Thursday, 20 October 2011

Disciplining Interdisciplinarity

By Catherine Lyall

Professor Gabriele Bammer is doing something very exciting. In her forthcoming book ‘Disciplining Interdisciplinarity’ she sets out to build a new discipline – Integration and Implementation Sciences or I2S. 

Disciplines exist because, in the past at least, they made knowledge manageable. They also bestow considerable benefits in terms of peer recognition, access to resources, clear training pathways and professional kudos. But the changing dynamics of the natural, social and political world mean that researchers are increasingly called upon to generate innovative solutions to multi-dimensional, policy-related problems on a regional, national or global scale.The ability to deliver solutions to such challenges increasingly requires integration across disciplines. It also requires that academics reach out to the policy, private and third sectors.

Interesting and meaningful work happens at these boundaries and in the gaps between disciplines. It is without question that the opportunities and need for I2S will intensify in the future.
Developing a new discipline is a major undertaking and not without risks. In offering her ‘Big Science’ manifesto for I2S, Gabriele’s approach is fittingly ambitious and optimistic but, as we describe in our own work (Interdisciplinary Research Journeys), I2S can expect to encounter institutional barriers – departmental structures, management systems and career pathways are most often based around well-established disciplines. These challenges need to be recognised and managed if individual researchers and centres are to build effective and successful I2S programmes.

Some interdisciplinary fields have reached the point that they are recognised as disciplines in their own right, with a shared knowledge base and associated measures of merit. This has resulted in stable communities within which researchers concentrate their experience into a particular worldview. So, in developing the new ‘discipline’ of I2S how do we retain the freshness and spontaneity – how do we accrue the reputational advantages of a discipline without the potential disadvantages of rigid convention?


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