In A Short History of Knowledge Production, Weingart concedes the boundaries of disciplines are softening, but disagrees with observers claiming a new interdisciplinary mode of knowledge production and distribution is displacing them. Instead he believes disciplines will coexist alongside newly emergent inter-, multi- and transdisiplinary research fields. Weingart makes his point while chronicling the evolution of the categorization of knowledge from Aristotle to today. While he does not make this point, it would seem to me that his account of the disciplinary changes that set the stage for the emergence of interdiciplines raises questions about whether interdiciplinarity is really a just a means of reconfiguring old disciplinary boundaries into new and narrower disciplines.
In his account, Weingart discusses the consequences of a discipline growing beyond the vantage point of any single scholar. He says that as disciplines grew to the point where their scholars could not know the work of all of their collogues, the discipline as a frame of reference and identification must have become abstract. Consequently, as disciplines grew over the course of the 20th century, they began to brake down from cohesive communities into fractured communities resulting in specialties and subdisciplines.
The process brings to mind the growth of a vast banyan tree, which as it grows sends new roots down to the ground from long reaching branches, developing new trunks. Eventually the tree can grow to cover several hectors and it’s many interconnected trunks may become indistinguishable from the original. Similarly, in Weingart’s account as a discipline grows the original discipline can eventually lose its function as a framework for problematizing, situating knowledge and orientating communication.
If as Weingart suggests, scholars in specialties and subdisciplines identify less and less with the original discipline as it grows, it logically follows that they might also become more open to establishing affiliations with outside scholars, setting the stage for the emergence of interdisciplinarity. Yet another change setting the stage for the emergence of interdisciplinarity was the technical and conceptual advancement of science. As science advanced it also expanded our perception of the world through new methods, tools and concepts, into new territories. And often these new territories did not fit nicely within the boundaries of any particular discipline. Weingart gives as an example new abilities to apply physics to biology, resulting in microbiology.
Weingart walks us through accounts of these and other changes in the categorization of knowledge over time to conclude that rather than disappear, disciplines will coexist alongside the newly emerging interdisciplinary fields. I highlight two of the changes he discussed, because I think they prompt uncertainty about whether the question Weingart addresses—will disciplines persist as interdiciplinarity emerges?—makes sense. I think it’s possible that interdiciplinarity merely represents a new way in which disciplines are reconfigured. In particular, it would seem to me that as advanced methods and concepts open up previously hidden objects and phenomena to study, that the orientations of our disciplines should change accordingly.
About the author:
Peter Weingart is a professor emeritus in the Sociology of Science at the University of Bielefeld, Germany. His research has focused on science and the media, public understanding of science, dynamics of knowledge and bibliometrics, and discourses between science, politics and the media. He has published widely in the sociology of science and has been very active in promoting science studies beyond the university.
Weingart says as the increasingly esoteric nature of knowledge increased the distance between disciplines and practical concerns grew, and also contributed to the overall loss of unity in science. How do you think interdisciplinary relationships have overcome this barrier?
Are applied fields the main driver for interdiciplinarity? And do you think interdisciplinary fields are likely to be more transient than disciplines?