Interdisciplinarity (part 1)

Many years ago, a PhD student returned from a summer of conferences in a state of great excitement. At one conference, she had spoken to an audience of practitioners and they expressed great interested in the theories she was using. “What an interesting perspective!” they beamed. At another conference, she had met a more theoretically minded audience and they were mainly interested to hear more about the practice she was studying. “What wonderful empirical material you have!” they exclaimed. She found all of this very encouraging, of course.

It was my unhappy duty to tell her that she missed the mark in both cases. When talking to theorists, you want to make sure they are critiquing your use of theory; when talking to practitioners, you want to know what they think of your understanding of their practices. That is, you want qualified feedback, not just attempts to make conversation or pick your brains.

Interdisciplinarity, or even the use of multiple theories within the same discipline, occasions the same problem without navigating across the theory-practice or “knowing-doing” gap. Suppose you are trying to combine Foucauldian and Luhmannian perspectives. You attend a conference of Foucault scholars and they pass over your reading of the Archaeology of Knowledge in complete silence. What they want to hear about is your reading of Luhmann, because this is something they don’t know very much about. At another conference, this time of people who specialize in Luhmann, you are bombarded with questions about what Foucault has done for your analysis. Again, I would suggest your presentation has missed its mark. You have not opened yourself to criticism from your peers, i.e., people who are qualified to tell you you are wrong.

Implicit in interdiscplinarity is the problem of multiple audiences. When writing a paper or preparing a conference presentation, you have to keep your readers and your audience in mind. It will not do to say “it’s complicated”. In this paper, on this page, and in this paragraph, you are directing yourself towards a particular kind of reader, with a particular kind of competence. At this conference, in this room, and on this slide, you are trying to tell a particular group of people something. You should know who they are. When addressing them, you should do it with an awareness of what they already know. They should not feel like you are addressing yourself to their ignorance, but to their knowledge base.

Obviously this is true in “academic” contexts, not when writing for the wider public, and this isn’t a trivial difference. For some people, indisciplinarity has come to indicate a collaboration at the level of common knowledge, public discourse. Each collaborator’s role is to cover an area of the inquiry that the others are unqualified to discuss. They approach the collaboration as an expert approaches the public, and they are usually treated that way too. Within the collaboration, the participants each have their own, unassailable, authority. Interestingly, however, when they return to their home disciplines they are not likely to be assailed either. They are likely to be celebrated for the “impact” they are having.

So I always advise people who are embarking on interdiciplinary research to define the “inter-discipline” they will then be working in. That is, I encourage them to seek a community of peers that share their competence, however complex it may be. You don’t want to be the only person in the room who understands two theories well enough to use them jointly to frame an analysis. You want to find some like minds who are at least capable of this synthesis, and you want to bring the theories together on their level. You want to present your ideas to people who can challenge you in interesting ways. The point of interdisciplinarity is not just to “leverage synergies”; it is to shed more light on your own methods and results. All too often, scholars who cultivate interdisciplinarity feel like they are the only ones who can see an issue in their particular way. Their ecclecticism isolates them.

Like I say, our colleagues are often nice about it. If you spend a great deal of time talking about things they aren’t qualified to critique, and otherwise say mainly trivially true things that they already know, they are going to use the question time to learn as much as they can, but they will not be able to tell you something that will make your argument stronger. It’s up to you to focus their attention and activate their intellectual resources. If you are bringing together two theories, and you know your audience understands one of them best, make sure you couch remarks to play to their strengths. Don’t treat them as though you are much smarter or more knowledgeable than they are.

I’ll continue this topic in my next post.


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