And He was asking him, "What is your name?" And he said to Him, "My name is Multitude; for we are many."

The Disciplinarization of Interdisciplinarity I – Unproblematic Disciplines

This is the discourse of interdisciplinarity. Its dichotomous nature proclames the breaking point between an obsolete tradition and a new configuration that can already be seen. Its discursive strength not only made interdisciplinarity into a widespread slogan in scientific fields, but also into a rhetorical imperative when seeking funds. Its echoes appear nearly everywhere: as a guarantee of broadness, of novelty, of humanism – a guarantee of progress.



I finally got the time to leave here all the more structured, consistent writings I have been working on for the last year. Most of them are essays for my master’s degree, and thus always present a strange – but interesting, I would say – tension between my own thought and writing process, and the final products demanded by a productivist, neoliberal university/system of knowledge production.

This tension is even more intense – and more interesting – in this essay; and that’s due to its topic: Discipline. When I came to Cambridge last year I clashed with a lot of things: the culture, the lack body contact, the lack of human warmth (or warmth in general), the language, the lost of my portuguese expressability, the impostor syndrome, the big-aquarium-fish-in-the-ocean complex, etcetera, etcetera. But when it came to the University, it was Discipline that frustated, anguished and hurt me more. And it was Discipline in all its dimensions: not just the way it organized the knowledge I had contact with or that I had to produce, but the way it organized my time and schedule, my space and body, the way in which it absorbed all aspects of my existence and distriibuted them in order to get to most productive arrangement, leaving few interstices, few breachs, few possibilities of resistance.

I am yet to write more about my experience in Cambridge in these terms (though you can start by my rant from last year – here). In the meanwhile I wanted to leave this here: between the clash with a new world and the deppresion that took me hostage for a year, this is what I was able to write about Discipline, its subjugating grips, and the fake transformation that goes by the name of Interdisciplinarity.

This essay is divided in three parts. This is the first. You can read the second and third here & here.



The Disciplinarization of Interdisciplinarity


Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi.

Don Fabrizio in Visconti’s Il Gattopardo

For a long time, it is said, we endured a disciplinary regime. All the knowledge we produced, the story goes, was boxed, limited, demarked by a sectionalist paradigm. As remnants of old ways of thinking, disciplines erected between themselves certain walls that, as well policed-borders, did not allow free circulation. Their main function would have been to ensure that nothing was beyond their territory.[1]

Given the restrictive nature of these constructions, there would be no other reasonable position than to fight this tradition and defend the communication between disciplines. To allow and encourage contact between specialists of different areas so that, from this intersection, new knowledge could be generated. To support the exchange of research topics, methods and experts so that the new, the novel could be done. We would be forever indebted to this disciplinary regime – it was this regime, after all, that allowed us these research topics, methods and experts to start with; but it would be time to overcome it.

Such is the discourse of interdisciplinarity. Its dichotomous nature proclames the breaking point between an obsolete tradition and a new configuration that can already be seen. Its discursive strength not only made interdisciplinarity into a widespread slogan in scientific fields,[2] but also into a rhetorical imperative when seeking funds. Its echoes appear nearly everywhere: as a guarantee of broadness, of novelty, of humanism – a guarantee of progress.

The discursive place that it occupies and the social role it plays deserve some attention. From the identification of a new mode of production of knowledge based on interdisciplinarity[3] to the self-entitled bibles of interdisciplinary practice[4], the literature on the topic agrees on the necessity of interdisciplinary approaches. And if on the one hand this compulsion became part of the academic common sense, on the other there is still a sense of urgency, of the need for change and of its importance that are typical of political demand. Considering this together with the broadness of this discourse, one that was readily adopted by the entire political spectrum[5], we can locate interdisciplinarity as part of current academic political correctness.[6]

But for those of us who are involved in a cultural critique of science, for those of us who have dedicated themselves to show that science and politics are not opposite charges of the social dipole, the interdisciplinary rhetoric seems to carry a certain bitterness; we react with a certain scepticism. Partly because the discourses on the Good News, on the winds of change, are part of the messianic storytelling we have been deconstructing for the past few decades. And partly because there seems to be something oddly similar between what interdisciplinarity intends to fight and that which it proposes; as if once again the speech about rupture was not only the perpetuation of the established order, but even its reinforcing.

Where and why did interdisciplinarity make its appearance?




Fig 1. In his book A History of Embryology, 1934, Joseph Needham draws a map of the evolution of this scientific field. In his preliminary note the word discipline is not mentioned. Instead, he talks of “single forms of scientific knowledge (…) containing more of continuity than that of civilisation as a whole”. The notion of discipline, as that of embryology, is in no way problematic with respect to the construction of knowledge. (p. 16; img: p. 225)


The term interdisciplinary seems to have first appeared in the USA in the 1930s. Far from being part of any academic or educational reform, it stood exactly for what its prefixed composition indicates: it pointed to something which involved two or more disciplines or branches of learning. The first registered use of the term dates from 1937 in a text signed by the Social Science Research Council in which postdoctoral research training fellowships were announced.[7] Some academic factors surrounding the occasion deserve our attention: the call was for submissions of “programs of study” that provided “for training of an interdisciplinary nature”; it was published in the Journal of Educational Sociology, a publication “devoted to sociology in its application to education”[8] ; and it was published by the Social Science Research Council, an organization long financed by private foundations who were investing in projects led by specialists from different fields, including the Rockefeller Foundation[9],[10]. Neither the project, nor the journal, nor the funding mechanism seem to be part of a strict disciplinary logic. During the ‘30s the collaboration between specialists from different fields in certain research programs was no novelty, a situation well illustrated by the levity with which the term interdisciplinary was employed here in a formal document. In constrast to the idea of innovation that will later be linked with this crossing of borders, the term here appears as frictionless, unmarked, even banal.

On the other hand, this utilization points to a rather transparent conceptualization of discipline – a conceptualization that is still somewhat present nowadays. Disciplines were the lines that mapped scientific knowledge, the grid of nomenclature that identified the areas that look over certain portions of the real – the subjects of inquiry. The idea of discipline was unproblematic and clear; evident even. Physics, Psychology, Sociology or Biology were innocuous signifiers of fields of expertise and investigation. These words indicated an educational organization, research format and an academic disposition, no doubt, but they did it with a technical pragmatism: they were conventions whose form was a direct result of the natural divisions themselves. Disciplines were seen as organizational criteria, part of the heuristics responsible for the mapping of knowledge; a discipline was a “branch of instruction or education; a department of learning or knowledge;”[11] a classification of inquiries; a law of arrangement of understandings; a cartography of erudition.


Continue Reading…


[1] Klein Thompsom according to Weingart, P., Interdisciplinarity: The Paradoxical Discourse, in Weingart, P. and Stehr, N. (eds.)    Practising Interdisciplinarity, 2000, University of Toronto Press Incorporated, p.25

[2] Barry, A.  and Born, G., Interdisciplinarity: Reconfigurations of the social and natural sciences, in Barry and Born (Eds.), Interdisciplinarity: Reconfigurations of the Social and Natural Sciences, 2013, Routledge

[3] Gibbons, M., Limoges, C., Nowoty, H., Schwartzman, S., Scott, P., and Trow, M., The new production of knowledge: The dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies,1994, SAGE Publications Ltd

[4] Centre for the Study of Interdisciplinarity (nd) Frodeman, R., Klein, J., and Mitcham, C. (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity,2010, Oxford University Press. See also (accessed November 2014).

[5] Simon Schaffer notes how “during the Cold War the virtues of interdisciplinarity were urged both by defence administrators and student radicals.” Schaffer, S., How Disciplines Look, in Interdisciplinarity… (See fn. 1), p.61

[6] For some concrete examples see Weingart, P., Interdisicplinarity… (see fn.1), pp.33,34

[7] Research Projects and Methods in Educational Sociology, Journal of Educational Sociology, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Dec., 1937), pp. 249-252.

[8] Editorial Announcement, E. G. P., Journal of Educational Sociology, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Sep., 1927), pp. ii-iv

[9] The financial relation between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Journal of Educational Sociology is available online, via the Rockefeller Archive Center: (accessed October 2014)

[10] For the interdisciplinary funding by the Rockefeller Foundation see, for example, Pnina Amir-Am, The assessment of interdisciplinary research in the 1930s: the Rockefeller Foundation and physico-chemical morphology, Minerva 26 (1988); Jack Pressman, Human understanding: psychosomatic medicine and the mission of the Rockefeller Foundation, in Christopher Lawerence and George Weisz (eds.), Greater than the parts: holism in biomedicine 1920-1950 (Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 189-210; and Tara H. Abraham, Transcending disciplines: Scientific styles in studies of the brain in mid-twentieth century America, in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Volume 43, Issue 2, June 2012, pp. 552–568.

[11] ‘Discipline’ according to The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989, Clarendon Press, Oxford.




2 comments on “The Disciplinarization of Interdisciplinarity I – Unproblematic Disciplines

  1. Pingback: The Disciplinarization of Interdisciplinarity II – The Creation of Inter/Disciplinarity | MODO DE VOLAR

  2. Pingback: The Disciplinarization of Interdisciplinarity III – Foucault: Discipline as Power | MODO DE VOLAR

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This entry was posted on 18/01/2016 by in ENG, Sem categoria and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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