The unease of interdisciplinarity

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There are people who get sick from psychotherapy. After psychotherapy has actually helped them, they look at everything and anything from a psychotherapeutic perspective and thus lose touch with reality. Heimito von Doderer described this phenomenon, but it is actually scientific folklore. That is, it is known to so many experts that no one can say who first observed it.

However, much more common than the disease of a medical form of therapy is the disease of a scientific sub-discipline. It is arduous and associated with many painful experiences to acquire disciplinary models of thinking. Of the few who succeed in doing so – Howard Gardener has often addressed how few university students actually manage it – most remain stuck to these disciplinary models of thought for the rest of their lives. They have no desire to go through the hardships of acquiring another discipline’s models of thinking again. They will beat almost anything over their disciplinary one – perhaps also because they want the suffering of their studies to be worthwhile. In academia, such behaviour is extremely promising and helps one’s career. In practice, unfortunately, it often leads to completely “bi-soft” solution concepts.

Insiders tend to exaggerate because they view phenomena from too close a distance.

The problem is so fundamental – that is, ubiquitous in many forms – that it can sometimes even be observed in research. In mathematics, for example, which strictly speaking is not a scientific discipline, it can happen that even doctoral students in a sub-discipline only understand one approach to that sub-discipline. This is despite the fact that there are completely different approaches that make it possible to solve problems that they fail at with their approach. Insiders describe the situation even more blatantly … but insiders tend to exaggerate because they view phenomena from too close a distance. In any case, focusing on a specific approach is as useful to one’s career as it is cognitively limiting. And it has a fatal effect when the research results are to be transferred into practical benefits.

Why too much expertise can destroy

I have often experienced how an interdisciplinary approach to a topic has already caused discomfort when discussing the challenges. And I have also experienced how transdisciplinary work was flatly rejected in explicitly interdisciplinary projects. Even in projects where work is actually transdisciplinary, I often decide against bringing in too much knowledge. At least when I have to fear either destroying the project with additional expertise or at least reaping very unpleasant hostile reactions and ultimately spending a lot of energy on something that has no chance of being accepted in the project. If it is nevertheless necessary, from the point of view of the project, that a certain disciplinary approach be taken into account, then I take a lot of time to convey it. Again and again until it is understood and accepted as part of the project. Because almost always, when I didn’t do it that way, the “foreign” disciplinary perspective was forgotten at the crucial moment or was implemented in a way that made no sense. Even when the client explicitly demanded a certain approach in applied research, there were repulsive reactions.

Of semantics and architecture

These defensive actions against foreign models of thinking can take on almost unbelievable forms, for example because the semantics of technical IT architecture – I didn’t know that such a thing existed either before I “experienced” it – is redefined. “Out, out, out, with everything foreign!” – such is the maxim of the sub-disciplinary scientific groove. The discomfort in interdisciplinary settings virtually paralyses common sense. From a purely cognitive point of view, most people understand that an interdisciplinary or even transdisciplinary development of solutions is simply necessary. It is only emotionally that such an approach is deeply repugnant to them.

The existence of “frames” suggests the possibility of a metaperspective that puts one’s own subject sub-discipline into perspective.

The discomfort is so powerful that even the concept of thinking models, or “frames”, is often rejected outright. For the existence of this concept suggests the possibility of a metaperspective that relativises one’s own subject sub-discipline. Edward Ashford Lee has impressively demonstrated the difference between the use of models in the natural sciences and in technology. But in my experience, social scientists not at all affected by this difference reject this distinction because it is based on the models of thought, namely those related to the purpose of models. This leads to the question: if something makes highly educated people so uncomfortable, why insist on it? The argument of necessity is not convincing. Effective problem solving is no more necessary in research than excellence. What is necessary is money so that researchers can make a living from research. At most, reputation within one’s own discipline is necessary so that one’s career succeeds and researchers can earn a good salary and achieve a high social standing. A benefit for the world, on the other hand, is not necessary from an individual perspective.

The phenomenon of skipping

More important than supposed necessity is the fact that there are examples of success, such as climate research. Above all, however, there is the phenomenon of skipping from one discipline to another. Today, it is impossible to imagine computer science without patterns. They were invented by an architect. Not an IT architect, but a real architect who built houses and, in addition to his classic book on patterns, wrote many esoteric books on house and city architecture: Christopher Alexander. It was originally introduced to computer science by the Gang of Four with their book on design patterns. Today, the concept can even be found in the social sciences. This shows that the thought models of other disciplines can be extremely powerful in one’s own discipline – and bring both individual fame and long-term benefits! Exemplum docet, exempla obscurant.


References

  1. Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, and Shlomo Angel: A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, Oxford University Press 1977 – introducing the concept of patterns
  2. Kenneth Cukier, Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, and Francis de Vericourt: Framers: Human Advantage in an Age of Technology and Turmoil, WH Allen 2021 – this explains the central role of frames in the context of current scientific findings, for example from causality research
  3. Heimito von Doderer: The Demons: After the Chronicle of the Sectional Councillor Geyrenhoff, CH Beck 2020 – here the disease is described in terms of therapy
  4. Sigmund Freud: Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag 1930 – this text is referenced by the title of this column
  5. Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph E. Johnson, and John Vlissides: Design Patterns. Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, Prentice Hall 1997 – this introduced the concept of patterns in computer science
  6. Howard Gardener: Five Minds for the Future, Harvard Business Review Press 2009 – among others, Gardener’s wicked anecdotes on the failure of higher education can be found here
  7. Edward Ashford Lee: Plato and the Nerd: The Creative Partnership of Humans and Technology, MIT Press 2018 – this describes the difference in model use in science and technology

AUTOR/AUTORIN: Reinhard Riedl

Prof. Dr Reinhard Riedl is a lecturer at the Institute of Digital Technology Management at BFH Wirtschaft. He is involved in many organisations and is, among other things, Vice-President of the Swiss E-Government Symposium and a member of the steering committee of TA-Swiss. He is also a board member of eJustice.ch, Praevenire - Verein zur Optimierung der solidarischen Gesundheitsversorgung (Austria) and All-acad.com, among others.

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