Testing the (Un)Importance of Disciplinary Boundaries

Interdisciplinarity – a pursuit of thought and collaboration across disciplinary boundaries that underlies much of ISSR's work – has a value few would dispute in the abstract, but yields important puzzles and challenges in practice. On March 29, Millie Thayer (Sociology) led a panel conversation with four UMass scholars about their journeys toward interdisciplinarity, the historical sources and future evolution of academic boundaries, and the practical and political issues facing those who seek to build research, teaching and public engagement across disciplinary lines.

All noted that disciplines offer a structure aligned with particular theoretical assumptions and empirical questions. Julie Hemment (Anthropology) described how her effort to understand changing Russian political society on the ground after the collapse of the Soviet Union nudged her from her initial home in political science toward anthropological perspectives and methods. Likewise, Jane Fountain’s (Political Science) intellectual agenda has carried her across academic disciplines – from music to science to political science - in pursuit of broader insights on “the biggest problems” she could tackle. On the other hand, Donald Katzner (Economics) noted that the very categories/boundaries that can usefully organize individuals and ideas into areas can easily become instruments used to control intellectual agendas, and – worse – can render a discipline like Economics blind to signs coming from unexpected domains.

Laurel Smith-Doerr  (Sociology) pointed to the patterned nature of interdisciplinary work in the academy, noting that research shows graduate students and tenured faculty do it, while tenure track assistant professors do not. The need to persuade disciplinary gatekeepers, and thus secure publication and positions, helps to explain this early-career retreat from the boundaries, which is accentuated for scholars of color and other under-represented groups who face a higher burden of proof.  Citing a forthcoming publication with Croissant, Vardi, and Sacco, Smith-Doerr noted, “The narrative around collaboration and interdisciplinarity is positive,” but academic scientists face pressures to garner individual credit within established disciplinary traditions. In light of these realities, Fountain urged graduate students to “build their disciplinary chops” to engage effectively in an Academy where communities and careers are built through disciplines, and from there to explore the edges of their epistemologies, methods and approaches.  

This sobering message poses a challenge to scholars eager to “make social science matter” by translating it across domains, but the panelists also showed how to make good use of the structure of disciplines to build the political and intellectual resources that can enable them to reach effectively across their boundaries, through interdisciplinary collaboration.