Page 9

"Interdisciplinary": The First Half Century by Roberta Frank* What a plendid book one could put together by narrating the life and adventure of a word. The events for which a word wa u ed have undoubtedl left variou imprints on it; depending on place it ha awakened different notion ; but doe it not become grander till when con idered in its trinity of soul, bod ,and movement? Honore de Balzac, Louis LAmberti

"INTERDISCIPLINARY" WAS PROBABLY BORN in New York City in the mid-1920 , mo t likely at the corner of 42nd and Madison. The word eems to have begun life in the corridor and meeting room of the Social Science Re earch Council as a kind of bureaucratic shorthand for what the Council aw a its chief function, the promotion of re earch that even con tituent involved two or more of it 2 ocieties. "Interdi ciplinar" tarted out with a rea onably bounded set of sen e . Then, subjected to indecent abu e in the 50 and 60s, it acquired a precocious middle-aged spread. Now not only i 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."!! Profe or Robert Sessions Woodworth (1869-1962), the distinguished Columbia University p ychologist and the first per on I have caught using "interdi ci-

• Roberta Frank i a profe or in the Department of Engli h and the Centre for Medieval Studie ,Universit of Toronto. Thi article appears in Woydf, edited by E. G. tanle and T. F. Hoad, and publi hed by D. S. Brewer (Woodbridge, Suffolk, United Kingdom) in 19 8. It i reprinted here with the kind permi ion of the publi her. Wordf i a Ft tschrift presented to Robert Burchfield, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, on the occa ion of hi 65th birthday. Roberta Frank' contribution i ba ed in part upon material in the Council' archives and demon trate the Council' earl interest in interdisciplinary research. I (Etwrts complJtt dt M. dt Baluu. LA ComMit humaint, vol. 16.2 (Pari , I 46), Ill. 2 Founded in 1923, the Council wa , according to Charle E. Merriam, its first Chairman, ordinarily to "deal only with uch problem a involve two or more discipline ." ("Report for the year 1925 Made to the American Political Science A ociation b Charle E. Merriam, Chairman," Ammcan Political Scit/lCt Review 20 [1926], 186.)¡ 'An Introduction to tht Principles of Morals and Ltgislation

(London, 1780 [1789]), xvii, 25.


plinary" in public, neither apologizes nor treats the word a a neologism. On Monday evening, August 30, 1926, in Hanover, New Hamp hire, where member of SSRC had gathered to e cape the heat of New York City and to devi e "A Constructive Program for the SSRC," he poke about the range of re earch appropriate for the Council: "There i a certain limitation in the fact that we are an a embly of several di ciplines, and in our official statements again it i expres ed that we shall attempt to fo ter re earch which bring in more than one di cipline."4 He continued a few sentence later: "There would be no other body, unles we a ume the function our elve, charged with the duty of con idering where the be t chance were for coordinated or interdi ciplinary work." Profe or Woodworth at the time a member of the founding SSRC Committee on Problems and Policy and oon to be Pre ident of the Council (1931-32), had just erved as Chairman of the division of anthropology and p ychology of the National Re earch Council in Washington (1924-25). He clearly had an interest in and sen itivity to the language u ed by planners in both Council : at a 1931 Brooking Institution conference on cooperative re earch, when his colleague 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 orne wor e word which I don't eem to remember."5 That "wor e word" was not "interdisciplinary," which, if it exi ted, has left no trace, a far a I can determine, in the Reports, Minutes, and archive of the NRC or the National Academy of Science . The cientists came clo e of course. George Ellery Hale, in 1916 the fir t President of the NRC, had propo ed as early as 1912 that the Academy should fo ter interest in "subjects lying between the old-established divisions of science"6 and insisted in 1914 on "the inter-relationship of the ciences."7 In the 20 and

.. SSRC HanovtT ConftTtnct, vol. II (Dartmouth College, Augu t 23-September 2, 1926),445 . .5 Brookings In titution, Co-operatnlt Rtstarch (Wa hington, D.C., 1931),67. 6 G. E. Hale to C. D. Walcott, May 17, 1912. Cited by Rexmond C. Cochrane, Tht National Acadt11/)' of Scitllus: Tht Fir t Hundrtd Yta~, 1863-1963 (Washington, D.C., 1978),327. 7 "National Academie and the Progre of Research II. The


Profile for SSRC's Items & Issues

Items Vol. 42 No. 3 (1988)  

Items Vol. 42 No. 3 (1988)