Embracing interdisciplinarity

I recently read Matt Houlbrook’s excellent blog post, ‘on being a one trick historian’ (appropriately accompanied by The Smiths’ Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before) and was struck by the particular resonance of some of his words.

“It is not easy to turn new tricks in the world we inhabit. Starting from scratch is an uncomfortable experience – it means admitting our ignorance, addressing the reading we have not done, relying upon the kindness of academic strangers.

It takes time”

As Matt does elsewhere on his website, I tend to emphasise the mobility that has characterised my academic pathway to date and the benefits I believe it has brought my scholarly practice. This mobility extends beyond study and employment spells at different UK higher educations institutions, which depending on how strictly I define ‘spells’ ranges from between three and five universities, to also include periods of education and work in different national and cultural settings including at two universities in Germany and two in Australia. Most importantly, however, this mobility also pertains to the level of scholarly flexibility that I have tried to uphold through a willingness to cross academic borders and expose my research to the perspectives of new disciplines. This is reflected by the fact that in the last ten years I have spent time in archaeology and ancient history, heritage studies, cultural geography, urban studies, business, economics and tourism, and modern languages departments. I do not mean this list to sound conceited, not least because I have come across enough criticism and regularly grapple with the potential risks of this chosen path to know that it is not something that all would feel proud of or feel comfortable about.

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 21.19.15Screen Shot of Google Image Search Results for ‘interdisciplinarity’ 05.7.2015

During my time in Germany, for example, I occasionally had concerns that people, especially those outside my immediate circles, would not know where to place me in the higher education landscape or consider me as an undisciplined, as opposed to interdisciplinary, researcher. Likewise, after joining a cohort of urban studies PhD candidates with a range of academic backgrounds as an associate fellow in Berlin, I was struck by the difficult decisions they all had to make in deciding who should be their principal supervisor, for all the common reasons, of course, but also because this decision would also determine in which discipline their future doctorates would be awarded, and in turn the pathways of their future academic careers. Somehow such restrictions have never been a concern to me and  I can remember in one colloquium suggesting that as a group we needed to embrace our interdisciplinarity rather than worry about it. Most of the time, however, I picked-up on a broader uncertainty and subtle scepticism about interdisciplinary approachs to academic research (although I should say that my host research centre was a clear exception to this situation). In this way my experiences in Germany often contrasted with those of the UK where a growing recognition of the value of interdisplinarity was specifically reflected in my university’s tendency to draw on its radical routes and encourage adventurous, boundary breaking and, some might say, risk-taking research, especially at doctoral level (as illustrated by the UCL graduate school’s provision of scholarships for cross-disciplinary training lasting 12 months). This interdisciplinarity is particularly marked in geography departments, which since joining one for my doctoral research, I have come to describe as the kitchens of house parties – all types are in there, its where you meet the most interesting people and its one of the best places to flirt with disciplinary perspectives beyond your own.

Geography Departments – that’s why you’ll always find me in the kitchen at parties – IKEA advert featuring Man Like Me’s cover of Jona Lewis’ 1980 Hit (another nod to Matt Houlbrook for the inspiration to give this blog entry a soundtrack!)

It is, I think,  something akin to this characteristic of geography departments that Mona Domosh emphasised, in a far more eloquent way than I could ever hope to, in her July 2014 AAG President’s column on Strategic Essentialism and Radical Intra-Disciplinarity. In that column she talks of geography as:

“… a promiscuous discipline, what some might call an un-disciplined discipline. And it is in part this very intra-disciplinarity that makes geography at this moment so vital. Not all of us are equipped to work across the divides that can separate physical geography, geospatial science, and human geography, but because we inhabit the same space — this thing called geography — we often know each others’ habits, respect each others’ ways of knowing, and understand enough about each other to speak and be heard.”

Of course in choosing this quote I could be accused of turning my own trick, a slight of hand that obscures the difference between inter- and intra-disciplinarity. To these two modes of boundary breaking research we should also add others, including cross-disciplinarity, multi-disciplinarity and trans-disciplinarity in the many variants, which reflect where on the spectrum between soft and hard or shallow and deep they lie. In fact, as Domosh’s words and a recent ten-week seminar offered by UCL’s graduate school training programme highlight we might also add, in spite of my earlier quip, undisciplined research to this list. The differences between these modes of research are important, if sometimes confusing and blurred, but I tend to avoid the quandary of strictly defining them because I have found my research practice and outcomes come to more closely resemble these different modes and variants at different times (not to mention the fact that applying these strict definitions may risk recreating some of the boundaries that these modes of research hope to break in the first place). In turn, and this may be an obvious point, I would also go so far to say that in some cases interdisciplinary research efforts and practices can even lead to outcomes that, out of the necessity of academic conventions, still respect disciplinary boundaries. In other words just because a finished research product doesn’t appear to be interdisciplinary doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t informed by interdisciplinary thinking, methods or perspectives.

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 21.12.15

A recent variant of the slide I use to communicate my (inter)disciplinary background (I am dancing around in the middle)

For me then, that open research space, where acts of academic translation, multi and trans-lingualism are so important, provides a key element for the success of interdisciplinary scholarly efforts. But beyond inhabiting that space in geography departments as suggested by Domosh I would also argue that geographers, or rather interdisciplinary researchers (the title I now most consistently apply to myself) need to got out and inhabit the spaces of other departments in order to soak up the approaches of other disciplines, to expose our work to these disciplines’ critiques and to learn new theoretical and methodological languages in which to pursue the research questions that interest us – not to mention share what we already have to offer. This radical or deep interdisciplinarity requires a willingness to start from scratch over and over and takes more than just the time noted by Houlbrook, it also takes humility, intellectual rigor and courage. Simon Penny (2009, 39-40) has concisely bullet pointed some reasons for the importance of these attributes as follows:

Humility

  • Professional humility, in order to begin from the assumption that the axiomatic assumptions of the ‘outlying’ discipline may be just as valid or just as arbitrary and contingent as those of one’s own.
  • Humility also in negotiating the insecurities of real or perceived diletantism. As an interdisciplinarian, one is always open to the criticism of superficial knowledge of a specialized field. Notwithstanding that this criticism is sometimes deployed defensively, one must maintain the professional humility to admit that one does not know, and to view ‘not knowing’ as a condition of possibility and not as a lack. In many academic settings it is rare for anyone to admit that s/he does not know. Often, indifference and even resistance to new areas of investigation stems from fear of being perceived as not knowing.

Intellectual rigor

  • This is needed to negotiate the heady epistemological and ontological challenges. (It may be possible to assert a common foundation but it is equally likely that the disciplines will share no common ground.)

Courage

  • This is needed because one is required to relativize one’s own commitments, to examine them as rigorously as those of the foreign camp. This always allows for the possibility that one’s own assumptions may become unstable.
  • Also because few people have the moral substance to thank you for destabilizing their world view. In fact, a common reaction is a deep anger, sometimes expressed in violent ways, more often as denial expressed in banishment.
  • And one needs courage because such deep interdisciplinarity, however intellectually rigorous, challenges the organization and power structure of the academy.

Beyond trying to maintain these attributes, and in a less, at this stage at least, thorough and thought-through manner, I base my personal interdisciplinary efforts on three main procedures. Firstly, reading deeply and widely in order to gain the most extensive theoretical and historical contextualisation for my work possible, in both disciplinary and thematic terms; secondly, working with, learning from and asking for help and advice from scholars with greater experience in the fields that I am less acquainted with; and thirdly, exposing my research to, and actively inviting critique within, new disciplinary forums.

As I have continued to prepare for my next academic move and disciplinary transition the ideal attributes of an interdisciplinary researcher and space as described by Domosh and Penny along with the challenges of turning new academic tricks as captured by Houlbrook’s words have been ringing in my head. I have already begun pursuing the second of my procedures by talking to a number of future colleagues about my planned post-doctoral research and thus I have also already started to benefit from the kindness of academic (soon to no longer be) strangers. These conversations have started to shed new light on my research topic and, just as I have in the past, I have recurrently found myself furiously scribbling down references on an ever-growing reading list. I know my next move, to Sweden and Umeå University’s sociology department, might be one of the most challenging I have made and yet – to risk the cliché – it is exactly this type of challenge that I truly believe will benefit my academic practice and research outcomes while enriching my professional experience. It is for this reason that I embrace interdisciplinarity and continue my to extend my disciplinary mobility.

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