The Interdisciplinary Approach

by Lucianne Englert

"You cannot escape the fact that biology is involved in sexuality. You cannot escape the fact that culture is involved in sexuality. But when biologists study sexuality, more often than not they play down cultural aspects because that's outside their domain. Similarly, if you have cultural anthropologists or social scientists studying sexuality, they will find justifications for ignoring the biological component." In this example from Dr. John Bancroft, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Indiana University Bloomington and director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, the importance of interdisciplinary scholarship becomes obvious. "It's all right, up to a point, to look at only one aspect of sexuality because there are questions that can be usefully addressed in that way," Bancroft notes. "But the bottom line is that there is a need for different approaches to be integrated so that we have a more holistic understanding of human sexuality. The Kinsey Institute plays a particularly important role in fostering that integration."

To encourage interdisciplinary exchange, the institute organizes and hosts international symposia, as well as more frequent interdisciplinary seminars. To date, the institute has sponsored five symposia as part of its International Symposia Series, which was initiated in 1987 under a former director of the Kinsey Institute, June Machover Reinisch. The most recent symposium, held in 1996, focused on methodological issues. Indiana University Press will be publishing the proceedings this fall. "In the methodology symposium, we placed more emphasis on the discussion than there had been in previous symposia," Bancroft says. "The book will not only include the presentations, but also the discussions, which were recorded, transcribed, and edited." He points out that inclusion of the discussions illuminates how experts in the field think about a problem.

Theory will be the topic of the next symposium, which the institute expects to hold in 1998 or 1999. Bancroft is currently consulting his peers about how best to promote interdisciplinary exchange on the topic. "The theory symposium is a formidable challenge," he says. "In large disciplines, such as psychology, anthropology, and sociology, there are theoretical splits so deep that people on either side of the divide are almost unable to communicate with each other. The splits in approaches to scholarship are fascinating and important," Bancroft continues, "and you can't dismiss any of these developments because the weight of intellect on either side is sufficient to take seriously. But at the moment, those involved tend to be more confrontational than interactive."

On a smaller scale, the Kinsey Institute's series of interdisciplinary seminars, initiated in the fall of 1995, provides IU faculty and graduate students with opportunities for interdisciplinary interaction on a regular basis. The 1997 spring schedule included seminars on the sexual behavior of chimpanzees, modern women and companionate marriage, adolescent sex, and romantic friendships. Each featured a presenter from one discipline and a discussant from another.

Presenters in this series have come from a variety of IU departments, as well as from outside the university. "The speaker selection is partly opportunistic," Bancroft explains. "We've had visitors at the Kinsey Institute who we wanted to make use of, and the seminars were the most logical way to expose them to the rest of the university. Other outside speakers have been engaged because some of our researchers have had fellowships that included funds for bringing in speakers."

Bancroft stresses the importance of maintaining and encouraging interdisciplinary exchange in the face of ever-increasing specialization. "Certainly in sexology, but in so many disciplines today, the fields and their terminology are becoming so specialized that cross-disciplinary discourse is increasingly difficult," Bancroft says. "Keeping that discourse alive goes right to the heart of our mission. Sexuality is a subject that demands an interdisciplinary approach, and unfortunately, more often than not, it doesn't get it."

Bancroft sees the Kinsey Institute as "a sort of testimony to interdisciplinary study because of the wide range of resources and materials that it contains." The cross disciplinary symposia and seminars provide a way to extend that approach. Kinsey