Interdisciplinarity: On Social Business

By definition a discipline is “a branch of knowledge, typically studied in higher education” (Oxford).

Concentration on a discipline invariably results in greater expertise and higher productivity. And, in a world where new knowledge is produced (created) at an ever increasing rate, such specialisation is both desirable and necessary. However, there is a downside. The more one concentrates on a given specialisation the greater the risk that one will overlook, or worse still ignore, other information or knowledge that relates  to, and possibly impacts upon, one’s understanding of the wider world in which we live.

This danger is particularly acute in the case of professional practice where there is a need for both generalists, with a holistic overview of their practice, as well as specialists with detailed knowledge of subfields within the domain of a given practice.

Perhaps the best-known and familiar example is medicine. Other than in the case of accidents and emergencies, concern about our well-being would usually lead us to consult a general practitioner. Their role would be to document the nature of our problem, and its symptoms, and come up with a diagnosis. In most cases, this would result in a prescribed course of action, and palliative treatment to alleviate the immediate symptoms, pending the collection of more information. Occasionally, the prognosis will be so clear that our GP will decide to refer us directly to a specialist for more detailed analysis. Obviously, if we know that we need specialist treatment, it may be possible to approach an expert directly but, in most cases, introduction to a specialist follows a referral from a generalist.

To qualify as a specialist most professional practitioners must first qualify as a generalist. In doing so one would normally progress from ‘singular’ disciplines like anatomy, biology and chemistry for medical doctors; mathematics and physics for  engineers; and economics, psychology and sociology for  the management professions. These  singular disciplines are the foundation upon which we can build by studying their application to a practice (applied disciplines) which, in turn, requires us to integrate or synthesise distinctive aspects into a professional qualification like architecture, engineering, medicine and, more recently, management and marketing.

Depending upon one’s chosen profession, an undergraduate degree or its equivalent is normally required covering a prescribed curriculum. In addition, it may also be necessary to pass further qualifying exams based on experiential or clinical learning before one is licensed to practice. However, once qualified, the greatest rewards invariably go to the most specialised, and this is certainly the case with regard to recognition and rewards in academic institutions.

In general, promotion in universities is based upon performance in terms of research, teaching and service (administration etc) with research, as evidenced by publication in leading journals, dominating appraisal. The immediate effect of this is to encourage ever increasing specialisation to the neglect of generalisation until, as a cynic would have it, one finishes up by knowing everything about virtually nothing.

Given that our current knowledge is the result of millennia of accumulation of marginal increments, punctuated with very occasional theoretical/conceptual  breakthroughs, it would be foolhardy to discourage scholars from specialisation. That said, it is also important that we leave room for integration and, in my opinion, it is vital that such integration be interdisciplinary.

This view may well be the consequence of the fact that until the age of 32 I was engaged as a general practitioner/teacher and only then was it  put to me that if I wished to pursue an academic career in an established University did I need to specialise and study for a doctorate. Once persuaded (doctoral degrees  were not the required entry qualification for academic appointments in the social sciences in the UK in the 1960s) the question was what to research?

As a practitioner selling innovative steel products, a particular problem was trying to be identify those potential customers most likely to be interested in buying them. Formulated as a research issue or question this might be stated as: “Can we identify the characteristics of organisational buyers likely to be among the first to adopt an industrial innovation?”

My supervisors agreed that this was a suitable subject deserving of research and the next step was to discover what was already known about this phenomenon which could be generalised as the “diffusion of innovation”. And so I discovered Everett Rogers seminal work Diffusion of Innovation (now in its fifth edition, 2005) in which he chronicled the number of ‘research traditions’ that have investigated this issue.

In total, Rogers identifies nine different approaches to the study of this phenomenon from which he generalises a conceptual framework that can be readily adapted by anyone seeking specific answers to a particular problem related to the adoption and diffusion of an innovation. To my mind this epitomises the benefits of interdisciplinarity – so much so that my lifelong interest in marketing as a discipline, concerned with the creation and maintenance of mutually satisfying exchange relationships, has crystallised into a decision to launch a new academic journal of Social Business. Initially, my interest in the application of marketing principles and techniques to problems other than ‘selling stuff’ was prompted by a grant from the Scottish Health Education Group to set up an Advertising Research Unit to help design more effective campaigns promoting healthy living. From this developed a wider interest in the marketing of non-profit organisations, consumerism and ‘green’ and ethical marketing. Subsequently these interests coalesced in 2010 when I was invited to give a keynote address to the UK Academy of marketing on “transformational marketing” in parallel with a request to launch a Journal of Social Business to promote the work of Nobel  Laureate Muhammad Yunus. My research into transformational marketing and social business quickly revealed the existence of numerous schools of thought each of which was pursuing closely defined themes such as micro-finance and microcredit, social entrepreneurship, social marketing, sustainability, well-being and so on. Each of these was developing the characteristics of a discipline in its own rights and becoming increasingly specialised with dedicated conferences and publications concerned with these different themes.

Ultimately, in my opinion, the full benefits of all this work will only be realised when the discrete findings of these different disciplines are integrated and synthesised into a holistic and interdisciplinary study of social business. Like the ‘diffusion of innovation’ I consider social Business to be a multifaceted phenomenon that demands many different approaches which require to be pulled together into an overarching explanation if they are to achieve their full potential. My new journal Social Business seeks to achieve this. (Www.socialbusinessperiodical.com).

Michael J Baker, University of Strathclyde

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