We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Structure and Interdisciplinarity

In many fields the methods and concepts for understanding structural relationships are contentious. Does comparison reveal a set of common problems, fundamental differences in the nature of the problems, or a combination of both? Can we extrapolate ideas about structure between disciplines, and what are the risks in terms of misreading metaphors as real or heuristic parallels? Any analysis of structure involves defining components and describing how the relationships between these components determine structural properties, thus raising issues of reduction, emergence and scale.

There is a strong potential to use this theme to compare structural methods of analysis between subjects – what tools might, for example, be borrowed between education research analysing curricular, literary structural analysis of novels, systems analyses in business, mathematical models of complex systems? Visualisation techniques for complex structures are especially powerful.

There is also potential for a more reflexive view of academic structures: how disciplines are composed; how institutions give structural support to them through specific forms of governance and management; and how such arrangements are nested within larger societal structures. How do theories structure practice (and vice versa); and how do relations between the two compose multiple structures designed to manage and communicate information: archives and libraries; databases.

Structure and Explanation in the Sciences

Across the material sciences, theories describing the structure of various kinds of matter are central to understanding their chemical and physical behaviour. This workshop aims to bring together historians, philosophers and scientists to discuss the historical development of these theories, and the foundational questions to which they give rise.

A paradigmatic example of structural explanation is provided by organic chemistry. Beginning in the 1860s, chemists proposed molecular structures for organic substances, based on sophisticated inferences about the number of distinct isomers that could be separated, and their chemical behaviour. The following facts are striking: (i) the molecular structures were represented visually; (ii) initially, no assumptions were made concerning how these ‘chemical graphs’ were embedded in space; (iii) there was no physical account of the forces holding molecules together. In short, the chemical bond was an unexplained explainer until well into the twentieth century. Crystallography developed quite independently, treating crystals as close-packed arrays of atoms or ions governed by physical interactions. From the 1930s onwards, physicists and chemists developed quantum-mechanical models which seemed to explain the stability of simple molecules. Had the chemical bond thereby been explained? Some chemists, such as Linus Pauling, recognised that their own work put the chemical bond into quantum mechanics ‘by hand’. Pauling therefore regarded the new field of quantum chemistry as a synthesis of chemistry and quantum mechanics. Others, such as Charles Coulson, wondered if more sophisticated quantum-mechanical treatments would enable chemistry to ‘outgrow’ the classical bond.

This two-day workshop will address the following questions:

  1. How far can development of theories of structure within particular scientific fields such as crystallography and organic chemistry be understood as the orderly accumulation of theory and experiment? Or must later theoretical developments (such as quantum mechanics) be regarded as revolutionary, sweeping away the earlier conceptions of structure?
  2. How far do conceptions of structure differ between different scientific fields, such as crystallography, molecular biology and organic chemistry?
  3. How have conceptions of structure been shaped by the development of experimental methods, from X-ray crystallography through infra-red and NMR spectroscopy to scanning probe microscopy?
  4. How do these structural theories bear on longstanding questions in metaphysics, concerning reduction and emergence, and the existence and identity of composite objects?

Confirmed External Participants include: A M Glazer, Department of Physics, University of Oxford; Catherine Jackson, Department of the History of Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Thomas Vogt, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of South Carolina (IAS Fellow, January-March 2018).

Attendance at the workshop is open, but places are limited and registration is required. For details please contact the workshop organiser, Professor Robin Hendry,

Structuring Disciplinarity: history, theory, practice

Victorian Interdisciplinarity combines expertise at Durham and Leeds Trinity to build upon a current project called Victorian Culture and the Origin of Disciplines, led by cultural historian Bennett Zon (Durham) and historian of science Bernard Lightman (York University, Canada). Begun at Durham’s Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies, that project explores the factors underpinning the coalescence of modern disciplines, while problematizing conventional notions of disciplinary crystallization and exposing deep channels of interdisciplinary interaction. Led by a combination of scholars at Durham and Leeds Trinity, including cultural historians Helen Kingstone and Rosemary Mitchell, historian of science Efram Sera-Shriar and Bennett Zon, Victorian Interdisciplinarity extends this project by magnifying focus on the dynamics of interdisciplinary interaction in the formation and promulgation of individual disciplines. It tests the nature of Victorian Britain’s interdisciplinary project by probing mutual implications in the genesis of arts and sciences, including hard and soft sciences, social sciences, humanities and performative arts. These topics are reflected in a series of three main events comprising two separate workshops: Victorian Interdisciplinarity and the Arts (Saturday 25 November 2017, Durham); Victorian Interdisciplinarity and the Sciences (Friday 23 February 2018, Leeds Trinity); and an international conference (Saturday 12 May 2018, Durham). Related events are also being planned, including a CNCS workshop and guest lecture led by Bernard Lightman (Monday 19 to Wednesday 21 February 2018), and activities at Leeds Trinity, including an interactive workshop led by Bernard Lightman on publishing strategies for early career scholars and postgraduate students.

For additional information about these events please contact Professor Bennett Zon