Natalie McKnight on Robert Frodeman, ed. Julie Thompson Klein and Carl Mitcham, associate eds. J. Britt Holbrook, managing ed. The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity

Robert Frodeman, ed. Julie Thompson Klein and Carl Mitcham, associate eds. J. Britt Holbrook, managing ed. The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. xxxix + 580 pp. Paperback ISBN: 978-0-19-964396-7.

Few people will want to read The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity from cover to cover, as I have, but anyone interested in learning more about interdisciplinary studies should definitely consult the book. It offers a wealth of essays (37 total, plus 14 “boxes” with related material) that define key terms and explore current issues in interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary and transdisciplinary studies as they relate to general education, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, engineering, cognitive science, religious studies, environmental science, media studies and other traditional and emerging disciplines and initiatives. In addition, Robert Frodeman presents what amounts to a manifesto for interdisciplinarity in the Introduction, stating that “to one degree or another, the contributors to this volume share the intuition that the solution to our social, political, intellectual, and economic problems does not simply lie in the accumulation of more and more knowledge. What is needed today is a better understanding of the relations between fields of knowledge, a better grasp of the ways knowledge produced in the academy moves into society, and a better sense of the dangers as well as the opportunities of continued knowledge production” (xxx). The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity significantly contributes to the kinds of knowledge and understanding Frodeman advocates.

The editors have organized the book into 5 sections: “Part I: The Terrain of Knowledge,” “Part 2: Interdisciplinarity in the Disciplines,” “Part 3: Knowledge Interdisciplined,” “Part 4: Institutionalizing Interdisciplinarity,” and “Part 5: Knowledge Transdisciplined.” Most of the essays are useful, clear, and focused, although there are occasional frustrating lapses into jargon, as in Wolfgang Krohn’s “Interdisciplinary cases and disciplinary knowledge” (Part I), which uses the terms “‘idiographic component’” and “‘nomothetic component’” to describe the specific vs. the general features of a problem or case. He borrows the terms from the neo-Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband; while I admire Kant, I seldom turn to him for clarity, so I found the terms more distracting than helpful.

Since it is impossible to evaluate all 37 of the handbook’s essays in the confines of this brief review, I will instead focus on particularly noteworthy selections from Parts 1, 3, 4 and 5. “Part I: The Terrain of Knowledge” establishes an overview of interdisciplinarity, with essays on the history of knowledge formation, different kinds of interdisciplinary studies, philosophies of interdisciplinarity, and “deviant” interdisciplinarity. One of the most useful essays in this section is Julie Thompson Klein’s “A taxonomy of interdisciplinarity,” which clarifies the distinctions between multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary. According to Klein, multidisciplinary studies juxtapose but don’t necessarily integrate different disciplines, while interdisciplinary approaches integrate, link, and blend disciplines. Transdisciplinarity refers to “a common system of axioms that transcends the narrow scope of disciplinary worldviews through an overarching synthesis” (24), and it often involves bringing multiple disciplines together to solve particular problems, with the idea that real world problems should “frame research questions and practices, not the disciplines” (as can be seen in the sustainability discussions in Part 5).

Several essays, such as Cathy Davidson’s “Humanities and technology in the information age” (in Part 3), and Beth A. Casey’s “Administering interdisciplinary programs” and Stephanie Pfirman and Paula J.S. Martin’s “Facilitating interdisciplinary scholars” (both in Part 4), point out the difficulties in establishing and maintaining interdisciplinary programs in academia. Creating an interdisciplinary minor at Duke, Davidson reports, “prompted the rethinking of various forms of support, curricular matters concerning cross-listed courses (and which department would get the credit for which enrollments), faculty rewards . . . distribution requirements for students,” etc. “The accounting of student hours and faculty full-time equivalences (FTEs) proved almost impossibly difficult,” she adds (216). As Casey notes, “[a]dministering interdisciplinary programs, centers, institutes, or schools is a challenge requiring entrepreneurial leadership, knowledge of the best processes of interdisciplinary scholarship, curricular design, pedagogy, and assessment, as well as the ability to network for collaboration both within and without the university or college” (346). In short, it is not hard to see why establishing robust interdisciplinary programs can take more time, effort and patience than most interested parties might care to invest. But as William H. Newell, founding president of the Association for Integrative Studies, asserts in his essay on undergraduate general education (in Part 4), “interdisciplinarity can be understood as an attempt to right the balance of Western Thought,” which has become increasingly and detrimentally focused on highly specialized areas of study. As such, interdisciplinary studies are far more than a just a fad, and they merit the undeniable time and effort required to create and maintain them as academic programs.

When I began reading The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity, I expected to find good definitions of interdisciplinary terminology, accounts of the history of the field and descriptions of effective interdisciplinary research practices and academic programs. And indeed the volume delivers on all of the above. What I hadn’t expected but found anyway was a diverse and extended argument for interdisciplinary approaches, not just in academia, but in global efforts dealing with hunger, poverty, disease, environmental crises and many other areas of pressing current interest. The Handbook makes a valuable contribution to many fields and will be an essential reference tool for anyone in an interdisciplinary program or research area for years to come.

Natalie McKnight
Boston University