Interdisciplinarity and Cognitive Science
Christopher D. Green
The title of this Session, "Reflections," gives me fairly wide latitude to talk about whatever I please. So please pardon me if I take some advantage of that opportunity and emphasize the "Interdisciplinary" part of this conference's theme more than the "Mind" part. Rather than making a case for a particular area of the content in Cognitive Science, today I would like to make a plea for Cognitive Science as an institution -- reminding you of some of its frailties in the administrative context of the modern university, and asking you to act with me to help shore it up a bit.
The attempt to forge an interdisciplinary career -- such as one in cognitive science -- remains problematic for scholars and scientists alike in universities almost everywhere. Researchers who embark on studies of the interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, or pluridisciplinary kind (pick your favorite term), risk a number of less-than-optimal professional outcomes, most of them stemming from the disinterest or even distrust of the conventional members of any of the disciplines from which they draw inspiration.
First, of course, is the problem of getting a permanent position at all. Job descriptions are almost always the outcome of competing interests among the members of a single departmental discipline, and rarely is there much room for advocates of extradisciplinary factors in that struggle. As a result, interdisciplinary individuals, who rarely line up well with the demands of disciplinary job descriptions, can have a tough time in the highly competitive market for obtaining an interview and ultimately, a job. Of course, many interdisciplinarians learn early on to "play it straight" when going for a job, "massaging" letters of intent and CVs to make it seem as though they are one of "the tribe."
Even when this strategy is successful, however, interdisciplinarians are then faced with five-to-seven more years of "playing it straight" in order to get published in the "right" journals, invited to the "right" conferences, and ultimately obtain the holy grail of tenure in a field where they may feel only half at home. By this time many have either failed to "make the grade" by the lights of the discipline that has hired them (or have decided to stop trying), or they have become victims of a kind of intellectual Stockholm syndrome, having come to identify with their disciplinary "captors" and deciding to play it straight for the rest of their careers. The question of when one should "come out" as an interdisciplinarian can be a tricky one indeed.
In a few places,
interdisciplinary studies of one sort or another, have gained departmental
status -- effectively moving from the foggy and uncertain realm of
"interdiscipline" to that of "discipline," but this still
remains the exception much more than the rule. Cognitive science is, perhaps,
better off than a number of other "interdisciplines," in no small
measure because it has an agreed-upon name and there are a few academic
journals and more than a few books that use that name in their titles. And
then, of course, there was the early interest in the field by the
There is currently
a year-long web conference on the question of interdisciplinarity being hosted
by the French Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (http://www.interdisciplines.org/interdisciplinarity).
Among the individuals participating who would be known to cognitive scientists
are Dan Sperber, Howard Gardner, and
Universities, by contrast, rarely operate in this way. Problems to be solved are rarely imposed from the outside (applied professional programs such as medicine and engineering notwithstanding); they are developed from the inside by the faculty members themselves. But faculty members are not really at liberty to study anything they want. They must consider factors such as the likelihood of the relevant granting agencies funding such research, the availability of publication vehicles such as conferences and journals accepting such research as being within their scope, the likelihood (come time for tenure or the next promotion) of their own university departments recognizing such research as being a contribution to their discipline (rather than just to knowledge as a whole), and so on.
In essence, understanding all of this amounts to recognizing that the distribution of disciplines in the academy, as it now exists, is not simply a matter of our having found the most "natural" or "efficient" epistemic dividing lines in the broad spectrum of human knowledge and then arranging our university structures to mirror those. Disciplinary boundaries are at least as much about institutional administrative structures as they are about the "proper" division of knowledge. Psychologists should be more aware of this than most because of their own discipline's history.
Because of the
dominance of Wilhelm Wundt's
In the North America, things were somewhat different, in no small measure because the American and Canadian university systems were still quite immature at the time -- having only just developed serious graduate schools very late in the 19th century -- and so there was more room for growth and innovation than there was in Germany's centuries-old system.
But now, in 2004,
we find a problem with respect to cognitive science and other
"interdisciplines" that is in many ways similar to that the
then-interdiscipline of experimental psychology experienced in
If one examines the procedures that are now employed with the aim of rendering tenure and promotion decisions more "objective," one can almost immediately see where a critical problem lies. The members of tenure committees in psychology, I would venture to say, almost never actually read the published work of the candidates whose futures they are deciding. This is, at least superficially, for good reason -- psychology is so broad in its scope that most of us do not know what constitutes good and bad work in subdisciplines of the field apart from our own. Instead they rely on the putatively "expert" opinions of a few reviewers and they rely on some numbers: (1) counts of the articles published in peer-reviewed journals, (impressions of the relative status of those journals, sometimes bolstered by their "impact factors"), (2) counts of the number of times the articles have been cited by other members of the discipline (of course, if an article has been cited as a prime example of how not to investigate a topic, that article remains a "tick" in its favor if no one on the committee actually reads the citing article), and (3) the number and value of the research grants the candidate has received (along with impressions of the perceived status of the source).
For someone who works at the center of an established subdiscipline, this procedure can work relatively well. The journals in which one "should" publish are well-known to the community as a whole (as are the journals one would turn to should one's work not be accepted by the "top" journals). The appropriate granting agencies are well known, as are their success rates and standard granting amounts.
For someone who is
interdisciplinary, however, this approach can be quite unfair. Other "experts" in the
interdiscipline may be difficult to locate, there are few or no journals
catering to the field the research is pioneering, so s/he has to publish in
vehicles that are not well-known (and which are often perceived by the conventional
disciplinarians of the tenure committee as "questionable" journals).
The "impact factors" of these journals and citation counts of the
articles published therein are low because there are not as many people working
in that area and so not as many citations in total. (Just for instance, the three
best journals in the history of psychology are Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, History of the Human Sciences, and History of Psychology. The first two have
impact factors of .267 and .207 respectively. By comparison,
At least in psychology departments they still occasionally debate the importance of such numbers when making tenure and promotion decisions, allowing at least for the theoretical possibility of taking the special circumstances of interdisciplinarians into account. I have heard tell that in some economics departments, however, they aspire to rank order all the journals in the field and then simply weight and sum the publication records of tenure and promotion candidates.
For a true interdisciplinarian this kind a system is disastrous. The official criteria, even if developed in consultation with a group of the "best" people in each discipline (perhaps because it was developed in consultation with them), can only penalize people for doing anything other than continuously writing conventional journal articles explicitly designed for the sensibilities of the most venerable journals in the most traditional subdisciplines. While this may make for a great deal of high-quality conventional research (and there is something to be said for that), it allows almost no room for people to explore new combinations of ideas drawn from different intellectual domains. What is more, it makes it virtually impossible to explore new ways of presenting research, such as, just for instance, the various scholarly World Wide Web sites I have created over the last few years, or the video-documentary-linked-to-footnotes-and-primary-source-transcriptions format that I have been developing recently. All this work -- whether good or bad -- would simply fail to be considered at all because it did not correspond to an appropriate tick-box in the list of "officially sanctioned" forms of expression.
Let me say as an
aside that I am not complaining about my own current situation. I have been
extremely lucky in that
Although I am, in all likelihood, preaching to the converted here, I would like to close with a plea to those in this audience. We interdisciplinary cognitive scientists should move to foster interdisciplinary research in our own home institutions. This means doing things like seeing that job descriptions are written so that interdisciplinary cognitive scientists have a chance at getting interviews, seeing that after-the-fact discussions of interviews are not completely dominated by parochial subdisciplinary sensibilities about who is "one of us" and who is "one of them." When it comes time to revise tenure and promotion regulations, we should try to insert language that makes it possible for interdisciplinarians to pass muster. (One thing I did recently was to argue for the inclusion of the phrase "electronic publications and productions" in the list of things the tenure committee is obliged to consider as part of its evaluation of candidates' research records. This particular wording may not be perfectly suited to the problems of cognitive scientists, but you get the idea.) Try to break down artificial, bureaucratic disciplinary boundaries where possible. If you're a psychologist, attend the philosophy, linguistics, and anthropology colloquia from time to time. Invite like-minded folk there to attend the psychology department colloquia. Encourage your students to do the same. Universities are divided up into departments for historical and administrative reasons. Try not to let those issues interfere with your intellectual development.
As a final comment, please note that I have not intended, in this talk, to claim that all interdisciplinary work is "good" and all disciplinary work is "bad." Indeed, people can generate extremely poor interdisciplinary work because there is an opening here to treat "other" disciplines superficially. (This is often signaled when claims are made that begin with the phrase "Philosophers believe…" or "Psychologists have shown…" Which philosophers? Which psychologists? What was their argument or evidence? Every discipline is contentious and diverse). Instead, all I am trying to say is that interdisciplinary work, such as that in cognitive science, deserves a fair hearing. Many modern disciplines (psychology perhaps chief among them) got their start as an interdisciplinary study. You can either assume that the disciplinary distribution we have now will be so for all time, or you can try to assist in bringing to light the new disciplines of the 21st, and even the 22nd, centuries.