The In-betweenness of Interdisciplinarity

Mar. 20, 2021 // reading time: 5 min

I am often dreading introduction rounds. And it is far from that I am shy talking to people unfamiliar to me. It is more a faint feeling of knowing too little while claiming too much. That is, because after stating your name, these rounds always expect an ‘I am an …’-style sentence from you. But what are you supposed to answer when your expertise and disciplinary identity is home to many domains?

Traditionally, there are strong views on what an expert is. The idea of the single-discipline specialist exemplifying the serious and rigorous scholar is still dominant. Furthermore, science is often neatly delineated, one might even say compartmentalised along disciplinary borders. As a young student you cannot help but think that single-disciplinary specialisation must be the Holy Grail of a proper tertiary education, and thus of a career in academia and beyond.

I, however, chose to follow an interdisciplinary path from the very beginning. When it came to my undergraduate degree, I was one part fascinated to learn about the grand mechanics of our economies, one part I feared this could only involve number crunching. My additional interest in discussing questions such as what we might owe each other or could be a fair value led me then to “Philosophy & Economics”. The joy of a multiplicity of perspectives and the young age of the programme – both of which I never regretted – yet came for the cost to often having to argue for the merits of its existence.

A few years later, the choice of a graduate programme really put me into a dilemma. By that time I had progressed to work in the tech industry and happened to attend quite a few startup conferences. Viewing these bustling soon-to-be or already commercially successful young entrepreneurs, I felt in choosing the “right” kind of programme, say Marketing or Finance, I could just blend in and never struggle about my disciplinary identity again. On the other hand, was the single disciplinary path of these predominantly (male) business school educated folks really our society’s most hopeful shot at spurring innovation? While proclaimed so often, I was not entirely convinced. So again, I dared to go for more of something in between: the interdisciplinary field of Science & Technology Studies (STS).

But why does this struggle for a disciplinary identity matter so much? First, of course I am not alone. Carlos Cuevas-Garcia’s research into the challenges interdisciplinary researchers have in making sense of their academic practice is testimony to that. But more importantly, I think this struggle touches the central question what we consider expertise – credible knowledge – to be, and how to find your voice in our world of specialised knowledge.

Different (scientific) fields have different barriers of entry. Pursuing a medical degree takes at least six years and often for a good reason. Science and technology have advanced at such enormous rate so that specialisation deserves all its merits. Against this backdrop promoting interdisciplinary research has become a hot topic, promoted by universities, policy makers and funding programmes alike. Transcending disciplinary boundaries, such as in the COVID-related efforts from medicine to computer science to physics over to sociology, is said to be key for solving society’s greatest challenges.

Despite this on the front-face favourable environment interdisciplinary researchers are still structurally disadvantaged. Paula Martin and Stephanie Pfirman note that still traditionally, “power, money, hiring, and promotion are allocated by departments”. It is not my intention to lopsidedly place interdisciplinarity on a pedestal. Yet, these are the key levers for interdisciplinary scholars and students of interdisciplinary programmes to build comparable career paths as their more specialised colleagues.

Why could this be the case? Sociologist Katrin Knorr Cetina has argued that science should be less regarded as monolithic enterprise in the pursuit of truth but rather differentiated in “cultures of knowledge” specific to fields. This is not to repeat parrot-fashion the prophets and disciples of “post-truth” — on the contrary. It is the recognition that what constitutes reputation in a field or how its most important institutions are organised is markedly different across, say philosophy, engineering, and biology.

However, interdisciplinary researchers often move between different cultures, and thus have a harder time to position oneself as worthwhile member of a community. Membership is usually determined by one’s ability to advance the knowledge of a field — and interdisciplinary researchers cannot expect to be on par with their single-disciplinary colleagues in the intricacies of their field. For the academic paper – writing specialists their interdisciplinary colleagues may sometimes be difficult to distinguish from the non-academic public.

Harry Collins offers a helpful view here: To overcome the traditionally stark dichotomy of expert and normal citizen Collins proposes a third category, the “interactional expert”. Understanding the language and concepts of a field, these “interconnectors” – as I like to call them – can have meaningful conversations with specialists, even without for example having to publish academic papers first.

While Collin’s idea was initially directed at opening up science for democratic engagement in knowledge production, I think it is also a helpful one for all “interconnectors" to define their identity in an academic setting and beyond. They connect social worlds, act as translators and through metaphors and analogies build the bridges that others may not. Maybe that is a resolution to the inherent in-betweenness of being interdisciplinary, which I see mirrored so much in the work “Décalcomanie” by surrealist René Magritte.