciplinarity that involves grouping together departments that are viewed as too small (sociology and anthropology on some campuses, physics and astronomy on others, many language programs). “This is about programs that don’t have quite enough students getting smushed together,” Jacobs said. “It usually doesn’t save a lot of money unless faculty lines are cut, but it cuts a secretary’s position” — hardly enough to balance a college’s budget.

And both types of interdisciplinarity involve ceding control from faculty-led departments to administrators. “When we hire a sociologist, that’s my field, and I have some say in that,” said Jacobs. “If we are going to appoint someone with the Wharton School and sociology, the dean is involved.” And when new units are created, senior administrators are involved in selecting topics, areas of expertise and the curriculum. While many faculty members are excited about interdisciplinarity, they should be more skeptical, he said.

The push for interdisciplinarity “fits with current managerial ideology, and increases the power of administrators.” His goal with the book is not that academe should shut down all interdisciplinary programs, but that professors and administrators shouldn’t rush so quickly to assume everything interdisciplinary is good or that we would be better off in a post-disciplinary world. “Research universities are one of the greatest things ever created, and they are built on disciplines,” he said.

Jacobs is well aware that not everyone is convinced.

Another new book on interdisciplinarity takes a much more favorable review of the landscape. Sustainable Knowledge: A Theory of Interdisciplinarity (Macmillan) is by Robert Frodeman, who is founding director of the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity at the University of North Texas.

He sees a very different future than does Jacobs. “Disciplines will not disappear. But disciplinarity, the belief that academic work is complete when it has met standards internal to a given discipline, will,” he said, via email. “We live in an age where academic autonomy will increasingly be hemmed in by demands for greater accountability to society. Academics would do well to recognize these trends and work with them, rather than mindlessly opposing them.”

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