Sunday, March 16, 2014

Is Interdisciplinarity Vastly Over-Rated?


Interdisciplinarity is clearly the flavor of the month (read: two decades) among the academic cognoscenti. Although it makes for entertaining popular press, what's the real intellectual benefit of a top-down interdisciplinary "industrial policy"? Difficult question! That's not necessarily to suggest that there is no benefit; rather, it's simply to suggest that the issues are subtle and deserving of serious thought from all sides.

Hence it's refreshing to see a leading academic throw his hat in the ring with a serious evidence-based defense of the traditional disciplines, as does Penn sociologist Jerry Jacobs in his new book In Defense of Disciplines.

Perhaps the best thing I can do to describe the book and whet your appetite is to reprint some of the book's back-cover blurbs, which get things just right. So here goes:

“Jerry Jacobs’s new book provides the missing counterpoint to the fanfare for interdisciplinary collaboration that has swept over much of academe during the last three decades. Thanks to Jacobs’s creative and painstaking research, we now know that disciplines are not the ‘silos’ they are so often made out to be; instead, they are surprisingly open to good ideas and new methods developed elsewhere. Nor are universities rigidly bound to the disciplines—instead, they, routinely foster interdisciplinary work through dozens of organized research centers. This book is more than a necessary corrective. It is a well-crafted piece of social science, equally at home in the worlds of intellectual history, organizational studies, and quantitative methods. It deserves to be read by all who care about the future of universities—defenders and critics of the disciplines alike.” (Steven G. Brint, University of California, Riverside)

“At a time of undue hoopla about interdisciplinarity, this is a sobering, highly readable, and data-driven defense of retaining disciplinary units as the primary mode of organizing research universities. A must read for those concerned with the future of knowledge innovation.” (Myra H. Strober, Stanford University)

“This is a timely, subtle and much needed evaluation of interdisciplinarity as a far reaching goal sweeping around the globe. Jerry Jacobs sets new standards of discussion by documenting with great new data the long term fate of interdisciplinary fields and the centrality of disciplines to higher education and the modern research university.” (Karin Knorr Cetina, University of Chicago)