why interdisciplinarity does not work


One of the many added bonuses of Chaos of Disciplines is a nice discussion of the structural impediments against interdisciplinary work in the sciences. Talk about interdisciplinarity in academia in general and the social sciences in particular, is sometimes maddening, precisely because it occurs at such an ideological level (in the older vulgar Marxist sense) so far removed from the realities of the knowledge-political-economy of academic work. Abbott does a nice job of situating the discussion on the concrete realities of academia as a professional disciplinary complex. While at the beginning of the book he dismisses (in a footnote) a large stream of “older” sociology of science as being different from his approach (Collins, Ben-David, Wheatley, Fuchs, Crane) his theoretical approach actually shares a lot (and owes a lot) to this line of thinking, which was the first one to apply simple insights from the study of organizations to science as a knowledge production endeavor.

So why is true interdisciplinary work so rare and so hard to foster? Here are some important reasons:

Segregated labor markets dominated by professional associations. As long as academic labor markets continue to be embedded in the large professional associations, interdisciplinarity will continue to be a pipe dream. While grad students come into academia all wide-eyed and naive and ready to break the boundaries of disciplines, come that 5th year, their dissertations projects are invariably reduced to some sort of disciplinary endeavor (“a [fill in the blank with your favorite disciplinary sub-theory] approach to…”). Why?

Product identity and market classification processes. When working on discipline-segregated labor markets dominated by large professional associations, young PhDs are force to “sell” their project to prospective disciplinary employee. A dissertation that cannot be easily classified as “sociological,” “economics,” “political science,” etc. will fall on deaf ears and you will be out of business. Market classification and product identity (as in the work of Ezra Zuckerman) processes work against interdiscplinary work here even when being considered for an “interdisciplinary” job (i.e. area studies). Thus, most interdisciplinary departments end up hiring disciplinary PhDs, precisely because the people in them themselves have a disciplinary background. However, why are we constantly being barraged by “calls” for interdisciplinary work even as the structural arrangements responsible for the diachronic reproduction of positions in academia mitigate against it?

Interdisciplinarity is the weapon of the weak. In the knowledge-political-economy of academic work, strong disciplines do not benefit from the break down of disciplinary boundaries (by strong disciplines I mean resource-rich, cognitively legitimate entities with relatively high internal consensus on subject matter and methodological approach); on the contrary they benefit from the maintenance of strong ritual boundaries across disciplines and from keeping out weaker disciplines peddling (de)constructivist views on theory and methods. This means that the strongest disciplines (in social science economics and political science) tend to be disciplinary and seldom join bandwagons for “interdisciplinarity.” Most of this inter-dis rumbling comes from the weaker disciplines (history, anthropology, languages, etc.) with sociology (as always) in the middle.

This dynamic cuts across levels of aggregation (self-similarity), so that at multiple slices of the academic pie the same division obtains with those who are in dominant positions supporting disciplines while those who are in dominated positions supporting the destruction of disciplinary boundaries. Thus, in most disciplines, women and racial minorities tend to be more interdisciplinary than men; younger and older scholars tend to be more interdisciplinary than scholars in the prime of their career (in fact, this can get exasperating, with older scholars who have accumulated a ton of reputational capital tending to turn sympathetic to the interdisciplinary cause in their later years even though this are the same people who won Nobel prizes and distinguished career awards precisely due to their strong disciplinary work [fill in the blank in your head]); within the group of scholars in the prime of their career unsuccessful scholars tend to be more interdisciplinary than successful ones (however success is locally defined). Similarly, mid-tier departments tend to be more interdisciplinary than top departments. Within the top departments, those who favor dominated styles of scholarly production (i.e. books, qualitative or otherwise historical types of studies) tend to be more interdisciplinary than those that favor mainstream styles of scholarly work (i.e. articles). In sociology this last is the chasm that separates Berkeley from Wisconsin for instance. Finally, within the dominant disciplines those who are “heterodox” are more interdisciplinary than those who are orthodox (regardless of the historical iterations on the substance of these labels); in fact sometimes “heterodoxy” in the strong social sciences (i.e. economics) becomes synonymous with a call for interdisciplinarity (but notice that there is not logical reason why this should be so, even though there is a socio-logical one).


Interdisciplinarity is a permanently failing academic “social movement.” Interdisciplinarity seldom has highly legitimate and powerful constituents, instead relying on loose and shifting congeries of dominated and relatively powerless coalitions of knowledge producers. Because these people seldom have the ears of the people that control the purse-strings of academia, you tend to observe “loose-coupling” between rhetoric and everyday activities, with everybody (including administrators in an attempt to appease some of their most vociferous pro-inter-dis colleagues) toeing the politically correct line of “calling” for “further” (always deferred to sometime in the undefined immediate future) interdisciplinary work, while “making a living” (or handing the big jobs to people) producing strong disciplinary work. This same dynamic applies to the natural sciences. In Physics for instance, “dominant” particle physicists who benefit from resource concentration (as they require really expensive hardware to produce their share of knowledge) are anti-interdisciplinary, while “dominated” solid-state and condensed matter physicist’s (who can do research on almost social-science-sized grants in small labs) tend to call for the break-down of disciplinary boundaries, between physics, chemistry and biology for instance (see for instance Lauglin 2006).

When has interdisciplinarity worked? The only historical instances of true interdisciplinary work have occurred whenever the rare meeting of bountiful material resources and a shock to the entrenched disciplinary interests of academic laborers has coincided. This occurred during the inter-war and the immediate post-war period in government funded “Operations Research” which produced among other things, systems theory. In the social sciences Carnegie-Mellon’s post-disciplinary structure of mixed-disciplines departments (Herbert Simon’s brainchild), survives thanks to flush private sources of cash (the Santa Fe institute is another notable example). Jim March’s analogous experiment at the University of California at Irvine, has in contrast, recently imploded (since as a public University UCI is not flush with cash), with some departments de facto and most de jure returning to a “traditional” disciplinary organization.

Written by Omar

March 24, 2007 at 7:30 pm

15 Responses

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  1. I talk about this issue a bit at the start and end of this paper, which I was asked to write to talk about the relationship between sociology and political philosophy.



    March 24, 2007 at 9:47 pm

  2. […] Omar at orgtheory tries to answer the question as to why true interdisciplinary work so rare. […]


  3. This is an awesome paper Kieran! It’s definitely going into my grad theory syllabus…



    March 25, 2007 at 7:16 pm

  4. Hmm, a post on the futility of interdisciplinarity on a blog on org theory… Doesn’t org theory refute your theory? Org theory – aka management – is hardly a discipline in the academic sense, but it has become one in the institutional sense (careers. conferences, curricula, and so on).


    Dan Karreman

    March 25, 2007 at 9:11 pm

  5. Omar, you should definitely check out chapter 6 of my book, where I call Black Studies a “permanent interdiscipline,” for precisely the reasons you describe. As an insurgent intellectual movement, it could justiiy itself in terms of existing disciplines and it’s continued justification in interdisciplinary terms I read as a sign of modest status.

    My major qualification to your (and Andy’s) argument is that interdisciplinary status is not a failure, but more of a “half way” house. Some disciplines make the jump (computer sciece), and others seems stuck (Black Studies).


    Institutional success – “discipline”
    Partial success – “transdiscipline,” “interdiscipline”
    Low success/failure – research specialty

    And to take a Page from Abbott’s The System of the Professions, I would argue that the importance of being interdisciplinary is a function of larger professional context. A “together” intellectual movement can use interdisciplinary claims to garner the resources to move into discipline, but in other cases it becomes a sort of intellectual cul de sac you can’t get out of.


    Fabio Rojas

    March 26, 2007 at 3:00 am

  6. Dan,

    Yes. That’s a good point. I was using the word interdisciplinary in the strongest sense of an organization of academic work that transcends or blurs disciplinary boundaries, rather than a weak “umbrella” institutional structure in which loose coalitions of disciplinary workers are housed (like “potatoes in a sack” to use an aphorism of Marx’s that Kieran mentions in his paper in another context). A lot of “interdisciplinary” entities are like this. Org theory certainly has an interdisciplinary historical background (forged in the unusual conditions that I mentioned above and in my comments to this post). But as it is being developed today it is largely a disciplinary endeavor (with constant skirmishes between sociologists and economists for instance or with psychological work largely disconnected from the first two streams). So I wouldn’t chalk org theory up as a successful interdisciplinary outcome (and I don’t think many other people would either except in the weaker terms that you describe).

    Fabio, yes I agree. I was using the label “permanently failing” more in the way that Meyer and Zucker did to refer to institutionalized organizations that just drag along in some low energy equilibrium state. So it’s not like they are permanently failing in the sense of trying and then getting knocked down repeatedly, but that they have settled into what you call “partial success.” Speaking of your book, when am I getting my autographed copy? :)



    March 26, 2007 at 1:49 pm

  7. The World’s most cited economist, Oliver Williamson, strongly argues in favor of interdisciplinary work. He is explicit that his own work, by borrowing important elements from contract law, psychology, and parts of (sociological) organization theory, is strongly interdisciplinary.
    There are various possible interpretations of this:
    1. Williamson isn’t cited for his interdisciplinary work (which I think is wrong).
    2. Williamson isn’t cited by economists but by muzzy sociologists and management scholars (I don’t know the precise breakdown, but OW certainly isn’t neglected by economists).
    3. Williamson really isn’t interdisciplinary (there may be something to this …e.g., his use of psychology is pretty superficial), and his calls for interdisciplinarity is bs.
    4. An interdisciplinary stance may be successful even within economics.


    Nicolai Foss

    March 28, 2007 at 6:06 pm

  8. This helps to explain the dearth of academic opportunities for scholars who intentionally span cultures and philosophies.


    Spartacus O'Neal

    March 29, 2007 at 1:10 am

  9. Hm. What about law & economics– two high-resource and high-status disciplines, the intersection of which has been hugely influential in one of the disciplines and at least very important in the other? I can’t think of any ‘shock to the entrenched interests’ that facilitated it.

    I’m not sure you distinguish sufficiently between individual-level inter/ trans/ multidisciplinary work and intellectual movements of same. The lone individual grad student determined to smash boundaries is in trouble. In addition to the reasons you mention, there’s the issue of peer review and references– few people are competent to judge whether the student is competently handling both sets of disciplinary tools or questions, which makes publication hard and job-letters hard. And there are plenty of people who *don’t* handle both sets of tools well. As Steve Pincus wrote in an article called (IIRC) “Against Interdiciplinarity,” there’s a real tendency for someone in one discipline, faced with an internal dispute or controversy, to reach outside the discipline to grab evidence or support *that is itself contested or controversial in the contxt of that discipline,* import it without acknowledging that, and then try to use it as a trump in the original dispute.

    By contrast, when the intersection of two disciplines is itself treated as an area of inquiry for people from both, they may help keep one another honest, and identify new areas of dispute distinctive to that new field.


    Jacob T. Levy

    March 29, 2007 at 2:02 am

  10. I don’t know if the law and economics example really works because legal scholarship isn’t really an academic discipline in the same way that psychology, economics, and the other social sciences are. In fact, it’s the lack of strong disciplinary boundaries that makes legal scholarship ripe for poaching ideas from disciplines like economics. Like the business school, legal training seems to be based more in professional training.

    There are examples of interdisciplinary movements that have had relative success, but they still face legitimacy problems. Behavioral economics, for example, is an attempt to combine psychology with economics. But as is probably true with many interdisciplinary movements, behavioral economists are treated as outsiders (or at least with great suspicion) by members of both mother disciplines.



    March 29, 2007 at 5:33 am

  11. “But as is probably true with many interdisciplinary movements, behavioral economists are treated as outsiders (or at least with great suspicion) by members of both mother disciplines.”
    OK — so “outsiders” get Nobel Prizes in economics (Simon, Kahnemann), or John Bates Clark Medals (Rabin)? And surprisingly many “suspicious” types get published in AER, Econometrica, etc.


    Nicolai Foss

    March 29, 2007 at 7:41 pm

  12. Nice points, and I’m certainly not an economics insider, as you are. But my understanding of any discipline is that there are status gradations that not even publications in top journals can actually measure. In economics I believed that formal modelers occupied the highest status position, while behavioral economists were at a lower rung (though certainly not at the lowest). Correct me if I’m wrong. I very well could be.



    March 29, 2007 at 8:41 pm

  13. Which behavioral economics? Rabin‘s “second generation” brand is fairly conciliatory toward mainstream methods and established disciplinary practices. In fact the type of behavioral economics that has become accepted in the mainstream is mostly of the type that informs theoretical tweaks that can unproblematically be implemented in existing formal models. In this respect it is undeniable that economics has gone from being completely “anti-psychological” to being more recently willing to relax some of the assumptions of the standard model for the sake of some limited forms of psychological realism. However, when more forceful challenges to methodological business as usual are posed, you instead get this.



    March 29, 2007 at 10:17 pm

  14. […] recently claimed that interdisciplinary work is doomed to fail because of the need to establish oneself within well defined disciplinary groups. Not surprisingly, […]


  15. […] a comment » A while back, Omar wrote a very nice post explaining why interdisciplinary research tends to be very bad.  The argument is pretty straightforward. Academic labor markets are built around departments; if […]


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