Discipline Envy
What does interdisciplinary scholarship mean at Emory?

By Allison O. Adams

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At the recent inaugural address for Emory's Living Links Center, a new interdisciplinary endeavor for the study of ape and human evolution at the Yerkes primate center, a rapt crowd of thirteen hundred packed Glenn Auditorium to hear Harvard Emeritus Professor Edward O. Wilson deliver a bold statement of his theory of "consilience," the cause-and-effect integration of all branches of study.

"Consilience is the mother's milk of the natural sciences," Wilson declared. "It's the material understanding of how the world works. Its technological spin-off is the foundation of modern civilization. The time has come to consider more seriously its relevance in the social sciences and in the humanities."

Wilson's proposition to bring theories commonplace in the natural sciences to bear on the social sciences and humanities suggests an optimistic framework for all interdisciplinary endeavors, one that erases the perceived "fault line" between the natural and social sciences and scientific and literary minds. But his ideas have also raised the collective eyebrow of critics who view his notions of "the unity of knowledge" and "borderland disciplines" (such as, he suggests, cognitive neuroscience, human genetics, evolutionary biology, and environmental science) as suspect.

Literary critic Tzvetan Todorov put it this way in the New Republic: "Wilson seeks not to reconcile the natural sciences and the social sciences, but to facilitate the absorption of the latter by the former; and also to cede to the biological glutton the meaning of the creative arts and the direction of our moral and political actions."

While the Emory community came out in droves to hear Wilson's compelling arguments for interconnectedness by way of interdisciplinary work, they were left with some provocative questions: What is good interdisciplinary study? What types of scholarship are happening in Emory's multitude of interdisciplinary programs, centers, institutes, curricula, and courses? Are they flash-in-the-pan fads? Is interdisciplinary scholarship a nasty case of discipline envy in disguise? Does it lead to a kind of disciplinary imperialism, as Wilson's critics would have it?

This spring, several groups are systematically exploring these questions and other inquiries of interdisciplinary work at Emory. Professor of English Walter Reed, Associate Professor of Religion Laurie Patton, and Associate Professor of Russian, Eurasian, and East Asian Languages and Culture Michael Epstein are co-leading a faculty seminar, with participants ranging from neurology and business to theology and dance, on "The Fate of Disciplines and the Universality of the University."
The seminar co-leaders write, "Particularly in this age of interdisciplinary emphasis, we need to examine what it means to be part of a discipline, to argue over a discipline, to start a new discipline, to find one's discipline in disarray. In interdisciplinary conversations, we usually avoid the embarrassment of speaking of the fracas and anomie that threatens the discipline we belong to. In this seminar, we . . . make this issue an intellectual virtue rather than an embarrassment."

Reed and his seminar colleagues recognize the potential pitfalls of interdisciplinary studies without this kind of difficult inquiry. "The 'I-word' means so many things to so many people that perhaps we need a moratorium on it," he says with an ironic smile. "Interdisciplinarity without disciplines is a recipe for incoherence."

The Working Group on Interdisciplinarity, a year-long initiative in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts chaired by Associate Professor Amy Lang, has also taken up the role and terms of interdisciplinary work. The group of eight Emory College faculty set the theoretical tracts aside, however, to delve into pragmatic issues.

"Much of what is written explicitly about interdisciplinarity, if not everything, is abstracted--an effort to describe what seems indescribable in the terms that people tend to try to employ," Lang says. "Really, the issue is an approach to asking and answering questions. That is, if I have a question, I can cast it in disciplinary terms and answer it using the tools and resources of a discipline that has its own history and consequently its own imperatives. . . . To try from the top down to describe what interdisciplinary work is is almost invariably a doomed procedure. I think that as a practice, it grows from the bottom up."

After meeting privately throughout the fall semester, the ILA working group assembled a series of events addressing questions of interdisciplinary scholarship at Emory, including three brown-bag lunch discussions on topics such as "Disciplines versus Regions in International and Comparative Studies" and "The 'Superdisciplines': Science, the Humanities, and the Social Sciences." They also invited visiting scholars, including an historian of higher education, to speak on these issues.

"The idea is to raise questions about how knowledge is to be organized in a university that no longer, at least some would argue, is situated as it was historically," adds Lang. "We wanted to bring those questions back to what seemed to us to be the most urgently felt issues on this campus."

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