Disciplinary Realities and Interdisciplinary Prospects

Exploring being in the world, proclaiming life signified nothing, analyzing assumptions and developing syntheses were once the domain of philosophy and literature. Attempts were made to understand the whole of human existence. Gradually, grand theories about life became replaced by adoration of science. Whether or not there was a palace of wisdom seemed less relevant to some when empirically grounded academic disciplines rose to the fore. Specialization succeeded speculation; reduction overthrew integration, fragmentation dominated interconnection.

Extraordinary scientific discoveries revolutionized the conception of truth and understanding. “The progress of knowledge,” Peter Bol declares, “depends on specialization” (Bol, 2004, p. 1). The formerly prominent seven liberal arts were replaced by three broad liberal arts academic cultures: the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. The newer liberal arts cultures developed separate academic disciplines, sub-disciplines and interdisciplines.

Still there remains a tension in intellectual life between specialization and generalization, between scientism and the humanities, between insulated disciplines and cross disciplinary fertilization. Some, like the 2002 Greater Expectations  report, complain about the “disconnected fragments” rather than “coherent plans” in American higher education (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2002, p. x). Efforts to bring things together run into obstacles. To James Engell, the way the disciplines are connected looks “like an airplane route map, or the route map of several airlines superimposed upon each other” (Engell, 2004, p. 4). In an age where specialized expertise is the mark of professionalism, how can these overlapping routes be untangled, how can the gaps be bridged between knowledge from individual sub-disciplines, the parent discipline, the academic cultures and the search for the larger meaning of life?

Informed disciplinary specialists have their virtues and limits. Aristotle wrote: “a good judge in each particular field is one who has been trained in it, and a good judge in general, a man who has received an all-round schooling” (Aristotle, 1962, p. 5). Specialists may not be good judges beyond their area of expertise. Yet All-round schooling today is not at the center of academic life. People are needed who can see both the trees and the forest. Today there are many experts on kinds of trees, but few who concentrate on the forest. When examining an issue, whether it is disciplinary or interdisciplinary, there is benefit from exploring the whole picture, including how each liberal art academic culture might illuminate the subject. There will be many topics that are in the domain of one subject area, but other topics may well be illuminated by other disciplines and academic cultures. Specialization and comprehensiveness may be combined.

How do we get from disciplinary fragmentation and specialization; from the “kingdom of knowledge” as Rustum Roy says, being “balkanized, nay feudalized, divided into a hundred fiefdoms,” and back to addressing, what philosopher Joel Dupre calls “the most interesting and important aspects of human behavior” (Roy, 1979, p. 162, Dupre, 2001, p. 132). If there is a way to return to the larger questions of existence, it is not only through the specialized and divided disciplines, it is also through the interconnections between the disciplines and keeping our eye on the overall picture.

Many issues require attention from more than one specialty. There is an interdisciplinary condition; it is when an issue or question requires more than one academic subject to adequately address the problem. Once the necessity of interdisciplinary investigation is recognized, any single disciplinary approach to the issue will be insufficient. For example, take the question: Is there an Oedipus complex, and if there is, is it universal? This question cannot be addressed without incorporating concepts and findings from at least biology, psychology, psychoanalysis, and anthropology. Whether or not the exposition of the subject follows an interdisciplinary research process, the questions still remain interdisciplinary in nature If the questions are interdisciplinary, what makes the answers interdisciplinary? It depends on what is meant by interdisciplinarity and what grounds there are within the disciplines to bring about sufficient convergence to answer the questions. At first, I will address the second of these questions, and return to the first later.

Interdisciplinary investigations rely on the information and perspectives of the individual disciplines. “Interdisciplinarity,” as Robert Scott says, “presupposes disciplinarity” (Scott, 1979, p. 326). The fate, then, of interdisciplinarity is entwined with that of the disciplines. The quest for addressing the larger meaning of life needs to go through the disciplines in order to get to the other side. Understanding the nature of the disciplines is also an essential part of proceeding with the interdisciplinary process.

How then can a discipline be comprehended? Exploring individual disciplines will give some insight into disciplinarity. A discipline can be approached synchronously by seeing its current state, and/or it can be examined diachronically, by looking at it over time, by understanding the history of the discipline. To understand disciplinarity I will be discussing what historians and scholars of various disciplines and subdisciplines have written about their subject matter. To be comprehensive, I have chosen to examine at least one discipline from each of the three liberal arts academic cultures. The fields examined will be biology, literature, and psychology. Comprehending disciplinary realities will illuminate interdisciplinary prospects.


Harvard professor Ernst Mayr says that since the biologist studies animate subjects (living organisms) it needs to be distinguished from physics and chemistry, which study inanimate objects. As such the philosophy and methodology of biology, Mayr believes, are somewhat different than the physical sciences. There is an overlap between the inanimate and animate sciences, as biology is divided, Mayr says, between mechanistic, functional and historical biologists. “Functional biology deals…particularly with all cellular processes, including those of the gene” and these processes “can be explained mechanistically by chemistry and physics,” while historical or evolutionary biology cannot (Mayr, 2004, p. 24). Mechanical biologists are more in tune with the reductionist, experimental outlook of the physical scientists while evolutionists rely more on observation and explanation.

“Reductionism,” Mayr declares, “is the declared philosophy of the physicalists. Reduce everything to the smallest parts, determine the property of these parts, and you have explained the whole system. However, in a biological system, there are so many interactions among the parts…that a complete knowledge of the properties of the smallest parts gives necessarily only a partial explanation” (Mayr, 2004, p. 34). Biologists studying living organisms and evolution often cannot rely on experimentation or reduction and turn, Mayr says, to historical narratives, which are tested for explanatory value. Biology, Mayr concludes “is very different from the exact sciences in its conceptual framework and methodology” (Mayr, 2004, p. 32). Biology then has a divided soul; it is torn between the functional biologists who are aligned with “the natural sciences” while “evolutionary biology” is attached “to the science of history” (Mayr, 2004, p. 13).

When the branches of biology overlap the different concepts and methodologies often do not mesh. Mayr says that “throughout biology there are numerous unresolved controversies” including “the use of reduction” (Mayr, 2004, p. x.). MIT professor Evelyn Fox Keller goes further. An “analysis of the literature on biological development over the course of the century reveals not only great variability in criteria – over time and between different research schools – for what might count as an explanation of biological development, but also how flexible these criteria can be” (Keller, 2002, p. 6).

The field is split conceptually and methodologically. As Mayr has previously remarked, a “reason why consensus is hard to achieve is that disagreeing scientists adhere to different underlying ideologies making certain theories acceptable to one group which are impossible for another group” (Mayr, 1997, p. 103). Years earlier chemist Michael Polanyi stated: “All formal rules of scientific procedure…will be interpreted quite differently; according to the particular conceptions…by which the scientist is guided….For within two different conceptual frameworks the same range of experience takes the shape of different facts and different evidence.” Conceptual opponents “do not accept the same ‘facts’ as facts, and still less the same ‘evidence’ as evidence” (Polanyi, 1962, p. 167).

The customary term interdisciplinarians use to describe such differences is “perspectives.” According to Allen Repko: “Perspective is a discipline’s overall view on that portion of reality that it considers within its research domain. Perspective determines how a discipline approaches a problem in terms of the methods it uses, the theories it advances, the concepts it generates, and the insight it develops” (Repko, 2005, p. 137). Repko’s definition of perspective is quite similar to one meaning Thomas Kuhn assigns to the term paradigm, which he says “stands for the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques and so on shared by the members of a given community.” Kuhn calls this conception of paradigm a “‘disciplinary matrix’” because “it refers to the common possession of the practitioners of a particular discipline” (Kuhn, 1970, pp. 175, 182).

The term that Mayr uses, ideology, captures something additional in academic controversies. The late Ernst Mayr is not the only Harvard biologist who applies the term ideology to scientific endeavors. His one time colleague, R.C. Lewonton, authored a book entitled Biology As Ideology. How does ideology enter into science? “Modern biology” Lewonton writes, “is characterized by a number of ideological prejudices that shape the form of its explanations and the way its researches are carried out” (Lewonton, 1991, p. 41). To Lewonton, “a particular ideological bias of modern biology….is that everything that we are…are ultimately encoded in our DNA.” This view about our genes “is part of a deep ideological commitment that goes under the name of reductionism” (Lewonton, 1991, p. 107).

A well-known proponent of reductionism is another Harvard biologist, the founder of sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson. “The cutting edge of science,” he writes, “is reductionism, the breaking apart of nature into its natural components….reductionism is the primary and essential activity of science” (Wilson, 1998, p. 54). To Wilson: “all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are…ultimately reducible…to the laws of physics” (Wilson, 1998, p. 266).

Both Mayr and Lewonton take exception to Wilson’s claims. Mayr says Wilson’s “suggestion was based on a faulty analysis of biology….none of the autonomous features of biology can possibly be unified with any of the laws of physics” (Mayr, 2004, p. 36). Lewonton labels Wilson’s creation, sociobiology, as the “most modern form of naturalistic human nature ideology” (Lewonton, 1991, p. 89). It underplays the social component in human activities, confuses observation with explanation, and often employs circular reasoning. The “sociobiological explanations of the evolution of human behavior are like Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories of…how the elephant got his trunk. They are just stories” (Lewonton, 1991, p. 100).

Whatever the scientific merits of Wilson’s brand of reductionism, it is clear that there are deep divisions within the discipline of biology. After three decades of debate and discussion, the common ground and common vocabulary between these conflicting viewpoints within one of the premier scientific disciplines has not been found. Wilson’s conception of biology has it reducible to the laws of physics and Mayr says the complications of organisms cannot be known through reduction. How much of this disagreement is resolvable and how much of it is conviction?

Ideology is a good concept for describing the divisions within biology and other academic fields. There are many beliefs that are connected to and yet go beyond data and discoveries; they are convictions of how things work and what is important in investigations. “The replacement of ideologies,” Mayr observes, “meets far more resistance than the replacement of erroneous theories” (Mayr, 1997, p. 103).

Ideology is not only bias, prejudice, or conviction. As Terry Eagleton notes: “ideological discourse typically displays a certain ratio between empirical propositions and what we might roughly term a ‘world view’” (Eagleton, 2007, p. 22). If we say that reductionism is an ideology, then we can also say that it has had an extensive research agenda that has scientifically illuminated many aspects of animate and inanimate phenomena. Ideologies may open up certain areas of understanding; develop methodology and criteria for gathering and evaluating evidence, standards for explanation and/or narration, and provide insights into certain aspects of existence. Ideologies, though, can also overextend their point of view, and not recognize either the limits of their outlook or the legitimacy of differing paradigms.

The recognition that academic disciplines not only have divergent perspectives, concepts, and ideas, but also can contain conflicting ideologies is an important lens through which to view what happens within academic disciplines. It also has strong implications for interdisciplinary studies. The interdisciplinarian investigating a problem that goes beyond the confines of one discipline needs to be cognizant of the differing ideologies within a discipline and its sub-disciplines. In evaluating claims it is important to recognize both the data, paradigms, perspectives and ideologies that organize the information. The interdisciplinarian is not only analyzing disciplinary insights but often conflicting paradigms. For frequently facts are understood within explanatory frameworks, and there is often more than one framework utilized.

Facts, it is often remarked, are theory laden. Well, maybe not all facts, but once facts are strung together in explanations and/or narratives theory is employed. From time to time, these explanations and/or narratives are also paradigm and/or ideologically laden. When investigating a problem, whether it is a disciplinary or interdisciplinary inquiry, the researcher needs to be aware of the different paradigms and/or ideologies within the field. Analysis of the issues at hand requires awareness not only of the information but of the organizing ideas. The insights of one school of thought within a discipline are mistakes from another perspective within the discipline. These controversies over facts and theories make up much of the discussions within academic life. Interdisciplinary researchers should not only be in the business of comparing conflicting insights but competing ideologies. Insights cannot be understood without placing them in the context of the diverging outlooks within and between disciplines.

Interdisciplinarians have to work their way through the mine field of disciplinary disagreements. At times, when addressing an interdisciplinary question the common ground between the disciplines can be created and a single integration forged. On other occasions, say as when a social constructivist encounters a biological determinist, incommensurability rather than common ground are likely. Not infrequently, given the divergent ideologies and paradigms around, there may be more than one equally good integration possible. It would then be the responsibility of the interdisciplinary investigators to report all these ideologically grounded integrated perspectives on the problem at hand.

The recognition of the plurality of equally good explanations is an example of the scientific concept of the underdetermination of theory by evidence. As philosopher Paul Klee explains, there can be “a case of two incompatible theories each consistent with all actual and possible observational evidence.” It is then said that “the evidence cannot by itself determine that some one of the…competing theories is the correct one” (Klee, 1997, p. 66). “Empiricists argue,” Peter Godfrey-Smith reports, “that there will always be a range of alternative theories compatible with all our evidence. So we can never have good empirical grounds for choosing one of these theories over others” (Godfrey-Smith, 2003, p. 220).

Given that evidence itself cannot always determine which is the best explanation, one question arises as to whether or not the work of the interdisciplinary investigation is done when all the possible integrations of the question are noted. If the task of the interdisciplinarian is to attempt to unify the various possible integrations, there are epistemological problems that accompany this process. For one, the interdisciplinarian is likely to have his or her own ideological commitments and methodological criteria, and they play a part in the analysis. There is, of course, no completely neutral observer. There are times when the integration of different perspectives will result, and other times when different paradigms will produce competing theories. In a world of plural outlooks, this alternation between single and multiple solutions to the same problem is the everyday stuff of academic life. Given the multiplicity of paradigms, perspectives and ideologies within disciplines, sub-disciplines and across the three liberal arts academic cultures, in order to complete their investigations, interdisciplinary studies needs to explore the epistemological similarities and differences between these various outlooks, to clarify what divides and what interconnects them. The basic task of interdisciplinary studies to rigorously compare insights and perspectives of different disciplines cannot be finished without analyzing ideologies as well as insights. If we are ever going to be able to get back to seeking the broader understanding of the human condition, we need to be able to face irreconcilable plural perspectives without falling back on an empty relativism.

Literary Studies 

The academic discipline of English, when it became professionalized, was, according to Robert Scholes, “structured by an invidious binary opposition between writing teachers and literary scholars” (Scholes, 1998, p. 35). My focus will be on literary studies and the study of literary texts, which is clearly part of the humanities. Joe Moran believes that “literature is about everything – love, sex, friendship, family relationships, aging, death, social and historical change….In short, it is about life in all its diversity” (Moran, 2002, p. 21). The distinguished literary scholar, M.H. Abrams, sees “the site of literature” as “the human world, and a work of literature is the product of a purposive human author addressing human recipients in an environing reality” (Abrams, 1997, p. 133). “English,” Terry Eagleton writes, “was an arena in which the most fundamental questions of human existence…were thrown into vivid relief and made the object of most intensive scrutiny” (Eagleton, 1996, p. 27).

Yet for all the focus on humanity in all its diversity, literary study is a conceptually and ideologically divided field. The study of literature and related phenomenon is its central focus. Literature departments, Gerald Graff states, are “aggregates arranged to cover an array of historical and generic literary fields” (Graff, 1987, p. 6). How to bring the various parts of the discipline together has been problematic. In discussing the discipline of English, literary scholar Harold Rosen writes: “When we inspect the practices which cluster together uncomfortably under its banner, they appear so diverse, contradictory, arbitrary and random as to defy analysis and explanation” (Rosen, 1981, p. 5). Cultural studies guru, Richard Hoggart, proclaims: “there is no recognizable discipline of ‘English’, no genuine whole, but only a set of contrived frontiers and selected approaches” ( Hoggart, 1982, p. 125). “The present crisis in the field of literary studies,” Terry Eagleton writes, “is at root a crisis in the definition of the subject itself.” Eagleton notes that there is a “lack of methodological unity in literary studies” and “not all these methods are mutually compatible” (Eagleton, 1996, pp. 186, 172).

Marjorie Garber traces the successive trends in twentieth century writing on literature: “in the course of the past century of literary study, philology and editing have given way to literary history; then to ‘character criticism’ and psychology; then to close reading and the pursuit of images and themes; then to archetypal criticism; then to philosophical and psychoanalytic theory, then to historicism and an emphasis on socially and culturally produced categories…; and now once again to philology and editing…as well as to appreciation…and value” (Garber, 2004, p. 65). M. H. Abrams lists various approaches to studying literature in the last century, including the New Criticism, archetypal theory, phenomenological theory, structuralism, reader-response, reception theory, semiotics, speech-act theory, postmodernism, deconstruction, Lacanianism, and neo-Marxism (Abrams, 1997, pp. 132-133). Eagleton views the “story of modern literary theory” as “a flight…into a seemingly endless range of alternatives” (Eagleton, 1996, p. 171).

With this plethora of disciplinary approaches, it should not be surprising that Gerald Graff maintains that “academic literary studies…is not a coherent cultural tradition, but a series of conflicts that have remained unresolved, unacknowledged, and assumed to be outside the proper sphere of literary education” (Graff, 1987, p. 15). These theoretic conflicts engender problems in communication. Abrams again: as a result of the “new intellectual and cultural ethos in the faculties of English….criticism is often at a loss to discover enough common ground in assumptions and vocabulary, and in the standards of what counts as evidence for an assertion, to support profitable – or sometimes even mutually intelligible – discussion” (Abrams, 1997, p. 131). The ideological, methodological and evidentiary divisions in biology are present in literary studies.

Terry Eagleton goes as far as to claim: “Literature…is an ideology.” What he means is that in “our own time literature has become effectively identical with the opposite of analytic thought and conceptual enquiry: whereas scientists, philosophers and political theorists are saddled with these drably discursive pursuits, students of literature occupy the more prized territory of feeling an experience.” As such, literature is “admirably well-fitted to carry through the ideological task which religion left off” (Eagleton, 1996, pp. 19, 22). If Eagleton’s claims are to be affirmed, literary studies not only has ideological, paradigm and evidential conflicts that divide the discipline, but the ideological claims of literary studies are in contrast to the academic cultures of science and social science. Ideological pluralism, if it does not reign in academia, is certainly prominent and pervasive. For the interdisciplinarian, this means that the common ground required for integration within a subject area, between disciplines and across academic cultures is often lacking. Interdisciplinary studies functions within a paradoxical reality, and must recognize that disciplinary patterns create a contradictory intellectual environment. Interdisciplinary theory ignores the evidence of such realities at its own peril.


While there is consensus that biology is the science of life, and English studies writing and literature, finding agreement on the scope and definition of psychology is more difficult. “At various times in history,” B. R. Hergenhahn writes, “psychology has been defined as the study of the psyche or the mind, of the spirit, of consciousness, and more recently as the study of, or the science of behavior….Clearly, no single definition of psychology” can account for all that American psychologists do. “It seems best to say simply that psychology is defined by the professional activities of psychologists” (Hergenhahn, 2000, p. 1.). A good deal of what psychologists do is also done by psychiatrists, counselors, clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists, and psychoanalysts. Even if the definition of psychology is restricted to the professional members of the American Psychological Association, as Hergenhahn recognizes, there is “a rich diversity of methods, topics of interest, and assumptions about human nature” among the members of the American Psychological Association (B. R. Hergenhahn, 2000, p. 1.).

Duane and Sydney Ellen Schultz also find defining psychology to be problematic. To them, “there is no single…definition of psychology on which all psychologists agree” (Schultz and Schultz, 2000, p. 2). “Despite its youth,” C. James Goodwin observes, “psychology in the late twentieth century is notable for its lack of unity. Indeed, some observers…believe that a single field of psychology no longer exists, that a neuroscientist…has virtually nothing in common with the industrial psychologist” (Goodwin, 1999, p. 6). The Schultz’s also remark on the “enormous diversity, even divisiveness and fragmentation in professional and scientific specialization and in subject matter….Modern psychology includes many subject areas that seem to have little in common beyond a broad interest in human nature and conduct and an approach that attempts in some general way to be scientific” (Schultz and Schultz, 2000, p. 2).

Scientific psychology, as the Schultz’s note, has not been free from the fragmentations common to many contemporary academic subject areas. Writing in the volume, A Century of Psychology as Science, psychologist Sigmund Koch says: “When the details of psychology’s one-hundred year history are consulted, the patent tendency is toward theoretical and substantive fractionation (and increasing insularity among the ‘specialties), not integration” (Koch, 1992, pp. 92-93).

Academic research psychologists desire to define psychology as a science. Ah, but what is meant by science within psychology? Do all practicing psychologists interested in human nature and conduct follow scientific procedures? Within academic psychology, experiments, tests, observations, and statistical analysis are the standards by which research is generally conducted and evaluated. Following these procedures and analysis is usually considered in the discipline to be scientific.

Is scientific research the only practice among professional psychologists? There are many clinical psychologists who are members of the American Psychological Association; some of whom conform to academic research standards and others of whom do not. Certainly, there are a plethora of therapeutic theories being practiced and being evaluated clinically, if not being quantifiably tested. Under the Schultz’s definition, these therapists are not psychologists, though they are certainly interested in human nature and conduct. Many non-scientific clinicians are professionally trained and licensed; some are members of the American Psychological Association. Would these non-clinical psychologist therapists fit under Hergenhahn’s criteria for psychology? Is the field of psychology restricted to “scientific” research and practice, or does it also contain a broader scope and methodology?

These questions about what are the appropriate professional activities of psychology led to a split within the American Psychological Association (APA). Historian of psychology, C. James Goodwin writes: “conflicts developed between those who wanted the APA to retain its traditional role as the promoter of scientific psychology and those who thought of the organization as a promoter of the applied practice of psychology….many academician/scientists left the APA….They formed a new organization in 1988, the American Psychological Society (APS), devoted to enhancing and promoting scientific research in psychology.” The group has since changed their name to the Association for Psychological Science, and now has 18,000 members, compared to 148,000 belonging to the APA. “Organizationally, at least,” Goodwin says, “psychology at the close of the twentieth century seems to be characterized more by disunity than unity.” He also writes that “it is unclear if psychology has ever been a coherent discipline” and that “psychology today is really a plurality of subdisciplines, each a specialty in its own right,” for “psychology is not a single discipline but a collection of them” (Goodwin, 1999, p. 438, 439).

Just remaining within the history of American experimental research psychology, there has been a succession of paradigms, adopted, in part, by one generation, then opposed by many in the next generation of academic psychologists. This is sort of a dialogue or dance of the generations that results in internal debates and ideological divisions within the history of the research tradition.

In the early days of American professional psychology at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, structuralism and functionalism were prominent approaches to the field. Both studied consciousness experimentally; one was concerned with the structure of consciousness and the other its functions. Along comes the young John B. Watson proclaiming the superiority of behaviorism. In 1913, Watson writes: “Psychology…is a purely experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior.” The field “has failed…as an experimental field to make its place in the world as an undisputed natural science.” The reason for this lack of success, and the villain in Watson’s generational melodrama, is the emphasis on consciousness. He says that “psychology must discard all reference to consciousness,” that to be scientific, psychologists should “never use the term consciousness, mental states, mind, content, introspectively verifiable, imagery, and the like” (Watson, 1913, pp. 158, 164, 166).

While it took awhile for behaviorism and then neo-behaviorism to conquer the field, according to Goodwin, the latter “movement became the dominant one in experimental psychology lasting roughly from 1930 to 1960” (Goodwin, 1999, p. 325). Prominent neo-behaviorist B. F. Skinner shared Watson’s critique of “mentalism.” Skinner writes: “I am a radical behaviorist simply in the sense that I find no place in the formulation for anything which is mental.” He predicts that the “mentalism that survives in the fields of sensation and perception will disappear as alternative techniques are proved valuable in analyzing stimulus control” (Skinner, 1964, pp. 106, 94).

Ludy Benjamin Jr. remarks: “To limit psychology to the study of behavior meant that some topics would disappear from the subject matter of psychology, topics such as dreaming and thinking and imagery” (Benjamin Jr., 2007, p. 139). Historian Roger Smith: “especially in the United States, the experimental method became a precondition for psychology to be classed as a science, and topics that could not be subjected to objective testing were excluded….Psychology…defined itself by its methods rather than by its subject matter” (Smith, 1997, p. 639). In the same vein, Uichol Kim says “researchers in the field of psychology imposed the natural sciences model to study human beings.” In the process, “psychologists have discarded many central concepts” that make “human beings human,” such as “agency, consciousness, or intentions.” The result is that “psychological understanding became distorted” (Kim , 2001, p. 72).

Behaviorism and neo-behaviorism were ideologies as much as science, subject matter was subordinated to methodology. The behaviorist generational revolt against the study of consciousness insured that ideological battling was built into the history of the discipline.

Watson and Skinner went beyond scientific experimentation and analysis to advocacy; Watson with his declaration that he could mold a healthy child into either a doctor or thief, and Skinner with his utopian novel, Walden Two (Watson, 1930 p. 103-4, and Skinner, 1948). There is a strain of faith, even dogma in the scientism of these two influential men.

Later generations found flaws in behaviorism, and cognitive psychology became prominent bringing mind back into the psychological fold. While the current study of mentalities diverges from the earlier psychological structuralism and functionalism, it continues the internal circular dialogue within the discipline of psychology. Various paradigms, perspectives and ideologies ebb and flow within the empirical orientation of academic psychology. There are divisions among research psychologists, between research and clinical psychologists, and between psychologists and those in related fields.

Psychology as an overarching field has elements of the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities within it. But even those who champion psychology as an experimental science recognize the disunity within the history of the enterprise.  


To highlight some of the findings: biology contains ideological divisions that make theories of one school impossible for another and result in significant variation in criteria between different research orientations. In literary studies, there is often not enough common ground for mutually intelligible discussions. Psychology is fragmented, ideologically divided, and is less a single discipline than a collection of themWhile there are regularly grounds for interdisciplinary collaboration, these historians of the disciplines note that incompatibility and ideological conflicts are characteristic of their disciplines. There are epistemological factors that promote fragmentation and disunity within disciplines, and these are obstacles in the way of effective disciplinary unification, yet alone interdisciplinary integration.

Also telling is the testimony of scholars who have toiled for decades in the trenches of interdisciplinary fields and emerge skeptical of the enterprise. Anthropologist Charles Lindholm says that trying to marry academic disciplines is dangerous and produces an illegitimate offspring that will not be embraced by either of the parent disciplines. While cross-cultural psychologists John Berry and Ype Poortinga say that in practice interdisciplinarity ends up being one discipline reducing the findings of the other.

In the history of interdisciplinary studies, there are a number of scholars who doubt that projects connecting disciplines can result in integration. Back in 1979, Joseph Kockelmans wrote about those who “have underestimated the enormous difficulties which prevent genuine interdisciplinarity….there are epistemological obstacles: specialization seems to be a necessity…yet specialization makes integration virtually impossible” (Kockelmans 1979, pp. 146-147). Finding the mutual vocabulary needed for collaboration does not always occur. Kockelmans has “not found a convincing answer to the question of what steps” should be taken to establish “a firm common ground from which…can come a meaningful exchange of ideas concerning a given problem.” He elaborates: “It is very difficult to discover or establish a common ground in that everyone who participates…brings with him his own discipline’s conceptual framework and sensitivity for methods” (Kockelmans, 1979, p. 157, 141).

In 1991-2, a research group from various specialties gathered together to study the ‘Biological Foundations of Human Culture’ at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Bielefeld, Germany. Sociologist Sabine Maasen was present during the activities of this study group. On certain topics and methods, the group worked well together, but overall, she writes, “it should be emphasized that the ‘common ground’ of sociological and biological explanation of human behavior is not yet in sight” (Maasen, 2000, p. 185).

More recently, Rogers, Scaife and Rizzo report that despite an aim “to integrate disciplines…cognitive science has been predominantly a multi-disciplinary activity.” They find it is hard “to achieve interdisciplinarity” as there “are many epistemological obstacles” which “include incommensurability of concepts, different units of analysis, differences in world views, expectations, criteria, and value judgments.” These authors cite the findings of Bannon on attempts to develop a unified theory in human-computer interaction and computer-supported cooperative work. He did not discover any convincing interdisciplinary research projects. “Bannon argues that the goal of true interdisciplinarity in these contexts is fundamentally flawed because the worldviews, backgrounds, research traditions, perspectives…of the contributing disciplines are simply not commensurable with each other” (Rogers, Scaife, and Rizzo, 2005, pp. 266, 268, 274).

Schunn, Crowley and Okada have a less dire perspective. “the state of interdisciplinarity in the cognitive science society,” they write, “can be viewed as the proverbial glass: half empty or half full….we saw a domination by psychology and computer science as well as the presence of pure psychology” where “psychologists…presented only data from psychology experiments…and pure computer science….cognitive science can be seen as interdisciplinary now and then rather than completely intradisciplinary or completely interdisciplinary” (Schunn, Crowley and Okada, 2005, p. 304). Even in the field of cognitive science long touted as a successful example of interdisciplinary collaboration, there is a mixed bag and the usual obstacles to integration.

Reporting on interdisciplinary groups in general, O’Donnell and Derry, report that in the real world “most teams involving members from different disciplines never function as interdisciplinary.” In part this is because disciplines “differ in what events are interpretable, what methods they espouse, and what kinds of explanations are deemed satisfactory” (O’Donnell and Derry, 2005, pp. 73, 72). ). The findings of these authors are quite similar to Berry and Poortinga’s claim that often interdisciplinarity results more in one discipline interpreting the findings within their own framework than actually integrating insights and perspectives from both sides of the aisle.

Kockelmans summarizes this perspective: “Our world has become so splintered and fragmented by the fact that each individual discipline has developed its own conceptual framework, its own set of theories and methods, all of which in the final analysis rest on implicit philosophical assumptions and ultimately lead to different conceptions of the world” (Kockelmans, 1979, p. 145). As some disciplines have not been able to overcome internal fragmentation, competing theoretical frameworks, and conflicting methodologies, can we expect that interdisciplinary studies can achieve what the disciplines have not? Some of these problems for interdisciplinarity are surely the result of disciplinary insularity and intransigence, but, if the findings of the research into actual interdisciplinary projects are to be believed, some of these problems are due to incommensurability within and between disciplines. Epistemological dilemmas characteristic of intellectual endeavors as a whole are also prominent in interdisciplinary studies.

Where does all this disciplinary division into various ideologies, incompatible perspectives and competing paradigms leave interdisciplinarity? In some interdisciplinary investigations, the various disciplinary insights can be combined into a single comprehensive perspective that is an integration of the various parts into a new whole. In other such pursuits, it will be likely that a number of more comprehensive perspectives can be developed, but being based on divergent paradigms and/or ideologies they may not be consistent with each other. In these situations, the goal of a more comprehensive perspective can be met, but there will be plural such new findings. These plural more comprehensive perspectives though would not be considered integration, in the dictionary sense of integrate as making “into a whole by bringing all parts together; unify” (Pickett, J. (editor), 2007, p. 720). There then can be a distinction between a more comprehensive perspective and integration.

The plurality of perspectives, paradigms and/or ideologies within disciplines will often perpetuate epistemological conflicts and disunity. In other interdisciplinary efforts, it is unlikely that common ground can be created, because the fields are incompatible, incommensurable or ideologically opposed. The above reports of the researchers into specific attempts at interdisciplinary collaboration point to the difficulties in developing common vocabularies among various approaches. There are times when different conceptions of the world and ideological conflicts within and across disciplines will block common vocabularies and common grounds from emerging, and thus thwart disciplinary and/or interdisciplinary integration. If there are interdisciplinary issues, but they can not always result in creating common ground and integration, where does that leave interdisciplinary studies?  

The following is a roundabout way to addressing this question. Diverse results are not uncommon in the academic world. Higher education in this country moves in a variety of directions simultaneously. On one hand, Edward O. Wilson proclaims that knowledge is unified and fields are converging. Others such as English professor Gerald Graff proclaim that “the American university is…proliferating a variety of disciplinary vocabularies that nobody can reduce to the common measure of any metalanguage.” Each of the divisions within the university “reflects a history of ideological conflicts that is just as important as what is taught within the divisions.” Graff also mentions “the conflict of the sciences and the humanities” made famous by C. P. Snow’s characterization of the division between the two cultures (Graff, 1987, pp.12-13, 257-258). In 2005, psychologist David Barash concluded: “academic cultures are less mutually interpenetrating now than in Snow’s day….higher education…is more polarized than ever” (Barash, 2005, p. B11).

Where once Western civilization strove for intellectual unity, for over two centuries, there has been dialectic between the sciences and the humanities, C. P. Snow’s two cultures. Pluralism and fragmentation have replaced the medieval quest for unity. The age of specialization has led to the need to cross disciplinary boundaries. A source for the emergence of interdisciplinarity is the recognition of the insufficiency and disunity of the disciplines. Kockelmans believes “that interdisciplinarity is not progress but a symptom of the pathological situation in which man’s theoretical knowledge finds itself today. For more than two hundred years specialization….has led to the dangerous fragmentation of our entire epistemological domain. Our theoretical knowledge has disintegrated, and the human personality has been affected by this lack of integration” (Kockelmans, 1979, p. 146).

Things falling apart and the center not holding is certainly a prominent perspective on the contemporary human condition. From this outlook, always expecting common ground and integration is a misunderstanding of both human and interdisciplinary realities. Epistemological pluralism, methodological conflicts and ideological divisions are the necessary starting points for the agenda of interdisciplinary studies.

Elizabeth Fox Keller writes of “the de facto multiplicity of explanatory styles in scientific practice, reflecting the manifest diversity of epistemological goals which researchers bring to their task” (Keller, 2002, p. 300). Many have latched on to C. P. Snow’s notion of the two cultures, Elizabeth Fox Keller adds: “when Snow was writing, the scientific world was itself a world divided” (Keller, 2002, p. 80).

Given the widespread recognition of the divisions, why are not more people clarifying what these conflicts are and seeking where convergence and where demarcation between diverging approaches are within disciplines and across academic cultures? These new comparative interdisciplinary goals can be accomplished on small, medium, and large fields. At the micro level sub-fields in different disciplines can be compared, at the middle level disciplinary approaches can be examined, say the connection between historical methods and those used by evolutionary biologists. At the macro level, where paradigms and perspectives diverge, the epistemological diversity between the three liberal arts academic cultures needs examination and dialogue. Extensive dialogues between diverging perspectives can result which hopefully will enlarge the understandings of each discipline and culture.

“Explanatory pluralism,” Elizabeth Fox Keller concludes, “…is now not simply a reflection of differences in epistemological cultures but a positive virtue in itself, representing our best chance of coming to terms with the world around us” (Keller, 2002, p. 300). In an epistemologically pluralist world with competing paradigms and diverse visions, complexity and heterogeneity will be present in interdisciplinary studies as it is in much of the rest of academia. The obstacles to creating interdisciplinary common ground and integration lead to new opportunities, to turning to explanatory pluralism as a direction for interdisciplinary studies. These are chances to advance an interdisciplinary agenda that takes as its focus confronting the challenges of epistemological divisions and ideological diversity. Looking through the pluralistic lenses of all three academic cultures is a place to start. An interdisciplinarity rooted in the three academic cultures can help confront the problems posed by plural ways of knowing that many ignore and few rigorously confront.

1 This article is adapted from a paper by the same title that Dr. Fuchsman presented at the 2007 annual conference of the Association of Integrative Studies, September 27-30, 2007, at Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ.



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