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An anonymous correspondent reaches out (cf. "May I ask you a question?" [6/12/17]):

So, from one jargonista to another: here’s a frustrating set of related neologisms, again from my increasingly confused and pathetic campus administration:

We’ve gone from “interdisiplinary” and “crossdisciplinary” to “multidisciplinary”, but the new buzzword on our campus is “transdisciplinary” (not sure if hyphens are used in some cases). Our entire campus is trying to recluster itself around 5 key “Transdisciplinary Areas of Excellence”, of all things.

Perhaps not worth analyzing, but a deplorable sign of the times, when academic institutions are focused on “branding”.

About twenty-five years ago, I started to receive offers from various colleges and universities scattered across the country (but mostly in California!), and they all wanted to give me a chair in this or that kind of Xdisciplinary studies.  At that time, I was not aware that we had any such thing at Penn.  If we did, I wouldn't have noticed, because I was too deeply absorbed in the traditional philology of the Department of Oriental Studies (OS) where I was located.  It was because of OS that I left Harvard (where I was in a more narrowly focused East Asian department) and came to Penn.  In OS, we did ancient languages from Egypt to Japan, and we pursued many common themes (law, mythology, literature, and so forth).  I loved being in OS because my research is primarily on Sino-Indian topics, and I also very much enjoyed the opportunity to work closely with Egyptologists, Sumerologists, Akkadianists, Hittite specialists, and so forth in studying early languages and scripts.

Ironically, at the same time as I was receiving attractive offers to go hither and yon to take up Xdisciplinary studies, there were forces afoot at Penn to break up OS.  Indeed, in 1992, OS divided into a South Asian department and a Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (DAMES).  A few years later, DAMES became East Asian Languages and Civilizations (EALC) and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC).  Were it not for the fact that in the 1990s I was totally absorbed in the study of the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age civilizations of Eastern Central Asia, so I could continue to pursue my holistic, integrated research without worrying about the latest Xdisciplinary trend, I might have been miserably "regional" (buzzword from the 60s and 70s).

I should note that it was also in the 90s that the Association for Asian Studies, which is the primary professional organization to which I belong, began to privilege "border crossing" and "interdisciplinary" panels at their national meetings.

Throughout all of these transformations, I have remained pretty much oblivious of the disciplinarity of what I was doing.  I just did it.


  1. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 3:54 pm

    "Transdisciplinary" seems wrong to me. Shouldn't it mean something like across one single discipline? E.g., a transcontinental railroad spans a single continent, it doesn't connect continents to one another.

  2. Robert said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 3:59 pm

    Personally, I prefer cisdisciplinary studies.

  3. Vance Maverick said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 4:10 pm

    "Oriental studies", familiarly, is an xdisciplinary discipline, with problems much discussed since a date in the 1970s in particular. Maybe the concern should be not with where the boundaries fall but with how they are drawn. defended and crossed.

  4. CD said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 4:23 pm

    One problem in all of these discussions is that "discipline" is ill-defined. Are Anthro or Classics, for example, disciplines or interdisciplines? We can identify *fields* in a rich and substantive way around shared literatures and conferences and conversations, but "discipline" seems an arbitrary residue of institutional politics, mainly invoked when people want to gate-keep around hiring or grad curricula.

    Do the prefixes have distinct meanings? Maybe! In my experience inter-, cross-, and multi- are more likely to signal institutional arrangements in which existing departmentalized units endure while certain collaborations are supported (but also contained). Trans- sometimes signals instead the "holistic and integrated" work described above, happily oblivious to disciplinarity.

  5. David Morris said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 5:30 pm

    Let me guess that it's not its academics themselves who are coming up with these name changes. The administrators and marketers need to take a course in self-disciplinary studies.

  6. David L said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 5:38 pm

    For me, "trans-" as a prefix has a general meaning of going from one thing or place to another: transform, transducer, transport… So a physicist who moved into a biology would be committing an act of transdisciplinarianism.

    I think universities should embrace pandisciplinary studies, in which anyone can feel free to pronounce on any subject whatsoever.

  7. stephenl said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 7:08 pm

    Missing an X-disciplinary term: intradisciplinary!

    There was a funding shakeup in some academic funding body in the UK which required all funding to be given only to interdisciplinary research. After protest, they also allowed intradisciplinary research also (at which point why bother …). (this is all in the form of vague recollections, but here's a link with the term in question – https://www.epsrc.ac.uk/skills/fellows/areas/priorityareas/mathematicalsciences/)

  8. tangent said,

    June 15, 2017 @ 1:12 am

    New words for old ideas, so deplorable!

  9. Ray said,

    June 15, 2017 @ 7:28 am

    and then there's "knowledge transfer". maybe that's what "transdisciplinary" is trying to capture — the availability, applicability, and distribution of knowledge (or areas of excellence, in your correspondent's case).

  10. Charles Antaki said,

    June 15, 2017 @ 8:12 am

    We haven't had post-disciplinary studies yet… actually I should have checked: – here for example.

  11. Pierre said,

    June 15, 2017 @ 11:32 am

    "Post-disciplinary" was inevitable, but "disciplinarity"? "tourism studies"?

  12. H Stephen Straight said,

    June 15, 2017 @ 11:40 am

    Anonymous has a dim view of our university's adoption of the term transdisciplinary, which many believe to be indistinguishable from the array of Xdisciplinary terms. All ten of the comments so far on your anonymous correspondent's post share his negative view, some even saying that trans- means 'across', as in transcontinental, which would make transdisciplinary merely a multi-subfield variant of intradisciplinary.

    Au contraire. I construe the trans- in transdisciplinary as 'beyond' (cf. Nicolescu, Basarab. 2002. Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity. Translation from French by Karen-Claire Voss. State University of New York Press). Binghamton's Transdisciplinary Areas of Excellence, at their best, focus on topics that transcend the usual limits not only of a single discipline but–in my experience–of many Xdisciplinary initiatives, which are often hamstrung by traditional/academic/political disciplinary boundaries.

  13. H Stephen Straight said,

    June 15, 2017 @ 11:45 am

    Ooops. CD's comment is consonant with mine, with echoes of Piaget's (original?) use of the term in the '70s.

  14. David L said,

    June 15, 2017 @ 11:55 am

    Clearly, universities will reach a state of perfection when they have cast aside all the limitations of conventional disciplines and become totally undisciplined.

  15. Ray said,

    June 15, 2017 @ 9:56 pm

    and then there's "translational medicine", which is all about applying the latest medical research to current medical practice. "bench to bed", I think it's also called. in general, "trans" seems to be the prefix used to communicate "hey guys, we're actually moving things along, doing stuff, expediting stuff". as in "transportation". maybe it's all about verbification.

  16. julie lee said,

    June 15, 2017 @ 11:34 pm

    "Transdisciplinary", as the newest incarnation of "interdisciplinary"

    and "crossdisplinary", and "cisdisciplinary" are hilarious. Very

    enjoyable post and conversation.

  17. Daniel Barkalow said,

    June 15, 2017 @ 11:51 pm

    Transdisciplinary makes me think of transalpine Gaul, which is out of the Alps (from Rome) on the other side. So, transdisciplinary studies would be when you go to the physics building, walk through, and work in the cafe down the street?

    But if it were the academics naming things, as soon as organic chemistry got involved, you'd have orthodisciplinary and paradisciplinary studies.

  18. peterv said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 12:27 am

    And we should expect additional terms if other disciplines get involved:

    – If philosophers, metadisciplinary studies.

    – If mathematicians, isodisciplinary and polydisciplinary studies.


  19. peterv said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 2:32 am

    Mathematicians could also speak of codisciplinary and opdisciplinary studies.

    IT people would instead speak of distech (on the model of fintech, insuretech and regtech).

  20. Nathan said,

    June 16, 2017 @ 11:38 pm

    I was going to write a few of my own silly suggestions (I remember contra-, pan-, and pre-) but I googled them and gave it up. It's impossible to be sillier than the real people who coin these nonsense words in earnest.

  21. maidhc said,

    June 17, 2017 @ 12:17 am

    "a deplorable sign of the times, when academic institutions are focused on “branding”."

    The School of Cowboy Studies?

  22. John Swindle said,

    June 17, 2017 @ 4:11 am

    I was going to suggest Disciplinary Studies as the funny umbrella term, but I see the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison already has that.

  23. Rodger C said,

    June 17, 2017 @ 11:12 am

    What do you do when you're branded?

  24. Mark Liberman said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 5:45 am

    Especially in the natural and social sciences, these terms are older than some of this discussion implies. Google Books ngram counts:

    And from the NYT index:
    7/23/1948 …of such a program be made by setting up a training unit under the joint auspices of a leading medical school and an interdisciplinary university department such as the Department of Social Relations at Harvard.
    5/6/1949 He said cancer research, for the most part, was conducted on an "interdisciplinary basis." with outstanding contributions made in the past by such separate fields as…

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