Exploring the interface

One of the most unpleasant facts of our times is that we as academics have been strictly working within our own tight compartments leaving little room for other streams even within our own disciplines let alone fostering interdisciplinary approaches. Within the domain of sciences there is very little plausible interaction and meaningful collaboration between natural and material sciences, between natural and applied sciences or between biological sciences and technology. It is only after breaking these barriers of academic quarantines that we can think of curricular integration across disciplines between sciences and social sciences, sciences and humanities, sciences and behavioural sciences, sciences and management studies, so on and so forth. There is need to ‘undiscipline’ our knowledge and education and produce out ‘undisciplinarian’ graduates and post-graduates from our colleges and universities since working strictly within our own compartments and quarantines limits not only the contours of our thinking, knowledge and imagination but also results into lack of appreciation of the magnificence and splendour of other disciplines and streams of knowledge.

We direly need to decompartmentalize our education and start working across these artificially created confines and quarantines whereas in essence knowledge is unified and knows no boundaries. It is like a vast ocean that has no limits. That will however become possible only when appropriate and sufficient curricular innovation and upgradation allows the same. Our education has at present been fenced within the constraints of curricular framework and is held tightly by the noose of our evaluation and examination system. Any deviation from the prescribed curriculum within a particular stream will tighten the noose of examination leading to strangulation and failure of the learner. This noose needs to be loosened and made more flexible allowing deviations from the set curricular framework in order for any multidisciplinary approaches to take shape and bear fruit. Learning outcomes have to be made broad-based incorporating interdisciplinary learning and acquisition of knowledge.

Our research activities in particular need to be liberated from the shackles of mono-disciplinary restrictions paving way for greater autonomy of trans-disciplinary thinking and investigation. Mode of investigation in research should to a reasonable extent include induction through observation, deduction through experimentation as well as innovation through intervention, to whichever extent possible. Problems faced by the human kind, more often than not have manifold non-scientific dimensions apart from the intrinsic scientific and technological facets. Therefore there is need to explore and inquire into some if not all of these dimensions while working on a scientific problem. Subsequently every compilation of a thesis work whether in natural or material sciences, applied or engineering sciences must shed some light upon the legal, socio-cultural, political, economic, behavioural, ecological, environmental, demographic, ethnic or humanistic impact and implications of the research work because unless some of these implications of the research work are not outlined, the work cannot be said to be complete and impactful in real sense of these terms, even though it might eventually find space in some high impact journal.

Corona virus outbreak has doubly emphasized upon the hard lesson of integration of academic disciplines since this pandemic is not only fraught with disastrous implications upon health and well-being of the human population but also has serious repercussions on the economic, political, social, cultural, ethnic, humanistic and geographical aspects of the human life. Consequently crisis unfolded by COVID-19 needs multi-disciplinary approaches worldwide since scientists or doctors alone cannot be of much help in overcoming the multi-dimensional deleterious consequences of this pandemic. Therefore it is high time that we take some cues from the measures taken to counter COVID crisis and integrate our academic disciplines and curricula for the benefit of humanity. That alone can pave way for proper management of such extreme and unprecedented crisis situations in future since our young learners will be better equipped with encompassing and comprehensive knowledge about all the disciplines required to manage such conditions.

Disciplines like humanities, sciences and social sciences are so intricately embedded and interconnected that they can hardly be segregated when viewed holistically and humanistically through the wider prism of global challenges. For instance while scientists in different parts of the world are working overnight to develop a vaccine for coronavirus infection and rid the humanity of this scourge, social scientists are discussing ways and means by which it could be made accessible and affordable to the entire seven and a half billion population of the world. Unless basic, applied and social scientists work in tandem benefits of scientific inquiry cannot be reaped by a vast majority of the human population. Similarly unless multi-disciplinary experts sit across and work shoulder to shoulder with doctors, engineers, natural and applied scientists, remedies to a wide spectrum of implications of COVID-19 pandemic cannot be found for a quick return to the pre-COVID era, moreso in the face of pronouncement made by the World Health Organization officials that we may need to learn to live with coronavirus firstly because this virus may become yet another endemic virus in our communities and never go away just like HIV and secondly because it is hard to know when a safe and effective treatment or vaccine will become available.

Effective resolution of contemporary besetting problems like coronavirus pandemic calls for an active engagement of a wide range of sciences that in turn largely depends upon a sharp deviation from the general notion that the social science bears an end-of-pipe role in relation to scientific and technological advancements. While inventing a new gadget, machine or device engineers and scientists pay little attention towards its social implications leaving it to the social scientists to either resolve or ignore the same. Philip Lowe et al (2013) have argued that the social scientists have over a period of time been forced into an auxiliary role of supporting and interpreting developments in natural science and technology. Such a belief also arises from the assumption about “the underlying permanence of the natural world and the impermanence of the social world that has put the social sciences on seemingly shakier foundations”. However, twenty-first century concerns about the instability of the natural world pose different epistemological assumptions, as a result of which they have proposed that “there is need for a more upfront engagement of social sciences in their relation to science and technology and the need to consider the various potential roles that social scientists may play within socio-technical innovations and inventions”. This will ultimately pave way for a meaningful cross-disciplinary engagement of the social and natural sciences.

Nevertheless, historically social science has not always been cast in such a subsidiary role in relation to science and technology. The nineteenth century founders of social science that included engineers, social reformers and philanthropists saw it as an essential counterpart to natural science and engineering, helping to steer the enormous technical possibilities they generated and to guide the potential they unleashed for a substantial change. Being himself a Physicist, Auguste Comte, who coined the terms sociology, positivism and altruism first used the term social physics to describe sociology, reflecting his vision of social science as the essential guide and counterpoint to the technical sciences. The sociology of science involves the study of science as a social activity, especially dealing with the social conditions and effects of science, and with the social structures and processes of scientific activity. Comte is often regarded as the first philosopher of science to have laid the foundations for interdisciplinarity between sciences and social sciences. Harvey J. Graff, an eminent scholar in Literacy Studies, Professor of English and History at the Ohio State University is the author of a book titled, “Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century” in 2015 in which he has described interdisciplinarity as the interrelationships among distinct fields, disciplines, or branches of knowledge in pursuit of new answers to pressing problems of the humanity.

Over the years a common perception has developed both among scientists and social scientists wherein they blame each other for not doing enough to relieve the human kind of its problems arising out of fast changing lifestyles, materialism, consumerism, globalization, automation, increasing social, communal and racial discord, discontent within families and inefficiency of governments. All this is in spite of the immense progress made on the healthcare front evolving effective treatments to a large number of hitherto untreatable diseases like cancer, AIDS, polio, smallpox, tuberculosis etc. Fact of the matter is that both of them are partly responsible for most of the unresolved miseries and sufferings of the mankind. Had they worked in tandem adopting interdisciplinary approaches, life would surely have been much simpler with little discord and discontent among families, races, castes and communities. Their style of functioning within their own isolated compartments is largely responsible for the simmering clashes in the utility of their research outcomes. A new discipline of community sciences is gaining pace to build healthy, just and equitable communities where social solidarity, social security and social justice reigns supreme. Interdisciplinarity is not only required in teaching and learning but also in research, extension, consultancy work. We need to identify and explore the interface and common ground between multiple disciplines and utilize them to resolve actual problems as well as potential challenges faced by the mankind.

(Author teaches at the Dept. of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Kashmir)