Learning Interdisciplinarity: Sociocultural Perspectives on Academic Work

By Lattuca, Lisa R. | Journal of Higher Education, November-December 2002 | Go to article overview

Learning Interdisciplinarity: Sociocultural Perspectives on Academic Work


Lattuca, Lisa R., Journal of Higher Education


How do college and university faculty create interdisciplinary spaces in colleges and universities? A literal translation of this question suggests a focus on the development and maintenance of interdisciplinary degree programs or research centers. This interpretation is consistent with a tradition of research on faculty that focuses on structural conditions that foster productivity. A less literal translation considers the more intangible aspects of faculty work and of interdisciplinarity. Institutional structures and policies may provide incentives and opportunities for research and teaching, but interdisciplinarity requires a prior step: in order to take advantage of policies or programs that encourage interdisciplinarity, college and university faculty must undertake the learning that will allow them to pursue interdisciplinary research or teaching. Another interpretation of the concept of space, then, focuses attention on the imaginative work of interdisciplinarity, and one logical conclusion is to study both the material circumstances of faculty life and the cognitive work of interdisciplinary research and teaching.

The danger in this conceptualization is the potential for repetition of the mind-body duality that is common in Western thought. If we frame learning (what happens 'in the head') as separate from lived experience (the physical locations and conditions in which it occurs), an individualistic and dualistic orientation results. We tend to study contexts and persons in contexts separately, often extracting the individual from his or her context in order to get a better look at the phenomenon of cognition. Many traditional psychological theories of learning and studies based on these theories manifest this assumption about the separate spheres of thinking and being. In contrast, sociological and anthropological theories focus intently on contexts and cultures: they are more apt to assume that analytic strategies should begin with an account of social phenomena and then, on the basis of these, develop analyses of individual mental functioning (see Kirshner & Whitson, 1997; Wertsch, 1998; for an extended discussion of these points). Today, theorists from various fields have begun to think about how to repair the mind-body duality, to argue that learning cannot be separated from the contexts in which it occurs, and to reconceptualize cognition and learning as activities that occur through social interaction. Using these theories as analytic lenses for studying faculty work, I examine how some faculty create spaces in which to pursue interdisciplinary thinking, research, and teaching.

Since the first definitions were advanced in the 1930s, interdisciplinarity has been defined in numerous ways, and there is little consensus on its exact meaning. The definition that guided this work was developed by the Center for Educational Research and Innovation. This definition specifies a range of potential interdisciplinary interactions and thus can accommodate different, and even competing, types of interdisciplinarity:

Interdisciplinary--An adjective describing the interaction among two or more different disciplines. This interaction may range from simple communication of ideas to the mutual integration of organising concepts, methodology, procedures, epistemology, terminology, data, and organisation of research and education in a fairly large field. An interdisciplinary group consists of persons trained in different fields of knowledge (disciplines) with different concepts, methods, and data and terms organised into a common effort on a common problem with continuous intercommunication among the participants from the different disciplines. (OECD, 1972, pp. 25-26)

The definition clearly assumes a disciplinary basis for interdisciplinarity, but it does not exclude postmodem interdisciplinarity in which the disciplines are not central to modes of inquiry. …

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