Next week I’ll be attending the ‘Soundings and Findings’ conference at UEA, intended as a platform for scholars to reflect on the intellectual advances made through engagement with the AHRC’s Connected Communities funding stream. I’m running a panel discussion called ‘Becoming inexpert’ attempting to offer a challenge to the somewhat heroic narrative of interdisciplinary working (“It’s tough but rewarding”).
In thinking about this session I have been pottering about on Google Scholar. Academia is very much about fashions – ideas and methods fall in and out of favour with alarming regularity. Right now we’re in the middle of a digital data revolution that bears an uncanny similarity to the so-called ‘quantitative revolution’ of the 1960s, both in being driven by radical technological change and being accompanied by somewhat contestable claims about what these data can tell us about people’s everyday lives. I’ve only been in the academic game for 15 years or so and even in that short time I’ve seen ideas develop, mature and fall by the wayside in the pursuit of the latest new thing.
As a result, then, it’s remarkable that interdisciplinarity still retains its power and allure, given that it has been part of the academic discourse since at least the 1970s. Twenty years ago, writing in a special issue of the Art Bulletin, James D. Herbert wrote that:
‘Everyone involved in the heated debate over interdisciplinarity, curiously, appears to be on the same side. One would be hard pressed to find an art historian of any methodological stripe who was not, in some basic sense, in favor of it.’ (Herbert, 1995, 537)
The claims for what interdisciplinarity can read like the handbill of a snake oil salesman: it brings new insights to old problems; collaboration is essential for multifaceted, ‘wicked’ issues; it’s essential to creative thinking; by breaking down communication problems between disciplines, the benefits of academic work can be more easily brought to outsiders; it will restore your hair growth and help cut down on belly fat.
There’s actually not much to argue with here in terms of the advantages of collaboration with people who have different kinds of expertise. Perhaps the reason why interdisciplinary modes of working are still so fashionable is because, in practice, it’s really very difficult to do, so there can be an endless academic debate about how to do this thing that we all agree is highly desirable. I actually wrote a piece about this many years ago about a project where I collaborated with a hydrologist on a project looking at the place of sustainable drainage systems in urban planning (Jones & Macdonald, 2007). We ended up with a nice piece of social science looking at these technologies, but in no way was the project interdisciplinary.
One of the things about Connected Communities is that it has always been more than just a funding scheme. There’s a broader philosophical project at play, which has interdisciplinarity at its heart. A group of scholars from across the social sciences and humanities are put into a room together and told to work out what interests they have in common and try to design some projects. Those conversations can be delightful, wonderful and entirely at cross purposes. As Jack Balkin put it:
‘To chance upon a discussion among persons of a different discipline can be like arriving at someone else's family reunion. Each discipline has its own ongoing controversies, its own distinctive debates to rehearse, its own characteristic points to score, and its own private demons to exorcise.’ (Balkin, 1996, 956)
Connected Communities is, in a sense, trying to create a new kind of scholar, but there’s been a Darwinian element to this – those scholars uncomfortable with this mode of working have largely fallen by the wayside. Attending next week’s conference is a hardcore of people who are comfortable working beyond their comfort zones – or at least have found ways to cope with working this way.
I’ve never been the kind of scholar who wants to become the world expert on, for example, the governance of harvesting timber for biofuels. I’ve too much of a butterfly mind to become so narrowly focussed. In many ways this makes me well suited for Connected Communities style research – I’m genuinely interested in the wildly different interests and ways of thinking I’ve been exposed to since I got involved with the programme. It does however raise important questions about what scholarship means if you aren’t really bringing specific expertise to any discussion, but instead know a little bit about a lot of things. Does this make you a dilettante? Does it hold back your career? Does it help or hinder knowledge production? Big issues, which we’ll be getting our teeth into next week.
Balkin JM 1996 Interdisciplinarity as colonization Washington & Lee Law Review 53 949-970
Jones P and Macdonald N 2007 Getting it wrong first time: building an interdisciplinary research relationship Area 39 490-498
Mitchell WJT 1995 Interdisciplinarity and visual culture The Art Bulletin 77 540-544
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer