bordersWithout appealing to hierarchy and tradition, how might we start a root-and-branch conversation to establish academic criteria for what disciplines, units and structures to keep, and what to kill? Thinking in a serious way about how knowledge production should be organised requires setting aside the rankings charts and becoming acquainted with the origins of scholarly research and higher education – an origin that lies in what Mariana Valverde calls ‘infradisciplinarity’. Only after understanding how scholarship and higher education has evolved, and how disciplines were created will we be able to seriously discuss academic planning priorities.

At University of Toronto, we are routinely exhorted to engage in interdisciplinary research: but tenure track jobs (the key indicator of unit prestige) are overwhelmingly allocated to traditional departments. I recently stepped down as Director of the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies; I was one of the founders of the Sexual Diversity Studies program, in the 1990s; and I have had experience with Women/Gender Studies and with the recently deceased Cities Centre. It is very clear to me and I think to others that interdisciplinary units, from their emergence in the 1960s and 1970s onward, should have been much better resourced, as happened in many other universities. But that did not happen. So what should be done now, since we are in an age of scarcity, unlike in the 1960s?

A key difficulty is that the special language of university administration (which makes ancient Greek look positively cool) obfuscates the very issues that need to be discussed. The dialect required for administrative documents looks bland and harmless: but in fact it constitutes a direct attack on clarity and conciseness, and therefore on rationality itself, which as Descartes pointed out centuries ago cannot thrive without clarity. Advocates of interdisciplinarity are as guilty of obfuscation as traditionalists. When we drone about ‘the need to build bridges between silos’ (a bad metaphor if there ever was one, since bridges would defeat the purpose of silos), and then go on to praise the virtues of providing interfaces and catalysts, do such statements have any meaning? Or are they mere flags waved to show funding bodies that we are avant garde and au courant even though the vast majority of us are tenured in traditional departments?

disciplinesA section of Suprematist works by Kazimir Malevich (1915) Wikimedia Public Domain

If we summoned the courage to openly discuss the intellectual foundations of different units, disciplinary as well as interdisciplinary, we might see that larger units do not necessarily have a more solid foundation than, say, diaspora studies or queer theory. One example: today, the prominence of spatial theory throughout the social sciences has completely undermined human geographers’ claim to a monopoly over studies of space. On their part, anthropologists, feeling guilty about their discipline’s historic Eurocentric voyeurism, are embracing ‘the anthropology of modernity’, which turns out to be sociology minus the statistics. Sociologists, in turn, have for years worried that their discipline has been largely replaced by criminology, public policy, health studies, etc. Their usual response is to claim that only sociology departments provide solid methodological training; but insofar as that is true, that is only because sociology departments are better staffed. Turning away from social science, we see that the sky has not fallen because there is no longer a biology department, though biology is about 80 years older than sociology.

So how might we start a root-and-branch conversation leading to solid intellectual foundations for our categorizations, one that would produce academic (rather than financial) criteria for what to keep and what to kill? ‘We’ve always done it this way’ and ‘Harvard does it this way’ are appeals to hierarchy and tradition that ring increasingly hollow.

If we wiped the slate clean, would we choose to create one social science for modernity (sociology) and another for the primitive (anthropology)? In the 1860s the social sciences were treated as a single enterprise: was that inherently ‘backward’? And, to pick on a different group, should we give a lot of resources to economics, a discipline that spent its first century devoted to pure models and only lately realized that human behaviour needs to be part of the equation?

Administrators are bombarded with ‘best practices’ documents from ‘peer institutions’: but what they don’t get, and which any good policy process requires, is a good account of how and why modern universities developed as they did – which roads were not taken and why. Thinking in a serious way about how knowledge production should be organized requires setting aside the rankings charts and becoming acquainted with the origins of scholarly research and higher education – an origin that lies in what can only be called ‘infradisciplinarity’. Personally, I now call myself ‘infradisciplinary’ (since unlike many of my interdisciplinary colleagues I have not had a discipline since I finished my BA), and the term has the virtue of challenging the neoliberal assumption that newer is always better.

So what would I prescribe as a remedy for our current inability to go beyond the trite invocations of disciplinary rigour on one side and interdisciplinary innovation on the other? I would suggest that we become familiar with the intellectuals of 18th century Europe and the polymaths of medieval Islam, worthy ancestors who had no institutional incentive to be either disciplinary or interdisciplinary. Only after understanding how scholarship and higher education evolved, and how disciplines were created (often on what now appear as wholly outdated grounds), will we be able to seriously discuss academic planning priorities. And during these (for now hypothetical) discussions, all options for organizing and classifying our own intellectual work should be allowed on the table: vested commitments to either disciplinarity in general or interdisciplinarity in general should be checked at the door. Neither ‘silos’ nor ‘interfaces’ are inherently good or inherently bad, after all; it is only the cliches, dead metaphors, and unfootnoted bullet points of administrative discourse that are always bad.

This piece originally appeared on ResearchGate and is reprinted with the author’s permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Mariana Valverde‘s only disciplinarity was a BA in philosophy. Her PhD was in Social and Political Thought at York University (Toronto) and she has long taught at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto. She is the author of seven books and co-editor of another six.

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