The challenges of creating hybrid disciplines and careers: a view from Sweden

bcportrait.jpgEditor’s note: this guest entry has been kindly prepared by Barbara Czarniawska, Swedish Research Council and Malmsten Foundation Chair of Management Studies, Gothenburg Research Institute, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Professor Czarniawska (pictured to the left) is one of the world’s leading management scholars, and via an approach to knowledge production that engages deeply with scholars in a myriad of other disciplines/fields including anthropology, cultural studies, geography, law, planning, and sociology. Barbara’s entry in GlobalHigherEd focuses on the transformation and institutionalization of “hybrid disciplines” and careers, an implicit and explicit objective frequently associated with the construction of new knowledge/spaces for the global knowledge economy. A fuller version of today’s entry is titled ‘On creole researchers, hybrid disciplines and pidgin writing’, and is available in INTER: A European Cultural Studies Conference in Sweden, Linköping University Electronic Press (2007).


It has ordinarily been assumed that the strength of a scientific discipline resides in its purity and integration, in its distinctness. Recently, however, contrasting opinions have emerged: that the strength of a discipline, at least in social sciences, is connected to its richness, plurality and the flexibility of its borders. Clifford Geertz in anthropology, Richard Rorty in philosophy, and Richard Harvey Brown in sociology were among the proponents of such an attitude. As my doctoral students would say, this is all very good for such big names. But how does university everyday practice look like? Is it possible to have a “creolized” professional career, are hybrid disciplines viable and what kind of language would they use to communicate the results?

bczarinterdisc.jpgA demand for “creolized scholars” emerged a long time ago, approximately when the mass university became a fact of life. Specialist modules can be easily standardized and therefore equally easily repeated in different places, but their product is a graduate who knows all the relevant modules, not an educated person. The new European universities created in the 1960s and 1970s (Lancaster, Karlrühe, Linköping, Bielefeld) were seriously considering the changing demands of the labor market. In Linköping, which is the university I know best among those, “hybrid departments” have been created, where scholars from diverse disciplines were to collaborate on studying “themes” judged important to society. Some still exist: Tema T (technology), Tema V (water) etc. Thus the eventual problems of creolized careers has been solved by the creation of hybrid disciplines, but this solution has opened the door to still new problems.

The first of those was easy to predict: the employers (that is, the very same people who tend to complain that the division of university education in disciplines has nothing to do with division of labor in practice) complained that they had never heard of people specialized in “technology” or “water”. Apparently, it was much better to employ graduates in sociology or business administration and then grumble about their lack of practical skills. The new solutions needed time, adjustment, experience and new vocabularies in order to demonstrate the advantages of “hybrid disciplines”. In the meantime, old universities, always wary of the new arrivals, exploited their advantages by offering graduates educated in the old manner. The solution was then promoted one stage up, to the doctoral level. The graduates in sociology, anthropology, and business administration took research courses within “Tema T“, in order to study science and technology.

The resistance came also from other elements of the dominant institutional order. Research in Sweden is mostly externally financed – by state, municipal, regional and many private foundations. Each foundation has its scientific committee, which is divided into subgroups – thematic or multidisciplinary – composed of representatives of different disciplines. The procedure is usually the same: at the first round, the most interesting research projects are individuated among applications. The transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary projects are to be preferred. The second step consists in counting money: it is usually in short supply. The third step is the decisive one: some projects needed to be sacrificed. How to make a choice between loyalty to Science, which would favor hybrid projects, or to your own Discipline, which gave you a mandate to be there in the first place?

The third problem was common to the members of the committee and the scholars within “Themes”. How to compare an anthropological research project with an economics one? How to communicate within a project that gathers representatives of different disciplines? Either to trust the competence of the colleague from another discipline without pretending to understand it, or to try to find a common language, and if necessary, create a new vocabulary adapted to the project at hand. There is no way for everybody to learn enough about other disciplines, no matter how interesting and relevant. A practical solution to these problems consists in the specialists trying to simplify their communications, and the non-specialists attempting to learn the key terms of the specialist jargon. The result is a pidgin, long known as “a trade language”. The purists are shocked: is this not the way to the impoverishment of scientific language, with its subtleties and enormous efforts aiming at finding “proper names” for everything? The rest of us are hopeful. Talk to each other we must, no matter how many translations need to be done. The future will show if this creolization and hybridization is a temporary state on the way to a new disciplinary order, or if we can live with its benevolent chaos and unavoidable problems quite well.

Barbara Czarniawska

4 thoughts on “The challenges of creating hybrid disciplines and careers: a view from Sweden

  1. Professor Professor Czarniawska’s points are well-taken, and my thoughts turned immediately to the state of geography as it is taught, understood, debated, analyzed, studied, etc. in the higher education system in the United States. In terms of the everyday “practice” that I encounter when I tell people that I’m a student of geography outside of the world of higher education, I am met with blank stares from time to time. The broader perception outside of the academy is that geography is either a subject for young students (involving the rote memorization of place names, administrative districts) or that it can’t possibly be a field of study within a university or college. This to me represents a tremendous problem, and I’m not sure that the interdisciplinary or hybrid nature of the discipline will help its standing within the States, though when I do get blank stares, I take this opportunity as a “teachable moment”!

    As a side note, for anyone else who’s interested in the issues raised by Professor Czarniawska, the book “Chaos Of Disciplines by Andrew Abbott at the University of Chicago takes on some of the questions regarding the development of the social sciences.

    Max Grinnell
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

  2. The points Professor Czarniawska has raised, regarding hybrid disciplines, careers and practice in the post-modern university, resonate with an area that I am currently researching: the notion of ‘new professionals’ supporting teaching and learning in higher education. ‘New professionals’ can be seen in different ways, for example as new groups encompassing hybrid roles which provided support for teaching and learning in higher education (Gornall, 1999) and as a way of controlling and servicing the needs of re-formed institutions dominated by economic imperatives, market forces and new forms of management (Beck, 1999).

    Having worked for 20 years in UK higher education at the intersection of such hybrid practice in a highly political under researched setting, I entirely agree with Professor Czarniawska that we must raise the debate – the professional and political challenges should not be underestimated.

    Alison Hudson
    Institutionen för interactive medier och lärande
    Fakultet för lärarutbildning
    Umeå Universitet

  3. Pingback: The NSF’s cool project: a charrette assesses interdisciplinary graduate education, with surprising results « GlobalHigherEd

  4. Pingback: ‘Unlocking talent’ to produce the ‘Innovation Nation’…a case of words, words, words, or…? « GlobalHigherEd

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