academia against interdisciplinary work

In response to Siri’s post about multi-disciplinary work, Peter Levin wrote the following:

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.

I agree. But I want to add a few comments. First, the evidence indicates that the problem is worse in social sciences than physical sciences. Social scientists are very territorial, as this article by Lada Adamic & co shows. Second, this system is reinforced by journal editors and tenure committees. Deans and administrators may sing the praises of interdisciplinary work, they routinely allow departments to punish faculty who don’t publish within discipline and journal editors are happy to let reviewers shoot down articles that use out of discipline ideas.

So, yes, interdisciplinary is important and needed, but until the system of rewards changes in the academy, it will remain the rhetoric of enthusiastic administrators.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 17, 2014 at 4:22 am

Posted in academia, fabio

One Response

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  1. Agreed with the comment that interdisciplinary research is highly valued outside academia, while academia mostly pays lip service to interdisciplinary work. Within academia, much of the the interdisciplinary “praise singing” is in the theorisation of interdisciplinary work – what is it, how should it be done, how might it theoretically change the world. But actual interdisciplinary work where researchers from different disciplines all work on the same end product together – that is largely being done by applied social scientists and our colleagues from other fields. I’ve worked in a couple of interdisciplinary environments and social science has been highly valued. It’s been my experience, and that of a few of my applied colleagues, that our interdisciplinary work is not similarly valued by our academic peers.

    In my experience, going to sociology conferences and presenting my interdisciplinary work became increasingly difficult, as academics don’t really value this work. Perhaps it’s the double whammy of the interdisciplinary angle and the fact that I was working in an applied context. At one conference, after I presented a social model I’d worked on with a mathematician, one sociologist asked the equivalent of, “Why would you do this?” As in, why do you bother with this work?

    This is where theory and practice need to match up. Interdisciplinary theory in academia might seem like a fad, perhaps, because academics don’t really see the end product. It’s also incredibly time consuming. You not only have to learn to work together with people who aren’t trained to think like you, you also have to do a lot of ground work to achieve mutual understanding of even the most basic concepts before you can even begin the work. (What is a typology? What is ontology? How do we visually represent sociology concepts?) Then you have to work out ways to “translate” sociology into maths, or computer coding, or some other practical outcome. In the “publish or perish” context, the reward system you mention, there’s no room for developing interdisciplinary research. I keep pushing to create awareness, to bring these worlds together. Perhaps if we made room to bring these “real world” cases of interdisciplinary collaboration into the classroom while also getting academics to really engage with this work, change will happen. But as you note, the university system itself needs to change also, as there’s currently little incentive to engage with interdisciplinary research.


    Dr Zuleyka Zevallos

    October 22, 2014 at 5:49 am

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