Friday, March 31, 2006

Interdisciplinarity, sub-disciplinarity, and inter-topicality

I attended the kickoff event to a conference on interdisciplinarity at my Big State-Supported But Increasingly Privately-Funded university last night. This was an event of keen interest to me, as I consider myself "interdisciplinary" in several different senses and I wondered how the presenters would define and interpret and value interdisciplinarity themselves.

Why do I call myself "interdisciplinary"? First, I have earned degrees in several different "disciplines". I have a Bachelor's and Master's in "computer science," I have a second Master's in "liberal studies," and I have a hybrid Ph.D. in both "history of technology" and "human geography" (I was a member of both departments during my graduate study). Some might say this is a "multidisciplinary" background, not an "interdisciplinary" one. My response would be that if I wrote LISP code on Monday, engaged in discourse analysis on Tuesday, did some history work on Wednesday, and acted like a geographer on Thursday, you could accurately call me "multidisciplinary". But since I combine different aspects of the different disciplines I was trained in throughout my week and work, I call myself "interdisciplinary".

Really, though, each of these disciplines is sort of a subdiscipline itself of a larger set of what many might consider more "fundamental" disciplinary domains. Obviously, "history of technology" is a "history of ..." just like other history specialties which focus on a single era, a single region, a single population, or a single social issue. Similarly, "human geography" competes with the "geography of ..." cast in several different ways. The field of "liberal studies" might not even be considered by many to be a real discipline, though I think of it as a subfield of American Studies these days (I didn't when I was earning the degree). And even "computer science" may be a sort of subfield of "computer engineering" (from the point of view of the engineers) or a subfield of "information science" (from the point of view of the information scientists).

A trickier question might be trying to specify what makes these sub-disciplines -- or their parent domains -- "disciplines" in the first place. Many choose a topic-focused definition: computer science is the study of computer software; liberal studies is the study of ideas within liberal societies; history of technology the study of technological change; and human geography the study of human patterns of settlement. But I think the real key to conceptualizing a discipline is to consider not the topic under study, but the "ways of knowing" (methods, standards, and norms of value production) involved in that discipline. In computer science, the production of efficient, effective, even elegant "code" was proof of expertise. Liberal studies demanded quick facility with the texual analysis of works in history, literature, and policy. History relies upon the discovery, analysis, and organization of primary and archival source material. And geography demands conceptions of space, time, and scale, in both absolute and relative senses, and the ability to use these conceptions to demonstrably inform the core of one's work. Practitioners in different disciplines don't just investigate different things -- they see those things in entirely different ways.

This splitting apart claims about "ways of knowing" (methodologies, concepts, theories, epistemologies) from claims concerning "things worth knowing about" (topics of study) is important enough to warrant an additional set of terms beyond "interdisciplinarity," I think, for those of us who foolishly attempt to know about more than one thing at a time. Maybe academics who research several different topics independent of each other should be called "multi-topicial"? And maybe the research of two or more different topics in an integrated, intertwined way should be called "inter-topicality?" Myself, I claim to study both information/communication technologies and the human labors that emerge and adapt in concert with these technologies. The fact that I claim a special relationship between the two topics makes me "inter-topical" rather than "multi-topical," I think. And the fact that I study this inter-topical relationship from multiple ways of knowing -- crucially, trying to relate those ways of knowing together rather than applying them separately or in sequence -- makes me an "interdisciplinary inter-topical" researcher rather than a "multidisciplinary inter-topical" researcher.

If you're still with me, I appreciate it, because all this was actually leading up to something.

That interdisciplinarity conference I mentioned started off with a mini history of several longstanding interdisciplinary programs on our campus -- one dealt with environmental studies, another with poverty studies, a third with women's studies, and a fourth with international studies. All were described as organizational arrangements meant to focus on a single problem through the use of teams of scholars, each of whom came from a different discipline. This is a couple of steps away from the plight I find myself in, as a single scholar who studies multiple problems together from multiple disciplines at once.

But it gets worse (or better). I also happened to be employed in two departments at once (the two different "disciplines" of "information studies" and "communication studies"), each of which could itself be seen as an "interdisciplinary" program in its own right (single problem, many scholars each from different home disciplines).

You can see now why maybe I was hoping to find some answers from this two-hour session I attended. Alas, answers don't come that easily anywhere in academia. But the session helped me generate a new set of questions that I want to articulate here before I forget them. The questions deal with that relationship between the production of "interdisciplinary (and single-topic) centers" (like a science/technology studies department hiring many faculty each trained in a different discipline) and the production of "interdisciplinary (and multi-topic) scholars" (like me). Does the funding of one lead (through generations of research collaboration and graduate student training) to the production of the other? Are interdisciplinary or inter-topical academics more likely to be hired by interdisciplinary units on campus, or are they now coveted by (or targeted toward) "traditional" disciplinary departments which need to be "diversified"? What are the power relations at work when "disciplinary" and "interdisciplinary" scholars must fight for a zero-sum-game of decreasing funding as states pull resources from universities? Do these power relations play out differently within "interdisciplinary" units versus "disciplinary" departments? And finally -- what do we do about the real contradictions that emerge in this system, such as when departments such as mine (or scholars such as myself) find themselves sometimes claiming "disciplinary" tradition, and other times claiming "interdiscipilnary" innovation?

1 comment:

Matt Ratto said...

Hi Greg,

good stuff in your post. I'm fighting with some of the same questions in a project on the use of IT in archaeology. I find that it is precisely the "ways of knowing" (and ways of proving that one knows,) that divide different groups within a discipline. I'm using the term "epistemic commitments" to describe how individual knowledge practices can be related to things like scientific subcultures (Galison) or "epistemic cultures" (Knorr-Cetina.) Both these terms can be seen as attempts to overcoming structural (and often tautological) definitions of disciplines.