[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]
Imagine you feel that something is seriously wrong with your heart. Do you seek the help of a cardiovascular specialist or a general practitioner? In this situation nearly everyone chooses the specialist. When our lives are at stake, we don’t much care whether our physician knows a little bit about everything. We care mostly that they know a lot about what threatens our survival. If they can quote Shakespeare, we might invite them to our holiday parties. But we pay for their specialized knowledge.
In academia today, acquiring expertise in most disciplines requires years of specialization, a pursuit of deep knowledge that escapes generalism’s superficiality. The entangling curiosity some of us carry—an interest in anything and everything—is a curse on discovery, up to a point (or passed one). Broad interests are often fatal to the advancement of knowledge. The literature within most disciplines expands now at a pace much faster than the expansion of our life spans. Much of that work is barely worth a glance. But sifting through it to find the gems, or accumulating piles of wisdom from so many little nuggets—this takes so much time. Most disciplines pour out gigabytes of data every day, leaving little time for specialists to explore anything beyond the boundaries of familiar fields. (And as long as we continue pulling our old publication plows into a digital age, oblivious to new conditions, our work gets even more difficult.)
Interdisciplinary initiatives begin with the promise that synergy will overcome both the inefficiency of cross-disciplinary communication and inflexible habits of thinking that accompany years of training and practice within a particular field. So the call for collaboration goes out perennially, from institutions, funding agencies, and professional organizations. Given built-in incentives for specialization in academic and research positions, why should we answer the call?
I find some justification for interdisciplinary work in research about complexity. One feature of complex systems (especially those that are adaptable and resilient) is that they are neither extremely interconnected nor extremely disconnected. They form a non-uniform landscape with areas of dense interconnectivity separated by more open spaces, with critical, dynamic connections emerging and disappearing between the denser nodes. In this respect, an academic landscape without interdisciplinary connections is like a country with no highways between its cities. To be more adaptive and prosperous in knowledge, we must connect with each other at times.
Problematically, though, there are no widely accepted guidelines for getting better value from interdisciplinary outputs. So even with the best intentions, hopes often exceed outcomes. Converging research from psychology and organizational behavior shows that teams improve their decision-making when they think carefully about the process of deciding, not only about the verdict at the end of that process. Likewise, interdisciplinary initiatives could benefit from the development of best practices for interactions between disciplines. The empirical literature on group processes could possibly guide such a project, in tandem with case studies and feedback from organizations charged with the hard work of getting diverse researchers to work together. It would be a real achievement to shorten the learning curve for academic specialists, who must suspend their usual habits of thinking to learn anything from those who work on the other side of campus. That’s an easier walk on foot than it is in the imagination.