Executive Director's Column

The Importance of Disciplines

The value of bringing together multiple disciplines, or of working at the intersections of disciplines, is that each brings to the table a unique and distinct set of tools and approaches.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

Science has always been defined by its disciplines - by its areas of focus, study, training, specialties, and subject matters. Just like physics, biology, or chemistry, psychology is a scientific discipline. Nearly every college and university supports a department of psychology, students are trained in psychology, and research is classified as psychology. The concept of a scientific discipline is an important and enduring one. It implies that there is a body of knowledge to master and skills to be acquired before one can proclaim disciplinary expertise.

As a scientific discipline grows and matures, sub-disciplines emerge. Over the past century, many important sub-disciplines of psychology have blossomed - social, cognitive, developmental, biological, comparative, industrial/organizational, and others. The emergence of specialties within a discipline is a healthy sign - it reflects an expansion of knowledge. It also carries with it the need for ever-increasing focus in training and research. This can sometimes create a challenge within the discipline, as the specialty areas acquire their own unique theories and methods and begin to look less and less like each other.

If the challenge in managing diversity within a discipline is not hard enough, consider the direction that science appears to be heading as we begin the 21st century. We hear a lot about disciplines, but almost always with a prefix attached: multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and even transdisciplinary science is all the rage. This is the emphasis of the major funding agencies, and the subject of considerable discussion at the National Academy of Science. As we struggle to keep up and communicate with colleagues within our own discipline, the future of science is demanding that we also make deep connections with other disciplines.

A positive interpretation of multi/inter/trans-disciplinary mania is that science has finally evolved to a point where the most difficult and challenging problems require ambitious partnerships and the pooling of disciplinary knowledge and expertise - that the synergy gained at our intersections is where the action is and what it will take to move to the next level.

A less flattering interpretation is that we are in the midst of a fad - that the funding agencies and observers of science are celebrating multi/inter/trans discipline work because it sounds good and represents a direction that appears to be new, innovative, and forward-moving.

I'm not sure where the truth lies - probably somewhere in between these two characterizations. What troubles me, however, is the potential devaluing of the core scientific disciplines that are called upon as participants in multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary work, and that are presumably transcended in transdisciplinary work. We can't bring disciplines together, or even transcend them, if they cease to exist as distinct and separable entities.

The value of bringing together multiple disciplines, or of working at the intersections of disciplines, is that each brings to the table a unique and distinct set of tools and approaches. Disciplines remain important because, as we realized long ago, training people as renaissance scientists - as individuals who know it all and can do it all - is not viable. Too much needs to be known and maintained within any area of science for an individual to achieve a high degree of skill in more than one (or perhaps two).

The challenge, I think, is in training solid disciplinary scientists so that they are capable of working with colleagues in other fields. When problems demand working across, between, and beyond disciplines, scientists should be ready, willing, and able. I know this adds to the training burden, but teaching ourselves how to play in a larger sandbox will be important to the future of our discipline.

Yet, we must always keep at the center of our attention the distinct disciplines. We need to recognize them, nurture them, support them, and celebrate them. Our future may indeed depend on getting along with others, but we will get nowhere if we lose the capacity for individuals to become expert in their chosen disciplines.