Problems with interdisciplinarity in the humanities

At a recent workshop on interdisciplinarity for researchers from the Coimbra Group in Trinity College Dublin, at the Long Room Hub, there were some interesting presentations (especially by Britta Padberg of ZiF and Christoph Horn of Bonn University) and conversations had about the challenges and opportunities within this area. It got me thinking about some of the theoretical and structural peculiarities of the humanities that makes the discussion of interdisciplinarity in the arts and humanities different from the STEM, and perhaps also the social sciences. As always, there are counter-examples and caveats, but here are some thoughts under the follow headings.

(i) The place of common theoretical structures in STEM and AHSS interdisciplinarity

(ii) Disciplinary and professional drivers and barriers to interdisciplinarity

(iii) Intra- and interdisciplinarity – or precision versus purity

(ii) Interdisciplinarity in STEM seems to require shared vocabularies (to ensure researchers are talking about the same things, in the same way) and common frameworks (so that they are approach the same problem in a manner that doesn’t clash). In the humanities, we have these shared vocabularies and frameworks too, but a literary critic might call them a cliché, and a historian might term them historical compromises, a sociologist might speak of functional consensus, and a philosopher might use the word ideology. These shared vocabularies and frameworks, then, are often regarded in the humanities as problems in and of themselves, rather than routes to working together. The disciplinary structures within the humanities reward this mindset, and we term it problematizing. It is a given of research and teaching, and so it is not easily done away with. How then is this to be addressed?

(ii) The humanities is structurally more of a solitary affair. This is so from the undergraduate level up. Students might work on essays, but there are few humanities ‘labs’, and group-work is not rewarded in the traditional university. Up to the PhD level, where a STEM researcher will work in a lab, in a team, the PhD researcher may be part of a bigger research project if they are lucky, but again this is seldom the case. The advent of the digital humanities is changing things slowly, but individual expertise are the ultimate desideratum in training a humanities researcher. In STEM this social form of scholarly practice is no doubt in part a result of Big Science (low hanging fruit having been taken by previous generations of lone scientists and researchers), and I am by no means calling for an embiggening of the humanities. Nevertheless, there are social dynamics of cooperation (or group work) extant in STEM that could be encouraged elsewhere in the academy.

A second question in this area is why is interdisciplinarity a good thing? Is it to be encouraged? Britta Padberg noted in an aside that when the word interdisciplinarity is used in conversation “it is often a sign of crisis”, and this is true. It is often a rhetorical appeal to legitimacy via safety in numbers. Working in a group across disciplines, goes the fearful thought process, knits the humanities closer together in the face of various threats. This is fair enough in as far as it goes, and it’s certainly preferable to the “the humanities are good for democracy!” argument taken from Nussbaum that was subsequently recycled by subsequent speaker (we could well respond and say “the humanities can’t have much of a place in Cuba, or China then…”). This is interdisciplinarity as an argument for something else though, interdisciplinarity as an anchor of legitimacy for the humanities as a whole. Does this restructuring of scholarship actually lead to better scholarship?

(iii) One speaker from the floor noted that for a certain segment of the academy interdisciplinarity is when a 19th century literary scholar speaks to an 18th century literary scholar, and there is much truth to this. One of the issues for the humanities is that so much humanities work aims for conceptual precision and robustness. This is difficult work, and occasionally can slide into its dark mirror image, namely calls for conceptual purity. Interdisciplinarity in STEM began for a reason – it was not a fashion of higher education governance. It cam about when work on the borders of,e.g, chemistry bled into biology, giving us biochemistry. You can pick your own further examples.

There have been other researchers in the humanities who did something similar in ignoring disciplinary bounds. Here I am thinking of E.R. Curtius whose European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages is a prime example, reconceiving as it did of literature in the Europe of the territorial or nation state rather as European literature. It is a masterpiece of scholarship, but perhaps the time of the magnum opus has passed (and perhaps that was our own scholarly orchard of low hanging monographs). So what of ignoring disciplinary boundaries in order to address something topical, or to do something quickly? How is this to be fostered in a community, the humanities, where the “quick and dirty” solution isn’t the Done Thing, and where ‘problems’ – if they exist – can be explored, but there is no impetus to solve them?

In speaking of the desideratum of the humanities scholar above, I didn’t note that interdisciplinarity may actually be of more use to the humanities student who goes out into the world. In education outcomes research, academics consistently overrate the importance of ‘content’ ahead of what employers and the employment market actually value, namely the ability to work in groups. Interdisciplinarity, then, may emerge to be less about scholars and research, and more about their students.

Further discussion and exploration of the issues related to interdisciplinarity can be found here:



One thought on “Problems with interdisciplinarity in the humanities

  1. Pingback: On Interdisciplinarity | educationandstuff

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