Postmodernism and Interdisciplinary Dialogues

 The word interdisciplinary has become a buzzword in postmodern thought. The proliferation of academic and professional conferences involving multiple disciplines is one example of this growth. Many, however, do not understand why this is occurring or what role it serves. This essay provides an overview of why the interdisciplinary trend is so important for postmodern times. 

Modernism and Specialization
Modernism and the Enlightenment increased the quantity of knowledge to an extraordinary degree. At one time, it was possible to know almost all there was to know about a particular discipline, such as psychology, biology, or even medicine. Today, thanks in part to modernism, it is hard to fathom many, if any, fields of academic thought where one individual could master the majority of the field’s content!
The modern period also promoted a reductionistic understanding of knowledge which separated knowledge from content. The objectivism focus suggested that knowledge was true regardless of its context. For example, it was believed that the essence of happiness or psychological health could be determined through psychological science. Once this was discovered, it could be applied to any person in any culture or context. For most academics today, an idea like this seems naïve. To force a particular view of psychological health on a culture is a dangerously oppressive metanarrative.
The proliferation of knowledge, along with the belief that knowledge could be studied objectively apart from its content, created the context for independent specializations to develop. The various academic fields, including psychology, developed many sub-disciplines or specialties. While it was still required to have a mastery of the general content of a field, what was considered general was often very basic and most professionals spent the majority of their career focusing their specializations.

The Battleground and the Cost of the Battle
The modern situation depicted above created the context for a battleground between disciplines and specialties about who was the true authoritative source of knowledge. This is illustrated in the debates between social work, psychology, and psychiatry in the mental health fields. Instead of dialoguing about what each field could contribute, the conversation emerged as a debate about who was most authoritative on the topic.
Everyone lost in modern’s discipline wars. People had to choose between science or religion, sociology or psychology, and psychology or biology. The loss can be illustrated in problems that the field of psychology is still trying to recover from. As psychology focused on the individual with the assumption that what is good for one is good for all, the understanding of social influences and culture was downplayed. While psychology generally acknowledges the importance of these today, most psychology programs still focus most of their time myopically on the individual or even parts of the individual. Furthermore, contemporary psychology often appears developmentally delayed when dealing with social and cultural issues.

Deconstructing Epistemological Narcissism
Postmodernism began with a distrust of authority and quickly initiated the task of deconstructing power structures. This undermined the authority of specialists through exposing their ignorance about many issues relevant within their specialty. For example, in the modern period it was easy to maintain that depression was a biological illness which could be studied through physiology without considering psychological or social factors. While this is still a very popular perspective today, it is much easier to deconstruct the rhetoric supporting this viewpoint.
The Diathesis Stress Model provides an illustration of this example. This model purports that both a biological predisposition and an environmental trigger is necessary for many psychological illnesses to develop. Depth psychology demonstrated the role of personal history and the unconscious in the etiology of depression for many people. Cultural studies and social psychology provided evidence for the role of social factors in depression. The popular biopsychosocial model attempts to integrate these varying influences in understanding mental illness.
Neuropsychology can provide another example. At one time, the functioning of the brain was seen as the cause of psychological experience, but not impacted much by it. Today, many neuropsychologists are interested in how interpersonal relationships, spirituality, and other environmental factors change the brain. This expands the scope of neuropsychology while at the same time delimiting its role as a sole, independent determinant of behavior and psychological health.
These examples are only the beginning the new interdisciplinary focus. Many new dialogues are emerging with greater openness. Science and religion have returned to mutually beneficial dialogues. Psychology is interacting with neurology, sociology, and cultural studies. The hard sciences are examining their philosophical underpinnings and acknowledging the role of culture in interpreting science. These dialogues are now understood as essential for the development of each discipline.
Epistemological humility, which is an important postmodern idea, is a necessary precondition for the productivity of these conversations. Epistemological humility is not the same things as epistemological relativism, which would purport that all epistemologies are equal. Instead, epistemological humility states that no epistemology is complete; however, some ways of knowing are still more authoritative in some contexts. For example, psychology is more authoritative than quantum physics when discussing mental health; however, psychology can not fully explain mental illness and may be able to learn from quantum physics.

The Postmodern Context
The postmodern world advocates that interdisciplinary dialogues are not only beneficial, but necessary. Each discipline benefits from being in dialogue with as many other fields as possible. These conversations are at their best when they are open, considering different viewpoints and maintaining willingness reconsidering long held beliefs in the light of new information from other disciplines. When this occurs, interdisciplinary dialogues reflect the postmodernism idea of epistemological pluralism at its best.

Posted December 2006
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