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do we need multi-disciplinary organization research? a guest post by siri ann terjesen

Siri Ann Terjesen is an assistant professor of management and international business at Indiana University and an Associate Editor of the Academy of Management Learning & Education. She is an entrepreneurship researcher and she also does work on supply chains and related issues. This guest post addresses multidisciplinary scholarship.

I am interested in orgtheory readers’ perspectives on a critical but under-examined issue in academia, including scholarship about organizations. That is, in academia, individual scholars are incentivized to focus on a particular issue in a particular discipline and discouraged from developing deep expertise in multiple fields. For example, business scholars examine the same universe (e.g., firms, employees, etc.), albeit through different branches (disciplines such as strategy, organizational behavior, operations management, finance, accounting, ethics, law, etc.) which do not dialogue actively with one another—and there are very few academics who develop a real repertoire across multiple fields- that is, are truly multidisciplinary ‘protean’ scholars who contribute to leading journals in multiple disciplines (e.g., disciplines as distinct as ethics and operations management or accounting and organizational behavior) and have a profound influence across these distinct arenas.

This is surprising because history shows us that some of the greatest learning and paradigm shifts come from the contributions of polymaths- individuals whose expertise draws on a wide range of knowledge- from early historical examples (Francis Bacon, Erasmus, Galileo Galelei, Hildegard von Bingen, and Ben Franklin) to more recent scholars (Michael Polanyi and Linus Pauling). Researchers in the applied sciences are beginning to recognize the power of polymath, protean scholars who bring new innovations through their openness to variety and flexibility and operations across multidisciplinary spaces. There are also personal motivations- individuals who have many repertoires of knowledge may develop a broader understanding and appreciation of all human accomplishments and are personally able to enjoy the pursuit of multiple paths to excellence and to have more peak experiences across these fields. Certainly there are prevailing counterarguments concerning a Jack-of-all-Trades but master of noneand the sheer costs of operating in multiple institutions with distinct players, particularly gatekeepers. I welcome orgtheory readers’ insights and debates on this issue in any respect- theoretical perspectives, pros/cons, examples, personal experiences, etc.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 15, 2014 at 12:01 am

9 Responses

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  1. When thinking about inter or multi disciplinary research, I often think about the incentives. I have found it to be personally quite challenging to square the needs of different disciplines when it comes to conducting research and obtaining academic rewards. While it is true that “border” scholars make a huge impact, it is also true they often do so from a position deep within their home discipline.

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    fabiorojas

    October 15, 2014 at 2:57 am

  2. I do think we need multidisciplinary research in organizations. In doing my special field in organizations, I’ve been quite surprised by the lack of engagement across sub-fields. The recent “Death of Org Theory” discussions (and Lounsbury and Beckman’s Greatest Hits of the Aughts in Org Theory) ignore theories in economics and I/O psych for sociologically-oriented ones.

    I’m not sure why these internal walls have been maintained for so long both in organizational theory (that is, theories in the study organizations, not theory as code word for organizational sociology or sociological management) and in different domains of research (individuals and teams to OB, organizations and industry to strategy, and fields to OMT). Even within these domains, there is a surprising lack of inter-theory work. Forty years of ecological and institutionalist theories have not given us an institutional ecology or ecological institutionalism (notably institutional logics claims Friedland and Alford, not Hannan and Freeman).

    Moving forward, I think as OMT increasingly returns to intra-organizational phenomena and micro-theories, as OB becomes increasingly interested in multilevel research, and scholars using economic lenses come to study efficient organizational processes and frameworks, the rewards for interdisciplinarity will become much greater.

    I totally agree that organizations needs more multidisciplinary research and would like to upvote the question of what the barriers to it have been, especially given that the major outlets in organizations (AMJ, AMR, OS, MS) are not explicitly disciplinary vehicles. If subfields are converging and the opportunities are there, how do we begin to undo the historical parochialism?

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    Jason Radford

    October 15, 2014 at 12:32 pm

  3. Some other noteworthy polymaths with many hats:

    Eratosthenes: mathematician, geographer, poet, astronomer, music theorist, chief librarian of the Library of Alexandria
    Leonardo da Vinci: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, writer
    Hildegard of Bingen: writer, composer, philosopher, theologian, botanist, medicine, songwriter, poet
    Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz: mathematician, philosopher, inventor, physicist, writer, historian, theologian
    Paolo Sarpi: historian, scientist, lawyer, statesman, theologian, experimental scientist
    Nicolaus Copernicus: mathematician, astronomer, lawyer, physician, classicist, translator, governor, diplomat, economist
    José Protacio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda: novelist, poet, ophthalmologist, journalist, revolutionary
    Miguel Serveto Conesa: theologian, physician, cartographer, translator

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    idiosid

    October 15, 2014 at 8:29 pm

  4. This is an excellent question and a great post. I would quibble, however, that part of the problem is the focus on specific individuals. I think that truly being a polymath requires extensive collaboration and the degree to which we accentuate the individual (and, to Fabio’s point, individual incentives), we reduce the likelihood of seeing truly interdisciplinary research.

    With my own experience in trying to bridge two fields (sociology and epidemiology), I see several barriers:

    1. Incentives are aligned to favor individual “genius” (per Fabio’s point above)
    2. The practices of research diverge across fields. Things as simple as how to present results in papers can limit how successful people are at publishing across disciplinary boundaries. This, too, can be overcome by working in collaborations where results can be translated between fields. This is different than gatekeepers since it isn’t on intellectual merit but on the form of the scientific results.
    3. Guidelines for departmental or school tenure and promotion don’t know how to evaluate conventions from different disciplines.
    4. At times following one collaborator’s set of conventions can limit advances in another’s field (for example, public health conventions favor a much lower bar of authorship that sociology; if I request that a smaller number of authors be on my papers because of sociological conventions then I am essentially asking my collaborators to not take credit for something for which they would otherwise receive credit).
    5. Many collaborations are short-lived and among peers at similar rank or positions in their careers. If collaborations are short, there is less ability for give-and-take (for example on authorship conventions) and the need for people of similar rank to look for prestige in different places can inhibit successful publications across disciplines.

    Liked by 1 person

    mike3550

    October 16, 2014 at 9:38 pm

  5. There’s good work in the sociology of science that explains some of why this is so hard — much of it in line with mike3550’s observations

    Erin Leahey has several excellent papers on the returns to specialization (and how less specialization tends to put women at a disadvantage). I also saw her present an interesting paper at ASA a year or two ago showing that interdisciplinarity is associated with decreased productivity but increased citations (IIRC).

    And Mathieu Albert has a couple of really interesting papers on why interdisciplinarity is hard to achieve in the health sciences — in part because criteria for assessing output in the health sciences don’t translate very well to social science, so social scientists end up at a disadvantage.

    Liked by 1 person

    epopp

    October 17, 2014 at 2:21 am

  6. For what it’s worth, working in a corporate environment, on big hairy systemic questions like, ‘How can we design an ecosystem for technologies to support precision agriculture over the next 2 decades?’ I work with a psychologist, an engineer, two anthropologists, an MBA/physicist, and a French literature PhD.

    It’s a specifically-academia problem.

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    Peter Levin (@plevin)

    October 17, 2014 at 3:32 am

  7. Fair point. In academia, the desire is there, but the incentives are horrible. A lot of departments won’t reward out of discipline publications, so that puts a damper on everything.

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    fabiorojas

    October 17, 2014 at 3:49 am

  8. […] response to Siri’s post about multi-disciplinary work, Peter Levin wrote the […]

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  9. One type of gatekeepers are journal editors and reviewers. They also seem to play an important role in preventing (more) cross- and interdisciplinary research. Probably much of this is related to the points already raised, i.e. lack of (sufficient) expertise and knowledge, this time on the part of editors and reviewers, to assess and appreciate interdisciplinary research. Perhaps one promising way to move forward is to ask more phenomena-driven research questions. Addressing those will most likely require multiple different theories and concepts, and thus interdisciplinary research. I read the current “Grand Challenges” CFP of AMJ (http://aom.org/Publications/AMJ/Call-for-Papers.aspx) as one (promising) attempt to enable and faciliate interdisciplinary research in management and organization.

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    Johann Fortwengel

    October 23, 2014 at 9:30 am


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