Interdisciplinarity (part 2)

Remember Kuhn’s Two Dozen. A “paradigm shift” is, first of all, a change in the minds of a small group of people, precipitated by a variety of pressures, both social and material, emotional and intellectual. And since interdisciplinarity works “between disciplines” it is natural think it works between paradigms, even that the point of interdisciplinary research is to bring about a “revolution” or at least a shift out of an established discipline’s way of thinking. One imagines that the interdiscipline is defined by the disciplines it brings together, but also therefore by its difference from these disciplines. One imagines the “interdiscipline” is simply the interstice, the space between, the disciplines.

But this is of course not true. Most interdisciplinary work happens where the concerns of two or more disciplines overlap. It is not the free exercise of thought in an empty space but the no-less-disciplined attempt to hold our observations accountable to multiple areas of expertise. What this means is that interdisciplinary work is also guided by a “paradigm”, which includes a set of exemplars of the kind of work, perhaps originally carried out within the existing disciplines, that the interdisciplinary collaboration would put on a more explicit formal grounding. This implies submitting to the same variety of pressures I started by mentioning:  both social and material, emotional and intellectual. In other words, you’re looking for another two dozen people whose minds you want to change, only this time working in different disciplines.

You also want them to be able to change your mind. You’re looking for peers who are qualified to engage seriously with your work. You want them to understand, or at least be capable of understanding, both your theories and your methods. You don’t want them to have to trust you on anything of great importance.

Interdisciplinarity, then, does not imply an intellectual vacuum. Don’t let your attempt to bring theories together isolate you from the theorists you want to talk to. Think of the inter-discipline as a community made up of members of various “home disciplines” and try to think of these people as peers in a meaningful sense. They should understand (or be able to understand with relative ease) each other’s theories; they should be able to understand (and, when they do understand, respect) each other’s methods. Being interdisciplinary does not let you deflect all criticism; it obligates you to deal with the criticism of particular people who are working in the same space that you are.

If there really is no one else working in the space you want to explore, I strongly caution you against going that way with your research. You are likely to suffer great intellectual loneliness and, worse, you are likely to make mistakes that no one will be able to help you see. You won’t be able to ask for help, and you won’t be able to listen to advice. So please, as you would under entirely “normal” (in Kuhn’s sense) conditions, find one or two dozen people whose work interests you and who you think might be interested in yours. Learn their names and what they are up to. Then build your own discipline in an attempt to earn their respect.

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