Dan Sperber (2003) Why rethink interdisciplinarity? Virtual seminar Rethinking interdisciplinarity on www.interdisciplines.org

English version of “Pourquoi repenser l’interdisciplinarité?” Text discussed in the virtual seminar Rethinking interdisciplinarity / Repenser l’interdisciplinarité on www.interdisciplines.org 2003 (where the whole discussion is available). [PDF version]


Dan Sperber

This virtual seminar on “Rethinking Interdisciplinarity” is organised by members and associates of the Institut Jean Nicod (which describes itself as “an interdisciplinary lab at the interface between the humanities, the social sciences and the cognitive sciences”). We do not, normally, discuss among ourselves interdisciplinarity per se. What we do is work on issues that happen to fall across several disciplines, and, for this, we establish collaboration among philosophers, psychologists, neuropsychologists, linguists, anthropologists, and others. Still, we—and so many other scholars, students, and managers of scientific institutions—have good reasons to pause and reflect on interdisciplinarity itself. Research that falls across disciplines meets specific obstacles. It is easily construed as challenging the dominant disciplinary organisation of the sciences. This challenge is seen as positive by some, a distraction by others. Scholar involved in interdisciplinary research end up having to either articulate the challenge or downplay it. So it goes in the micro-politics of science. But surely, talk of interdisciplinarity should not just be opportunistic. It is, or should be, relevant to our understanding of the character and becoming of science. Hence the idea of this seminar.

I had initially intended, in this opening presentation, to outline a few ideas on the pros, the cons, and the future of interdisciplinarity, but in working on it, I felt more and more inclined to share reflections, concerns, and indeed emotions inspired by my experience, that of a social and cognitive scientist deeply involved in interdisciplinary research. I will do so by presenting a few vignettes and commenting them.

Cosmetic interdisciplinarity: I sit, once again, on a committee evaluating grant proposals that have to meet explicit criteria of interdisciplinarity. As usual, the committee is interdisciplinary in the sense that it is mostly made up of scholars from several disciplines, each recognised and powerful within his or her one discipline. Very few of us have been involved in intensive interdisciplinary work. Most of the grant proposals we have to evaluate have built in interdisciplinary rhetoric and describe future collaboration among people from different disciplines, but this is mostly done in order to meet the criteria of for the grant. The actual scientific content generally consists in the juxtaposition of monodisciplinary projects with some effort to articulate their presentation. A few proposals are genuinely interdisciplinary, but often they are the less well thought through, the least likely to yield clear results. And now we have to rank two proposals: a really good proposal the interdisciplinary character of which is superficial and ad hoc, and a merely decent, but genuinely interdisciplinary and innovative proposal. Should we prefer the first one hoping that, just as faith is said to come while praying, some true interdisciplinary interaction and thinking will occur in what was initially an opportunistic half-hearted effort, or should we favour the second proposal and see its more tentative and fuzzy character as the price paid for leaving the well-trodden paths? I have known similar dilemma before. This time, I vote for the better not-so-interdisciplinary proposal, which I see as more clearly deserving to be funded. At the same time, I wonder: What kind of a comedy is this, where we are pretending to fund novel, interdisciplinary research, when, in fact, there is very little funding for interdisciplinary teaching and training in the first place? How likely is it that outstanding interdisciplinary proposals emerge in such conditions?  And aren’t most of my colleagues on the committee quite content with this state of affairs, which allows disciplinary business to go on as usual at the cheap price of some interdisciplinary rhetoric?

Interdisciplinary disappointments. A team of eminent psychologists spends years providing experimental evidence in favour of the view that there are fundamental differences in the modes of thought of members of different cultures. While this view goes against the biases of most psychologists, it has long been defended by anthropologists, without however the benefit of experimental evidence. Our psychologists are invited to present their work at an anthropology conference. The disappointment is strong on both sides. The anthropologists fail to see the relevance of experimental evidence in favour of a thesis they feel confident has already been amply demonstrated with ethnographic data. They object to what they see as the artificiality of experiments collected outside of an ethnographic context. Moreover, they find the psychologists’ view of culture, exemplified by the fact that they are talking about Western and Asian cultures in general, far too crude. The psychologists feel that the anthropologists are just blind to the importance of experimental evidence, that they criticise experimental methodology without understanding it, and that they fail to appreciate how much their work might contribute to a fruitful exchange between psychologists and anthropologists. In the end, the thesis itself is not given any discussion.

What is going wrong? The two communities, psychologists and anthropologists, have, different vocabularies, presuppositions, priorities, criteria, references. In general different disciplines have different sub-cultures, and the difference is made worse, not attenuated, by the existence of superficial similarities,  for instance identical words used with quite different meanings (“culture” and “mode of though” in the present example). Because issues seem to be shared by two disciplines, scholars from each may seek, or at least welcome, interdisciplinary exchanges. More often than not, their expectation is not so much that they will learn much from the other discipline; it is that people in the other discipline can and should learn from them. It is much less challenging to think that one’s message has relevance beyond its usual audience than to think that one has been missing a message of great relevance to oneself. In fact, in the story I just told, clearly, the psychologists made the greatest effort to go out of their way and produce novel work, but more with the expectation that they would have a message to share than one to accept. The anthropologists, on their part, were willing to welcome psychologists whom they expected to bow to the obvious superiority of anthropology over psychology in matter of cultural modes of thought. They were not at all ready to try and understand things from the point of view of psychologists (in spite of the fact that understanding other people’s point of view is what anthropologists do, but then the people in question are far away and are not competing for academic recognition and resources).  More generally, many researchers in many disciplines have participated in interdisciplinary encounters; public discourse on these occasions always underscores their positive side, but, in private, misgivings and frustrations are commonly expressed. Most participants return mildly intrigued but otherwise unmoved, the way business managers return to their routines after a self-awareness week-end retreat.

A slow learning curve: Some of the members of the psychological team I have just mentioned are involved in a graduate “Culture and Cognition” program at the University of Michigan . Every week all the participants in the project, graduate student and faculty, most from psychology or anthropology, meet and discuss their own work, papers by visitors, or general issues. It is fascinating, and somewhat disheartening, to watch how week after week, year after year, the same disagreements across and sometimes within disciplines are expressed in almost the same terms, as if disciplinary and theoretical affiliations could never be overcome. But this is only half of the story. Some people come a few time and leave for good, feeling that this is a waste of time, but others have been attending for years; they have developed a clear and detailed understanding of the work done in other disciplines, and, in their own work, they address truly interdisciplinary issues, drawing, even if sometimes defensively, from different disciplines. Some of the students in the program, even though they come from either the social sciences or psychology, think and work across disciplines. So all of us who participate in this program, as permanent members or regular visitors, feel both a sense of frustration—couldn’t this work better, move ahead faster, leave once and for all behind the initial misunderstandings?—and a sense of achievement—though not as much or as well-developed as we would like, something novel and relevant is emerging that could not have been fostered in a disciplinary context.

More generally, it turns out that the only way to have interdisciplinary work paid attention to, and, even if often misunderstood, at least not right away dismissed is to produce different versions of it for each of the disciplines concerned. You submit, say, one article to a psychology journal, with streamlined introduction and general discussion, a standard detailed experimental section, thorough references to the psychological literature, and using all the disciplinary buzz words in the right way. You develop basically the same argument for an anthropology journal with, mutatis mutandis, the same strategy, which this time involves providing a mere summary of the experiments, what psychologists would call anecdotal evidence, and much longer theoretical sections anticipating the objections most anthropologists tend to have to any naturalistic approach. Same concerns when you give talk to disciplinary audiences. Being an anthropologist, I have enjoyed going native in several disciplinary sub-cultures, and yes, there is much to learn from the experience. However, this makes serious involvement in interdisciplinary research a high investment endeavour. An easier way is to have enduring interdisciplinary collaborations among specialists of different disciplines. To be able to understand each other and conceive of common goals, they still need not just good will, but something like the kind of training provided by the “Culture and Cognition” program at Michigan .

A student’s dilemma: D., a psychologist, and I are co-tutors of a particularly promising graduate student with degrees in philosophy, sociology, and biology, who is now at the end of his first year in a cognitive sciences doctoral program. He is participating in experiments in D.’s lab as part of his training. The student wants to choose, for his dissertation, an interdisciplinary research topic having to do with the cognitive basis and the cultural forms of morality. D., although he is currently involved in another interdisciplinary project on a related topic, tries energetically to convince the student to give up his idea and to choose—or accept—a strictly psychological research project closely related to work currently pursued in D.’s lab, and the results of which can be partly anticipated. Only if the student makes such a choice, does D. feel confident that he will be able to help him with his career. Interdisciplinary work is for when you already have a job! The student has been motivated throughout his studies by interdisciplinary goals and is very reluctant to accept. At the same time, he will need a grant, and later a job, and I cannot but confirm that, from this important practical point of view, D. is essentially right. As I have told quite a few students who wanted to work within the kind of interdisciplinary approach I have been defending, choosing an interdisciplinary research topic at the doctoral stage involves serious career risks. Also, it is much harder to get a proper training without investing all of one’s energy into one discipline, or rather sub-sub-discipline. Happily, in this particular case, after several exchanges between all the people involved, and helped by the manifest excellence of the student, we find what looks like a realistic compromise, which will involve downplaying the interdisciplinary character of the research the student will in fact pursue (just the opposite rhetoric of that of the typical interdisciplinary grant proposal!).

I see here a vicious circle: postponing interdisciplinary work to the time a researcher is well established means that such research is generally pursued as a side activity, with more goodwill than thorough competence, and that therefore, indeed, it will be much harder for a student to find proper supervision in an interdisciplinary than in a disciplinary area. Even more generally, this means that the inventiveness and creativity of younger scholars is discouraged from going into interdisciplinary work, slowing down this work, making it intellectually and practically less attractive, and so on.

The emergence of an interdisciplinary network: In the late 80s we were a few anthropologists trying to develop a different kind of cognitive anthropology, drawing on the work of Noam Chomsky and of some outstanding developmental psychologists, arguing that the mind involves a variety of domain specific mechanisms and that these mechanisms played an important role in permitting cultural transmission and in shaping cultural contents. In 1990, a conference on domain specificity in cognition and culture was organised at the University of Michigan (see Hirschfeld and Gelman 1994). It brought together these anthropologists, developmental and evolutionary psychologists, and others. The cross-disciplinary convergence of interests was striking to many participants and has influenced their work ever since. This conference was the starting point of a network of collaborations that took the form, over the years, of several other conferences, workshops, research project mixing experimental work and anthropological fieldwork (as for instance in the collaboration between Scott Atran and Doug Medin, or that between Rita Astuti and Susan Carey). All these meeting and projects were made easier by the fact that grant giving agencies favour interdisciplinary research, and we did not have to strain the rhetoric to meet their criteria. The scientific output of this loose and growing network of researchers has gained the recognition I believe it deserved. A number of younger researchers involved have had an interdisciplinary training and have done interdisciplinary work from the start.

More generally, in a number of fields, major advances have involved interdisciplinary interactions. The example I just gave is not untypical of what has been happening in the cognitive sciences. Howard Gardner, an early historian of what he dubbed the “Cognitive Revolution” wrote in 1985: “At present most cognitive scientists are drawn from the rank of specific disciplines—in particular, philosophy, psychology, artificial intelligence, linguistics, anthropology, and neuroscience. … The hope is that some day the boundaries between these disciplines may become attenuated or perhaps disappear altogether, yielding a single unified cognitive science.” (Gardner 1985: 7). Almost twenty years later, what do we observe? The disciplines have not merged (and, in cases such as that of philosophy or anthropology, only sub-disciplines were involved in the cognitive science enterprise anyhow), but each discipline has borrowed concepts, issues, tools, and criteria from others. To give just a couple of illustrations, modelling, inspired by artificial intelligence, is more and more used as a tool in psychology and neuroscience, and, more generally, the existence of a clear possibility of modelling a given hypothesis is recognised as a criterion for judging the acceptability of an hypothesis anywhere in the cognitive sciences. Issues about the character and role of representations, first raised in philosophy of mind, have become topics of controversy within and across all the cognitive sciences. It still is the case that most cognitive scientists squarely belong to a specific discipline, but it has become quite common for many of them to be routinely involved in intensive research programmes involving researchers from several disciplines.

Some of us have gone one step beyond: we don’t belong anymore to a given discipline, or we belong to several. I, for instance, have done research and published in anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, and experimental psychology: I am at ease in each of these fields but not exactly at home in any. There is however—or so I believe—as much unity to my work as there would have been had I followed a more traditional course: my goal has been from the start to explore and develop some of the common foundations of the social and cognitive sciences, and no single discipline offered an appropriate vantage point to do so. For some of us, interdisciplinarity (or transdisciplinarity, or call it the way you want) is a way of life. It is at least an ordinary aspect of their work for most researchers in the cognitive sciences (and also in other domains, for instance environmental studies). The cognitive sciences have become a new kind of (inter)disciplinary configuration, with less institutional unity than most established disciplines, but more dynamic interactions than recognised groups of disciplines such as the social sciences.

An interdisciplinary Web conference: Between October 2001 and March 2002, an interdisciplinary conference on the future of the text in the electronic age took place, appropriately, on the Web. (It was organised by the Library of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Institut Jean Nicod, the Association Euro-Edu, and the GiantShare Company, and led by Gloria Origgi and Noga Arikha). Every fortnight, a lecture was put on line for discussion. The lecturers were historians, cognitive scientists, philosophers, librarians, and a publisher and a journalist. The N people who participated in the discussions had even more diverse background. We often heard the following objection to the Web conference format: you loose the voices, the bodily communication, the conversations in the lobby or at lunch. True, but these do not have only beneficial effects. They quickly stabilise a pecking order among the participants based on age, sex, fluency, aggressiveness, and academic status. Some intervene with ease in all the discussions and others feel inhibited by their real or perceived position in the pecking order. In the case of an interdisciplinary conference, the disciplinary divisions tend to be maintained by all these forms of direct interaction: lobby and lunch conversations tend to be among disciplinary colleagues, public interventions are in good part aimed, directly or indirectly, at members of the same discipline, and so forth. We found that a web seminar gives participants greater opportunity to contribute to a discussion across disciplines and languages, without worrying about their status, affiliation, or fluency. Thus, unlike what happens at an ordinary interdisciplinary conference, nobody felt compelled to hail the interdisciplinarity of the occasion: it was there as a matter of course. Only when it was directly relevant, did participants mention their own disciplinary affiliation. The whole debates had the character of a thoughtful conversation, with a common goal of enhanced understanding, rather than that of a series of short intervention aimed as much at asserting or reasserting the speaker’s authority or the precedence of his or her discipline.

More generally, much of the difficulty of interdisciplinarity has to do with the fact that attention, recognition, and authority are channelled by disciplinary institutions. In fact, this can be viewed as one of their primary functions. Even in ordinary interdisciplinary events, disciplinary networking is still quite potent. Before the advent of the Internet and the Web, most scientific communication was channelled by disciplinary institutions, labs, conferences, specialised libraries, journals, and so on. With the advent of the internet it has become much easier for individual researchers to establish and maintain communication based on common intellectual interest rather than on institutional alliance. The ever growing free availability of scientific papers on line renders researchers less dependent on the library of their home institution (including paid online subscriptions). Discussion lists (and now web conferences) recruit over time their own rapidly evolving communities. Thus interdisciplinary interaction becomes easier, and so does the recognition of interdisciplinary findings. The next step will come with the generalisation of teaching on the web: then, acquiring a scientific education à la carte may become a real possibility, boosting the development of interdisciplinary research in areas where it is genuinely fruitful, or so one may hope.

Concluding remarks

As Peter Weingart observed, talk of interdisciplinarity is fraught with paradoxes—of a superficial kind, I would add. On the one hand interdisciplinarity is touted as a “good thing,” contrasted with excessive specialisation, a “bad thing.” Yet, rather than the one displacing the other, both have greatly developed in the past decades—and specialisation more than interdisciplinarity. “Interdisciplinary” is used to describe—and praise—courses, research projects, or grant proposals, as routinely as “full-bodied” is used to describe red wines. This month (March 2003), “interdisciplinary” has 1 700 000 entries in Google, as compared, for instance, to 255 000 for “experimental.” Notwithstanding all this song and dance, the vast majority of scientific publications belongs squarely to an established discipline, as does the quasi-totality of academic and research jobs. Interdisciplinarity has not become a hot topic in philosophy of science. “Philosophy of science” combined with “interdisciplinarity” returns only 915 Google entries, as compared to, say, 4690 entries when combined with “reductionism.” With a few notable exceptions (which will be well-represented in this seminar), most people who have written on interdisciplinarity have done so from the point of view of science policy rather than from the point of view of philosophy, history or sociology of science. It might look as if, somehow, interdisciplinarity is one of these grand notions handy in political discourse, but not to be taken too seriously. As I hope to have illustrated, this is not always the case. Interdisciplinarity is not in itself a good thing, nor specialisation a bad thing, for the advancement of science. In some areas, disciplines and specialised subdisciplines are producing optimal results. In others areas, on the contrary, disciplinary boundaries are obstacle to desirable developments and interdisciplinarity helps optimise research.

Should we conclude then that interdisciplinarity emerges unproblematically in those areas where it is scientifically productive? This would ignore the force of inertia of established disciplines. The development of valuable interdisciplinary work in cognitive science, for instance, is slowed down and made harder in a variety of ways by the standard disciplinary organisation of research and teaching. This relative difficulty of doing effective interdisciplinary work might be viewed as a mild negative side-effect of the otherwise highly positive disciplinary organisation of the sciences, a side-effect appropriately compensated for by institutional policies of encouraging interdisciplinary work. However—and I have left this for other, more competent contributors to this seminar to develop—disciplinarity itself deserves some serious rethinking.  After all, the disciplinary organisation of the sciences as we know it is not a mere reflection in scholarship of everlasting natural divisions among levels of reality. It is a historical product which, in its present form, goes back to the nineteenth century and to the development of modern universities and research institutions. This organisation of the sciences may rapidly evolve with new social and economic demands on science, with the Internet and its growing impact on scientific communication (both in teaching and in research), and with the advancement of science itself. The current disciplinary system may be becoming brittle, and the growth of interdisciplinary research may be a symptom of this brittleness. More positively, new forms of scientific networking may be emerging, helped by the growing role of the Internet in scholarly communication. Describing these forms in terms of disciplines and interdisciplinarity may fail to capture their novelty. All this deserves some serious rethinking.


Arikha, N. and Origgi, G. (eds.) (2003) Text-e: Le texte à l’heure de l’Internet. Paris : Bibliothèque Publique d’Information du Centre Pompidou

Gardner, H. (1985) The Mind’s New Science: A History of the cognitive Revolution. New York : Basic books

Hirschfeld, L., and Gelman, S. (eds.) (1994) Mapping the Mind: domain Specificity in Cognition and Culture. New York : Cambridge University Press.

Weingart, P. (2000) “Interdisciplinarity: The Paradoxical Discourse.” In P. Weingart and N. Stehr (eds.) Practising Interdisciplinarity. Toronto . University of Toronto Press.