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INTERDISCIPLINARITY: HISTORY, THEORY, AND efforts, and the fact that disciplines thep1se1

PRACTICE needed to draw on the work of other d


current state of interdisciplinary program
Julie Thompson Klein care, and post-secondary education.
Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State Press, 1990 Klein's ability to organize data frol
331 pages focused on anyone kind of interdisciplim
work. She combines empirical observ
I confidently, as one who has seen her share
to the appeal of this book, she provides an e
Like other modem academic buzzwords such as "postmodemism," the essential references, problem-focused I
term "interdisciplinarity· holds forth great promise. It claims to organize our conversations between two or more disc:
past and chart our future. It promises to deliver us from the stagnation of beginning an interdisciplinary project, (
limited disciplinary understandings, and usher in a new age of tolerance and interested in the background and the issues
productivity. It is for many the model of future education and research in an this is the state of the art.
academic world searching for unity amidst fragmentation.
A good example of the kind of stren!
Whether this promise is borne out in reality, however, is another question. treatment of interdisciplinary education pro
The word is surprisingly difficult to defme, and even more difficult to apply in giving a litany of programs worldwide, to tt
concrete situations. For one thing, the nature of "unity" may be as difficult to structures of these various programs.
pin down as "interdisciplinarity." Is it unity of direction that we crave? Unity universities such as the University of Susse
of assumptions? Unity of method? Unity of the object of study? Unity of in Norway, and the University of Tsukuba
pragmatic application? Furthermore, is it really unity at all that is at issue, or brief overview of the particular styles of pC(
is it simply the ability to converse freely across previously guarded borders? on the success or failure of these prograOl.'l
What kind of conversation counts as truly interdisciplinary? colleges in the United States, and highligh
The great virtue of Julie Klein's book is that it addresses questions of this of interdisciplinarity and that of the UII
sort directly and without boosterism or fanfare. She recognizes that as interdisciplinary programs within larger ins
disciplines develop, they will necessarily overlap with other disciplines in a is a good balance between observation (
variety of ways. Interdisciplinarity, therefore, becomes a more pressing concern institutions, and reflection on the theoret
and holds forth more hope as time goes on. At the same time, she is well aware enterprises.
of the spotty history that interdisciplinary efforts have had, due to latent n
territorialism, bureaucratic suspicion, and well-meant misunderstanding of the
process. It is one thing to report on a book, 8i
is a book that invites dialogue primarily hf
Interdisciplinarity is divided into three parts. In part one, Klein works dialogue in academia. While Klein is no 8
through definitions and mis-definitions of interdisciplinarity. She gives a brief clearly believes that, under the right conditi
guided tour of the history of efforts to bridge the gaps between disciplines, and and interesting way to advance knowledge.
distinguishesinterdisciplinarity from multidisciplinarity (more than one discipline there is at least one issue which must be ad
working on the same problem, but with no real conversation), pluri-disciplinarity
(disciplines interacting on the basis of work from other disciplines), and In her discussion of transdisciplinari~
transdisciplinarity (the organization of interdisciplinary research by a grand Jantsch's vision of the progression from diS4
unifying vision). Part two focuses on mechanisms used by interdisciplinarity to interdisciplinary reflection on the systems itl
further its ends. This section also deals with the two main reasons for transdisciplinary coordination of all areas of
embarking on interdisciplinary programs: the ultimate limitation of disciplinary vision. It seems to me, though, that tb

138 Dianoia Spring 1994


DSTORY, THEORY, AND efforts, and the fact that disciplines themselves, in order to proceed, have always
needed to draw on the work of other disciplines. Part three addresses the
current state of interdisciplinary programs in several areas: industry, health
care, and post-secondary education.
13'. 1990 Klein's ability to organize data from many sources, and not to remain
focused on anyone kind of interdisciplinary research, is a strong point of this
work. She combines empirical observation with philosophical reflection
I confidently, as one who has seen her share of interdisciplinary projects. To add
to the appeal of this book, she provides an extensive bibliography which includes
1U.ZZW0rds such as ·postmodernism,· the essential references, problem-focused research, and many examples of
great promise. It claims to organize our conversations between two or more disciplines. For anyone contemplating
_ to deliver us from the stagnation of beginning an interdisciplinary project, or for a post-secondary institution
!lid usher in a new age of tolerance and interested in the background and the issues relevant to interdisciplinary studies,
lei of future education and research in an this is the state of the art.
IIIidst fragmentation.
A good example of the kind of strength I have been talking about is in her
at in reality, however, is another question. treatment of interdisciplinary education programs. Klein moves beyond simply
Iefine, and even more difficult to apply in giving a litany of programs worldwide, to trying to trace similarities between the
Ie nature of ·unity· may be as difficult to structures of these various programs. She begins with interdisciplinary
it unity of direction that we crave? Unity universities such as the University of Sussex in England, University of Tromso
Uoity of the object of study? Uoity of in Norway, and the University of Tsukuba in Japan. In each case, she gives a
is it really unity at all that is at issue, or brief overview of the particular styles of programs offered, along with reflection
reely across previously guarded borders? on the success or failure of these programs. She moves to address liberal arts
truly interdisciplinary? colleges in the United States, and highlights the differences between this style
of interdisciplinarity and that of the universities. Finally, she looks at
5 book: is that it addresses questions of this
interdisciplinary programs within larger institutions. Through all of this, there
.. or fanfare. She recognizes that as
is a good balance between observation of what actually happens in these
lU'ily overlap with other disciplines in a
institutions, and reflection on the theoretical underpinnings for the various
aefore, becomes a more pressing concern
enterprises.
:IS on. At the same time, she is well aware
ip1inary efforts have had, due to latent II
. md well-meant misunderstanding of the
It is one thing to report on a book, and quite another to engage it. This
is a book that invites dialogue primarily because it concerns the possibility of
lifo Ihree parts. In part one, Klein works dialogue in academia. While Klein is no apologist for interdisciplinarity, she
IS of interdisciplinarity. She gives a brief clearly believes that, under the right conditions, it really is the most productive
) bridge the gaps between disciplines, and and interesting way to advance knowledge. As it happens, I agree. However,
mltidisciplinarity (more than one discipline there is at least one issue which must be addressed.
lano real conversation), pluri-disciplinarity
In her discussion of transdisciplinarity (63-71), Klein borrows from Eric
I of work from other disciplines), and
Jantsch's vision of the progression from disciplinary treatments of problems, to
of interdisciplinary research by a grand
interdisciplinary reflection on the systems in which those problems exist, to the
mechanisms used by interdisciplinarity to
transdisciplinary coordination of all areas of fnowledge under a single unifying
• deals with the two main reasons for
vision. It seems to me, though, that the problem with the idea that the
IllS: the ultimate limitation of disciplinary

Dianoia Spring 1994 139


transdisciplinary can be the top of the pyramid of knowledge is that it can tum
out to be a disguised hegekony. It was not so long ago that my own discipline,
philosophy, regarded itself as the queen of the sciences. More recent claims to ··f4RO/'tf'ND·
·..: . ·.......... uJ . . m
the throne have come from sociology, anthropology, systems theory, and other
disciplines. In other words, what starts as interdisciplinarity can end up as an
even worse new kind of disciplinarity, in which the organized disciplines can
come to resent the organizing discipline's co-opting of the academic agenda.
It is obvious that this is no longer interdisciplinarity. While there is Gary Kelly is a 1993-94 ~
nothing inevitable about this depressing scenario, it seems to me entirely Prize for research at the University c;AJ
plausible. Most interdisciplinary conferences and projects I am acquainted with On that occasion, he gave a spet!dt.1IiIIIic:l
end up opting for theoretical language rooted in one of the disciplines. And, ~n Alberta: in the context of llIUIOIIItO!!1t I
whoever controls the discourse controls the character of the work. The charge In operatmg grants to universilia "..
of Renaissance humanists against medieval thought, after all, was that it was reprinted in its entirety here. WlUIe it ..
transdisciplinary in the worst sense-everything was a handmaid to theology. ~ p'0licy, the speech makes a Ituger dI
politIcal, demonstration of Iuintta ....
This simply means that, like any other political venture, interdisciplinarity
has to take its politics seriously. It can end up modelling the very problem it
is trying to address, if there is not some way of devising a bottom up, non­
coercive working relationship. This is a political issue, not unlike other ANXIETIES OF A
situations in which communication must occur, but cannot assume any totalizing
concepts prior to the working relationship. That may seem an odd suI!ect ....
you feel a little anxiety right DOW. 51
And with this we return to the allusion to postmodernism at the beginning engender feelings of confideace . . . .
of this review. Interdisciplinarity is a reaction to disciplinarity in the same way vindication, rather than anxiety. noa.',
that post-modernity is a reaction to modernity. It is the attempt to work out professorese, negative connotaaif:as? Is all
mutually recognized problems by juxtaposing two or more traditional areas of what is clearly meant to be • aW I . . .
research, and waiting to see what interesting new answers tum up. Both the sug~est a rather personal sJaat--dlc .... ~
categories of the discipline and of modernity are seen to be artificial constructs, get m the way of good resean::lt? Ale ..
although in some ways necessary ones for their times. We now have the messiness and woolliness of the ' .,
possibility of fmding new categories, which more easily respond to real issues. science? For God's sake, doesa'l Xdy I
However, like some versions of postmodernism, the deconstruction of the status the government, who'll ooJ.y ~ Q
quo can all too easily be co-opted by particular interests, or become an end in demonstration? • Anxieties of . . . . . . .
itself. What could have been harmony turns out to be a monotonous drone in the occasion to complain about die . . . ,
unison. teaching load, his colleagues-lord"';
pay for a free drink and a few ~ •
Klein, it should be said, recognizes the failures of interdisciplinary
projects as well as the successes. Nevertheless, perhaps the discipline that needs Well, hold the thought of the ....
to be added to this conversation is political studies, and particularly the politics while I try to show you that amtiecy is _
of communicative discourse. Without it, interdisciplinary efforts will have a ought to be pUblicized by researcheI'S--­
difficult time navigating the straits between the Scylla of disciplinary isolation but in all disciplines. This kind of am:iety
and chaos, and the Charybdis of disciplinary hegemony. be caused by such things as chronic ....
agencies by party-political agendas; the d
Bruce Janz, Philosophy by ina~pr~priate (and in fact outd.ted)
Augustana University College contammallon of language within the IIIIiv.

14() DialWia Spring 1994