Book Review: Graff, Harvey J. Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2015. 323 pp. ISBN: 978-1-4214-1745-5.

Reviewed by Laurence E. Winters, Fairleigh Dickinson University

Harvey Graff1 of Ohio State University has written a timely and invaluable book. Scholars, instructors, and academic theoreticians will benefit greatly from working through this thoroughly researched and informative tour of the deep history of the interdisciplinary ‘movement.’ From the first page of the Preface, Graff states his intention: “My goal in this book is to write a history of interdisciplinarity that reorients how we think and talk about and build interdisciplinarity, and with it, disciplinary organization in the production, dissemination, and use of knowledge.”2 He interjects such comments throughout the book, each chapter adding to the reader’s understanding of his project. “In reinterpreting interdisciplinarity in social, historical, and institutional context, I emphasize its inseparability from disciplines and their ideology and political economics—that is, from society and culture.”3 This is no small task. In what follows, we will see the extent to which Graff achieves these goals.

The argument begins with a well-known definition of interdisciplinary research from the National Institutes of Health; such research “integrates elements of a wide range of disciplines, often including basic research, behavioral biology, and social sciences so that all the scientists approach the problem in a new way … this process begins with team members learning the language of each other’s disciplines ….”4 Graff will spend the following pages contrasting this ‘idealized’ definition to the histories of various disciplines in their generations-old debates with interdisciplinarity. He follows this challenge with his own tentative definition, “interdisciplinarity is defined and constructed by questions and problems of theory and practice, knowledge or conditions of living, and the means developed to answer those questions in new and different ways. … fashioned from elements of different disciplines to form distinct approaches, understandings, or context.”5 These considerations place Graff squarely in the camp of Frodeman and others6 who hold that there are as many interdisciplinarities as there are real world research and application problems taken up by those academics who are not lost in their disciplinary siloes.

The choice of chapter themes and the difficulty in following the connections between the various disciplines and interdisciplines and the larger argument might make some engage in a selective reading of the book. For example, potential readers of Graff’s book might well limit their reading to the formation of the discipline of operations research for example, or the growth of cultural studies from the widely discussed ‘crisis’ in the humanities. Such selective reading would be unfortunate, as it would miss the larger argument about interdisciplines and disciplines within the research university.

Chapter 1 brings the reader directly into the seeming conflict between specificity and the larger intention of the author. Graff outlines the slow but ultimately successful formation of the interdisciplinary field of ‘biology,’ in both European and American universities, from such ‘pre-existing’ disciplines as natural history, botany, and zoology. Biology today encompasses other pre-eminently interdisciplinary areas as biochemistry, quantum biology, and evolutionary psychology. This is contrasted with the rise of American sociology, especially as it developed at Harvard University. From the outset, as Graff demonstrates,7 the interdiscipline of sociology in the United States had to separate itself from the “social reform and political radicalism” of its European counterpart on the one hand. On the other hand, the discipline had to struggle with the positivism and behaviorism that were so dominant in the academy in the 1940s and 1950s. This struggle took place on both the mundane levels of funding and office space, and on the theoretical level, bringing in statistical and other quantitative methodologies to shore up the reputation of sociology as a science. Substituting such sub-disciplines borrowed from economics and behavioral psychology added a new level of interdisciplinarity to an already complex architecture.

Graff stresses that this historical complexity is far from unique; “interdisciplinarity is the major missing element in the standard narrative of disciplinarity in history and theory. … comparing biology and sociology demonstrates that discipline and interdiscipline were at play from the beginning.”8 Many readers will be interested in the long section on the genesis and fate of ‘general education’ programs, originating in 1922, at Columbia University, and coming to other institutions during the rise of fascism, the Great Depression, and World War II. These programs were, and still are, “humanistic” and morally motivated, self-consciously continuing a literary and philosophical tradition in “challenging times.”9 To be sure, the current challenges to such”humanities” or “great books” programs are different, coming from careerism and the neo-liberal managerial mindset increasingly prevalent in academic administrative circles.

Graff does not shy away from offering a critique of ‘gen-ed’ curricula, nor does he hesitate to dismiss the exclusively methodological (and, what he considers the) pseudo-disciplinarity of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies.10 However, these critiques are rather cursory. He seems to dismiss much of the recent work appearing under the aegis of the AIS, as he does the various interdisciplinary programs that are continuing to thrive around the USA. While these brief critiques are far from the central development of the book’s project, the easy dismissal of ‘actually existing’, however imperfect, interdisciplinary programs and academic departments is followed by a remarkable chapter on cognitive science and the ‘new history,’ “Between Mind and Mentality.” This is by far the most ambitious, informative and, at the same time, disappointing section of this remarkable book. There is no mention of the Annales group,11 which was self-consciously interdisciplinary, other than a single use of Braudel’s term12 ‘la longue dureé’ without attribution, and the “new history” is the shortest disciplinary discussion in the book.13 While many books and articles have been written about this movement in the writing of history, and about the consequent micro-histories and histories of ‘mentalities,’ Graff chooses to only skim the surface of what for many potential readers would be a reason to choose this book. On the other hand, the coming together of ‘cognitive science’ occupies more than forty pages, including several informative and useful graphics and tables.

Tracing this section in any detail would take this review far beyond its publication limits. However, Graff uses the occasion to return to his larger project of defining and clarifying interdisciplinarity. He begins this with comments about “what interdisciplinarity is not.”14 In a review of some of the literature addressing the formation of cognitive science, he denies, “forms of listing, repetitive mention of current synonyms for such aspects of research as culture, tools, knowledge production, intellectual economies, and environmental architecture and design, without evidence of relationships and connective arguments …” are sufficient support for claims to interdisciplinarity.15 Later in the chapter, Graff offers the most specific statement of the book about his views concerning interdisciplinarity:

Just as I support well-founded, serious interdisciplinarity, applaud targeted research initiatives and the encouragement of communication and collaboration—and more—across boundaries, and try to tolerate unavoidable faddishness and enthusiasms, I am no less concerned about the abuses of interdisciplinarity. We have learned at great cost and sometimes bitter disappointment the fallacies of multidisciplinary “wars” on poverty, cancer, drugs, history, communication, the human genome … the gains, while sometimes invaluable, are always less than promised, and probably less than more coordinated careful problem- and question-driven interdisciplinary efforts would promote.16

The book concludes somewhat abruptly, essentially denying any sort of single, simple interdisciplinarity. Each area of research and scholarship, this work has demonstrated, has its own trajectory of disciplining and interdisciplining, each its own narrative, and each its own potential. The book ends with the epigram, “Doing interdisciplinary differs from talking interdisciplinary.”17 Whether or not this satisfies the curiosity that led to the choice of this book, the reader will have to decide for herself.


  1. Harvey J. Graff (1949–) is best known as an intellectual historian with a particular interest in ‘literacy theory.’
  2. Harvey J. Graff, Undisciplining Knowledge (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP), xiii.
  3. Ibid., 53.
  4. Ibid., 4.
  5. Ibid., 5.
  6. Robert Frodeman, Sustainable Knowledge (London: Palgrave Pivot 2013).
  7. Graff, 21. It is not at all sure who Graff is thinking about here. Marcel Mauss perhaps, although his work, much largely unread in the US, is more properly ‘anthropological.’
  8. Graff, 16.
  9. Ibid., 75, and following.
  10. Originally Association for Integrative Studies. His critique echoes those made by Frodeman.
  11. The Annales group was founded in 1929 by Lucien Febvre and Marc Block.
  12. Fernand Braudel (1902–1985).
  13. See especially Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol 3 (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988).
  14. Graff, 141.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 141–42.
  17. Ibid., 236.


Works Cited

Frodeman, Robert. Sustainable Knowledge London: Palgrave Pivot, 2013.

Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative, vol. 3. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.