Friday, February 14, 2014

Summary: Julie Thompson Klein, "The evolution of interdisciplinarity," in Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, Practice (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990), pp. 19-39.

This post is probably longer than many prefer.  I start with questions/common themes that grow out of Klein’s piece, and then below those bullets I offer information on the author and a summary of the article. Given that the article is a sweeping, linear history of the concept of “interdisciplinarity” from Plato/Aristotle to the 1980s, the summary (culled two times from my notes as it is) is long for a blog post, but (I hope) will serve as a useful shorthand tool for those of you returning to the article in the future for review or use in scholarly work. 

I am not familiar with the historiography of this concept to argue whether Klein’s historical conclusions are worthy of criticism and debate, so I offer some questions/common themes:

·       There is a common theme of calls for interdisciplinarity, mobilization of interdisciplinary discourse, and enacted interdisciplinary (through the reshaping of disciplines, the creation of hybrid disciplines, the establishment of research centers, funding agencies, journals, and so forth) but commonly with “results” that are disappointing or amenable to criticism?  What do we expect of interdisciplinarity?  How is it measured a success/failure and on what grounds?

·       Who does interdisciplinarity or is “best-suited,” to do it?  Plato and Aristotle thought this was the role of the philosopher?  Klein doesn’t really address how this question played out historically, but do we see claims today that certain people, scholars, disciplines, centers, places, spaces do interdisciplinarity better than others?

·       Klein presents interdisciplinarity as a reaction to various internal/external forces (e.g., making the university better “fulfill its social mission,” post WWII economic, political and cultural climate of issues that transcend disciplines, large-scale mission-oriented research, intellectual commitment to educating the “whole person,” concerns about the pitfalls of hyper-specialization), but to what extent can interdisciplinarity be less reactive but a pro-active means of legitimacy building in universities (perhaps proactive is also reactive)?

·       Klein traces how interdisciplinary forces can have a homogenizing effect in terms of epistemologies and types of theory employed across disciplines (e.g., a Marxist turn across literary criticism, sociology, history, geography).  Where and how do we see this today, especially when interdisciplinarity brings together disciplines understood as highly differentiated in theory and methods (e.g., the humanities and STEM fields).  Does one simply become an instrumental tool furthering the other’s epistemology or is there epistemological/theoretical confluence?  

·       What is an interdisciplinary approach? Despite Klein’s claims to the OECD’s primacy in defining terms, do we understand truly common definitions of inter-, multi-, pluri-, trans-disciplinarity? 

Author & Work
·       Wayne State (Detroit, MI)
·       Professor of Humanities, English/Interdisciplinary Studies and Faculty Fellow in the Office for Teaching and Learning
·       Ph.D. English, University of Oregon
·       Past president of the Association for Integrative Studies (AIS) and former editor of the AIS journal, Issues in Integrative Studies.
·       Career-long investment in elucidating and applying the concept of interdisciplinarity
·       Has written and edited at least eight books on the subject of interdisciplinarity:
·       Consults on interdisciplinarity worldwide

·       Chapter in a book considered the first comprehensive account of the concept of interdisciplinarity; book compiles a 91-page bibliography on the concept
·       The chapter traces the concept of interdisciplinarity (and the response of the university) historically (sweeping history for a 20-page chapter) from Plato and Aristotle through to the late twentieth century
·       Klein sets up a “problem of knowledge” or a “problem of parts” (inclusive of fragmentation and specialization) in which “interdisciplinarity”—whether formally referred as such or in concept—intervenes.
·       “Interdisciplinarity” does not emerge as a term until the twentieth century
·       Interdisciplinary as a concept rooted in the cultural heritage of the West (modern discource: “unified science,” “general knowledge,” “synthesis,” “integration”)
·       Plato’s “unified science” with Aristotle’s “first philosophy”
·       The concept informed the structure of curriculum in medieval education as it responded to early concerns of over-specialization; the unified whole of the modern university include “specialization in a community of general studies”; theme that became common of the ideal not meeting the reality
·       Attention to “the problem” of parts was always alive from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries with different conceptualizations of a “unity of knowledge offered by various thinkers (Hegel, Kant, Decartes, French Encyclopedists), BUT this was not prevailing thought; there was generally an “acceleration of the forces of differentiation” – empiricism, materialism, hierarchy, delineation of principles & nineteenth century penchant for “scientific or value-neutral” theories
·       “Wissenschaft” – “the totality of institutionalized scholarly and scientific pursuits – was questioned for its achievability
·       Eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, structure of higher ed greatly influenced by particularization of knowledge
·       Modern understanding of “disciplinarity” a product of the nineteenth century in response to: evolution of modern, natural sciences, “scientification” of knowledge, industrial revolution, technological advancement, agrarian agitation
·       Formalization of fields (history, economics, political science, sociology) in late-1800s to early 1900s
·       Persistent throughout history is the ongoing problem of applying the concept of interdisciplinarity in practice, confronting the common problems of: the structure of the academic unit, the politics of individual disciplines, questions over whether connections can be made between disciplines, questions over whether any concept can be so general as to encompass all disciplines

·       Interdisciplinarity as modern concept shaped by: 1) the reinstatement of historical ideas of unity and synthesis, 2) emergence of organized programs in interdisciplinary research/education, 3) the broadening out of existing traditional disciplines, 4) emergence of identifiable interdisciplinary movements

·       The social sciences and education exhibited the most momentum for interdisciplinarity in the first half of the 20th century:
o   Ideas about educating the “whole person” with precedents in Greek and Roman thinkers; Bouwsma’s “civic model” of the educated person forms the basis of many interdisciplinary programs today
o   In social sciences:
§  SSRC (established 1920s) to promote integration across disciplines
§  Two disciplinary movements within social sciences : 1) WWI to 1930s, the borrowing of techniques from other disciplines (quantitative methods of natural sciences) and the evolution of hybrid disciplines; 2) synthetic movement of Area Studies in 1930s (considered partial failure with “default” back to disciplines)
§  Promoting theoretical convergence as concepts and tools move across disciplines: logical postitivism
o   In education:
§  “Concentration” vs. “correlation” (co-existing doctrines)
§  “Integration” – consisting of integration of existing concepts and integrative building of new conceptual approaches, pedagogy, corpus of universal principles
§  Pring’s (1971) distinction between “integration” as raising epistemological questions and “interdisciplinary” as the use of more than one discipline in pursuing a line of inquiry
§  “transdisciplinarity” emerges as concept in 1970s
·       Mid-century:
o    Sees active promotion of interdisciplinarity via major educational reforms (Harvard “redbook” (1945) and Columbia/Tannenbaum’s use of “holistic”) to address excessive concentration (models followed by universities across America), BUT still amidst specialization
o   Synthetic theories having somewhat unifying impact on structure of inquiry: Marxism, structuralism, general systems theory, Braudel’s Annales School of history
o   Interdisciplinary journals arrive 50s – 70s
o   Interdisciplinary as embraced across disciplines, but no single interdisciplinary approach :
§  Sociology: debating whether to take on the epistemologies of the natural sciences or the humanities
§  American Studies
§  Post WWII earth sciences: shift to plate tectonics embraced the work of multiple disciplines
§  Growth of hyphenated sciences: biochemistry, biomedical engineering)
§  New fields like radioastronomy and dendrochronology
o   WWII instigating interdisciplinary applied research (on technical, political, and intellectual grounds)
o   Significant impact of government funded, “mission-oriented” and “problem-oriented” research of great size and scope (e.g., Manhattan Project created visible interdisciplinary presence on campuses); logic that real-world problems do not come in disciplinary boxes
o   Sputnik (1957) inspired expansion of funding (creation of NSF, NIH, Rand Corporation, Princeton Institute of Advanced Study)
o   Funders of mission-oriented projects disappointed in results (fell short of genuine integration, disciplinary chauvinism)

·       1970s onward – “Watershed Era” of Interdisciplinarity
o   Demand for universities to renew themselves – “experimental,” “cluster,” “satellite” programs
o   “Telic reforms” prompting new programs and new institutions
o   Major funding of interdisciplinarity heightening awareness (NSF, NEH, Carnegie, FIPSE)
o   OECD (1972 report) having “the greatest influence over the way interdisciplinarity is currently defined (provocations of this: worldwide reform in education, renewed protests against knowledge fragmentation, demands for university to fulfill its social mission)
§  New theoretical framework and typology of definitions – “multi-disciplinarity,” “pluridisciplinarity,” “interdisciplinarity,” “transdisciplinarity”
§  By 1980, OECD wants to examine interdisciplinarity exogenous to the university (community) – primacy of the practical
o   Professional associations dedicated to interdisciplinarity arise: AIS and Interstudy, as examples (by 1979)

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