Interdisciplinarity is the common coin of public rhetoric on research. Like a ritual votive offering to placate the restless petulance of funders, public and private, it is has its appointed place in any number of mission statements, strategic plans and research proposals. Nobody is quite sure why it is there but there is general agreement that interdisciplinarity is a GOOD THING. So while the I-word is a must for any statement about the value and future of research there is remarkably little public debate about what it actually means and whether the tins on which it is so prominently displayed do any of the things they purport to do. More worryingly, for young researchers there is a clear disparity between institutional spin on the value of interdisciplinarity and the harsh reality of recruitment and promotion mechanisms which are still clearly rooted in established disciplines.
What defines a discipline is not so much the object of inquiry as the point of view. For example, a table can be studied from the point of view of physics and you investigate its weight, density, its resistance to pressure and so on. Alternatively, you could examine the table from the point of view of biology and investigate the age and nature of the wood which provided the raw material for the table or you could adopt the point of view of the sociologist and look at the function of tables (or their absence) in different cultures and for different social classes. So the one object becomes the fragmented property of a plethora of different perspectives. When the object is human, the points of view proliferate as disciplines multiply. We have the human who talks (linguistics), desires (psychoanalysis), produces (economics), calculates (cognitive sciences), governs (politics), learns (education) and so on. One way from a humanities perspective to look at interdisciplinarity is to ask what kind of human being the HUMANities study. One of the oddest things about this human being is that he or she does not seem to have a digestive system or functioning neurones or a gall bladder worthy of the name. In other words, though the humanities purportedly study the human, no humanities student need ever bother to delve into what goes on in the body of the human subject, bodies that have been ‘disappeared’ into the ghetto of medical science. From a science perspective, on the other hand, the patient in the operating theatre is something of an extra-terrestrial wonder, no parents, no culture, no language, no history, simply an incongruous collection of organs poised for surgical intervention. Moving from point-of-view disciplinarity to object-based interdisciplinarity would involve such a radical rethink in how education and research are organised and evaluated that it is easy to see why the reality continues to lag far behind the rhetoric. Imagine a Medical Faculty and a Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty coming together to create a BA/BSc and a graduate school in Human Studies.
There is another way of thinking through interdisciplinarity which is not to so much to do with a holistic appropriation of an object as the use of a kind of transdiscipline to explore different domains. One example that comes to mind is the ecology of images. The iconic turn in contemporary society has images proliferating endlessly in everything from YouTube and Facebook to 24 hour satellite television and the production of interactive images in nanomanipulation. Considering physical and virtual reality as part of a global iconosphere means that investigation must range across the entire range of the physical, social and human sciences and this implies diachronic as much as synchronic research. But what university will employ an iconosphericist? Where are the departments of iconic ecology? What will our interdisciplinary scholars do before an interview board of disciplinary specialists and where will they publish their work? Without policies matching visions, interdisciplinarity unfortunately risks becoming the latest I-phoney.