book spotlight: in defense of disciplines by jerry jacobs

Sadly, I could not be present at the SSS meetings, so I wrote out my comments about Jerry Jacobs’ wonderful In Defense of Disciplines. Go buy the book!

I want to start by thanking Sarah Winslow and the Southern Sociological Society for organizing this session. Jerry is a leading sociologist of higher education and his work merits sustained attention and critique. It is an honor to be allowed to participate in this event.

In a way, this is an awkward critique to write because I agree with much of what In Defense of Disciplines has to say. For example, on the basic conceptual issue of what counts as a discipline, Jerry’s definition is very close to my own feeling on the subject – disciplines are closed social fields of self-certifying intellectuals who are institutionalized in universities. In my work on the Black Studies movement, I found this approach to be very useful in that it identifies how interdisciplinary fields like Ethnic Studies are different than older fields like history or sociology. They haven’t yet achieved closure and rely on allied disciplines for personnel. I call fields like Black Studies “permanent inter-disciplines” because they can’t quite reach the status of a discipline and they don’t seem to be going anywhere.

I am also in strong agreement with Jerry’s primary empirical point. Universities are far more interdisciplinary than the critics care to admit. The book is to be commended for making this point with some very strong evidence – actual analysis of the ideas that are cited in academic work and a description of the range of journals that are available. Not surprisingly, I think this book is a fine addition to the scholarship that approaches higher education as an organizational system. This tradition includes books like Durkheim’s The Evolution of Educational Thought, Jencks and Reisman’s The Academic Revolution, Burton Clark’s The Higher Education System, Peter Blau’s The Organization of Academic Work and Abbott’s Chaos of Disciplines.

But this isn’t “Author Meets Adoring Fans.” This is “Author Meets Critics,” so I shall be critical. Here are my issues with In Defense of Disciplines:

  • The book overlooks an extremely important unit of analysis – individual scholars. Why are academics in arts and sciences sorted into homogenous units?
  • The book ignores the question of value. Sure, there is a lot of interdisciplinary citation, but is it good? Maybe it’s a bad thing that scholars cite work in other fields.
  • The book overlooks the structure of teams.
  • This book ignores why disciplines are so strong in higher education and not so much in other places.

1. This book evades an extremely important issue – why do we see low levels of interdisciplinarity at the individual level? Why is it that individuals are so strongly sorted into disciplines?

This question isn’t tackled very much at all in the book, especially in the first half. The second half approaches it from a policy perspective, asking what role joint appointments or integrated undergraduate education might be. But let’s back up – aren’t the interdisciplinary critics right in that most colleges of arts and sciences ARE segregated by discipline? Most economics departments, for example, are 90%+ run by economics PhDs. Sociology is no different. Among PhD programs, I can only think of a few professors of sociology who are not sociology PhD’s, with most in closely related fields like anthropology, education and social work. Most of the interdisciplinary organization of academic work happens in professional schools, like business, that will bundle people with different types of PhDs together in the same units.

So, what’s the deal? Why are people and positions disciplinary, but academic work is interdisciplinary? Here’s my answer, presented in a few parts:

  • In a way, citations are cheap forms of interdisciplinarity. Any scholar, at almost zero cost, can cite an article in some other field. That’s why we see a lot of it.
  • An individual scholars’ reputation is expensive to generate and maintain. They strive to build it by associating themselves with people of the same academic tribe.
  • Academia’s “ideal type” in the arts and science is the PhD program, which is run by “tribal elders.” People want to emulate that.

Add these together, and you conclude that there is a strong force for pulling people together into academic units with strong disciplinary orientation. There is also a force for purification. These can be done while citing anyone you want. The customers for professional schools are not into the PhD/academic purity game as much, so the forces of conformity are noticeably lower.

2. A related issue is one that the book raises early on is quality. The cheerleaders for interdisciplinary work claim that people are ignoring problems that interdisciplinary approaches might be well suited. Thus, you would expect the book to conduct some sort of impact analysis that shows when and where interdisciplinary work may have unusually high or low impact. This rather obvious analysis is not pursued.

Luckily, there is research that addresses this is issue. A 2009 PLoS One article called “The Impact of Boundary Spanning Scholarly Publications and Patents” ( by Xiaolin Shi , Lada A. Adamic, Belle L. Tseng, and Gavin S. Clarkson. They find that articles that cross fields tend be highly cited in the physical sciences and poorly cited in social sciences.

This suggests to me that the context and motivation for interdisciplinary work matters a great deal. In the sciences, cross discipline citation may indicate a true search for knowledge – you really need to solve the puzzle and you don’t care who helps you. In the social sciences, interdisciplinary citation seems to be a marker of weak work, perhaps low status scholars who seek alignment with higher status people from other fields. This complex story about the quality of interdisciplinary work should have been addressed and provides needed context to the true story of how knowledge drifts across disciplines

3. This will be brief: One of the big findings of recent management research is that diverse teams are good teams. If this is the case, do we see any evidence that interdisciplinary teams do better work than disciplinary teams? I am a bit surprised that this wasn’t covered.

4. A final conceptual point, which relates to teams: The weird thing about interdisciplinary work units is that they are completely normal outside the academy but abnormal inside the academy. Even if we take the book’s analyses of receptivity and citations as correct, it only means the citations are interdisciplinary, the scholars themselves are often disciplinary teams. In the rest of the world, it is completely normal to bring in experts to fix problems. For example, a builder might bring in an environmental consultant. An attorney might consult an expert on forensics and so forth. In some cases, these multiple experts might reside in the same firm. But find me a physics department that employs a lot of mathematicians? Or an English dept that hires philosophers to “shore things up?” That is very rare.

In Defense of Disciplines does not really tackle this issue, of why we disciplinary teams create interdisciplinary work and why academia hasn’t moved toward the model of knowledge that the rest of the world employs. Perhaps, it is as Adam Smith pointed out, that academia encourages cartels, or, as Andy Abbott might point out, there is a desire for purity. It is worth thinking about.

To sum up, I like this book – it’s a good book and one that people who care about higher education will talk about. But the blind spot is its focus on citation patterns. It’s also missing a discussion of quality and value that could be very illuminating. Once again, thank you for organizing this panel and I wish everyone a safe and happy weekend in New Orleans.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

May 15, 2015 at 12:01 am

One Response

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  1. Hard scientists study different units of analysis, so there’s probably less competition and boundary policing. Not so for human sciences. A sociologist bringing in an economist is more analogous to a lawyer bringing in a lawyer from another firm, than a lawyer bringing in a forensics expert.


    Graham Peterson

    May 16, 2015 at 1:07 am

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