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I had the opportunity to chat with Michael Joroff of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning the other day, and we had an interesting conversation about the importance of being able to bridge boundaries between disciplines. He said the world has come to the point where the most successful people are multi-lingual – that is, able to converse with people from a variety of different spheres of knowledge. Such people are ideally positioned to serve as integrators of diverse and previously separate information. These integrators can therefore synthesize advances in different fields, create innovative solutions to both long-standing and newly relevant problems, and serve as collaborative bridges between related but disconnected disciplines. This puts these individuals in a powerful position indeed.
Joroff makes an astute observation. Recent advances in communication media have blurred the boundaries between people from formerly divergent backgrounds. Due to near-instantaneous and inexpensive mechanisms for exchanging information, cultural and social exchanges happen more rapidly, and with a longer geographical reach, than they did before. Research areas which appeared unrelated in the past are now connected by related interests. In many cases, these have existed for some time but are only now becoming apparent as keyword-based searches of fully-indexed online archives turn up relevant results from a broad range of disciplines. In other cases, the advent of these new communications media have created areas where formerly disparate disciplines intertwine.
Sociology might be the clearest example of a discipline which can experience rapidly shifting boundaries, and an area where the most successful will necessarily bridge multiple areas of knowledge and expertise. Even in the early days of the discipline, the giants in the field (e.g. Max Weber) were multi-disciplinary. Now, online repositories of data include a ton of information about formal and informal social interaction. Computer scientists, physicists, mathematicians, and social scientists are all interested in exploring and understanding these patterns. Although their specific research and practical applications differ, the basic questions are largely similar, and insights in one field often apply across multiple disciplines.
Indeed, over the past few years some wonderful pieces of sociological research have come from scientists in different fields. Lada Adamic and Natalie Glance, physicists by training, published a paper on polarization and the link structure of political blogs. A group of computer scientists at Cornell University presented research at KDD on group formation in large social networks. Marc’s recent post on CIKM shows the extent to which computer scientists and scholars in other technical fields are starting to focus on sociological topics.
These examples highlight a trend that social scientists – and sociologists in particular – should note. Technically skilled researchers with the ability to process and analyze large-scale online data sets are doing some of the best sociology out there. They’re able to do this because they are capable of crossing the boundaries between computer science, applied physics, mathematics, and sociology. This high-level research comes from folks who are experts in one area, but conversant in a broad range of disciplines covering some mixture of physical, social, and computer science.
This represents a great opportunity for sociologists to move the discipline in new and exciting directions, and to make contributions in other areas. Sociologists who are conversant in the physical and computer sciences can produce work which has a meaningful impact beyond the focus of their own discipline. They, like their counterparts in physics or CS, serve as semantic brokers – those rare individuals who can unify the language of two disparate fields to push for developments which are both broader in scope and deeper in focus than the work that individuals in either field could do alone.
If Joroff is right, and I think he is, then in the not-too-distant-future the integrators – those whose understanding, insights, and contributions span a range of fields – will be the great names of our time. Let’s see to it that sociology is well-represented amongst those luminaries.