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In Defence of Disciplines: A Brief Review

Posted by Scott Pollock
23 July 2015 - 11:22am

In Defense of Disciplines: A Brief Review

Interdisciplinarity is a hot topic of discussion at many Universities, Colleges, and academic conferences (for example, the most recent Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences). While this subject has led to much debate there have been few empirical investigations of interdisciplinarity.  Jerry A. Jacobs’ (2013) In Defense of Disciplines begins to fill this gap and opens up many new avenues for research, debate, and discussion.

The first chapter of Jacob’s book looks at the criticism of the traditional disciplines that has been put forward by proponents of interdisciplinarity.  Essentially these critics have argued that academic disciplines act as silos, which lead scholars to become inwardly focused and generally unaware of developments occurring in other fields.  This is seen as a problem as many of our most pressing social issues (e.g., environmental problems, health epidemics) are being studied within more than one field.  It is also often argued that this inward focus, and the ability of disciplines to set research agendas, can arrest the development of new ideas. Interdisciplinarity is seen as a solution to these problems as it would allow scholars from many areas to work together, encourage scholars to become familiar with developments in more than one field, and allow scholars to pursue unconventional research agendas.

Throughout the remainder of his book Jacobs analyzes the validity of the arguments put forward by interdisciplinarians and finds them wanting in many regards.  Jacobs’ conducts his analysis by drawing on several different types of data, including: an analysis of traditional and interdisciplinary journals, a historical investigation of the development of traditional fields (e.g., sociology) and interdisciplinary ones (e.g., American studies), and an analysis of existing interdisciplinary units within American universities.

While Jacobs comes to many conclusions a few seem particularly noteworthy for the ongoing discussions regarding interdisciplinarity.  First, Jacobs challenges the idea that the disciplines are silos and that if true this is problematic. In order to accomplish this Jacobs first argues that it is not unusual for departments to be hybrid in nature (e.g., joint departments) or to offer joint courses (i.e., there are already instances of interdisciplinarity).  Jacobs also uses historical examples to illustrate that it is common for new fields of study to emerge out of existing disciplines.  Having thus challenged the idea that the disciplines are static, Jacobs goes on to investigate the claim that the existing disciplines are insular.  In order to do this Jacobs drew upon an existing citation analysis (conducted by Van Leeuwen and Tijssen, 2000) of 2,314 journals, which had been classified into 119 subject categories. This analysis found that 69% of references were cross-disciplinary.  So, for example, over 40% of the references to sociological studies were made in journals from other fields and nearly 40% of references to biological research were made in other fields.  These findings seriously challenge the claim that scholars working in one field are completely unaware of what is transpiring in others. 

While not a focal issue in the book, Jacobs also goes on to question the claim that interdisciplinary research offers our best chance to solve pressing social problems or answer significant questions.  In particular, Jacobs questions how closely researchers need to work together to contribute to solving a social issue, how practical it would be to train scholars in multiple areas, and how efficient a problem-centered university would be, as there would likely be a significant duplication of resources.

While Jacobs offers a strong defence of traditional disciplines, he does not write off the potential of interdisciplinarity. In fact, several chapters of his book discuss at length the challenges interdisciplinary subjects will need to address in order to establish themselves.  In the end this is a very thoughtful (and timely) book.  While there are sure to be critiques of Jacobs’ research and conclusions he has made an important contribution by challenging the notion of “disciplines as silos,” an idea that is very quickly becoming “common sense”.

What are your thoughts on interdisciplinarity? What discussions are happening at your school on this subject?


Jacobs, Jerry A. (2013). In defence of disciplines: interdisciplinarity and specialization in the research university. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.