Event Report: "Interdisciplinarity Revisited"

Symposium participants standing at tables
Between the sessions of "Interdisciplinarity Revisited", lively discussions also took place in the Humboldt Forum. (Photo: SHF / David von Becker)

October 3 and 4, 2019
International Symposium
Interdisciplinarity Revisited


Scientific innovations occur above all at the margins of the disciplines. Over the last few decades, this frequently voiced thesis has resulted in the call for interdisciplinarity being on everyone's lips. Such demands became even louder as scientific knowledge grew exponentially and the differentiation of the (sub-)subjects inevitably progressed, so that the individual academic found it increasingly more difficult to grasp the whole picture. At the same time, politics and society were also urging research to focus more on the real, non-academic issues facing the world. However, in the past few years, these substantial shifts in the knowledge system have been little reflected in the work of many researchers1.

To remedy this situation and to sound out the significance of interdisciplinarity in the science system and the university of today was the subject of an international symposium organized jointly by the Volkswagen Foundation, the Humboldt University of Berlin and the Stiftung Humboldt Forum, which was held in the rebuilt Berlin Palace. The universal scholar Alexander von Humboldt, who studied countless fields including physics, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, botany, vegetation geography, zoology, climatology, oceanography and astronomy, served as the quasi patron of the event held in the Humboldt Forum – which had not yet even been officially opened.

But is it really right to treat Humboldt as a true forerunner of interdisciplinarity? Probably not, was the conclusion reached by historian JÜRGEN OSTERHAMMEL (Freiburg) in his opening talk. Osterhammel explained the German enthusiasm for Humboldt from the fact that Germany can hold him up as "the good and global German". It certainly is true that Humboldt wrote from perspectives that today are assigned to different disciplines, and had been an incredible networker with his own "web of science". According to Osterhammel, though, he was located outside the academic system of his time. Indeed, he even saw himself as an amateur and had nothing but admiration for those he perceived to be the real experts. Especially when one reads his five-volume work "Cosmos", says Osterhammel, it becomes clear that Humboldt is a "figure of the distant past".

The seven sections of the symposium highlighted the presence of interdisciplinarity in the scientific system and the academic institution. In this context, CATHRYN CARSON (UC Berkeley) described in her keynote the radical change taking place at her university: "The amount and pace of this change is breathtaking." Carson defined disciplines as "dimensions of knowledge" – but the world is multidimensional. As a result, universities with their 19th-century disciplinary structure are now called upon to awaken from their "institutional hibernation" and form interdisciplinary units. Berkeley has established three interdisciplinary "interdepartmental programs" on climate change, social equality and data science – the latter of which she leads herself. Half of all first-year students currently attend courses in data science. While this process – the integration of digital literacy into academic education – originally started bottom up, for the last two years or so it is being regulated top down. Carson sees interdisciplinarity as a "superposition" of the basic disciplinary structure and at the same time as a "process of change". However, further progress in this direction is only possible if the disciplines no longer perceive themselves as closed "silos", but in the same vein as Foucault, i.e. as "schematized practices" or "trained form of practices".

However, Carson freely admitted that UC Berkeley remains rather cautious in dealing with the institutional change process. As a member of the Ivy League, Berkeley is observing the much more fundamental restructuring at Arizona State University (ASU) with great interest. Under the title "The Future of Interdisciplinarity – the new American University" its president MICHAEL CROW (Tempe) presented the new structure adopted by ASU. The design of the classical university is "insufficient". The universities today stand at the center of democracy and must face up to their responsibility in this respect. "The purpose of the university is to serve the community". The disciplines, however, no longer reflect the actual problems facing society. Therefore, according to Crow, the aim must be to merge the disciplines. At ASU, he has therefore dissolved the faculties in favor of interdisciplinary "schools": e.g. School of Social Transformation, School of Sustainability, School for the Future of Innovation in Society. Crow then presented an example based on the scientific profile of three professors with their spider-web like connections to countless different disciplinary fields. A "free flowing self organization" prevails. In his conclusion, Crow saw "a post-disciplinary awakening" of the university of today.

Crow's position did not go unchallenged. The philosopher USKALI MÄKI (Helsinki) warned against a thoughtless dissolution of the disciplines and painted the picture of a "science as mush". According to Mäki, disciplines stand for "academic rigor", while interdisciplinarity has neither common standards nor a common agenda. Moreover, research on interdisciplinarity is itself an interdisciplinary matter. A distinction must be made between (a) closer vs. wider interdisciplinarity; (b) interdisciplinarity within academia vs. interdisciplinarity between academia and the public; (c) bottom-up development vs. top-down regulation; (d) autonomous innovation vs. administered and measured interdisciplinarity. Mäki declared himself an opponent of any interdisciplinarity ordered from above, especially when it becomes the basis of accountability by means of metrics. Sociologist RUDOLF STICHWEH (Bonn), on the other hand, described disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity as co-constitutive today, although interdisciplinarity did not develop until the beginning of the 20th century. The trend towards interdisciplinarity is exemplified by the emergence and development of co-authoring in publications. Today, though, it is wrong to see disciplines as closed units. Moreover, innovations also no longer arise, as has long been claimed, at the margins, but also within the disciplines themselves.

Two contributions made it clear that disciplines are to be understood as historically and culturally constructed units. The science historian MANFRED STÖCKLER (Bremen) explained disciplines as a consequence of the division of labor in science, which is correlated with methods, fields of work, epistemological world understandings and needs in the science landscape as well as in society. While disciplines stabilize themselves in institutions, they are also historical products. The Ugandan science politician CONNIE NSHEMEREIRWE (Kampala), member of the Global Young Academy, then described how the export of the Western disciplinary system to Africa has led to academia remaining separated from local society, rather like a foreign body, and its results finding little or no entry into the solution of existing social problems. The university subject of history continues to be the history of the colonial masters and not the history and culture of the local people.

Interdisciplinarity does not solve this problem, but it does redefine it. If, as the sociologist HARTMUT ROSA (Jena) stated, disciplines have a "world disclosing function", then interdisciplinarity can only be established through a joint approach to jointly defined problems. But such definitions need to be worked out globally, and this requirement brings with it its own difficulties, says Rosa, who was moderator of the section "Global Issues as Challenges for Interdisciplinary Research". Three problem areas were presented: "Materials and Immaterials", "Environmental Studies" and "Digitization". SANDRA BELL (Durham), an environmental anthropologist, stated that interdisciplinarity in her field should develop its own methodology, and that interdisciplinary expertise should also be recognized and valorized within the framework of an academic career. This demand was also seconded elsewhere at the symposium by the computer scientist ULRICH BRANDES (Zurich), who pointed out that this presupposes that interdisciplinarity itself also becomes subject to peer review. In the area of "digitization", two speakers called for greater efforts towards standardization in order to take advantage of the opportunity for interdisciplinary cooperation brought about by the use of data: The information scientist CHRISTINE BORGMAN (UCLA) pointed out that annotation and metadata are very discipline-specific and that, for example, an engineer and a biologist understand very different things with the term "temperature". It is a real challenge to remove data from one disciplinary context and place it in another. Bioinformatician FRÉDÉRIQUE LISACEK (Geneva) explained that even within biology and between its different sub-areas it is necessary, for instance, to standardize production conditions, since otherwise the data would not be comparable even within one and the same discipline.

The opportunity that lies in digitality and data science and thus in design and simulation for new interdisciplinary working contexts became clear in several of the so-called "Lightning Talks", which were held by the 22 early career researchers from all over the world who were invited by the Volkswagen Foundation to attend with a travel grant. Among others, "computational modeling" was presented as an interdisciplinary practice as well as design-based interventions in transdisciplinary research.

The symposium also repeatedly urged for alternative terms to interdisciplinarity: "transdisciplinarity" (Carson), "post-disciplinarity" (Crow), "entanglement" (SIMON CHAPLIN, London), "multiperspectivity" (JOHANNA PFAFF-CZARNECKA, Bielefeld). A final keynote speech called on the humanities in particular to "de-discipline" themselves. The US-American philosopher of science ROBERT FRODEMAN (Wyoming), who published the "Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity" in 2010, once again drew the big picture: One had to take into account the dramatic changes – had there been 250 doctorates per year in the USA around 1900 and these doctorates had prepared exclusively for an academic career, the figure today would add up to 55,000 per year and most of these graduates would then leave the university. Moreover, today’s university is by no means alone in generating knowledge: The 20 largest companies in the world spend 175 billion US dollars a year on research and development. However, since interdisciplinarity has not yet become a standard discipline in its own right, Frodeman recommended the development of "critical university studies" instead. Their potential lies in encompassing "the whole of knowledge". What is needed is cooperation with people outside science and case-oriented research into topics and problems.

Even though Frodeman's suggestion was not taken up by the more than 160 participants at the event and discussed as a possible option for solving the tension between disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, his talk once again highlighted the great pressure for change which universities worldwide and also in Germany are under. They will have to find an answer to which organizational structure they want to adopt going forward, i.e. how the financial flows within the university should be directed in future: In Germany, as hitherto, via the faculties? WILHELM KRULL (Volkswagen Foundation Hanover) pointed out the real power structures at German universities. But although new governance models were presented at the event, they were not discussed in depth. The question of what constitutes interdisciplinary expertise and what standards it must meet in order to be able in future to offer academic credit on an academic career path was also only touched on. The topic of how "disciplines" or "subjects" should be construed today was also only touched upon – a hierarchical order with a tree structure would probably be a thing of the past and would give way to a horizontal map-like arrangement. Co-organizer SABINE KUNST (HU Berlin) met with general agreement when she stated that the symposium had left the participants with many important questions in need of more intensive future discussion. Along with his co-organizers, HARTMUT DORGERLOH, Director of Stiftung Humboldt Forum (Berlin), could also be satisfied with the first academic event held in Berlin Palace: The Humboldt Forum, which has not yet been officially opened, has already proved its worth as a framework for lively exchange and intensive discussions.

Vera Szöllösi-Brenig, Program Director, Volkswagen Foundation


11   An exception is the League of European Research Universities policy paper: LERU (2016): LERU (2016) "Interdisciplinarity and the 21st century research intensive university". https://www.leru.org/files/Interdisciplinarity-and-the-21st-Century-Research-Intensive-University-Full-paper.pdf [07.11.2019]. To date, the German Wissenschaftsrat (Council of Science and Humanities) has dealt with questions of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity only in the context of the development of individual subjects, subject groups and scientific fields. However, a position paper on the topic is in preparation for 2020.