Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Jacobs and Frickel's Critical Assessment

In the intro, the authors say these things are "constitutive of interdisciplinarity" but not really exactly on topic:
  • sociology of knowledge
  • scientific knowledge
  • knowledge economy
  • nature of social and cultural boundaries.
Since none of those existing research topics are *really* about interdisciplinarity, they need to write (and publish) this review article. I was left wondering, "Why are these well established lines of research not adequate for studying this thing we call interdisciplinarity?"

But on to the summarizing.....

The article is organized into four sections.
  1. Assumptions underlying interdisciplinarity
  2. Empirical view of connections between disciplines
  3. Long-term historical perspective
  4. Proposing a research agenda on "determinants and consequences"
Section 1
I'm skeptical of the top-down versus bottom-up framework the authors try to set up. The define the "top" as federal funding agencies and the "bottom" as faculty and academic journals. Considering that they use institutional concepts later on in section three, they should have noticed that agencies, faculty, and journals are all part of the same field of institutions, thus limiting the power of this particular section.

Possibly the most interesting point of the whole article is on page 48. The authors note that it is *by assumption* that disciplines represent barriers to interdisciplinary research; and that reducing those barriers (i.e. weakening disciplines) will "enhance conditions for the efficient production of interdisciplinary knowledge."

They're on to something here: Isn't it equally possible that strong disciplinary structures (PhD training, hiring, journals, funding agencies) make for more and better interdisciplanarity research?

Section 2
One of the key pieces of evidence in the second section is the number and patterns of citations in published research. They suggest that the cumulative research on citations shows quite clearly that there are integrated and insular disciplines. However,

What is not clear is what distinguishes well-connected from poorly connected fields and what the optimum level of crossdisciplinary citation ought to be. Much of the disciplinary self-citation rates may reflect the nature of academic specialization rather than artificial barriers to communication posed by the disciplinary organization of academic departments. (pg 49)
With a number of caveats, the authors suggest that more so than men,
Rhoten & Pfirman (2006) find that women scientists are engaged in cross-fertilization activities, form cross-disciplinary collaborations, and participate in institutional efforts of emerging interdisciplines and problem-oriented research at greater rates (pg 52)
 Section 3
Pages 54-56 are basically the authors' summary and analysis of the Abbott  and Turner pieces we read last week.

Pages 57-60 try to position the formation of interdisciplines within the framework of social movements theory. They suggest that idea formation, university bureaucracy (e.g. research centers), and disciplinary hiring practices carry out the basic functions of institutional versus counter-institutional functions as described in current social movements literature.

A small detail I'm wondering: In table 3 on page 59, it appears that Computer Science is the most interdisciplinary field based on the degrees held by faculty members -- is this a substantive finding or a hold over from CS/Math department fights of the 1960s?

Section 4
Like all good academics the authors end with more questions than answers. They have so many good questions I'll just list them:
  • in what contexts is the centralized promotion of interdisciplinarity effective, and in what circumstances is interdisciplinarity more successful when it percolates from the bottom up? 
  • Do departments with faculty from multiple disciplinary backgrounds promote interdisciplinary scholarship or just an additional level of faculty infighting? 
  • What types of interdisciplinary research centers are most dynamic? Which tend to be most enduring? 
  • Is the hiring of established senior scholars whose work crosses disciplinary boundaries more effective as a strategy than hiring newly minted PhDs with cross-disciplinary training? 
  • What can we learn from the history of disciplinary and interdisciplinary research that would give us further insights into the efforts to promote interdisciplinarity? 
  • can general criteria be developed that would indicate the appropriate level of communication between disciplines? 
  • Can general criteria be developed for the evaluation of interdisciplinary research?
On the whole a good paper, but I found it kind of bloodless. The authors pay lots of attention to texts -- all of the tables are about journal articles and degrees  -- but not as much attention is paid to money, the role of a research university in the world, or the the connection between education and jobs.

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