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«by Roberta Frank* What a splendid book one could put together by narrating the life and adventures of a word. The events for which a word was used ...»

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The First Half Century


Roberta Frank*

What a splendid book one could put together by narrating the life and

adventures of a word. The events for which a word was used have

undoubtedly left various imprints on it; depending on place it has

awakened different notions; but does it not become grander still when

considered in its trinity of soul, body and movement?

Honoré de Balzac, Louis Lambert¹

"Interdisciplinary" was probably born in New York City in the mid-1920s, most likely at the corner of 42nd and Madison. The word seems to have begun life in the corridors and meeting rooms of the Social Science Research Council as a kind of bureaucratic shorthand for what the Council saw as its chief function, the promotion of research that involved two or more of its seven constituent societies.² "In t erd i s ci p l i n ary " s t art ed o u t wi t h a reas o n ab l y bounded set of senses. Then, subjected to indecent abuse in the 50s and 60s, it acquired a precocious middle-aged spread.


*Roberta Frank is a professor in the Department of English and the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto. This article appears in Words, edited by E. G. Stanley and T. F. Hoad, and published by D. S.

Brewer (Woodbridge, Suffolk, United Kingdom) in 1988. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the publisher and the author. Words is a Festschrift presented to Robert Burchfield, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, on the occasion of his 65th birthday. Roberta Frank's contribution is based in part upon materials in the archives of the Social Science Research Council and demonstrates the Council's early interest in interdisciplinary research. [We here follow the version of Prof. Frank's article that was reprinted in the Council's publication, Items 40 (September 1988), 73-78.] 140/ISSUES Now not only is the word everywhere but no one can pin down what people have in mind when they utter it.

Whoever coined "interdisciplinary" never claimed paternity, the way Jeremy Bentham apologized for creating a new compound: "The word international, it must be acknowledged, is a new one; though, it is hoped, sufficiently analogous and intelligible."³ Professor Robert Sessions Woodworth (1869-1962), the distinguished Columbia University psychologist and the first person I have caught using "interdisciplinary" in public, neither apologizes nor treats the word as a neologism. On Monday evening, August 30, 1926, in Hanover, New Hampshire, where members of SSRC had gathered to escape the heat of New York City and to devise "A Constructive Program for the SSRC," he spoke about the range of research appropriate for the Council: "There is a certain limitation in the fact that we are an assembly of several disciplines, and in our official statements again it is expressed that we shall attempt to foster research which brings in more than one discipline."⁴ He continued a few sentences later: "There would be no other body, unless we assume the function ourselves, charged with the duty of considering where the best chances were for coordinated or interdisciplinary work." Professor Woodworth, at the time a member of the founding SSRC Committee on Problems and Policy and soon to be President of the Council (1931-32), had just served as Chairman of the division of anthropology and psychology of the National Research Council in Washington (1924-25). He clearly had an interest in and sensitivity to the language used by planners in both Councils: at a 1931 Brookings Institution conference on cooperative research, when his colleagues got tangled up in the differences between cooperation, collaboration and coordination, Woodworth was able to report that the word "co-ordination" had been favored at the NRC a decade earlier "as a refuge from some worse word which I don't seem to remember."⁵ That "worse word" was not "interdisciplinary," which, if it existed, has left no trace, as far as I can determine, in the Reports, Minutes, and archives of the NRC or the National Academy of Sciences. The scientists came close of course. George Ellery Hale, in 1916 the first President of the NRC, had proposed as early as 1912 that the Academy should foster interest in "subjects lying between the old-established divisions of science"⁶ and insisted in 1914 on "the inter-relationship of the sciences."⁷ In the 20s and 30s, the most popular terms at the NRC were "new fields," "overlapping projects," "interrelated research," andwinners by a mile--"borderlands" and "borderline research."⁸ FRANK/141 Outside SSRC committee rooms, "interdisciplinary" seems not to have been current among social scientists in the 20s or 30s, even though the years between the founding of the New School for Social Research (1919) and the Yale Institute of Human Relations (1929) produced a mountain of documents calling for the integration of the social sciences and the related arts of industry, government, and public welfare. Rising stars like Margaret Mead called not for interdisciplinary activity but for "co-operation for crossfertilization in the social sciences," and well-established luminaries like Harold Laski lamented the "endless committees to co-ordinate or correlate or integrate."⁹ "Interdisciplinary" seems not to have made it into the fifteenvolume Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (1930-35), plans for which were laid in 1923. "Co-operative research" is the usual term in a half-dozen books published between 1925-30 that present the whole field of social science as a unit. They stress the "interrelation," "mutual interdependence," "interpenetration," "intercommunication," "cross-relationships," "interfiliation," and, of course, "interaction" of the various disciplines, along with the need to explore "twilight zones" and "border areas," "to fill any unoccupied spaces," and to encourage the "active cultivation of borderlands between the several disciplines." But "interdisciplinary" never once raises its head.10 Meanwhile, back at the Social Science Research Council, the word was beginning to flex its muscles. At the 1930 Hanover conference, the Council adopted a statement of purpose, quoted in the Annual Report for 1929-30: "It is probable that the Council's interest will continue to run strongly in the direction of these inter-discipline activities." The same report also warned with disquieting ambiguity that "Concern with 'cooperative research' or 'inter-discipline problems' should not be allowed to hamper the first rate mind.…"11 By 1933, in an SSRC fellowship notice appearing in the American Journal of Sociology, "interdisciplinary" had regained its -ary and broadened its reference to include "education" as well as "problems": "The fellowships were designed to afford opportunity for research training, preferably interdisciplinary in nature."12 The first citation for "interdisciplinary" in Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary and A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary is from the December 1937 issue of the Journal of Educational Sociology, in a subsequent notice concerning SSRC postdoctoral fellowships: "The primary purpose of these fellowships is to broaden the research training and equipment of promising young social scientists.… Programs of study submitted should provide either for study of an interdisciplinary nature, for advanced training within the applicants' fields of specialization, or for field work or other experimental training intended to supplement 142/ISSUES more formal academic preparation for research."13 By August 1937, when the University of Chicago sociologist Louis Wirth submitted his mimeographed report on Council policies, "interdisciplinary" is branded as an in-house vogue word: "It may also be said the Council has allowed itself to some extent to become obsessed at times by catch phrases and slogans which were not sufficiently critically examined. Thus there is some justification for saying that much of the talk in connection with Council policy, especially in the early years, about cooperation and interdisciplinary research turned out to be a delusion."14 On Friday, December 1, 1939, in the University of Chicago's Social Science Research Building, at a session entitled "The Social Sciences: One or Many," Robert T. Crane representing the SSRC spoke in a similar fashion about the old days: "The Social Science Research Council has talked less in recent than in earlier years about integration of the sciences, about cross-fertilization, and about a multi-disciplinary or interdisciplinary approach to problems."15 Mark May, representing the Institute of Human Relations at Yale, recalled how "the Social Science Research Council, seeing the great need for integration, attempted to stress interdisciplinary forms of research as well as interdisciplinary training under its fellowship program... I distinctly remember attending meetings of the Council at which time the phrase 'cross-fertilization' was translated into 'cross-sterilization' with the obvious intent of discrediting interdisciplinary activities."16 The American Council of Learned Societies, founded in 1919, was without the word for two decades. In the spring of 1940, however, the Council sponsored a conference in Washington, D.C., on "The Interdisciplinary Aspects of Negro Studies."17 The relative novelty at ACLS of such phrases as "interdisciplinary cooperation," "interdisciplinary crossfertilization," "inter-disciplinary character," and "inter-disciplinary nature" may be reflected in the copy editor's oscillation between hyphenated and nonhyphenated forms. In the 1964 ACLS Report of the Commission on the Humanities, only three societies and the index boast of "interdisciplinary relationships." But any residual shyness disappears in the 1985 ACLS Report to the Congress of the United States on the State of the Humanities, in which all twenty-eight constituent societies openly acknowledge their interdisciplinary intentions and their desire to transcend disciplinary perimeters, melt boundaries, fill gaps, and escape narrow confines. The Bibliographical Society of America, for example, expresses its willingness to enter into "interdisciplinary partnerships" and to receive funding for "interdisci-plinary programs" and "interdisciplinary conferences." The Medieval Academy of America mentions its interdisciplinary inclinations six times in about as many pages; while the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, a bit FRANK/143 ahead with twelve, observes suggestively "that the United States of America is itself one of the great interdisciplinary achievements of the eighteenth century."

By mid-century "interdisciplinary" was common coin in the social sciences. As early as 1951, an editorial in the journal Human Organization, commenting on an essay in that issue entitled "Pitfalls in the Organization of Interdisciplinary Research," complained that "present fashion makes the stressing of the interdisciplinary aspects of the project almost mandatory,"18 Numerous how-to-do-it manuals and articles, by and for social scientists, began appearing, culminating in Margaret B. Luszki's Interdisciplinary Team Research: Methods and Problems (Washington: National Training Laboratories, 1958). 19 By the late 50s, the idea even seemed old-hat: "Ten years ago interdisciplinary research was very much in vogue." 20 The adjective reached political science circles in France by 1959 ("ce que l'on nomme dans le jargon usuel le travail 'interdisciplinaire'");21 the noun arrived a decade later, just in time to appear on Marianne's banner at the barricades of May 1968 ("pluridisciplinarité et interdisciplinarité: deux termes barbares, même s'ils sont d'actualité"). 22 In the course of the 60s "interdisciplinary" changed from a series of widely scattered occurrences into a kind of weather. An international conference held in Nice in 1969, under the auspices of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, produced the first of many guides that in the 70s taught us to taste the subtle differences b etween in terd iscip lin ary, metad iscip lin ary, ex trad iscip lin ary, multidisciplinary, pluridisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary, nondisciplinary, adisciplinary, and polydisciplinary, and to discriminate knowingly between the seven brands of interdisciplinary (teleological, normative, purposive, subject-oriented, problem-oriented, field-theory, and General Systems theory).23 In the 1970s interior designers were among the more fervent interdisciplinarians. The August 1975 issue of the Designer teaches subscribers that "There is a wide gap between multi-disciplinary teams and inter-disciplinary teams. Multidisciplinary applies when various disciplines provide their views with mi n i mal co o p erat i v e i n t eract i o n. In t erd i s ci p l i n ari t y req u i res coordination among disciplines and synthesis of material through a higher-level organizing concept." 24 Educators defined "interdisciplinary" with their usual flair: "Interdisciplinary research (or activity) requires day-to-day interaction between persons from different disciplines … and the interchange in an interactive mode of samples, ideas, and results. Naturally, this is facilitated greatly by physical propinquity."25 144/ISSUES Humanists slowly discovered that their careers, too, could be fostered by the use of "interdisciplinary"; "I believe that English must become interdisciplinary, but with caution and no illusions. In the 1970s English must become interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, crossdisciplinary … We must become interdisciplinary, first of all, for selfpreservation." 26 "Interdisciplinary" made its first appearance in Speculum, the journal of the Medieval Academy of America, in 1951, as part of an ACLS fellowship notice, the same year that an SSRC study appeared showing that social scientists were supported four or five times as generously as humanists. 27 The word does not reappear in Speculum until 1967, when Johns Hopkins University boasts of an interdisciplinary program, followed in 1968 by Ohio State University.

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