Inter-disciplinary vs. Multi-disciplinary

This post riffs on a long-time discussion in my field of sociology, namely, How much should our disciplinary roots matter? It came up most recently as a side-light to a completely thoughtful, really interesting discussion of comments and research notes in journals. The issue of inter-disciplinarity is not new, or news, but I’d like to make my case for sociological chauvinism more explicitly. If crusade is about “the wild lack of critical thinking that many sociologists evince toward work that claims to show the triumph of some sociology-affirming narrative against some outsider (esp. ‘biological’, but also psychology or economic) alternative”, my crusade is about the deep self-doubt, bordering on self-disrepect, that sociologists seem to shoulder more than any other social science. I mean, at least psychology has enough self-centeredness to advocate for their own Presidential Council of Advisors. Sociology? Not so much.

There are two issues here, I think. The first is, do you know enough about the intersections of your discipline with others (and about the world) to make arguments about it? That is, I completely agree that there is a straw person’s argument that is easier to ‘take down’ than a real, nuanced one. But let me stick to sociology/economics, since it’s more my own expertise. In a recent interview with Eugene Fama, the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank noted:

More recently, and often in collaboration with Donald MacKenzie, Fama reexamined the capital asset pricing model, a classic model for determining fair cost for equity capital, and declared it an empirical failure unless two other factors, the performativity of markets and the underlying theoretical mechanisms of finance, are also included. This work, too, has transformed Wall Street.

Eugene Fama has discovered social studies of finance? Oh, wait. Let me try that again:

More recently, and often in collaboration with Dartmouth’s Kenneth French, Fama reexamined the capital asset pricing model, a classic model for determining fair cost for equity capital, and declared it an empirical failure unless two other factors, market capitalization and book value to market value, are also included, are also included. This work, too, has transformed Wall Street by providing academic support for “small-cap” and “value” funds.

I mean, seriously, I agree with Zuckerman that two wrongs don’t make a right, but really, we’re arguing that sociologists need to read and understand the nuanced arguments of finance and all of its heterogeneous variations? When the biggest debates in that field are whether and how to include market capitalization and book value?

The second argument goes something like saying that by incorporating other disciplines into sociology, we make sociology stronger. After all, the world is obviously no more empirically split into sociological, psychological, and biological than a meal is able to be disaggregated into its constituent ingredients (or chemicals, for that matter). The whole is different than the sum of its parts, and we’d be better off as a discipline if we took as our mission understanding the whole.

This is a compelling argument, and I see its merit. But I still disagree. And don’t make it seem like I mean that sociologists shouldn’t learn math, or history, or economics. I’m not a moron, and attributing that sentiment to me is not particularly gracious. That is, I’ll assume you’re not an idiot if you do the same for me. What I mean is that we understand the world better by engaging in multi-disciplinarity more than inter-disciplinarity. At the end of the day, sociologists and economists have different ideas on what is important and on how the world works. Sure we could use integrators. But the disciplines – unnaturally, historically contingent, yes yes – coalesce knowledge and advance understanding. This notion of multi-disciplinary comes from a brief experience at Northwestern with Wendy Griswold’s culture workshop. Her point there, which I would advocate here, was that the workshop works best not as inter-disciplinary, but as disciplinary. Everyone comes with their background not as baggage but as a baseline for multi-disciplinary interaction.

I believe strongly that discussion, scientific advancement, creativity, come in the passionate exercise of disciplinary knowledge. Why give the benefit of the doubt to biological explanations? Force them to be explicit. Why give the baseline assumption that markets express preferences a free pass? For that matter, be prepared to argue why society should be considered sui generis rather than as the sum of its individuals. You can be wrong here, and convinced by others. But why not start with sociology-affirming narratives?

I’m compelled by Zuckerman’s analyses of categories in the making of markets, and Podolny’s status orderings, and Fligstein’s markets as political arenas jockeying for resources. I think we have lots to offer. And I think the sociological case avoids some of the worst of economics’ historical ties to managing the economy, which makes sociology well-positioned to understand markets. We have multiple dependent variables (performance, survival as well as altruism [Healy], and markets themselves [Zelizer, MacKenzie and Millo], to name just a few), which is better than just one (performance). And we have a sweeping range of independent variables. Our mechanisms are clumsy, and our theories are not particularly grand nowadays. But I just don’t get the hand-wringing.

This argument is not unlike though obviously not identical to, arguments about the political center, with sociologists playing the role of self-doubting Democrats. The belief that if we only reached for conciliation and thoughtful understanding of each others’ positions, we’d have consensus and a great society. Partisanship is polarizing and makes those in the political center get the vapors, but it also reflects real debate and real discussion that is a more accurate description of what’s going on. Academically, inter-disciplinarity is a myth, and it marginalizes your discipline. We have genuine disagreements that are not going to be advanced by rushing to the intersection. Because I am highly suspicious that you’ll find any wisp of the sociological in the Theory of Everything.

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