Networks And Disciplinary Boundaries

Lynne Kiesling

While I’m over at Crooked Timber, Eszter Hargittai recently had an interesting post on disciplinary boundaries and some of the difficulties of doing interdisciplinary work. Henry Farrell follows up with, among other things, a very insightful extended quote from Susanne Lohmann and from a follow-on post from physicist Cosma Shalizi. See also MeshForum for more networking on social networks.

I think universities are not very good at providing incentives and evaluation to make good interdisciplinary work happen, for many of the reasons that Lohmann cites. This is too bad, because I think interdisciplinary boundaries are where a lot of the most fruitful ideas are currently found.

2 thoughts on “Networks And Disciplinary Boundaries

  1. I would agree from my own experience. When I was deciding upon graduate study, I approached the History and Political science departments at a large central Ohio university. My plan was a dual major of military history and Political science. The folks at the Political science department thought this was great, however when I broached the subject with the history department, no va. Unless I was there to pursue a PhD I would not be accepted.

    I went on to an MPA at another university where the program director allowed me to go over to the school of business and integrate business courses (the MBA director thought it was a great idea too), while I was able to focus on Homeland Security independently. In a post 9/11 world I was able to explore incorporating sound business practices in small government homeland security enterprises. If I had stayed within my academic department I would never have received the broad understanding I did.

  2. The Crooked Timber article brings up several points that I think are critical. Newcomers to a field from another discipline are often treated hostilely, in part because they have a lower threshhold for publication. They can publish mundane or trivial work that a resident couldn’t because they publish to outside journals with ignorant but compliant peer reviewers.

    Second, reading up on the background literature of a field is extremely hard. It’s rare to have it grouped in one place, and I doubt most scientists have mastered the literature in their field. Then there are the unpublished results. Either they’re deemed widely known background knowledge (or “folklore”) of the field or someone has an unpublished draft somewhere and the only way you can get it is by copying someone else’s copy. Finally, there’s the obscure journals and relevant, but out of place papers. As a mathematician, a nightmare I have to live with is that my article is the trivial result of some Soviet-era work published in a Siberian journal of agriculture.

    In other words, if the established scientists in a field can’t master the literature fully and completely, then why should they expect outsiders to bother?

    We also ignore that perhaps it is unwise to read too much first. After all, reading the material doesn’t grant me automatic insight into new results, it just tells me what’s already done. I can get the same results with less work, more insight, and more published papers, if I just forge on, publish in an outside journals, and read the irate letters on the literature that I duplicated or otherwise missed.

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