Book Review

Structural Diversity in the University Ecosystem

Harvey J. Graff. Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

Matthew D. Linton

In Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century, Harvey J. Graff takes a problem-based approach to the history of interdisciplinarity across the 20th century American research university. His project spans the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences showing how interdisciplinary efforts have been hindered by problems of definition, integration, and rivalry. Undisciplining Knowledge showcases the potential for a unified history of interdisciplinarity in the 20th century. The broad scope of Graff’s project, however, makes it a microcosm of the very promises and pitfalls of interdisciplinary programs that are the subject of investigation.

Though Undisciplining Knowledge is argumentatively structured around interdisciplinary problems, its chapters are organized around pairs of fields. In chapter four, for example, Graff pairs cognitive science and the new histories (represented by the various “turns” to social, cultural, and women’s and gender histories) to examine two fields whose practical implementation of interdisciplinarity appear irreconcilable. Whereas cognitive science acted like an octopus “reaching out its intelligent arms to encompass many fields” under a single interdiscipline, the new histories acted more like bats which “generally located within disciplines” “are difficult to see” as forming a cohesive interdisciplinary whole (124). While cognitive science and new histories seem to have little in common – the former the swaggering epitome of a new scientific revolution and the latter an orphaned method residing on the disciplinary margins – they are united by a problem: they are everywhere, but are they really anywhere? The comparison of cognitive science and the new histories is Graff at his synthetic best, pulling together seemingly incompatible fields of study and finding their common ground.

Beyond finding the shared roots of diverse interdisciplinary projects, Undisciplining Knowledge argues for a closer examination of the relationship between disciplinary and interdisciplinary scholarship. In contrast to “the assumptions of many proponents and opponents of interdisciplinarity,” Graff contends that disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity are “inextricably linked” (2). The imagined boundary separating them is permeable and was often crossed. This was particularly true of the early 20th century American research university where the institutional power dividing fields of study was not yet fixed, allowing interdisciplinary studies to transform into disciplines. Graff uses biology and sociology as examples of interdisciplines that were codified into disciplines by the research university. Biology was able to combine aspects of physiology, zoology, and botany to establish itself undisciplining knowledgeas the foundational science of life upon which specialized scientific disciplines were built. Sociology was similarly motivated to become a general science of society. Unlike biology, however, sociology failed to integrate its disciplinary influences. Furthermore, it never captured scientific prestige like biology owing to its ambivalence regarding quantitative versus qualitative research and its association with “subjective” political and social causes (49-51). Integration became a core concept for later interdisciplines like communications, which sought to attain disciplinary status through agglomeration of prior disciplinary influences.

Graff’s enthusiasm for early interdisciplinarity is at variance with its expansion after World War II. While early interdisciplinarity represented the fluidity of intellectual exchange in the nascent research university, postwar interdisciplinarity was little more than a watchword for scientific innovation and a tool for disciplinary critique. Motivated by the success and lavish federal funding given to interdisciplinary “big science” projects during World War II, social scientists and humanists attempted to secure funding and institutional prestige by creating new interdisciplinary fields, which highlighted their scholarship’s scientific features. These new fields included behavioral science, social relations, and operations research. Harvard University’s Department of Social Relations, for example, was an attempt by Talcott Parsons to recast sociology as scientific. Social relations’ failed to develop as an interdiscipline, however, because of “a signal failure to develop common problems, protocols, or practices for research” (99). Social relations not only failed to integrate personnel from outside sociology into its interdisciplinary field, it also did not meaningfully differentiate itself from sociology and was perceived by adjacent social scientific fields as an attempt by Parsons to expand sociology’s – and by extensions his own personal – influence. To Graff, interdisciplinary investigation should be problem-driven, but in the mid- and late 20th century interdisciplinarity transformed into a species of academic “cool hunting” whereby labelling a field as interdisciplinary tagged it as innovative to prospective funders.

While Undisciplining Knowledge provides a wide lens to examine problems of interdisciplinarity across the 20th century American research university, its breadth is a hindrance to the examination of individual fields, a criticism not unlike those made by disciplinary specialists about interdisciplinarity itself. Graff’s work is encumbered by its organization. While the book’s argument is structured around interdisciplinary problems, its chapters are organized chronologically by discipline. This leads to repetition as well as confusion. Problems of definition and integration persist throughout Undisciplining Knowledge, but Graff does not use them to connect the chapters into a narrative whole. The result is narrative fragmentation. Chapters serve as potted comparative histories of disciplines and interdisciplines, instead of telling a comprehensive story of academic interdisciplinarity in the 20th century. Furthermore, Graff, though willing to criticize his characters for failing to distinguish between disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity, does not define these terms. He, rightly, does not want to impose a singular definition onto diverse stories of interdisciplinarity. It is not clear, however, what Graff means by interdiscplinarity or why fields like cognitive science and materials science fail to achieve authentic interdisciplinarity whereas literacy studies and new histories are successful.

One further criticism concerns Graff’s professional involvement in two of the movements: new histories and literacy studies. Within the new histories movement, Graff highlights the Social Science History Association (SSHA) as “an interdisciplinary organizational infrastructure for the new histories” (169). He highlights three distinctive features of SSHA that made it a productive, interdisciplinary association: 1) a non-disciplinary space not interested in professional advancement, 2) a flexible space for positivist exploration, and 3) “real intellectual diversity” based in a “climate of mutual tolerance” (169-170). As a former SSHA president, Graff admits his biases toward it and recognizes its limits as a scholarly organization, but he fails to interrogate how SSHA was a site for the same positivist explorations that underpinned history’s attempt to achieve scientific recognition. Like the relationship between sociology and social relations, positivist new histories rooted in quantitative research can be interpreted as an attempt to highlight scientific aspects of the historical method to accrue scientific prestige.

A similar problem is at play in Graff’s analysis of literacy studies. Literacy studies is applauded for being a problem-oriented interdiscipline. Its aims are also practical and applied, interested in “doing” interdisciplinarity instead of just talking it. Graff remains personally invested in literacy studies’ success owing to his work on [email protected], an interdisciplinary project aimed at improving information access across fields ranging from civics to health.[1] Graff seems to create a false dichotomy, however, between literacy studies and other applied interdisciplines like material and cognitive science. The problem of cognition, for example, unifies cognitive science and was, at least partially, an organizing principle for the field. A more sympathetic view of scientific interdisciplinarity would make the author appear less biased towards his own projects and more readily account for the proliferation of scientific interdisciplinarity in the late-20th century.

Undisciplining Knowledge is a wonderful book to think with. It brings together a diverse disciplinary historiography through analysis of common problems. A must for historians specializing in the history of the social sciences or of higher education, the book’s breadth demonstrates the broad interest in interdisciplinary experimentation during the 20th century. It also illustrates the common struggles shared by interdisciplines across the American research university, positing the possibility of shared dialogue across the university about how disciplines and interdisciplines can better function together as part of a harmonious university ecosystem. Even Undisciplining Knowledge’s flaws are interesting. Given that Graff recapitulates many of interdisciplinarity’s problems when writing its history, I wonder if the structural challenges facing interdisciplines (definition, integration, and rivalry) are surmountable? Can rivalries between interdisciplines be transcended? Reaching a rapprochement, if not a solution, to backbiting between fields is essential going forward as scholars struggle against the common foes of financial downsizing, adjunctification, and exogenous questions about the research university’s viability in a world of think tanks and big business. Graff’s book gestures towards a solution rooted in historicizing the current structure of the research university. It remains to be seen, however, whether recognizing the university’s institutional history will be enough to compel scholars working across the university to preserve it in the face of outside threats.

[1] Visit for more on Graff’s project.

3 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. Does Harvey Graff engage with Jacques Attali’s “call for theoretical indiscipline” in the 1985 Noise: The Political Economy of Music (tr. Brian Massumi) or “What’s Next?” forums on “Discipline and Indiscipline,” such as a 2005 issue of Environmental History? This “indiscipline” also generated conferences in comparative literature and, on a topical note, Enlightenment studies. I enjoyed the review.

  2. Hi Cory,

    Graff does not reference the indiscipline literature. He is mostly interested in exploring the relationship between disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity and spends little time looking to alternatives outside the discipline/interdiscipline binary. The end of the book, which examines the period after 1980 is mostly concerned with interdisciplinarity in the natural sciences, with the exception of literacy studies. An examination of environmental studies would have been welcome, but Graff’s field-focused approach leads to several notable omissions from his study such as area studies.

  3. I thought that most of the “indiscipline” lit would fall outside of the book’s scope, except for seminal publications such as Noise (1985). Thanks!

Comments are closed.