Specializations and cyborgs

Fri, 11 Feb 1994 09:07:28 -0400

If we are going to talk about specializations and such, as John
O'Brien suggests, let's see what
the literature already says about the subject and about why there are
disciplinary boundaries in the first place. AFter all "Knowledge is
seamless" in the social/behavioral sciences. Below are a couple of
pages of really great stuff from the literature, specifically from pp.
12-13 of that masterful volume by J. H. Barkow, Darwin, Sex, and
Status: Biologial Approaches to Mind and Culture (University of
Toronto Press, 1989). By coincidence, I have the entire book on disk
and so can easily upload extracts.

Jerry Barkow

* * * * * * * etc.

The Reward System as a Gap Generator
Perhaps a Leonardo da Vinci could master all knowledge but
the rest of us are more limited. Since we cannot master
everything, we specialize. Once specialized, we find it most
fruitful to collaborate with those with similar areas of
interest. Historically, these specializations have grown into
bounded disciplines. Disciplines and subdisciplines provide
convenient limits to what non-universal experts must master and
keep abreast of.
Universities, too, need neatly bounded disciplines. They
are, after all, bureaucratic structures: how would one administer
a large university without some kind of departments or divisions,
some allocation of responsibility for subjects and topics? So we
develop, as Donald T. Campbell (1969) and Murray Wax (1969) have
explained (and I am indebted to them for all but the mistakes in
the present analysis), the neat academic myth that knowledge
comes in bundles, or boxes, or -- to use a more elegant term --
disciplines. In the social-behavioral and perhaps biological
sciences, many disciplinary boundaries are arbitrary, accidents
of history. Once in the bureaucratic structure of a university,
however, they tend to be permanent. Those socialized within the
confines of such disciplines have a vested interest in treating
neighboring, overlapping fields as competitors, rather than
allies. As a result, training in an academic discipline
frequently involves indoctrination against neighboring fields, as
when sociologists confuse multiple levels of explanation with
what they may term "psychological reductionism," or when
biologists disparage colleagues' consideration of the behavior of
our own species. The attitude of colleagues is not a minor
factor in determining the course of one's career. The sciences,
after all, can reasonably be thought of as being organized around
systems of scientists' reputations (Whittley, 1985).
If you want tenure and promotion, a non-voting intellectual
collaborator or a publication in someone else's discipline is not
in your career interest. Sharing with those in one's "own" disci-
pline is. The more one specializes in that in which others in
one's discipline already specialize, the more reward-controlling
allies one is likely to have. It is the members of one's own
discipline who control one's employment, promotion, tenure, and
(very often) access to research grants. Thus, the reward system
of academia creates arbitrary disciplinary "cores" that all
practitioners are expected -- and had better -- master.
Specialize in one of these cores and you have a wider audience
among those who will determine your rise or fall. Move to the
periphery and you take risks. But it is on the periphery that
the intellectual challenges are most likely to be found.
This condensation around often historically arbitrary
"cores" creates gaps in knowledge, gaps in which so-called
"interdisciplinary" studies are needed. Sometimes this push
towards the interdisciplinary arises because challenging but
previously un-asked questions lie within the
neglected-by-definition, between-discipline gaps. Other times an
interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary team is generated by a
real world problem. Crime, overpopulation, the threat of war,
poverty: no single academic discipline, in the
social-behavioral-life sciences, is capable of dealing alone with
problems such as these. Thus, dedicated researchers often permit
their intellectual curiosity, or their concern with real-world
problems, to push them into interdisciplinary (or
multidisciplinary) studies. Sometimes new disciplines (or
perhaps departments) result. There have been fads for
interdisciplinary studies at various periods, during which
university departments for "social relations," or "area studies,"
or "human development," have proliferated. During other periods
careers can be damaged, since interdisciplinary work is often of
lower prestige in academic fields than is "core" research and
It is safest for interdisciplinary bravery to be shown by
those who already have solid reputations in established