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Specialization in the academy

February 3, 2010

Smart words from Louis Menand’s new book:

Interdisciplinarity is not something different from disciplinarity.  It is the ratification of the logic of disciplinarity.  In practice, it actually tends to rigidify disciplinary paradigms.  A typical interdisciplinary situation might bring together, in a classroom, a literature professor and an anthropologist.  The role of the literature professor is to perform qua literature professor, bringing to bear the specialized methods and knowledge of literary study to the subject at hand; the role of the anthropologist is to do the same with the methods of anthropological inquiry.  This methodological constrast is regarded as, in fact, the intellectual and pedagogical takeaway of the collaboration.  What happens is the phenomenon of borrowed authority: the literature professor can incorporate into his work the insights of the anthropologist, in the form of “As anthropology has shown us,” ignoring the probability that the particular insight being recognized is highly contested within the anthropologist’s own discipline.

Because professors are trained to respect the autonomy and expertise of other disciplines, they are rarely in a position to evaluate one another’s claims.  So there is nothing transgressive about interdisciplinarity on this description.  There is nothing even new about it.  Disciplinarity has not only been ratified; it has been fetishized.  The disciplines are treated as the sum of all possible perspectives.


I would only be more explicit about the dangers of ‘borrowed authority’. It’s not just that it can misrepresent the level of consensus among experts. Even when there really is a consensus among the experts, the fetishization of disciplines can encourage undue deference to their opinion. People start to feel like they can’t question orthodoxy from the outside, indeed that this would be breach of the trust owed to respected collaborators.

Also, my sense is that a similar thing is happening within disciplines: they are fracturing into sub-disciplines and the broadminded, omnivorous thinking that used to be par for the course is now reappearing in a rather contorted form as inter-sub-disciplinary inquiry. And the dangers are similar: narrowness, the presumption of consensus, uncritical deference. In fact, the dangers may be even greater since the distinctions between sub-disciplines are, if anything, even more artificial than the distinctions between disciplines. Anthropologists and literature scholars plausibly occupy separate realms, but how much sense can it make to separate the different branches of anthropology with a fence which then needs to be hopped anyway?

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