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  • Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century by Harvey J. Graff
  • Horace Fairlamb
Harvey J. Graff. Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2015. 344 pp.

Given the thrust toward specialization in higher education, it is no wonder that academia experiences periodic calls for interdisciplinary (ID) pedagogy and research. Maverick professors, curricular committees, and even national commissions arise to bemoan the shortfall between complex problems and [End Page 547] synoptic visions, on the one hand, and on the other, the narrowly tailored concepts and methodologies that disciplinary specialists bring to them. It is not only the fate of liberal education that hangs in the balance, but the advance of knowledge beyond the low-hanging fruit that offer themselves to disciplinary simplicity. And so ID study remains a high ideal beckoning on the other side of balkanized universities, with their notorious turf wars and boundary disputes. Special courses are offered to introduce undergraduates to the ID perspective. Special programs are devised to allow faculty to work together on ID problems. Special institutes are organized to combine ID research and its applications to military and industrial challenges. And books are written to tout the significance of ID studies or to explore the principles and methods of ID analysis and research.

Still, despite the perennial lure of the interdisciplinary ideal, the concept of interdisciplinarity itself remains elusive. Among its champions, it is well-known that there is much slippage between multidisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, and interdisciplinarity, with the salient virtue of the latter often said to be a thorough integration of elements (vs a buffet style multidisciplinary array of different disciplinary perspectives). In his first chapter, "The Problem of Interdisciplinarity in Theory and Practice over Time," Graff warns that the concept has been too often confused, even by some who warn against terminological confusion, and repeatedly cites instances where references to ID work do not sufficiently distinguish the buffet of perspectives from a full ID integration of concepts, methods, and institutional community.

The bulk of the book, however, is historical and institutional, as Graff recounts some of the highest profile attempts to establish ID in the 20th century. That history is comprised of twelve would-be "interdisciplines," whose evolution unfolded in accidental pairs: genetic biology and sociology (1890s-1920s), the humanities and communication (1870s-1960s), social relations and operations research (1930s-1960s), cognitive science and new histories (1940s-1980s), materials science and cultural studies (1950s-1990s), and bioscience and literacy studies. In the hands of someone more theoretically ambitious (some latter-day Hegel), these histories might prompt an attempt at a full blown theory of interdisciplinarity's essence. But Graff's point turns history against ID essentialism: his twelve histories suggest that interdisciplinarity is problem-driven, logistically elusive, and counter to academic institutional pressures to specialize.

So briefly summarized, Graff's project might seem an exercise in frustration to anyone hoping to unearth the essence of the ID ideal. But Graff's argument has the virtue of appearing to be correct: academia's network of disciplines appears to shift between specialization and integration according to whether problems arise whose solutions appear to demand an intersection of several disciplines or not. Such a history of the specialization/integration dynamic, converges on no ideal form, though it offers a history of the limits [End Page 548] of knowledge, which in turn sheds light on what we know and how we know it.

Moreover, Graff's introduction suggests that it is a mistake to seek an essential form or method for interdisciplinarity. His argument is reminiscent of a trend in academic thought is sometimes called "anti-theory" or "anti-essentialism," i.e., arguments against reducing some domain of interest to an essential form. Graff's central claim on this is that, "Despite the rhetoric, there is no one form of interdisciplinarity. We must adopt distinct approaches to interdisciplinarity in different fields or disciplinary clusters" (3). Graff denies that ID work is separable from the evolution of special disciplines; rather ID and disciplinarity evolve together, defaulting to special disciplines where problems allow a narrower focus, but expanding to include the ID perspective when problems demand a convergence of concepts and methods. Thus, "interdisciplinarity...


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