[Humanist] 23.320 claiming interdisciplinarity

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Sep 26 09:47:06 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 320.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 26 Sep 2009 08:39:02 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: claiming interdisciplinarity

Those here who are engaged with the interdisciplinary activities of 
humanities computing may, like me, be concerned with the fact that the 
term "interdisciplinary" is used with such abandon that it is in danger 
of becoming useless to describe what in fact happens in our work. In 
many contexts it seems to have become nothing more than a "phatic" 
expression -- defined by Bernard Malinowski to mean "a type of speech in 
which ties of union are created by a mere exchange of words", or more 
plainly, "trivial or purely formal verbal contact" (OED). It is used, to 
borrow Peter Galison's expression, as a transcendental virtue.

Hence I read with great interest the following note in the newsletter of 
The Leverhulme Trust, for September 2007, from the Director, Professor 
Sir Richard Brook. (Those unfamiliar with the Trust might take a look at 
www.leverhulme.ac.uk/.) I quote the Director's Note in full because I 
suspect it will be useful to some here and does need wider circulation. 
The original text may be found online at the above site.

> Among the criteria used by the Trust in its selection of the research
> proposals which it chooses to support is ‘the extent to which the
> proposal moves beyond incremental development with a single
> discipline’. Friends of the Trust may be tempted to ask themselves
> ‘why this convoluted terminology?’. Here it must be admitted that the
> origin lies in a compulsion to avoid the increasingly common
> ‘interdisciplinary’ reflex. The use of this word in academic circles
> has now become that of the universal prestigious attribute, i.e.,
> everyone sees it as a desirable quality but everyone sees fit to
> claim it. (I have for many years questioned audiences with a view to
> identifying ‘single discipline researchers’; no-one has come forward
> to represent this role.) In bids to the Trust and in interviews with
> applicants, the attribute of interdisciplinarity is almost invariably
> advanced; on scrutiny, however, it tends to have taken on a somewhat
> fractal character. It can be genuinely generous linking such sectors
> as archaeology, climate and politics; it can be alarmingly fastidious
> involving parallel work on two organic molecules. This elasticity of
> difference has greatly softened the value of the term (somewhat as in
> the case of ‘excellence’?).
> Nonetheless, the ambition to bring to the understanding of a complex
> and intellectually fascinating theme all those aspects of our culture
> which are needed for progress retains its validity. There is no doubt
> that the applicant who has gathered in the set of skills which is
> required by the character of a research problem for its comprehensive
> exploration wins the greatest of respect from the Trustees. The
> applicants who, by repeated emphasis on their own interdisciplinarity
> tend to reveal the extent to which they are daunted by supposed
> frontiers, are encouraged to reflect on the Trust’s criterion and ‘to
> ask themselves an honest question’.
> Richard Brook

For other reasons I have recently been asking myself from where the push 
toward thoughtless claims to "interdisciplinarity" (and to its mate 
"collaboration") are coming. If, as seems, we are being encouraged, even 
rewarded for irresponsible use of language, indeed of terms that *can* 
have real meaning but are used to sex up work that is in fact not 
genuinely interdisciplinary, then who is pushing?

I am reminded of a scrap of an interview I heard on the BBC years ago, 
of someone who must have been reasonably high up in one of the British 
universities, who asked this same question about the push toward 
vocational training. He related work he had done with prominent 
businessmen in the U.K. to determine what sort of graduates they wanted. 
He said he was told in no uncertain terms that they did not want 
universities to be engaging in job-training, at which, the businessmen 
said, universities are ill-suited. One businessman he quoted (as 
representative of the lot) said that universities should do what they 
are good at by nature -- train students to think critically -- and let 
the business-world do the training for business. "Why", the interviewee 
asked, "when we are given this answer every time we ask, do we persist 
in attempting to train students for jobs in the commercial sector?" Indeed, why?

Wcan be glad that at least one funding body sees through the 
false claims, is asking for thoughtful honesty and rewarding its 


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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