The 'Paradox of Interdisciplinarity' in Australian university governance

Year: 2012

Author: Woelert, Peter

Type of paper: Abstract refereed



This presentation identifies what can be called the 'paradox of interdisciplinarity' (Weingart 2000) in Australian higher education research governance and explores some of its constitutive dimensions. In the Australian context, the paradox of interdisciplinarity concerns the proliferation of a programmatic discourse of interdisciplinarity in government policy and strategy documents, often tied to notions of innovation and applicability, parallel to the persistence or even reinforcement of modes of governance and associated mechanisms that almost exclusively rely on rigid discipline-based classification systems to evaluate and fund research.


The study underlying this presentation is informed by an analysis of relevant policy and strategy documents as well as by reflections on the state of the current research environment and defining practices and strategies. The analysis of policy and strategy documents is informed by a comparative perspective, drawing on a range of literature on university governance and the epistemic and practical dimensions of interdisciplinary research.

My analysis focuses on two interrelated dimensions pertaining to the 'paradox of interdisciplinarity' in Australian research governance:

1. The nature and scope of contradiction between rhetoric of interdisciplinarity in Australian research policy and strategy documents and the absence of policies that enable interdisciplinary forms of research.

2. The nature of the conceptions of knowledge that underpin both the apparent political drive toward interdisciplinary research as well as the use of rigid classificatory systems to evaluate and fund research.


The analysis reveals two major findings:

1) A strong rhetoric about interdisciplinarity is apparent in governmental policy and strategy documents while only vague attempts are made to create governance mechanisms that help to adequately evaluate and fund such research.

2) In policy contexts, interdisciplinarity tends to be associated with notions of dimensions of change, innovation and real-world orientation and application. At the same time, the disciplinary ordering of knowledge tends to be identified with notions of rigidity, conservatism, and (academic) autonomy.


It can be concluded that there is a significant mismatch between the strong programmatic discourse of interdisciplinarity that can be found in Australian governmental policy and strategy documents, and current, relatively inflexible governmental research funding and evaluation practices. It is further proposed that such a mismatch can be considered an expression of a more general 'paradox of research governance', where a rhetoric of innovation conflicts with the actual trend toward an increasingly diminishing scope for the self-organization of knowledge.