Interdisciplinarity Barriers

Because most participants in interdisciplinary ventures were trained in traditional disciplines, they must learn to appreciate differing perspectives and approaches. For example, a discipline that places more emphasis on quantitative "rigor" may produce practitioners who think of themselves (and their discipline) as "more scientific" than others; in turn, colleagues in "softer" disciplines may associate quantitative approaches with an inability to grasp the broader dimensions of a problem. An interdisciplinary program may not succeed if its members remain stuck in their disciplines (and in disciplinary attitudes).

From the disciplinary perspective, much interdisciplinary work may be seen as "soft," lacking in rigor, or ideologically motivated; these beliefs place barriers in the career paths of those who choose interdisciplinary work. For example, interdisciplinary grant applications are often refereed by peer reviewers drawn from established disciplines; not surprisingly, interdisciplinary researchers may experience difficulty getting funding for their research. In addition, untenured researchers know that, when they seek promotion and tenure, it is likely that some of the evaluators will lack commitment to interdisciplinarity. They may fear that making a commitment to interdisciplinary research will increase the risk of being denied tenure.

Interdisciplinary programs may fail if they are not given sufficient autonomy. For example, it is a common practice to recruit new interdisciplinary faculty to a joint appointment, with responsibilities in both an interdisciplinary program (such as women's studies) and a traditional discipline (such as history). If the traditional discipline makes the tenure decisions, new interdisciplinary faculty will be hesitant to commit themselves fully to interdisciplinary work. Other barriers include the generally disciplinary orientation of most scholarly journals, leading to the perception, if not the fact, that interdisciplinary research is hard to publish. In addition, since traditional budgetary practices at most universities channel resources through the disciplines, it becomes difficult to account for a given scholar or teacher's salary and time. During periods of budgetary retraction, the natural tendency to serve the primary constituency (i.e., students majoring in the discipline) makes resources scarce for teaching and research comparatively far from the center of the discipline as traditionally understood. For these same reasons, the introduction of new interdisciplinary programs is often perceived as a competition for diminishing funds, and may for this reason meet resistance.

Due to these and other barriers, interdisciplinary research areas are strongly motivated to become disciplines themselves. If they succeed, they can establish their own research funding programs and make their own tenure and promotion decisions. In so doing, they lower the risk of entry. Examples of former interdisciplinary research areas that have become disciplines include neuroscience, biochemistry and biomedical engineering. These new fields are occasionally referred to as "interdisciplines."