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Friday, February 04, 2011

Interdisciplinary Angst? - A Response to Boyden

I started to write a comment to Bruce's very interesting post, but it started to get long and then I realized I'm a guest blogger.

There are probably a dozen books, not all of them necessarily well known, that have had a fundamental impact on my thinking.  One of them was a little piece by a organizational behaviorist by the name of Barry Johnson, entitled Polarity Management.  The thesis is that some problems are only manageable, not solveable.   The hallmark of such problems is that they demonstrate a conflict between interdependent but mutually exclusive polar values, each of which has an upside and a downside.  A good example in a business organization is the polarity of teamwork versus command-and-control.  Teamwork's upside includes buy-in, energy, synergy of ideas, innovation.  Its downside is its lack of speed, bureaucracy, "camel" creation.  At the other end of the polarity, command-and-control is alienating and often bereft of esprit, enthusiasm, but it is decisive and clear.  Moreover, organizations show a tendency to move from the downside of one value by adopting the other, taking the benefits of its upside until the ill effects show up and then repeating the process to the other end of the polarity (over and over and over).  (I saw this when "Total Quality" showed up in the early 90s to replace hierarchical management - you couldn't change the brand of coffee in the break room without a brainstorming session.  So there was the counter-revolution.)  The trick is to manage the polarities, not solve them.

When we talk about any professional or academic discipline, we are talking about a construct that is some mix of concept and social organization.  There is no reason to think that the disciplines that have spun off from philosophy over the last 150 years cut nature at the joints (as some people are want to say).   Or to put it another way, "independent discipline" compared to what?  The "problem," if it is one, of disciplinary boundaries involves the interdependent but mutual exclusive values of (a) professional certification and authority (note the irony of my including a bibliography below, by the way giving weighty authority on interdisciplinarity) versus interdisciplinary exploration, and (b) deep and focused study versus creativity and innovation.  It seems to me what leaders of academic institutions ought to be doing is managing the polarity rather than seeing it as a problem to be solved.   It's obvious that there's huge value in both deep doctrinal competence and cutting edge weirdness (neuroeconomics, as a case in point).  Against the downsides, respectively, of stultification and dilettantism.  Certainly highlighting the issue (as in Bruce's post) is the first step to managing it, but it's not a problem that has an answer.

At the risk of stepping on Patrick O'Donnell's bibliographic toes, there's been some interesting work assessing disciplinarity both generally within academia (Michele Lamont, How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment; Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University) and law (Peter Goodrich, "Intellection and Indiscipline").  Also on the issue of the rise of social science disciplines generally and history as a discipline specifically, see Thomas Haskell, The Emergence of Professional Social Science:  The American Social Science Association and the Nineteenth Century Crisis of Authority, and Objectivity is Not Neutrality:  Explanatory Schemes in History.  And what would a guest blog post be without some self-promotion:  my thesis ("The Venn Diagram of Business Lawyering Judgments", forthcoming, 46 Seton Hall L. Rev. 1 (2011)) that effective business lawyering demands a skill in being interdisciplinary, a discipline I have coined "metadisciplinarity," otherwise known as the deep art of being meaningfully shallow.

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on February 4, 2011 at 01:13 PM in Deliberation and voices, Lipshaw | Permalink


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Disciplinarity is problematic. Drawing lines is an automatic path toward exclusion, and a mechanism for eliminating that which you don't prefer. If the "wrong" ideas are defined out of a discipline altogether, they can be disregarded as irrelevant to the study of the discipline. Thus, the definition of "constitutional theory" as excluding "judicial politics" enables legal scholars to ignore the growing body of evidence that judges can be influenced by their own policy preferences. That, to me, is the most disturbing aspect of Tushnet's piece - as a political scientist and a legal scholar, I see the interplay between judicial attitudes and institutional constraints in a way that it seems Tushnet would deny even exists. If so, then what explanation can he offer for the last thirty years of work by scholars like Lee Epstein, Paul Wahlbeck, and Howard Gillman?

Posted by: Matthew Reid Krell | Feb 7, 2011 5:14:31 PM

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