Once the value of ‘interdisciplinary’ is truly accepted, academia will significantly benefit.
It could be argued that there are two types of researchers in academia: divers and surfers. Divers go narrow and deep with their research. They pick a broad spot in the ocean, jump in, and gradually narrow down to explore what that thread of the ocean has to offer. In the original spot they pick, there is a decent amount of other people, and most can communicate with each other about what they see.
As they dive deeper and more narrowly into the thread that interests them, there are fewer people. Communication between divers gradually becomes more difficult since what the divers see becomes more detailed. When divers are several threads away from each other, they have no idea what the other is saying; they can’t communicate. We could define “experts” as divers.
Now, surfers start in the same spot as divers: a broad spot in the ocean. However, surfers then take the opposite route. Instead of diving in and gradually narrowing down to explore a particular thread, surfers decide to explore the ocean horizontally. They realize that the ocean is large, unimaginably large, so they don’t want to limit themselves to a particular thread of the ocean. They would rather spend their time seeing what a large area of the ocean has to hold.
The surfer is interested in discovering connections between what different parts of the ocean hold. They have binoculars and scuba gear on them. As they travel, they use their binoculars for horizontally scanning which areas are most connected to where they currently are. They go to those areas next to continue connecting the dots. They also use their binoculars for vertically scanning downwards to see what threads of the ocean are most relevant to the connections they’ve made. The problem is binoculars can’t see that far down. This is where the scuba gear comes in handy. When relevant threads are found, the surfer pauses their journey, throws on the scuba gear and does some diving. However, they don’t go as deep as the diver. They go as far as they need to, gaining relevant information, resurfacing, and then continuing to surf.
Why we need more surfers
Academia is geared towards producing experts. Being an expert is viewed as being a diver, so academia wants divers. Cambridge Dictionary defines an expert as “a person with a high level of knowledge or skill relating to a particular subject or activity.” When it comes to academia, a “particular subject” could be seen as too vague a description. Is it the overall discipline, the subdiscipline, or the specific area within the subdiscipline? We can apply this to the overall discipline of philosophy as an example. Does the “particular subject” of philosophy count as philosophy, moral philosophy, or animal ethics?
Academia has misunderstood the meaning of “particular subject” by viewing subjects too narrowly. Even if we assume the broadest category, the overall discipline (i.e., philosophy), to mean the “particular subject”, the way academia has understood this definition has still been too restricted. Another way to view a “particular subject” is horizontally. This means understanding a “particular subject” as spanning across disciplines. For example, we could view a “particular subject” as a discipline that integrates the knowledge of concepts in political science, biology, philosophy and economics. Now, no such field exists. There is no name for it. But that is no reason for it not to be a “particular subject”. After all, the divisions of academic disciplines are artificial; we could have sliced them up differently. We could have sliced them horizontally instead of vertically, so why not think of them as both? Once we’ve done this, we can free up the definition of expert. Experts can be both divers and surfers.
Overspecialization, discipline territoriality, and the limited definition of “expert” often prevent this. The culmination of these factors also leads to a certain snobbery from divers, who dominate academia, to view surfers as superficial researchers. This exacerbates the problem of not hiring and supporting surfers.
Integrating knowledge is equally important to deepening it. Surfing is equally important to diving. Once the value of “interdisciplinary” is truly accepted, not merely as a remark but acknowledged through action, academia will significantly benefit.
Tejas Pandya is a master’s student studying philosophy at Dalhousie University.