Networks and Labyrinths
Edited by Laurine Heerema
To Be Interdisciplinary
Have you ever wondered why academia is split into highly specialized fields and whether this is always a good thing? In search of an answer to these questions, this article is going to explore the networks, or, rather the disconnected networks that exist between the sciences and the humanities, and what it means for one to be interdisciplinary. A concrete delineation of academic fields is outmoded and even puts one at a disadvantage. Thus, one should strive to be connected to both science and the humanities in some way, however minor that association is.
It is often viewed that science is more academically rigorous, as it is held with higher regard in comparison to the humanities. For example, humanities subjects such as English Literature or History are referred to by UK academic institutions as “soft subjects”, even if they are studied in the final years of school. Strikingly, it is reported that if one were to decide to embark on studying a ‘soft subject’, it actually hinders their chances of getting into top research universities (Fazackerley and Chant, 2008, p. 1). In light of this, not only is it a widely held belief that science should be taken more seriously than the humanities, or is somehow “more academic”, but schools in the UK actually discourage students from studying humanities for fear of hindering their chances later on. In contrast, the studying of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is not only encouraged, but is viewed as the solution to monetary growth and the avoidance of economic depressions (Ismail, 2018, p. 3). Does this therefore mean that one should hold science with higher regard, and thereby neglect humanities subjects in order to guarantee academic, and therefore financial success?
The answer is not as simple as pitting one academic sphere against another. However, such a stance of viewing science as the solution that will evade us from all our economic woes has damaging implications for the humanities and those who work within the field. In 2021, the Education secretary Gavin Williamson announced cuts for arts courses in the UK. (Weale, 2021) These cuts were targeted at courses such as music, dance, performing arts, as well as art and design. (Weale, 2021). It is crucial to note that these are fields which feed into an industry full of creatives that are worth £111bn a year to the UK economy (Weale, 2021). The humanities and arts provide a profound economic contribution. In light of this, it seems horrendously absurd to have an economic preference on one academic field and cut the other. Does the UK government think that by focusing investment into STEM subjects, it will bridge a gap created by underfunding the arts?
We need both the humanities and science for the economy to flourish. It is imperative that we do not rely on one over the other. However, this issue does not only concern economic growth. It is crucial that a more cohesive network exists between these two academic subjects, both in terms of our thinking and academic endeavors, as well as how we view the future of these subjects. Too often one hears from society that individuals are either “artistic” or “scientific/mathematic”. Why not both, even in some small way? For example, the ‘artistic side’ in one’s scientific studies could be an outlet which influences and shapes their overall thinking.
E. O. Wilson, a prominent American biologist, naturalist and writer, in The Origins of Creativity discusses the relationship between the humanities and the sciences. Wilson maintained that, contrary to what is commonly believed, the humanities are not very different to science (2017, p. 186). For Wilson, “one permeates the other” (2017, p. 186). There is a symbiotic relationship that exists between the two fields which is frequently ignored, as one subject feeds into another in a series of subtle yet harmonious networks. Crucially, Wilson then pointed out that all scientific knowledge must first be formulated in the human mind (Wilson, p.186). In light of this, therefore, our scientific discoveries are a wholly human process from the brain. (Wilson, p.186). How does such a stance situate the humanities in relation to science then?
Wilson argued that the humanities went beyond science in terms of both its creation and development. (Wilson, p. 187) He went as far as to say that humanities had an even “further reach” than science (Wilson, p. 187). In Wilson’s view, whilst scientific theory focuses on the real world or reality, scientific experimentation explores potential “real worlds”, and scientific theory explores all potential worlds that have yet to be proven. (Wilson, p. 187) The humanities cover all three of these ‘levels’ and an additional one that science never really can, that being the infinite possibility of fantasy worlds (Wilson, p. 187). Although the humanities and the sciences are not the same, Wilson's thesis articulates how these fields are interconnected and where there is a natural departure. In addition, they are not on an equal footing but that they should indeed both be taken equally seriously for their different and intriguing influences, both in our real and fantasy worlds.
Why then, is it important to be interdisciplinary and what does that even mean in this context? According to Wilson, a vast majority of scientists and researchers live out their careers in their niche fields of academia (Wilson, p. 191). He viewed this as a profound limitation on their personal and academic development. He believed that if scientists and scholars in humanities collaborated, albeit even in a remote way, it would bring the best branches of learning together (Wilson, p. 198). He termed such a synthesis of knowledge the 3rd Enlightenment (Wilson, p. 198). Although such a claim may at first sound outlandish, Wilson is not the only prominent scholar who purports the importance of being interdisciplinary or at least thinking about how one’s field connects to others.
In The Systems View of Life, Pier Luigi Luisi and Fritjof Capra discuss the importance of viewing the world and all spheres of knowledge as a network (Luisi and Capra, 2014, p. 4). This is because we cannot ignore that the world is fundamentally a vast network, in every aspect, from tiny cells within a liver to the structure of society or the economy. Moreover, Luisi and Capra argued that in any system, individual parts within said system can be discerned in some way (Luisi and Capra, 2014, p. 65). On reflection of this, one can surmise that things rarely work in isolation. We therefore must at least have an idea of the networks that exist between academic fields since the world is intrinsically interlinked (Luisi and Capra, pp. 2, 4).
In acknowledging these aforementioned theories, where lies the evidence or the success of being interdisciplinary? In 2008, a paper was published that revealed how academics with an artistic outlet such as poetry or music were more likely to have won a Nobel Peace Prize than academics who remained insular within their field with no creative pursuits (Root-Bernstein, 2008). Following this, it can be inferred that being interdisciplinary in your academic or daily life does not mean you have to throw yourself into the humanities or vice versa. Not everyone is out there to climb the academic ladder to aim to win a Nobel Peace Prize. However, being interdisciplinary can be as simple as engaging with music, art, or, at the other end of the spectrum, observing the intricacies of the natural world whilst out on a walk, or listening to a podcast on a riveting science topic. Of course, certain people already are interdisciplinary and go even further than this in their academic life by delving into multiple fields during doctorate study such as Biology, Chemistry and Anthropology (Sarah Byrne, 2014). Despite this phenomenon, the future for academics such as these can be precarious, and it is certainly not advocated or seen as conventional. If the world in every aspect is interconnected when why has being interdisciplinary hit the mainstream?
The important thing to consider about being interdisciplinary, is that even small endeavors will aid in making one more rounded as a person. The world is inextricably interconnected, and therefore, it seems perverse to disconnect oneself from different academic territories. Humans are invariably curious beings, so when your mind considers or ponders something outside of your academic field, rather than shutting that door, seize that interest and consider how it can benefit your own research or interests. Ultimately, it is aiding your development as a human being and our place in this complex world.
Boot-Bernstein, R. (2008) ‘Arts Foster Scientific Success: Avocations of Nobel, National Academy, Royal Society, and Sigma Xi Members, Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology [online] 1 (2), pp. 51-63. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/1035/arts-foster-scientific-success.pdf (Accessed: 14 March 2022).
Byrne, S., 2014. Interdisciplinary research: why it’s seen as a risky route. The Guardian, 19 Feb. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/feb/19/interdisciplinary-research-universities-academic-careers (Accessed 16 March 2022).
Fazackerley, A. and Chant, J. (2008) ‘The hard truth about ‘soft’ subjects: Improving transparency about the implications of A-level subject choice’ Researchnote. [Online] Available at: https://policyexchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/the-hard-truth-about-soft-subjects-dec-08.pdf (Accessed: 2 March 2022).
Ismail, Z., 2018. Benefits of STEM Education: What are the benefits of STEM education, especially in low-income countries? Assets Publishing Service, [online] Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5c6c0ec740f0b647abb525a7/418_Benefits_of_STEM_Education.pdf(Accessed: 2 March 2022).
Luisi, L. P. and Capra, F., 2014. The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Weale, S., 2021. Funding cuts to go ahead for university courses in England despite opposition. The Guardian, 20 Jul. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jul/20/funding-cuts-to-go-ahead-for-university-arts-courses-in-england-despite-opposition (Accessed 2 March 2022)
Wilson, O, E., 2018. The Origins of Creativity, London: Penguin.