Humanist Discussion Group

Humanist Archives: May 21, 2021, 6:41 a.m. Humanist 35.32 - interdisciplinary

				                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 32.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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    [1]    From: James Rovira 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 35.29: interdiscipliary (continued) (27)

    [2]    From: Manfred Thaller 
           Subject: interdisciplinary (77)

        Date: 2021-05-20 16:02:04+00:00
        From: James Rovira 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 35.29: interdiscipliary (continued)

Herbert's question is very good. I think we also get into issues with
defining inherently interdisciplinary fields as "interdisciplinary"
within the context of academic bureaucracy. It's probably only "really"
interdisciplinary if the educational institution has departments
with faculty in more than one of the disciplines involved. I would think
"digital humanities" would be a pretty easy sell even in this context, but
depending on the school, you never know.

What definition of "interdisciplinary" is at work here that might exclude
digital humanities from being an obviously interdisciplinary field? The
most interesting thing about this question to me is that Willard even asked

Jim R

> before answering this question there is to answer another one: Which are
> the
> 'reference' fields inside the humanities judged as just 'disciplinary' ? Or
> should I assume that you ignore, seaking for provocation, the difference
> between
> 'transdisciplinary' disciplines (for example: statistics) and
> 'interdisciplinary' fields (bio-chemistry, ...) ?
> Kind regards, Herbert

        Date: 2021-05-20 05:48:27+00:00
        From: Manfred Thaller 
        Subject: interdisciplinary

Dear Willard,

even if the answer is slightly longer than the question, the following
is a very spontaneous reaction, no great depth to be expected.

What sort of interdisciplinarity?

I guess there are generally three mainstream definitions.

(1) Researchers read something from another discipline, get stimulated
intellectually and look at their own discipline differently from now.

Sorry, my usual satirical vein:
Darret B. Rutman, “History and Anthropology: Clio’s Dalliances”, in:
Historical Methods 19 (1986) 121-122.

Despite the title it says a lot about quantification. And of course all
the enlightened invokers of Heisenberg, Quantum Theory, Geertzian Thick
Description or Shannon are very close relatives to the historian
described by Rutman who has the vague feeling that somehow by quoting a
sociologist a new patron lady of the discipline will be created, merging
the personae of Madam Curie and nurse Nightingale.

(2) Researchers hire somebody from another discipline - "a technician" /
two researchers, voluntarily or forced by a funding agency, apply
together for a research project, where they both contribute.

Example: Hire technical expertise, provide Humanities knowledge. St.
Pauls's cross:
(intentionally used instead of the project site).

Problem: once the technician is paid off, no knowledge has been acquired
by the instigators, so no follow up. For the record: I have quoted this
project frequently as a big achievement, but hiring somebody for a once
over simply does not change things.
Or ... can others by such projects possibly be induced to learn a bit
more themselves and create more closely integrated setups?

Damned to be interdisciplinary by a funding agency: I think the
following survey of the result of forcing people to be interdisciplinary
by brandish a 12 million € club is uncommonly convincing:

The results of swinging a similar club a few years ago are unfortunately
not as compactly available as the startup description given here:

But, subtracting the casualty rate to be expected, some of the project
websites there still point to sensible results achieved between 2013 -

(3) Researchers acquire additional training, which does not belong to
the canonical set of skills / knowledge assumed by their original

Nevertheless, in my opinion this approach is the only one which truly
should be called interdisciplinary. Or in my favorite words:
Interdisciplinarity must happen in one head.

Unfortunately the examples do not abound. Tara Andrews' or Joris van
Zundert's work come to mind and there are of course others, but they
still are vere rara aves. (Intentionally selecting examples from one of
the younger age cohorts, to mellow the tone of this comment.)


Prof. em. Dr. Manfred Thaller
Zuletzt Universität zu Köln /
Formerly University at Cologne

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