Why preferring individual social science disciplines is a bad practice: Two cheers for interdisciplinary approaches

The social science fields, more specifically the academic departments in which they are located, the ones I know best, are funky beasts. Although there is a demand for scholars who work in a specific area to do interesting research, there is also often a blind loyalty to hiring candidates who have graduated in the social science of the hiring department.

Not only do we see this process in academic hiring in general, but when scholars apply for grant funding, we are frequently compelled to select a traditional field with which to associate our research proposal.

Why does this social science orthodoxy exist?

In some respects, I understand it. Earning a doctorate in a field is a way to rationalize a profession. In many respects, it makes hiring and the distribution of resources decisions easier.

And in some situations when an academic program wants an expert to teach a narrow set of courses or to lead a specific program, say for example sociological theory, it might make sense for that teacher to hold a Ph.D. in that field.

Some professors, often older ones, fall on the sword of tradition. They argue that we need to train a future generation of Sociologists, Anthropologists, etc., and in order to do this, all new hires must have a Ph.D. in that field. And if we fail to do this, we will somehow dilute the knowledge base. Really? Is that true? Very few of the undergraduates we teach and mentor (our proverbial bread and butter) end up becoming professional anthropologists, geographers, sociologists, etc. So who are we kidding? Maybe the gatekeepers are trying to maintain an element of purity in their chosen social science field? It’s hard to tell.

I suspect that there are other reasons why this orthodoxy exists. First, there appears to be a conviction that anyone a department hires must have a basic grounding in the discipline in order to best help students seeking degrees. For example, hiring committees want a new hire to be able to teach an introductory class and to understand and support all of the different sub-areas.

Second, some disciplines have outdated stereotypes about scholars from other disciplines. In the social sciences, for example, some Anthropologists think Sociologists lack awareness of cultural matters. Criminal Justice and Criminology folks often stereotype Sociologists as a bunch of postmodernist nutjobs, and Sociologists frequently assume that Criminal Justice is way too conservative, and the departments they work in are little more than so-called “cop shops.”

Third, the territorialism we witness is rooted in the history of academia neglecting and underfunding the social sciences. I think much of this problem is economic in nature. Majors such as Psychology and Criminology attract more students, which creates power struggles and resentment, intensifying stereotypes and occasionally inspiring Criminologists in departments of Sociology to break off and create their own departments. In the competition for scarce resources on campus, the more the Economists, Historians, Sociologists, etc. can claim fealty to their disciplines and depict other departments as encroaching on their territory, the greater the likelihood they can maintain their financial status quo.

The reality is that scan almost any piece of scholarship and you will notice that social scientists of all stripes are citing literature from other disciplines all the time. That’s how arguments are made and supported and that is how we push a discipline further.

What are the negative effects of maintaining disciplinary orthodoxy?

A handful of outcomes come to mind. To begin with, requiring job applicants to have a Ph.D. in a singular field significantly limits the pool of appropriate candidates. In turn, this promotes tunnel vision with respect to the kinds of people we hire, the subjects we study, and the knowledge that we impart on our students. This stance is therefore both a parochial and narrow-minded.

Moreover, this approach does a disservice to our students, who might benefit from the tutelage of instructors who do really interesting interdisciplinary research. At its extreme, requiring people to hold a Ph.D. in a specific discipline is claustrophobic and xenophobic. It prevents scholars from experimenting and exploring subjects and literature that could be beneficial to their work.

It is simplistic to assume that just because someone has earned a Ph.D. in a particular social science field that they are automatically qualified to teach introductory subjects in that field. Many Ph.D. graduates help professors publish papers, and end up only knowing a very narrow range of knowledge in a particular academic field.

Championing inter- and multidisciplinary research

In reality, gone are the days when scholars could flip through the dominant journal in their field to find out what the latest research had to say about particular social and political problems. This is where inter- or multidisciplinary approaches to problems and questions come into play. Chairs, deans, and everyone up to the presidents of respected universities, sing the praises of collaborative and interdisciplinary research. Sometimes resources are invested in this approach to knowledge building and instruction. Interdisciplinary teams are necessary for securing most major grants as well, recognizing the importance of interdisciplinary research to answer important questions.

This is perhaps why we have seen, over the past four decades, a proliferation of departments, schools and colleges of Public Policy. This also explains why the large commissions examining various public policy challenges try to draw people from different disciplines.

Even Google Scholar does not have pre-set disciplines and leaves it up to researchers to identify the field that they think is most appropriate.

If I had to go out on a limb, I would argue that some of the most significant scholarly research in the world is interdisciplinary, and finding answers to interesting questions is what motivates most academics, not “contributing to the literature” of sociology, economics, etc. As a researcher, if all you do is restrict yourself to the scholarship in your field, then you have essentially inherited a straightjacket that may not result in much except wasting a lot of your time. The programs that are interesting and exciting, and that appear to be gaining enrollments are interdisciplinary: ones that not only combine the social sciences, but humanities too.


In many respects, social science disciplines, from Anthropology to Sociology, are best seen as temporary homes to hang one’s hat. But when they start putting up barriers to entrance, like requiring a Ph.D. in a specific field or excluding people who do not have a Ph.D. in a particular field, or not letting someone conduct research unless it primarily draws from the literature in a particular fiend, things become more limited and less defensible.

Sure, at certain critical times, we are going to have to find a place to call our academic home, but because most universities are configured into subdivisions, such as departments, divisions, schools, and colleges, the blind allegiance to a single discipline is misplaced.

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“mayhem in the ring”