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The two-sided interdisciplinary trend requires a dialectical approach

Author  :  Chen Yao     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2018-08-11

The contemporary achievements of the social sciences have been based on the division of labor and cooperation among disciplines. It is the increasing subdivision and continuous deepening of disciplines that has promoted the development of the social sciences. Their intersection and integration have also contributed to such development. The interdisciplinary process, while broadening the research horizons and areas of traditional disciplines and generating new areas for growth, raises such problems as the blurring of disciplines’ boundaries and the weakening of the development of traditional fundamental disciplines. To ensure a more reasonable disciplinary system, academics must dialectically understand the impact that interdisciplinary development exerts on the social sciences and seek its advantages while avoiding the disadvantages.

Interdisciplinary intersections in the social sciences mostly occur with the humanities and the natural sciences and among the social sciences themselves internally. Of these, those between the natural sciences and the social sciences are the most frequent. However, it is not so much the intersection of the two as the infiltration and influence of the former on the latter. This trend has become increasingly notable in recent years. The research methods and techniques of the natural sciences have combined with social science issues such as environmental policy, environmental governance, automobile industry policy and traffic management. In addition, the trend manifests in the application of big data, artificial intelligence and smart technology to social problems. As a result, numerous cases of applied research and countermeasure research have emerged, playing an important role in resolving some social problems.

In general, the intersections between the natural sciences and the social sciences indeed have a positive effect in extending research scopes and renewing research methods. New disciplinary forms are also emerging through this interactive process. However, we also must be vigilant about the problems that arise. For the sake of their own survival and development, some superior disciplines enter the sphere of other traditional disciplines just to scramble for disciplinary resources, only interdisciplinary by name. Some natural science disciplines closely connected with pressing social demands, by virtue of their technical advantages or scientific research methods (quantitative methods, statistical analysis, modeling, etc.), reach into the traditional fundamental disciplines. This invasion affects the traditional social science disciplines in regard to paradigm, method, evaluation and resource allocation. Some experiential and empirical research paradigms have squeezed normative and critical paradigms out, and some quantitative and statistical methods wave their figures in the face of qualitative research methods. Some quantitative researchers believe the diversification of research methods is already obviated, going so far as to shout the slogan “non-quantitative is unscientific.”

In politics, for example, many scientific research projects target countermeasure research. Even some research projects in management, economics and other disciplines, with their research topics of policy and governance, appear in the sphere of politics as interdisciplinary. Fundamental research areas such as political philosophy, political ideology and political theory, however, show a shrinking trend.

The intersections among disciplines are sources of new knowledge, and the disciplinary division of labor is as well. The two do not contradict each other. However, if the intersection results in growingly blurred boundaries between disciplines and crushed disciplinary independence, this does no good to the development of the modern social sciences. The result should be the emergence of new disciplines rather than the assimilation and exclusion of some traditional ones. Only in an environment where the division of labor is clearly defined and where each discipline performs its own duties can traditional and emerging disciplines coexist and prosper harmoniously.


Chen Yao is a professor from the School of International and Public Affairs at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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