Book by Penn Sociologist Jerry A. Jacobs Explores Higher Ed Interdisciplinarity

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Media Contact:Jacquie Posey | jposey@upenn.edu | 215-898-6460March 7, 2014

University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Jerry A. Jacobs offers a different perspective on disciplines in higher education in his new book entitled In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University.

“I maintain that, despite claims to the contrary, disciplines are broad and interdisciplinarity is typically quite narrow; that disciplines are open, dynamic and decentralized; and that interdiscipinarity tends to centralize university power and thus over time is likely to stifle innovation,” Jacobs says.

He suggests that at a time when research institutions are emphasizing teaching and learning across the boundaries of academic disciplines, the strength of academic disciplines rather than the strength of academic interdisciplines contributes to the overall success of research universities in the United States.

Jacobs became interested in the topic of interdisciplinarity during a stint as editor of the American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the Washington-based American Sociological Association.

He soon learned that the influence of ASR articles extended outside the field, with articles frequently cited by researchers in other fields of study.

“This pattern was not unique to ASR or to sociology,” he says.

Jacobs doesn’t oppose interdisciplinarity entirely. He has been a very public proponent. While writing In Defense of Disciplines, Jacobs was founding president of the Work and Family Researchers Network, an international association of scholars who work across disciplines to explore how people balance the demands of work and family.

A central point of In Defense of Disciplines is that interdisciplinarity depends on strong disciplines.

With more than 27,000 peer-reviewed research journals, Jacobs points out, “Some academic division of labor is essential, and disciplines turn out to be an excellent way of accomplishing this goal.”

Jacobs draws on a wide range of data sources to support his defense of liberal arts fields of inquiry. He analyzed research citations across scholarly fields, newly created interdisciplinary research journals, academic hiring patterns, interdisciplinary research centers and student learning and enrollment patterns. The book includes an extensive examination of American studies, a field that has stressed interdisciplinarity for more than 60 years.

“I found that established scholarly disciplines are broad, porous and dynamic while interdisciplinary research domains are often quite narrow in scope,” Jacobs says. 

The most successful interdisciplinary fields eventually develop their own journals, scholarly associations, national meetings and divide into their own sub-specialties, he adds.

In addition to In Defense of Disciplines, Jacobs is co-author, with Ann Boulis, of The Changing Face of Medicine: Women Doctors and the Evolution of Health Care in America and, with Kathleen Gerson, The Time Divide: Work, Family and Gender Inequality.

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