The theme of Week Two is close to my heart, as I am Visiting Professor at the Inter-Disciplinary Ethics Applied Centre of Excellence for Teaching and Learning (IDEA CETL) at the University of Leeds.
In 1985, I was also one of Procter & Gamble’s first General Managers leading a multinational team across Europe, which included multiple disciplines – marketing, finance, manufacturing, product development, research and sales.
The role of a General Manager or CEO is to lead multiple disciplines. Of course, these disciplines need in turn to be led by real experts in their fields.
However, in my view there is a distinct difference between ‘multidisciplinary’ and ‘interdisciplinary’. Strictly, multidisciplinary means that various disciplines are needed, depending on the task at hand. Yet there is a danger that disciplines remain in silos, slowing down problem solving, and in the most extreme cases, fostering ‘turf wars’ between disciplines.
Interdisciplinary means that novel solutions are created by combining expertise across disciplines. The best analysis of this that I have read is Moti Nassini‘s paper ‘Ten Cheers for Interdisciplinarity‘
Roland Barthes noted:
‘Interdisciplinary studies, of which we hear so much, do not confront already constituted discipline … In order to do interdisciplinary work it is not enough to take a “subject” (a theme) and to arrange two or three sciences around it. Interdisciplinary study consists in creating a new object, which belongs to no one’. (The Rustle of Language, pg 72)
Nissani argues that interdisciplinary knowledge and research are important because:
- Creativity often requires interdisciplinary knowledge.
- Immigrants often make important contributions to their new field.
- Disciplinarians often commit errors which can be best detected by people familiar with two or more disciplines.
- Some worthwhile topics of research fall in the interstices among the traditional disciplines.
- Many intellectual, social, and practical problems require interdisciplinary approaches.
- Interdisciplinary knowledge and research serve to remind us of the unity-of-knowledge ideal.
- Interdisciplinarians enjoy greater flexibility in their research.
- More so than narrow disciplinarians, interdisciplinarians often treat themselves to the intellectual equivalent of traveling in new lands.
- Interdisciplinarians may help breach communication gaps in the modern academy, thereby helping to mobilize its enormous intellectual resources in the cause of greater social rationality and justice.
- By bridging fragmented disciplines, interdisciplinarians might play a role in the defense of academic freedom.
And he goes on to say:
‘Compartmentalization, besides lack of education, is the enemy; an enemy that can only be conquered through holistic scholarship and education’
An example that Nassani gives is most appropriate to photography.
‘Foreign observers like Herodotus, de Tocqueville, or Margaret Mead sometimes see cultural aspects which are invisible to the natives. The natives live and breathe their customs; the perceptive foreigner doesn’t. The same goes for the history of ideas: outsiders are less prone to ignore anomalies and to resist new conceptual frameworks.
An outsider’s perspective, then, is particularly valuable at times of crisis. Such times are common’.
A photographer should be able to ‘see’ beyond the vision of ‘insiders’. But does that make photography by definition ‘interdisciplinary? I do not think so.
Photography impacts so many disciplines – science, history, anthropology, ecology, art, cultural studies, business and so on … maybe even all disciplines, today. That is multidisciplinary.
But to be truly interdisciplinary, new ground needs to be created.
I’ll explore that in other articles.
Barthes, Roland. 1989. The Rustle of Language. Berkeley: University of California Press. Available at: https://monoskop.org/images/8/8a/Barthes_Roland_The_Rustle_of_Language_1989.pdf. (Accessed 11/02/2019).
Nissani, Moti. 1997. Ten Cheers for Interdisciplinarity: The Case for Interdisciplinary Knowledge and Research in The Social Science Journal, Volume 34, Number 2, pages 201-216. Copyright © 1997 by JAI Press Inc.