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Disruption, transformation and silos: medical humanities and the management gurus
  1. Gavin Miller
  1. School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Gavin Miller, School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK; gavin.miller{at}glasgow.ac.uk

Abstract

To disrupt, to transform and to break through silos are common sense aims for the medical humanities and other interdisciplinary endeavours. These keywords arise because of the influence upon the academy of management and business gurus, reputed experts who arose in response to the economic crises of the 1980s. Despite the noted analytic deficiencies in the concept of disruption, and its association with product innovation, the term has been extended to academic research, where it connotes radical novelty in research practice, typically accompanied by profound organisational and managerial change. ‘Disruption’ has become wedded to the word ‘transformation’ as national funders seek to support more radically innovative research that will maintain Western economic hegemony. A distorted version of Kuhn’s model of scientific revolutions underpins the discourse of transformation, which fits humanities research to a template in which revolutionary, transformative shifts can be instrumentally favoured by funders, at the expense of inferior ‘incremental’ progress. Disruptive and transformative research are, according to funders, more readily produced in organisations that have broken through silos between disciplines. The silo metaphor misleadingly models academic disciplines as if they were essentially unitary entities, akin to the functionally specialised units of a business organisation. The discourse of silos arises from the guru doctrine of the learning organisation. This theory supposes that the organisation—including the university—is literally a living organism, and thereby susceptible to corporate sickness, mortality, infection and disability. Medical humanity researchers should be aware of, and reject, this vitalist metaphysic in which the optimal organisation is a culturally homogeneous supra-personal organism whose immense capacities are harnessed by visionary leaders. Moreover, a new vocabulary should be developed for research evaluation, superseding the supposed hierarchical opposition between transformative and incremental research.

  • Medical humanities
  • cultural history
  • literary studies
  • philosophy of science
  • Popular media

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In 2023, I attended a presentation by Wellcome Trust, a major UK and global funder of research on life, health and well-being. The presentation, on ‘Discovery Research’, cited a recent cover story in Nature, ‘Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time’. The article concludes that ‘papers and patents are increasingly less likely to break with the past in ways that push science and technology in new directions’ (Park, Leahey, and Funk 2023, 138). The thesis of a decline was treated cautiously by Wellcome Trust, although the reality of disruptive research was not. However, much disruptive research was around already, and whether it was declining or not, Wellcome Trust was there to help us make more of it—including in my field, medical humanities. In a recorded version of the presentation (no longer available online), the Wellcome’s representative explains that they support Discovery Research in order ‘to disrupt and transform the understanding of life, health and well-being’. The verbs ‘to disrupt’ and ‘to transform’ are left undefined, but they are clearly associated with the production of ‘fundamental, blue-skies research’.

To disrupt, to transform: these are nigh-on common sense aims for medical humanities researchers. A further term often follows in their footsteps: the silo—a metaphor that understands disciplines as typically walled-off from each other, like divisions of a corporation. A distinguished medical humanities scholar cites for instance the ‘potential transformative effect’ (Macnaughton 2023, 550) of the medical humanities and argues for the benefits of a ‘less siloed’ approach to the COVID-19 pandemic (Macnaughton 2023, 546). As a medical humanities researcher, I have used all three words almost unthinkingly to describe good interdisciplinary research and the kind of organisational life that supports it. This article began in my desire to understand where these words come from and what they mean by analysing them as keywords—what Raymond Williams in his classic discussion calls ‘a cluster’ of ‘interrelated words and references’ (Williams 1985, 19). Like Williams, I offer in this article not a lexicographical ‘neutral review of meanings’ but rather an ‘exploration of the vocabulary of a crucial area of social and cultural discussion’ (Williams 1985, 21). Like the keywords identified by Williams and his successors, the cluster of ‘disruption’, ‘transformation’ and ‘silos’ has a complexity that is ‘hidden behind a façade of familiarity’ (Moran 2021, 1025), and which invites a materialist analysis grounded in ‘the changing shape of capitalist societies’ (Moran 2021, 1026–1027).

I explore the economic and organisational meanings of these keywords in the supposed ‘fourth industrial age’ of the information economy. My analysis is in the spirit of critical (rather than ‘instrumental’) interdisciplinarity that informs the medical humanities (cf. Whitehead and Woods 2016). Julie Thompson Klein explains that critical interdisciplinarity ‘interrogates the dominant structure of knowledge and education with the aim of transforming it, raising questions of value and purpose silent in instrumental I[nter]D[isciplinarity]’ (Klein 2017, 28). I also draw on critical management studies, understood as a pluralistic movement which ‘proceeds from the assumption that dominant theories and practices of management and organization systematically favor some (elite) groups and/or interests’ (Alvesson, Bridgman, and Willmott 2011, 7). With the aid of critical management studies, I connect the three keywords of this article to the influence on the academy of management and business gurus, reputed experts who arose in response to economic crises of the 1980s and who have remained enormously influential in succeeding decades. By tracing these keywords back through a variety of textual sources and transformations, I show how the common sense of interdisciplinary research culture has been shaped by the influence of gurus. ‘Disruption’ emerges as term promoted by gurus in response to US anxieties about economic stagnation and the loss of hegemony. The word comes into an alliance with the term ‘transformation’, which is extracted from Thomas Kuhn’s foundational work in history of science, and then widely misused by research funders as an all-purpose label for higher quality research. Disruptive and transformational research emerges, as we all think we know, from organisations that have broken through silos (between disciplines, between researchers and practitioners, etc). Yet the origins of the silo metaphor lie in a contentious and ableist cluster of illness and disability metaphors that authorise the concept of the ‘learning organisation’ as a living organism. I unveil a guru doctrine in which organisations, including universities, are literally alive, and vulnerable to disability, sickness, and premature mortality. Moreover, superior organisational leaders possess an intuitive sympathy with the needs of a potentially immortal supra-personal being—their organisation itself, be it a corporation or a university.

Disruption

The term ‘disruption’ is commonly associated with digital technologies that have greatly transformed previously ‘analogue’ industries: one might think here of the transportation company Uber, whose smartphone application directly connects taxicab passengers with drivers. Yet the creator of the concept of disruption, the management guru Clayton M. Christensen, has stressed that Uber’s ‘financial and strategic achievements do not qualify the company as genuinely disruptive—although the company is almost always described that way’ (Christensen, Raynor, and McDonald 2015, 47). To properly understand disruption in its strict sense, we must turn to the term’s origin in Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997). In this enormously influential book, Christensen identifies various companies where ‘good management was the most powerful reason they failed to stop atop their industries’—the list includes IBM, Apple, Sears Roebuck, and Xerox (Christensen 1997, xii). According to Christensen,

Precisely because these firms listened to their customers, invested aggressively in new technologies that would provide their customers more and better products of the sort they wanted, and because they carefully studied market trends and systematically allocated investment capital to innovations that promised the best returns, they lost their position of leadership (Christensen 1997, xii)

Seemingly well-managed companies carefully invest in so-called ‘sustaining technologies’ which ‘improve the performance of established products, along the dimensions of performance that mainstream customers in major markets have historically valued’ (Christensen 1997, xv)—yet this performance may outstrip what is needed in marginal markets. Counterposed to sustaining technologies are ‘disruptive technologies’ which though they initially ‘underperform established products in mainstream markets’ have the virtues of being ‘typically cheaper, simpler, smaller, and, frequently, more convenient to use’ (Christensen 1997, xv). Although Christensen often uses digital technologies as examples, disruption can be found in other forms: he argues, for instance, that Honda’s marketing of small-engine motorbikes disrupted the North American motorcycle market, which was dominated by incumbents such as Harley-Davidson who focused on powerful bikes for the highway as demanded by established customers (Christensen 1997, 153–156).

Disruptive technologies, once established, undergo their own, more rapid sustaining development; though they ‘may underperform today’, they may be ‘fully performance-competitive in that same market tomorrow’ (Christensen 1997, xvi). Christensen’s central case study examines the development of hard disc drives for computer storage (Christensen 1997, 3–28). He argues that markets have been repeatedly disrupted by physically smaller drives that were initially more expensive per megabyte of storage and thus of little interest to leading firms. However, each disruptive drive technology develops an emerging market of smaller computers—first minicomputers, then desktop personal computers, then laptops—that enables the disruptive product to become performance competitive (price per megabyte) with the previous sustaining technology.

Christensen concludes that well-managed firms fail because to invest in disruptive technologies seems economically irrational: (1) disruptive products ‘promise lower margins, not greater profits’ because they are ‘simpler and cheaper’; (2) disruptive products are ‘first commercialized in emerging or insignificant markets’; (3) ‘leading firms’ most profitable customers generally don’t want, and indeed initially can’t use, products based on disruptive technologies’ (Christensen 1997, xvii). Christensen counsels in response various ‘principles of disruptive innovation’ (Christensen 1997, xiii) in which it may be ‘right not to listen to customers, right to invest in developing lower-performance products that promise lower margins, and right to aggressively pursue small, rather than substantial, markets’ (Christensen 1997, xii). However—and this is the innovator’s dilemma—Christensen asserts that established firms struggle to pursue both sustaining and disruptive product development, unless by ‘[c]reating an independent organization, with a cost structure to achieve profitability at the low margins characteristic of the most disruptive technologies’ (Christensen 1997, xx).

Despite its enormous popularity, Christensen’s theory has been comprehensively criticised—debunked, even. Christensen is a mediocre business historian, as Jill Lepore argues regarding the history of disc drives: in truth, ‘victory in the disk-drive industry appears to have gone to the manufacturers that were good at incremental improvements, whether or not they were the first to market the disruptive new format’ (Lepore 2014). She also demonstrates that Christensen’s case studies employ unreliable sources, ignore counterevidence and refuse to pursue counter-explanations. Moreover, they are ‘handpicked’, and so may be distorted by confirmation bias. Similar criticisms have been made more methodically by Andrew A. King and Baljir Baatartogtokh, who interview a large pool of experts in order to re-examine over seventy case studies presented in The Innovator’s Dilemma and the later The Innovator’s Solution. Only seven cases fully matched with Christensen’s theory; the ‘majority of the 77 cases were found to include different motivating forces or displayed unpredicted outcomes’ (King and Baatartogtokh 2015, 79). Yet, despite these empirical deficiencies, the ‘theory of disruptive innovation has gripped the business consciousness like few other ideas’, and ‘has spread far beyond the business world’ (King and Baatartogtokh 2015, 78).

Jill Lepore suggests that disruption suits the post-9/11 mood of the US and its allies: ‘the rhetoric of disruption—a language of panic, fear, asymmetry, and disorder—calls on the rhetoric of another kind of conflict, in which an upstart refuses to play by the established rules of engagement’ (Lepore 2014). Christensen, however, can be positioned in a longer social and cultural history of management gurus. Building on earlier critical work by Andrzej Huczynski (Huczynski 1993) and Stephen Pattison (Pattison 1997), David Collins argues that management gurus are ‘products of the 1980s and need to be located within the socioeconomic context of that turbulent decade’ (Collins 2021, 27). The 1980s saw a boom in popular management books alongside the rise of a concomitant industry in management guru speaking engagements (Collins 2021, 27–28). Collins takes Tom Peters and Bob Waterman’s In Search of Excellence (1982) as ‘the prototype of modern guru theorising’ (Collins 2021, 28). This book arose in a context of soaring unemployment, inflation and banking interest rates (Collins 2021, 31). In Search of Excellence became a bestseller because it addressed managers in a period when

fears of continuing economic decline and predictions of growing Japanese dominance prepared the way for representations of the business of management which diagnosed the cultural roots of the malaise while simultaneously advocating the pursuit of home-grown (and home-spun) remedies. (Collins 2021, 38)

This national anxiety, in conjunction with changes in higher education, consultancy, and publishing, launched a guru industry that would endure for decades, ‘offer[ing] salvation to those struggling to deal with the challenges thrown up by a volatile competitive context’ (Collins 2021, 52).

Disruption discourse serves a similar function, but specifically addresses later anxieties in High Income Countries (particularly the USA) about the declining rate of technological innovation. After the global financial crash of 2008 and subsequent recession, assorted postcrash visionaries diagnosed an economic malaise. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation (2011) purports to explain How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. Cowen argues that the US economy has reached a ‘technological plateau’ (Cowen 2011, 7) because of a declining rate of innovation (Cowen 2011, 20). The ‘libertarian’ entrepreneur Peter Thiel bemoans the loss of the ‘lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s’ in a 2011 essay for the conservative National Review (Thiel 2011). The ‘innovation engine’ stalled, apparently, in 1969: ‘Men reached the moon in July 1969, and Woodstock began three weeks later. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this was when the hippies took over the country, and when the true cultural war over Progress was lost’. Where are the political visionaries, wonders Thiel, ‘who would make serious cuts to the welfare state in order to free up serious money for major engineering projects’? In a similar 2011 lament, the science fiction author Neal Stephenson diagnoses an ‘innovation starvation’: ‘our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done’ (Stephenson 2011, 12). The ‘innovation-killer of our age’ is the risk-averse corporate preference for ‘small improvements’—‘a system that celebrates short-term gains and tolerates stagnation’ (Stephenson 2011, 16). Handily for Stephenson, part of the solution is ‘for SF writers to start pulling their weight and supplying big visions that make sense’ (Stephenson 2011, 13).

MaryAnne M. Gobble locates Cowen, Thiel, and Stephenson among other commentators who voice a ‘worry that America’s [sic] age of innovation is past, that the economic engine of past centuries is flat out of gas’ (Gobble 2012, 60). This fear helps to explain why ‘disruption’ has been tremendously successful as a category of practice despite its analytic deficiencies. Christensen had left his readers with a narrative cliffhanger: how could the established organisation survive the threat of the disruptive start-up? The Innovator’s Solution (2003) explains to market leaders how they can nurture disruptive innovation by launching their own disruptive subsidiaries. Success depends on a ‘disruptive growth engine’ overseen by (a special brand of) senior executives who, colossi-like, ‘stand astride the interface between disruptive growth businesses and the mainstream businesses’ (Christensen and Raynor 2003, 267), and who have ‘the confidence and the power to exempt a venture from an established corporate process’ (Christensen and Raynor 2003, 280). Big organisations, be they corporations or the USA itself, need not fear ‘the attacker’s advantage’ (Christensen 1997, 55) so long as they know what disruption is and know how to do it.

Christensen controversially extended his model of disruption to learning and teaching in higher education (Christensen and Eyring 2011). His model of the ‘innovative university’ makes sanguine assumptions about the comparability of online learning and hybrid learning with face-to-face learning, and also turns academics into a pool of casualised low-cost teachers who are fungible across the widest possible range of courses (Bucknell 2016, 224–225). But leaving aside teaching, Christensen’s model of disruption is hard to extend in a rigorous way even to academic research. For those who explicitly use the vocabulary of disruption, smaller and slower may be watchwords of innovative (or disruptive) research practice. Park et al propose that researchers be given time to ‘keep up with the rapidly expanding knowledge frontier’ by for instance reading widely; universities may reward quality over quantity, ‘and perhaps more fully subsidize year-long sabbaticals’; and funders may support careers rather than projects, allowing researchers ‘to step outside the fray, inoculate themselves from the publish or perish culture, and produce truly consequential work’ (Park, Leahey, and Funk 2023, 143–144). Wu suggests their results ‘paint a unified portrait of underfunded solo investigators and small teams who disrupt science and technology’, with the corollary that ‘government, industry and non-profit funders of science and technology’ should investigate the role of small teams ‘in expanding the frontiers of knowledge’ (Wu, Wang, and Evans 2019, 382). Many of us will be sympathetic to such pleas for a slower, more individualised tempo within academic research, particularly as a counter to the acceleration of academic temporality within the knowledge economy (Vostal 2016). But is this disruption?

Pleas for a slower research tempo illustrate some supposed trade-offs in academic knowledge production around speed (faster, but more provisional; slower but more consequential). But this change in tempo does not amount, however, to disruption in the analytic sense. Consider, for instance, the key characteristic of disruption: the emergence of new and/or low-end markets whose needs have been overshot by sustaining innovation. Christensen states that ‘[d]isruptive innovations originate in low-end or new-market footholds’ before the innovator then ‘migrate[s] to the mainstream market’, displacing incumbents (Christensen, Raynor, and McDonald 2015, 47). The low-end market is less demanding and needs only a ‘“good-enough” product’, whereas ‘incumbents’ offerings often overshoot the performance requirements’ of the low-end market (Christensen, Raynor, and McDonald 2015, 47). At any rate, the new-market foothold ‘turn[s] nonconsumers into consumers’ (Christensen, Raynor, and McDonald 2015, 47). What then is the equivalent for research purchasers from universities, that is, some marginal or new market that might be met by disruptive innovators in knowledge production who could (a) offer knowledge that was less valuable to core markets, (b) open up a marginal lower-profit market of knowledge purchasers who do not need the ‘features’ of established knowledge products and (c) then rapidly overtake the value proposition of established knowledge production for core markets?

As indicated above, there are ways of playing with the idea of different features of knowledge products—perhaps quicker results are ‘good enough’ for some research purchasers. It is debatable, though, whether the idea of low-profit research maps onto universities, who are non-profit organisations who sell their research at cost (or at a loss) and have no shareholders to satisfy. Moreover, where are the market footholds for disruptive innovation in knowledge production, beyond the incumbent market of governments, business and charitable foundations? The main, perhaps only candidate for potential disruption would seem to be crowdfunded research, whereby projects can be financially supported by the general public, without pre-award gatekeeping by academic peer review (Ikkatai, McKay, and Yokoyama 2018). But crowdfunding is so far a marginal practice, whether in science or humanities; nor, clearly, is it a market within which large institutional funders such as Wellcome Trust would fit, despite their desire to support ‘disruptive’ research. Indeed, crowdfunding may simply remain a marginal or low-end unregulated market for knowledge purchasers—like paying less for dentistry or cosmetic surgery in another country and being willing to take the risks (or being ignorant of them). ‘Disruption’ in the sense used by major funders, and in appeals to them, is not Christensen’s original concept, though it nonetheless clearly connotes radical novelty, along with profound organisational and managerial change. To understand how the word ‘disruption’ is used in practice, I must pursue its semantic connection to another keyword, ‘transformation’.

Transformation

In the Nature cover story alluded to earlier (and highlighted by Wellcome Trust), the authors use citation measures and linguistic analysis to substantiate their claim about the decline of disruptive research. The ‘CD index’ (CD stands for ‘consolidates or destabilises’ (Funk and Owen-Smith 2017, 792)) assumes that ‘if a paper or patent is disruptive, the subsequent work that cites it is less likely to also cite its predecessors’ (Park, Leahey, and Funk 2023, 139). Linguistic analysis of paper and patent titles similarly shows a decline in the diversity of words, a loss of ‘combinatorial novelty’ (ie, whether words have been used together in previous titles), and a reduction in the frequency of verbs ‘alluding to the creation, discovery or perception of new things’ (Park, Leahey, and Funk 2023, 140). The paper invites many questions, including the validity and extent of the claim, and tactics for gaming these measures. But what may be overlooked is the naturalisation of disruption discourse as part of what the authors call ‘foundational theories of scientific and technological change’ (Park, Leahey, and Funk 2023, 138). The authors distinguish between research which ‘improve[s] existing streams of knowledge, and therefore consolidate[s] the status quo’, and that, like the discovery of the structure of DNA, which ‘disrupt[s] existing knowledge, rendering it obsolete, and propelling science and technology in new directions’ (Park, Leahey, and Funk 2023, 138-139). While Christensen is not directly cited, the discourse of stalled innovation is invoked via references to Cowen’s The Great Stagnation. Moreover, the CD index comes from earlier work that explicitly employs Christensen’s distinction between disruptive and sustaining innovation. An earlier Nature paper uses the CD index to conclude that ‘smaller teams have tended to disrupt science and technology with new ideas and opportunities, whereas larger teams have tended to develop existing ones’ (Wu, Wang, and Evans 2019, 378). They explicitly link this conclusion, and its contrast between disruptive and developmental research, to Christensen’s work, which they cite for their statement that ‘[l]arge teams, such as large business organizations, may focus on sure bets with large potential markets, whereas small teams that have more to gain and less to lose may undertake new, untested opportunities with the potential for high growth and failure’ (Wu, Wang, and Evans 2019, 378). The inventors of the CD index also cite Christensen for a similar distinction (Funk and Owen-Smith 2017, 792).

The extended grasp of disruption discourse, from business innovation to research innovation, can be explained by the way it complements popularised notions of a Kuhnian paradigm shift glossed by the word ‘transformative’ and its cognates. In Kuhn’s influential model of scientific development (Kuhn 2012), scientific progress consists typically of focused ‘puzzle-solving’ science operating under a shared paradigm. This process continues until the revolutionary creation of a new paradigm which displaces the old by explaining anomalies or counterinstances that the previous paradigm recognised but could not solve. Park, citing Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, characterises disruptive research as involving the creation of a ‘new paradigm’ (Park, Leahey, and Funk 2023, 139); and the CD index itself clearly operationalises Kuhn’s comment that ‘[w]hen it repudiates a past paradigm, a scientific community simultaneously renounces […] most of the books and articles in which that paradigm has been embodied’ (Kuhn 2012, 166).

Park’s argument intersects with a broader post-millennial popularisation of Kuhn’s work by research funders which eventually weds the word ‘transformative’ to ‘disruptive’. A historically important 2007 report by the US National Science Board for the National Science Foundation (NSF) offers the conclusions of a task force given the remit to enhance the NSF’s capacity to identify and support transformative research. It opens with a distinction that clearly relies on Kuhn, although without citing his work:

The vast majority of scientific understanding advances incrementally, with new projects building upon the results of previous studies or testing long-standing hypotheses and theories. […] Less frequently, scientific understanding advances dramatically, through the application of radically different approaches or interpretations that result in the creation of new paradigms or new scientific fields. This progress is revolutionary […] The research that comprises this latter form of scientific progress, here termed transformative research, is the focus of this report (National Science Board 2007, 1).

The report concludes by proposing a new ‘Foundation-wide program designed specifically to solicit and to support transformational and paradigm-challenging proposals’ (National Science Board 2007, 8). The Task Force fears that the NSF (and other funders) have overlooked and discouraged potentially revolutionary work: transformative research ‘is challenging to and frequently crosses disciplines’, and so ‘[e]xperts in the areas being challenged (many of whom may sit on review panels) may dismiss such ideas by pronouncing the research overreaching or without basis’ (National Science Board 2007, 4). This anxiety recapitulates the earlier concern, noted above, that a failure to encourage and support transformative research in the US will ‘jeopardize […] our Nation’s ability to compete in today’s and tomorrow’s global economy’ (National Science Board 2007, 2).

Some researchers have voiced discontent with funders’ attempts to identify, support and prioritise transformative research. Kuhn’s account of scientific revolutions argues that revolutions can occur only because puzzle-solving science has identified anomalies (Cooper and Licato 2022, 276). Kuhn himself says as much in his account of the ‘essential tension’ between normal and revolutionary science: ‘revolutionary shifts of a scientific tradition are relatively rare, and extended periods of convergent research are the necessary preliminary to them’ (Kuhn 1977, 227). Moreover, manipulation of the variables that control transformative research may be impractical since scientific revolutions may hard to predict (Cooper and Licato 2022, 279), and equally hard to identify even retrospectively (Cooper and Licato 2022, 276). A 2019 Danish National Research Foundation booklet on transformative research offers various dissenting perspectives. Not only is transformative research hard or impossible to predict (Danish National Research Foundation 2019, 9), it also ‘implies a ranking that favors the transformative, and perhaps forgets the reciprocal relationship between incremental and more radical steps’ (Danish National Research Foundation 2019, 10). Moreover, ‘maybe these types of [transformative] progress do not exist in certain fields, or maybe in these fields an incremental breakthrough is as outstanding as it can get’ (Danish National Research Foundation 2019, 10).

Such concerns are not eccentric. Post-Kuhnian history and philosophy of science quickly recognised that the model of paradigms and revolutions ill-fitted disciplines in the social sciences. As Murray S. Davis argues, ‘Ambiguity in social science is not the embarrassment Kuhn finds it in natural science’ (Davis 1986, 295). Rather than ambiguity being part of a theory’s ‘breakdown phase’, it is instead ‘what helps to make it famous in the first place through the public controversy that surrounds its “correct” articulation and interpretation’ (Davis 1986, 296). Classic theories also invite extension into new domains, according to the interests of later researchers (Davis 1986, 297). Social theories typically decline not because of breakdown in the face of accumulated anomalies, but rather because of declining relevance to current concerns (Davis 1986, 296). Finally, the humanities are another case entirely: no serious observer could suppose that, for instance, literary criticism or philosophy in fact operate within a single disciplinary paradigm, even if there are occasional polemical aspirations (such as Alasdair MacIntyre’s ‘disquieting suggestion’ that we dwell in the ruins of a fragmented and partly destroyed system of moral philosophy (MacIntyre 2013, 1–5)).

Transformative results may well be possible only in certain kinds of research. But if universities are required, despite principled objections, to offer a Kuhnian paradigm shift to their customers as a dimension of research quality, then the jargon of disruption finds a natural home: transformation is to puzzle-solving as disruption is to consolidation, because both connote opposition to incremental progress under established organisational and managerial structures.

Silos, Stovepipes, and Tits

The discourse of disruption and transformation arises in the context of ‘academic capitalism’ in which institutions and academics have increasingly made ‘market or marketlike efforts to secure external funds’ that are usually tied to ‘market-related research’ that may be described as ‘applied, commercial, strategic and targeted research’ (Slaughter and Leslie 1997, 209). The discourse of disruption and transformation indicates a particular twist in the history, post-c.1970, of the neoliberal erosion of block grant funding from the state (Slaughter and Leslie 1997, 209). The emphasis on applied research in the first few decades of academic capitalism led to anxieties that fundamental research would be discouraged (Slaughter and Leslie 1997, 129). Since the early 2000s, funders have increasingly tried to redress the focus on applied research by supporting research that they classify as disruptive or transformative. Advanced capitalist nations want to buy this kind of research because, as I have shown, they are beset by anxieties about slowing rates of technological innovation and a consequent loss of international economic hegemony. Universities bid to supply such research—and so they entrench further the associated jargon.

Given that academia has come to ‘treat advanced knowledge as a raw material’ supplied for exploitation to a high-technology economy (Slaughter and Rhoades 2004, 17), then any university selling its research services will want to show the buyer that transformative results are likely. The prospective customer—the government, the charitable funder, the business and so on—will be given the documentary (sometimes face-to-face) equivalent of a factory tour. What do research customers of the knowledge economy want to see? The 2022–2027 strategy document for UK Research and Innovation—‘the main investor of taxpayer’s money in research and innovation’ (UKRI 2022, 5)—states that there is ‘a new industrial revolution, driven by the pace of technological change’ (UKRI 2022, 3). What UKRI will pay for is ‘a more connected and agile system’, which requires ‘break[ing] down silos across the system, nationally and internationally’, whether by ‘the movement of people and ideas’ or by ‘support[ing] collaborations’ (UKRI 2022, 8). The document explains the problem of ‘silos’ at greater length: ‘Within the system there are still too many silos separating people and knowledge, acting as a barrier to interdisciplinary work and reinforcing a model in which there is a linear, one-directional relationship between research and innovation’ (UKRI 2022, 9).

The term ‘silo’, like ‘disruption’ and ‘transformation’, has become commonplace amid calls for leaner and more agile universities. Hershey Harry Friedman and Frimette Kass-Shrabiam advise the aspiring ‘superior college president’ on how to benefit from the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, or ‘Age of Disruption’ (Friedman and Kass-Shraibman 2017, 286). Organisational silos must be met with ‘silo busting’ in order to turn universities into ‘learning organizations’:

organizations that get too large often find themselves with rigid silos and consumed with turf battles. To succeed in the present economy, people from different departments within a firm must collaborate; the same is true in academe when it comes to academic departments and disciplines (Friedman and Kass-Shraibman 2017, 293)

For Friedman and Kass-Shrabiam, silo-busting turns universities into learning organisations, which are ‘characterized by the utilization of shared knowledge; an emphasis on cooperation, not turf; a commitment to constant learning and personal growth; an infrastructure that allows the free flow of information and ideas; and an ability to adapt to changing conditions’ (Friedman and Kass-Shraibman 2017, 292).

Like ‘disruption’ and ‘transformation’, the term ‘silo’ points to a wider cultural and national history. As Richard J. Harknett and James A. Stever explain, the pre-9/11 US intelligence apparatus was later seen as afflicted by an ‘individual-unit bureaucratic, silo-like orientation’ (Harknett and Stever 2011, 700). For anthropologist turned business writer, Gillian Tett, silo effects—which bring about metaphorical visual impairments such as ‘tunnel vision’ (Tett 2015, x)—explain a whole range of recent organisational failures. Jerry A. Jacobs shows how the metaphor of the ‘silo’ has been used to criticise the structuring of universities into disciplinary units. Disciplinary silos are alleged to interrupt communication between disciplines, to inhibit innovation and thereby economic growth in knowledge economies, to limit academia’s potential to address problems of a holistic or cross-disciplinary character and to fragment undergraduate education (Jacobs 2014, ch2). In a further account of silo discourse in academia, Jonathan Kramnick argues that it offers an ‘instrumental reason for busting up the disciplines’ derived from management theory (Kramnick 2017, 74): ‘The vision is fundamentally flat. Every workplace team traffics in the common currency of information and exists in light of some finite project or task or topic drawn from that currency’ (Kramnick 2017, 72). The consequent ‘interdisciplinary ideal is of a cluster that might take shape on a given problem or challenge while sharing temporary space on a hiring plan’ (Kramnick 2017, 73). Neither Kramnick nor Jacobs find this interdisciplinary ideal appealing. Kramnick suggests that it overlooks a ‘norm of deliberativeness’ in the humanities as well as a ‘tolerance for letting some difficulties stand once they are articulated’ that is particularly evident in literary criticism (Kramnick 2017, 74). Kramnick also argues that corporate silos and academic disciplines are fundamentally disanalogous, since the latter exist ‘to explain the highly differentiated constitution of the world’ (Kramnick 2017, 72) rather than to respond to ‘what the world demands or the challenges it poses’ (Kramnick 2017, 74). For Kramnick, disciplinary specialisation is a virtue because ‘a pluralistic array of disciplines’ corresponds with an ontological plurality of objects: ‘endocrine cells for the biologists, tectonic plates for the geologists, librettos for the musicologists, and so on’ (Kramnick 2017, 67). For this reason, ‘the best way to be interdisciplinary is to inhabit one’s discipline fully’ (Kramnick 2017). In a complementary argument, Jacobs contends also that the organisational model of the functional silo has no real purchase on the disciplinary system of the university. Disciplines are in fact ‘dynamic entities’ (Jacobs 2014, 53) that are ‘characterized by extensive differentiation within fields and the lack of sharp boundaries between fields’ (Jacobs 2014, 35); ‘disciplines are not silos but rather can be thought of as sharing a dormitory space where they raid each other’s closets and borrow each other’s clothes’ (Jacobs 2014, 35). Regardless of formal reorganisation (such as interdisciplinary challenge-led centres), such exchange ‘occurs every day without fuss or fanfare’ (Jacobs 2014, 79).

Grant that disciplinary specialisation, dynamism, internal differentiation and contestation and exchanges are a customary feature of the university. Why then has the myth arisen that interdisciplinary research requires a particular organisational form—epitomised by silo-busting centres? The doctrine of the silo emerges from a curious ontology held sub rosa by influential management gurus. Jacobs notes that the term ‘silo’ may have ‘spilled over from the business world to academia’, though he does not pursue any further the apparent precursor, ‘organizational silo’ (Jacobs 2014, 18). Kramnick cites Tett’s work on silos and traces the term back to at least 1991 (Kramnick 2017, 72). Neither Jacobs nor Kramnick quite manage to pin down the term ‘silo’ within management theory. The word can likely be traced to the organisational consultant, Phil S. Ensor, who identifies in 1988 a ‘functional silo syndrome’ within organisations wherein ‘[c]ommunication is heavily top-down—on the vertical axis’ and ‘[l]ittle is shared on the horizontal axis’ (Ensor 1988). This structure, which is ‘designed to maintain control, rather than to foster trust and proactive problem solving’ means that ‘[t]he organization has a very damaging learning disability—it has not learned how to learn’, ‘[i]nstead, it repeatedly exercises in quick, easy error detection and correction activities which merely address symptoms’.

Ensor’s metaphor of cognitive impairment (which anticipates Tett’s metaphors of visual impairment) indicates the context of his analysis, which is that of the ‘learning organisation’ as conceived by the management guru Peter M. Senge in his highly influential The Fifth Discipline (1990). According to Senge, recent business history shows a ‘high corporate mortality rate’ (Senge 1990, 17) that arises because ‘most organizations learn poorly’ (Senge 1990, 18): ‘The way they are designed and managed, the way people’s jobs are defined, and, most importantly, the way we have all been taught to think and interact (not only in organizations but more broadly) create fundamental learning disabilities’ (Senge 1990, 18). He declares that ‘[l]earning disabilities are tragic in children, especially when they go undetected’, and similarly that ‘[t]hey are no less tragic in organizations, where they go largely undetected’ (Senge 1990, 18). In Senge’s nosology, there are seven learning disabilities, of which the core disability is ‘the delusion of learning from experience’, whereas in fact we ‘never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions’ (Senge 1990, 23). He offers the metaphor not of silos, but of stovepipes: ‘what was once a convenient division of labour mutates into the “stovepipes” that all but cut off contact between functions’, so that ‘analysis of […] the complex issues that cross functional lines, becomes a perilous or nonexistent exercise’ (Senge 1990, 24).

According to gurus, organisations that bust silos (or stovepipes) are more intelligent than those that don’t. In the case of universities, silo-busting interdisciplinary research promises to fulfil a key organisational goal: namely, to supply more profoundly innovative research as raw material for the knowledge economy. Yet the jargon of silos reveals a new mystery: corporations can be stupid or clever; they can die or live; they can have learning disabilities (which, in Senge’s casually ableist view, are apparently ‘tragic’, whether in organisations or children). Senge’s peer and interlocutor, the management consultant Arie de Geus (1930–2019), elaborates this discourse in The Living Company (1997), where he offers his own version of the silo/stovepipe metaphor. Geus discusses the differences in the learning behaviour of two common garden birds, blue tits and robins. British tits have learnt to get cream from glass milk bottles delivered to doorsteps by pecking through their aluminium lids. Robins have not, even though individual birds occasionally learn to pierce the bottle tops. The moral of this animal fable is that ‘robins tend to communicate with each other in an antagonistic manner, with fixed boundaries that they do not cross’ (de Geus 1999, 162). Robins work in silos or stovepipes, to use Ensor and Senge’s vocabulary. Tits, however, form ‘flocks of eight to ten’ which ‘seem to remain intact, moving together around the countryside, and the period of mobility lasts for two to three month’ (de Geus 1999, 162). This flocking behaviour, according to de Geus, allows individual learning to spread throughout the species. Nature’s teachings are clear. Some companies have ‘stronger territorial tendencies. They classify members by their specialty, skill, or mandate’ (de Geus 1999, 166): ‘[e]ach robin is allocated his or her territory in the corporate garden’ and ‘these teams communicate as antagonistically as red robins’ (de Geus 1999, 166–167). But if organisations can bring people together in flocks, then innovations will develop and spread through the company—it becomes a learning organisation. Flocking requires ‘mobility of people and some effective mechanism of social propagation’ (de Geus 1999, 163), and it requires ‘organizational space—freedom from control, from direction, and from punishment for failures’ (de Geus 1999, 168).

The fable of the blue tit and the robin anticipates of course the later and more successful discourse of silos (occasionally ‘stovepipes’), and it is part of the rhetorical performance of the management guru, who often relies on brief persuasive narratives. Alon Lischinsky notes that popular management texts ‘often follow a cyclical exemplification/generalization pattern’ in which examples establish the ‘factuality, significance and desirability’ of expert prescriptions (Lischinsky 2008, 263-264). Exemplary narratives also bring a plausible order and significance to the concrete experiences of everyday managerial life (for a fuller analysis, see Keulen and Kroeze 2012). Yet de Geus’s commitment to the idea of the learning organisation brings deeper ontological commitments to the existence of a species of supra-personal beings that—without the guru’s intervention—will rule over us and bring the world to ruin. De Geus expresses a peculiar concern about the lifespan of ‘commercial corporations’, which he believes are ‘at a primitive stage of evolution’ evidenced by ‘their high mortality rate’: the average lifespan of a multinational is ‘between 40 and 50 years’ (de Geus 1999, 7), but, states de Geus, ‘the natural average lifespan of a corporation should be as long as two or three centuries’ (de Geus 1999, 8). Big companies, in other words, are dying prematurely. They do so because managers forget that companies are living entities, in which profitability is merely ‘a symptom of corporate health, but not a predictor or determinant’ (de Geus 1999, 14), particularly in an era in which ‘knowledge’ has ‘displaced capital as the scarce production factor—the key to corporate success’ (de Geus 1999, 24). Managers must understand that companies are organisms that ‘exhibit the behaviour and certain characteristics of living entities’: ‘All companies learn. All companies, whether explicitly or not, have an identity that determines their coherence. All companies build relationships with other entities, and all companies grow and develop until they die’ (de Geus 1999, 17). De Geus counsels his perhaps sceptical reader that one does not have to accept the literal truth of this analysis in order to be a good manager; it could just be ‘a useful metaphor’ (de Geus 1999, 17). But the inner doctrine is clear: ‘I put forth the hypothesis that “companies can learn.” […] I rarely add the rest of the sentence: “Companies can learn because they are living beings”’ (de Geus 1999, 112).

De Geus offers four key determinants of corporate health: ‘its adaptiveness to the outside world (learning), its character and identity (persona), its relationships with people and institutions inside and around itself (ecology), and the way it developed over time (evolution)’ (de Geus 1999, 32). Every company thus has its ‘persona’, which may sound like a mask or guise, but which is a term de Geus derives from the German personalist psychologist William Stern (1871–1938). According to de Geus, Stern holds that ‘each living being has an undifferentiated wholeness, with its own character, which he called the persona’ (de Geus 1999, 104); the persona is goal oriented, self-conscious, open to the outside world and alive but with a finite lifespan (de Geus 1999, 104). When human beings join together in corporations, they form new collective personae: ‘The family, the tribe, and the national government are all living systems in which people join together; so are the trade union, the sports club, and the nonprofit organization’ (de Geus 1999, 108). De Geus argues (or asserts) that each collective unit is: goal-oriented; conscious of itself and its boundaries; in an informational and material relationship to its environment; and, of course ‘alive’, but with a ‘finite lifespan’ (de Geus 1999, 109–110). Whether human or collective, such personae are essentially unpredictable because they are always in a self-conscious learning relationship to their environment. Their behaviour is not governed by laws of mechanical cause and effect, as if it were some reflex action (de Geus 1999, 105–106).

In constructing his model of the living company, de Geus draws on Stern, and a range of scientific and psychological experts, including neuroscientist David Ingvar and child psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott (de Geus 1999, 44–48, 80–82). The temptation may be to assess the fidelity and rigour of de Geus’s adaptations of these ideas: personalism, notably, contains prominent critiques of the organic model of social life, such as that offered by the philosopher John Macmurray (Conford 2008). But to engage in this scholarly way, and to join the recent critical revival of Stern’s work (eg, Lamiell 2021; Wertz 2023), would be a category mistake. De Geus’s syncretic borrowings are not rigorously argued; they proceed instead from a rhetorical coherence buttressed by the personal authority granted by his professional experience. Consider, for instance, his thesis that organisations have an immune system which can be activated when under attack by ‘individuals or groups of individuals who do not want to be part of the whole’, who are ‘not full members of the community’ (de Geus 1999, 192). De Geus is particularly concerned about employees who are threatened (or faced) with redundancy and who might act through their trade union (de Geus 1999, 192–193). De Geus has essentially an ‘integration perspective’ (Collins 2000, 135) on organisational culture, in which a confession of faith is required of members (de Geus 1999, 121). Yet de Geus makes no explicit argument against competing analyses of corporate culture, such as the ‘differentiation perspective’, which proposes that ‘organizational goals are, in fact, created and promoted by certain groups (such as the “gurus”)’ (Collins 2000, 137). The espoused aims and values of organisations may typically be the peculiar creation of ‘certain dominant individuals and groups’ (Collins 2000, 137), and thereby contested (or ignored) by other individuals and groups within the organisation. Moreover, the organisation is not a ‘cultural island’; there are in reality no ‘definite and impermeable boundaries which seal organizations (and cultural management programmes) from the influence of the wider society’ (Collins 2000, 142). No employee is ever a full member of the corporate community.

Conceptual engagement with de Geus’s melange of varying, sometimes incompatible strands of the human sciences misses the point. As Huczynski has argued, guru ideas become common sense by evading processes of internal disciplinary critique. They are instead embedded by a diverse range of external factors, such as: the anxieties of managers, who need to be perceived as active and as informed by management theory; the managerial preference for a range of alternatives to choose from; the sunk costs of the guru product cycle; and the charismatic authority of the gurus themselves (for a fuller discussion, see Huczynski 1993, 268–296). In this spirit, we might note that the conceptual vocabulary, the animal fables and the central metaphor of collective organismic personhood are authorised by de Geus’s experiential expertise as a senior leader in the hydrocarbon multinational Royal Dutch/Shell: ‘I came to realize that Shell, as a whole, was an unfathomable being. It, too, was alive’ (de Geus 1999, 106). The same authorisation by expertise is readily apparent in Peter Senge’s later work. In his commitment to reflection on first-hand experience in Presence (2005), Senge drops any hesitations about the literal truth of de Geus’s doctrine of the living company. He approvingly presents de Geus as claiming that ‘the twentieth century witnessed the emergence of a new species on earth—that of large institutions, notably global corporations’ (Senge et al 2005, 7). This new life form ‘has the potential to grow, learn and evolve’ but at the moment companies ‘expand blindly, unaware of their part in a larger whole or of the consequences of their growth, like cells that have lost their social identity and reverted to growth for its own sake’ (Senge et al 2005, 8). Senge contends that the most successful entrepreneurial activity requires ‘the capacity to sense an emerging reality and to act in harmony with it’ (Senge et al 2005, 13). The ‘core capacity needed to access the field of the future is presence’, understood as ‘deep listening, of being open beyond one’s preconceptions and historical ways of making sense’ in order to ‘serve the evolution of life’, to enter a ‘state of “letting come”, of consciously participating in a larger field for change’ (Senge et al 2005, 13–14). This essentially vitalist doctrine of healthy alignment with the life process (‘Use the Force, Luke’) is expressed in a heady syncretism of psychologised wisdom traditions, scientific odds and ends (such as quantum entanglement (Senge and Dyer 2004, 22–23)), and sententious maxims: ‘When all is said and done, the only change that will make a difference is the transformation of the human heart’ (Senge et al 2005, 26).

Conclusion

In and around the 1970s and 1980s, history stagnated. Not for everyone, of course—but particularly for Americans, or US-Americans, to be exact. For the USA, history had stalled—or even regressed. A new elite emerged: management gurus. Gurus knew how to restart the economic engines of progress. Their knowledge did not come from the ivory tower. It came from experience. They had as many ideas as they had experiences, but that did not really matter; the management guru intuited a reality that the rest of us might grasp only through laborious ratiocination. An important (supposed) intuition was that big organisations were alive, but often stupid. Fortunately, even slow-witted organisations could be made clever. Their learning disabilities, though lamentable (‘tragic’), were not permanent. They could be cured by understanding the organisation as a living being. Let the faint-hearted understand this as a useful fiction (as if the company were living); the profoundly intuitive know it to be a literal truth. Organisations grow and learn. Or they ought to. If they cannot, they sicken, and they die prematurely. To learn effectively, organisations must be able to learn from experience. But they often do not, because neither information from the world nor innovative responses to it transmit effectively through the company’s specialised functions.

The guru though is a subtle physician. While he (they are mainly male) sees through to the true causes of disorder, the patient’s prescription must yield to the folk remedies of the people. Better, then, to couch it in other language. Even fables of tits and robins may be too flighty for the hardnosed business world. Safer metaphors are found in stovepipes and silos. The latter metaphor—which wins out rhetorically—offers flattering satisfactions, tailored to different moods and contexts. Silos can be straddled, for instance, by senior leaders, the organisation’s colossi. The silo metaphor quietly becomes managerial common sense. When stagnation anxieties renew in the 2000s, the metaphor is further invigorated by the language of disruptive innovation. The US economy, and that of other industrialised Western nations, needs more by way of disruptive innovation. The new, capitalist university plays its part by offering a narrow and misleading model of interdisciplinary research as busting the supposed silos of departments and disciplines. Disciplines are misrepresented as unitary entities, and moreover as institutional organs akin to the functionally specialised units of a business organisation. In a striking misuse of Kuhn’s work on scientific revolutions, the jargon of transformative research develops as a way to make sense of disruption within the academy. New measures are invented to quantify the amount and intensity of transformative knowledge that destabilises rather than consolidates existing research. A lesser kind of knowledge emerges—that produced by merely ‘incremental’ research, which is understood as analogous to ‘sustaining;’ innovation.

To return to the puzzle I posed at the beginning, all this is an explanation—and a critique—of the emphasis by funders and academics on disruption, transformation and the busting of silos. Admittedly, we should allow for something like Kuhnian transformation in the natural and life sciences, though even then we must beware the hype cycle in which ‘[b]eing told that they have to be Darwin or nothing, researchers learn the game and promise the moon’ (Meyer 2012, 9) as well as the assumption that transformative research can be foreseen and therefore instrumentally generated (Meyer 2012, 8–9). But the medical humanities should more decisively resist unhelpful and deceptive management guru concepts. These concepts have gained credibility in a neoliberal era in which academia produces knowledge as ‘raw material’ for an information economy in which ideas ‘can be claimed through legal devices, owned, and marketed as a product or service’ (Slaughter and Rhoades 2004, 17). As the economic and organisational boundaries between universities, state and private sector have been renegotiated (Slaughter and Rhoades 2004, 27), so too have the discursive boundaries between these different enterprises, so that models of business excellence have been uncritically adopted as templates for the university. Yet, there is longstanding scepticism as to whether these models capture what is peculiar to successful corporations, or even whether they have identified the most important causal factors, as opposed to more mundane explanations in terms of proprietary technology, geography, market dominance, state support and so forth (Collins 2022, 66–71). Moreover, as David and Jack Collins have shown at length, there is a hidden face to many of the corporations that have been ‘celebrated as beacons for change and renewal’ by business gurus (Collins and Collins 2023, 37). In a series of case studies in the ‘profane realities of corporate conduct’, they discover ‘policies and behaviour that make a mockery of the core values said to be central to business excellence’ (Collins and Collins 2023, 88). These warnings from business studies should counsel medical humanities, and its funders, against assuming that public narratives of leading research environments in terms such as vision, leadership and culture in fact reveal the secrets of their success. There is a need for more rigorous historiography of medical humanities (and similar ‘new humanities’ endeavours) in which searching questions are asked about the causal factors most relevant to the institutions that have succeeded in these areas. Pre-existing wealth, brand prestige, expanded fee income, and a ruthless attitude to employee relations (eg, in casualisation) may count for more than is acknowledged.

The medical humanities can rightly interrogate—or even reject—two canards of the new knowledge economy. First, it can critique the assumption that excellence in medical humanities more readily arises in a particular form of ‘silo-busting’ organisational life—an assumption which could unfairly skew funding decisions, for instance. To describe interdisciplinary research as silo-busting is to conflate disciplines with the functional divisions of an organisation, and to obscure the everyday dynamism of internal contestation and interdisciplinary exchange. Indeed, the term ‘silo’ should be particularly objectionable to the medical humanities. My account traces disruption back through organisational theory to an ontology of the organisation as living organism, and a concomitant discourse of health, sickness, mortality, infection and disability. This ontology (in truth, a set of reified metaphors) is promoted by management gurus and anchored in the authority of their supposed experiential expertise. Organisations, and that includes universities, supposedly have ‘learning disabilities’ that impede their supra-personal aims because of interrupted communication across disciplinary units misconstrued as organically functional specialisations. The model of silos is misapplied to university departments, so that (inter)disciplinary dynamism, multiplicity and contestation are thereby fitted to a Procrustean bed of silo-busting clusters and centres. The language of silos subscribes medical humanities to values and perspectives it would typically disown as ‘uncritical’, including the model of the organisation as a homogeneous cultural island (not to mention that notion of Shell Oil—and your university too—as a supra-personal organism whose immense capacities are harnessed by visionary leaders).

Second, we should no longer praise medical humanities research for being ‘disruptive’ and ‘transformative’, nor deprecate it for being ‘incremental’. There is very little ‘disruptive’ research in the true sense of the word. The term has instead been misused to force Kuhn’s terminology on the humanities, so that something called ‘transformative’ research can be elevated above its supposed polar opposite, the lesser ‘incremental’ research understood as analogous to ‘sustaining’ innovation in the world of product development. The medical humanities should take the opportunity to pioneer a more scrupulous vocabulary for the distinction between (1) research that necessarily has a stronger relationship to a significant body of pre-existing work (so-called ‘incremental’ research) and (2) research that necessarily has a lesser relationship to a pre-existing research context (so-called ‘transformative’ or ‘disruptive’ research). Both types of research can produce excellent results—whether in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences or life sciences. We need to develop a vocabulary that expresses the difference but without implying an evaluative hierarchy. My own suggestion (which I hope is original, although I cannot be certain) is that we express this polarity as the difference between (1) ‘topsoil’ research and (2) ‘bedrock’ research. The former takes root on top of earlier layers, and it promises to flourish quickly, with more certain results. The latter, like a pioneer species such as moss or lichen, develops on previously barren bedrock, offering a layer for potential but uncertain future growth over a longer timescale. This metaphor helps to convey the differences between research at the polar extremes of the opposition, but without implying one kind is better than another. Our metaphorical research ecosystem, like its literal counterpart, encompasses both.

Data availability statement

Data sharing is not applicable as no datasets generated and/or analysed for this study. No applicable.

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Acknowledgments

I would like to acknowledge the helpful and constructive feedback of the anonymous peer reviewers of this article.

Bibliography

Footnotes

  • X @drgavinmiller

  • Contributors GM is the sole author and contributor to this article. He is the guarantor of this article.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer-reviewed.