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Interdisciplinarity and historic preservation
Author: Alireza Farrokhi
Interdisciplinarity is the act of drawing from two or more academic disciplines and integrating their insights to work together in pursuit of a common goal.
This article was prepared in Winter 2005 in response to a question posed about the nature of Historic Preservation in relation to other disciplines.
Razi (854-925), who is most known through his work in medicine al-Hawi (The Comprehensive Book) in Europe, was an Iranian chemist, physician and writer. Avicenna (980-1037), best known for his philosophical work Kitab ash-shifa (Book of Healing), was a physician, philosopher and astronomer (Encarta, 2003). These are exemplifiers of the scientists of the ancient east along with Aristotle, Plato, etc. from the west prior to modern times. They looked at the knowledge as a whole. To them, there were no boundaries and limits for investigations and research except for the lack of technology and limits of the body of the knowledge of the time. They spent their whole life in satisfying their thirst for knowing.
However, developments in science and man’s changed conception of universe expanded the boarders of knowledge one could acquire. It was harder and harder to become an expert in everything. Many knew that world is going to change. In early 11th century after 40 years of investigation and research, Avicenna explicitly wrote in one of his poems: “my knowledge has reached the point, in which I know that I know nothing.”
Modernism and the wave of specialization had changed the concepts of science and scientists. Due to expansion of human knowledge and the changed way of life, no one got enough time to understand everything. Therefore, knowledge was organized in different branches of physical, natural and social disciplines.
Discipline as a mode of investigation is defined by Nissani as “a comparatively self-contained and isolated domain of human experience which possesses its own community of experts” (1995). Every discipline has its own exclusive set of distinctive concepts and values which are time-dependent. That is, they change over time and might result in creation of new concepts and values hence new disciplines from sub-disciplines (Nissani, 1995).
It is apparent that some disciplines collide with others while some areas of knowledge are untouched. Disciplines like mathematics and literature are called far disciplines while many ancient poets constructed their poetry’s rhythm on mathematical models. On the other hand, mathematicians as well as philosophers, physics and others used poetry to describe difficult phenomena they were dealing with (e.g. Farabi 873-950, a famous Persian philosopher and poet).
Sometimes, it is impossible to solve problems of the time by this kind of division. For resolving this issue, experts from different disciplines bring their specific points of view in a multidisciplinary research team while maintaining their distinctions. In confronting the problems of mankind, experts divide the problem and each deal with a small piece according to their specialization. Although this approach has worked for many situations, due to its nature of narrowing down and considering the fact that pieces of problems are not independent, it is not appropriate for many others. The way we have organized knowledge in our mind raises problems. We can not deal with the 21st century problems with this configuration anymore.
As another attempt, Interdisciplinarity goes beyond just bringing in different disciplines. It aims to integrate various disciplines into one coherent whole. In this sense, Interdisciplinarity is bringing together in some fashion “distinctive components” (concepts and values) of two or more disciplines (Nissani, 1995). An interdisciplinary discipline might evolve through time and become a discipline itself (e.g. historic preservation and archeology).
For instance, Historic Preservation once was a sub-discipline of a larger Architecture discipline. In other words, pioneers of this field were generally architects who practiced restoration and repair of historic and old buildings beside their main task of designing and constructing new structures. When the number of these architects grew and other professionals from other disciplines came up to share the same set of concepts and values, the profession had its own community of experts who labeled their practice as Historic Preservation. Interdisciplinarity can be found in different contexts. Interdisciplinary knowledge is the term used to show that a person have the knowledge of more than one discipline. In this sense, considering the unity of knowledge, one can argue that there is no such thing as disciplinary knowledge. In daily life, everyone is exposed to a variety of new information and experiences. Reading an academic article, attending a class, talking to a friend or visiting a place all add to what one knows. The moment a person becomes aware of a new knowledge his mind can not disregard this new knowledge in dealing with new problems. I believe that no one can claim that have the ability of approaching a real world problem disregarding one or a few things he knows! In other words, we do not have the power to control the way we think.
Another context in which Interdisciplinarity could be found in is Interdisciplinary research, which is combining the accepted set of values and concepts of two or more disciplines in search for solutions of real world problems. Interdisciplinary education combines the distinctive components of more that one discipline in one program of study. Finally, interdisciplinary theory is the study of the processes, implications, or pros and cons of integration of distinctive components of different disciplines in interdisciplinary knowledge, research or education.
In his example of fruits as disciplines, Nissani implies that the richness of interdisciplinary research or education is comparable by measuring four variables of number of disciplines, distance between them, the degree of their integration and the innovation involved in the process (1995). Based on the variable of innovation and creativity, one can argue that once an interdisciplinary research is endured, a new set of values have been established and the practiced approach is no longer as rich as it was in terms of Interdisciplinarity. Thus, an area of study like Historic Preservation, which has been practiced for at least a century, could not be entitled as an interdisciplinary field of study unless other knowledge is fused into it from more distant disciplines in more innovative ways.
Following this trend, It is believed Metadisciplinary is an attempt to consider knowledge as a whole body again to complete the cycle of evolution from ancient times to disciplinarity, multidisciplinarity and Interdisciplinarity. Future research teams, try to overcome their distinctions as specialists and develop an overarching framework (Begges, 1997).
Begges, Donald. “The Interdisciplinary Constraint on Ecological Reason”. Techne: Journal of the Society for Philosophy and Technology. 2 (1997).
“Encarta Reference Library 2004”. Multimedia encyclopedia, Atlas and Research Tools. Multimedia Application. Microsoft Corporation, 2003.
Nissani, Moti. “Fruits, Salads, and Smoothies: A Working Definition of Interdisciplinarity”. Journal of Education Thought. 29 (1995): 119-126.
Nissani, Moti. “Interdisciplinarity: What, Where, Why?”. 09 Feb 2005.
Prown, Jules David. “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture theory and Method”. Winterthur portifolio. 17 (1982): 1-19.