New book — In Defense of Disciplines, by Jerry A. Jacobs


Jerry A. Jacobs.


In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University.

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Interdisciplinarity has become an increasingly powerful current in US universities and colleges. The virtues of promoting interaction among researchers from diverse fields and building bridges across academic units are taken for granted by many observers and university administrators. But the longer I investigated the matter, the more I became convinced that disciplines are an indispensable component of a dynamic university system. At the very least, any viable interdisciplinary arrangement will need to stand on a firm disciplinary foundation. A stronger version of the argument holds that interdisciplinary arrangements are much more specialized and transitional than most analysts have recognized.

Questions regarding disciplinary terrain quickly become matters of control, power and authority. Interdisciplinarity tends to shift control away from faculties and departments and toward higher echelons of university administrators. By concentrating university decision-making in the hands of a smaller set of players, an interdisciplinary system risks becoming overly centralized and thus losing the intellectual vitality that has thrived in our decentralized universities.

This project began innocently enough. During my term as Editor of the American Sociological Review, I wrote a short research note on ASR’s greatest hits as part of the commemoration of the centennial of the American Sociological Association. I became curious about how far and how fast these contributions travelled to different fields. It was only after pursuing this empirical question that I noticed how many universities were engaged in promoting cross-field initiatives.

The historical ascendance of disciplines as we have come to know them is remarkably recent – dating only to the close of the Second World War. The era of disciplinary influence has coincided with the greatest ever advances in knowledge and understanding. We need to better understand why disciplines have worked so well before we make major alterations in this basic unit of our university system.

Interdisciplinarity is a very slippery concept with many associated terms, meanings and configurations. The concepts of our field of organizations, occupations and work have proved most useful in analyzing this sometimes dizzying terrain.

As academic units, disciplines are broadly isomorphic across US higher education. They connect undergraduate majors, graduate degree programs, university departments and academic labor markets. Disciplines thus become distinct occupations in that a credential in the field is typically needed for entry. While there is no law against practicing sociology or history without a license, in recent decades departments with these names largely hired faculty with the corresponding credential. This tendency toward credential-based closure is also evident in many applied fields on campus, such as communications, criminal justice, social work and education. Yet in intellectual terms, disciplinary boundaries are remarkably porous, with ideas, techniques, flowing between fields with few obstacles and very little delay in many cases.

Interdisciplinary arrangements have long been prominent on campus. Indeed, interdisciplinary research centers, institutes and programs are far more numerous on the campuses of major research universities than are discipline-based departments. But the particulars of these vary among colleges and universities. Ironically, interdisciplinary domains are often quite narrow and fragmented compared with the broad range and integrative scope of the liberal arts disciplines.

The most successful interdisciplinary lines of inquiry paradoxically will quickly adopt many of the trappings of disciplinary arrangements – national meetings, a set of peer-reviewed journals, and increasing internal specialization as the field expands. What interdisciplinary units typically lack is the control of faculty hiring and the measure of intellectual autonomy that accompanies it.

In a world with more than 27,000 peer-reviewed academic journals, an academic division of labor is inevitable. Interdisciplinarity does little to overcome the need for specialization. Indeed, in the course of my research I identified hundreds of new academic journals which could best be described as ‘specialized interdisciplinary’ outlets — that is, connecting research and scholarship across fields but targeting a very narrow domain.

Another debate focuses on the role of interdisciplinarity in undergraduate education. This topic is also complex and multifaceted, and warrants its own extended consideration. Briefly, efforts to integrate education content around a central theme are more common and more effective in applied fields than they are in the liberal arts. The ironic contrast between specialized interdisciplinarity and broader liberal arts disciplines emerges here again.

I hope this brief essay raises questions about how the concepts of interdisciplinarity are being discussed or implemented on your campus. And of course I hope it piques your interest in my book, which is chocked full of interesting data, case studies and critical analyses.

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