Working between disciplines: some thoughts on interdisciplinarity

Although this is an interdisciplinary blog, the question of interdisciplinarity has hardly been discussed here. This note is the occasion of a short return on interdisciplinarity in practice, moving away from the classical methodological discussions to return on an experience of it.

“Blind monks examining an elephant”, c. Hanabusa Itchō, 1888

Recently questions of interdisciplinarity have presented themselves to me in an unexpected and diverse way. From talks by colleagues on interdisciplinary agendas to radio podcasts valuing interdisciplinary research, to critical reports I was making on readings, other publications, and of course the work on my own PhD which is inscribed between (at least) two disciplines, namely geography and political sociology, social movements studies, political science (name it as you like, they all tend to fade into a single thing from my perspective). There seems to be a tacit agreement that interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, or transdisciplinarity (interestingly enough, these three terms seem to be interchangeable) are intrinsequely good endeavours and somewhat the future of social sciences because they would enlighten dark points of knowledge. In the mean time my experience of the thing has been many things but that. So without notes, readings, or references, I wanted to do a quick return on interdisciplinarity as I have been practicing it for the last four years, as a personal testimony but also to clarify a few points with myself. This is therefore largely a discussion between me and myself, which I want to openly have in public because I do not see where it could be held except here.


Interdisciplinarity is good?

I remember one of many TedX conferences where the speaker was returning on a schema many scholars know and which is generally taken as a very bad piece of methodological thinking, the famous “circle of knowledge”, (or “island of knowledge”, “territory of knowledge”, call it whatever you like, my personal favourite is “the very inaccurate and useless doodle of knowledge”). For those who do not know it, here it stands in its elegant awfulness:

The very inaccurate and useless doodle of knowledge, c. Matt Might

Without going into the many issues of this representation has (to begin with the fact that it imagines knowledge as a thing that will be somewhat “out there”, that it forgets that a PhD consists in working several of these threads, that it does not include the drawbacks and contradictions of knowledge, and a long list of other issues), we must consider it because it has led to a second one, which I would choose to call the “Death Star of interdisciplinarity”. Consider the circle we have been given here as a discipline. Therefore we can suppose several disciplines “pushing” the black border separately, creating “knowledge spikes”. And new fields can be “conquered” on that black border by making new such “spikes” in between the others. Such at least was the proposal made in the talk I cannot quite remember. Therefore we end up with something as follows:

The Death Star of interdisciplinarity

Once again the formalisation has a large number of problems which are mostly rooted in its parent theory of knowledge and disciplinarity, but it ends up developing its own issues and being in fact very impractical when one tries to actually engage with interdisciplinarity. The first of these issues is that the value of an interdisciplinary work is assumed to be in itself “good” because it participates to that “conquest” of the knowledge “territory”. To avoid giving examples that would eventually be potentially diproved by the facts, I will not go into the absurd pairings we could enjoy doing in this sort of argument, as I am sure that everyone has plenty of ideas already (I think I remember the talk in question was then drawing on a somewhat obscure association between sociology and computer mechanics, but I may be cheated by my own memory here). The issue goes further because there is an assumption that disciplines will always, in this neutral, isotropic, fluid, and flat space that is science, work together very easily. A third assumption I am doubtful of is that interdisciplinarity would be “good” as it allows seeing things disciplines cannot, in themselves, analyse.

This vision corresponds to an idea of knowledge which has been more widely admitted in the past and deserves to be stated, according which the real would be composed of “layers” (a same phenomenon has a spatial layer, a social layer, an economic layer, a psychological layer, and so forth) and each discipline’s job would be to investigate each of these layers with its own perfectly adequate tools and questions, to end up with a complete picture. Something of the elephant’s tale, if one wants, in which four blind men have been given the occasion to touch four different body parts of a same elephant and concluded that an elephant was, either a massive pillar standing vertically, either a very broad tummy, either a pair of very hard horns, or some sort of snake puffing air. These would be disciplines, and interdisciplinarity would be the ability to pair those elements together and end up with at least a clearer picture of an elephant, or an entire elephant. The problem is that social sciences scarcely work this way, and resemble more several people who would take a look at an entire elephant while being asked different questions, and remaining very much aware that the others are going to speak of other aspects of the elephant, but also that the next day they will have to reach a form of minimal consensus with people armed with the same questions as they, but who may have been ordered to look at two smaller elephants, or a koala in a yellow bathroom, or a worm, a giraffe, and a wooden chair at the same time (analogies can be pulled very, very far, which is why they should be avoided as much as possible).

The point being, leaving elephants aside, that each social science has, across time, developed its claim on being legitimate to explore the entirety of the social world in its own terms, but also in terms that have been borrowed by, or inspired from, other social sciences, but modified (or not) to fit better the discipline they were inscribed in, in such a way that claiming that a. there is a strong distinction between disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity and b. disciplinarity would be somewhat “more blind” than disciplinarity is absurd. Since these are, roughly, the two legitimations of interdisciplinarity we had with the “Death Star” model, we are in trouble. Thus leading to the question: interdisciplinarity for what?


Interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity

Before going there I want to return on the three terms I highlighted before seem to form a sort of triumvirate of the association between diverse disciplines. They have been in my experience largely interchangeable. It spontaneously appears to me that they cover very different practices, and epistemologies, which should be clarified. Indeed there is a labelling effect of “x-disciplinarity” which explains for a part the popularity of the thing (remember that in the end I explain why I think it is interesting to practice interdisciplinarity, even though it looks like I’m just trying to burn the thing to the ground).

There is relative consensus, nonetheless, on how these three approaches can be conducted seriously, and have been defined. All the articles I have reviewed quickly while writing this post seem to agree on the same basic typology:

  • Multidisciplinarity is the association of several disciplines either in an institution or in a project, whereby disciplines remain separated. A minima, it is the copresence of different disciplines in a similar environment (the colleague on the desk next to mine is a historian, another is an anthropologist, and another a linguist, while I am a sociologist, we barely interact on work-related issues). A maxima it can be the sort of work we have seen emerging in various networks in the world.
  • Trandisciplinarity is a different endeavour whereby the aim is very much the emergence of a “third discipline”, insofar as several different traditions are being “dissolved” into a holistic approach. This does not fit the “Death Star model”, but rather can be applied to Marxism in practice, which does not aim at being a theory in sociology, economics, history, philosophy, etc, but rather a theory which can be employed to talk of either of these domains.
  • Interdisciplinarity is not an attempt to overcome the existence of two domains of knowledge, nor is it their “mere” cohabitation in a single project, but it is a practice through which two different disciplines, which do not aim at synthesis, collaborate into a project.

This division is worth what it is worth, which is largely not much, since in effect as I have said the three terms are somewhat interchangeable. It has an interest as it provides a broad picture of what it is we are trying to do when we engage in interdisciplinary studies. To go a little bit further it would be interesting to explicitate what is meant by “disciplines” here.


Disciplines as institutions

When I started the university the reason why we had several disciplines was rather clear: a discipline distinguished itself by an object, a range of theories, a method, a range of authors, or a field which was particular to it and made it unique. This distinction is very close to the vision of the world in “layers” I talked about earlier.

As I went further in my studies this simplification appeared increasingly unsatisfactory. Take for instance sociology, anthropology, and political science as they exist currently. The object is not unique: all of these disciplines can legitimately talk about power, culture, gender, social reproduction, religion, war, what have you. The theories can exist across them: this is the case of structuralism and post-structuralism, (very) arguably the most important theoretical events to occur in these disciplines during the last half-century or so. The question of methods is trickier: although some forms of it are dominant in such or such discipline (for example, the questionnaire remains the “top notch” of the sociologist’s toolbox, and ethnography that of the anthropologist’s), you would not find a serious practicioner of any of these disciplines to argue every method available to one cannot be legitimately mobilised in all three of them. The same goes of course for authors (at least the classical ones, on that matter I recall an interesting exchange with a historian who wouldn’t tolerate that we quote Charles Tilly as a source of social movement studies), as well as fields (the time is long passed when anthropology was restricted to the then colonial world, and conversely).

The question of what legitimises the division in disciplines is very much complicated and I will not be able to satisfyingly answer it here. The substantial argument is not te be rejected entirely, and really becomes weaker as we draw closer to the “boundaries” of a discipline. To the extent that I came to perceive it, disciplines are nonetheless better understood as institutions. The case of the big Durkheim/Vidal de la Blache struggle around whether geography should be a discipline of its own or a sub-part of sociology is an example of what this means: just as with institutions, it becomes increasingly harder, as we look at it in detail, to evaluate the existence of a discipline in terms of strict knowledge needs. Instead, taking into account personal and collective careers, funding, relations to other disciplines, power and legitimacy struggles, intellectual traditions becomes much more interesting. Besides, most disciplines seem to function on a path dependency model, by which at some point the existence of a discipline is legitimised by the fact that the discipline exists, and has its centres of research, its investigated areas, its questions and valuable references, and so forth. A phenomenon which has particularly interested me over the last few years has been how the very fabric of the proof and its aceptability depend on this institutional fabric: to get an argument pushed forward in a certain discipline one needs to know of and quote such specific research or article, which may very well have been explored in very similar terms in another discipline, but must nonetheless be quoted as a “token” of good mastering of the field. The same can go with contexts and research questions.

An example in multidisciplinarity (I anonymise because stating the who, why, and where is not the point): At such multidisciplinary conference on social movements and geography, such geographer is asked a number of questions on their approach by sociologists in the room, who want to know more about their take on the social resources and dispositions acquired by their informants via socialisation, to which they have an important difficulty to answer. If the question is entirely legitimate and almost a truism in the sociology of mobilisations, apprehending social agents through the scope of the dispositional perspective is not something that one finds prominently in the geography of mobilisations, which tends to situate itself at a meso- or macro-level of analysis (although this varies). We have one case of miscomprehension between two disciplines, because of the very production of what are legitimate questions, legitimate concerns, and so forth.

Here lies the first step of interdisciplinarity, which has marked my own way of approaching the topic since four years: in my experience, interdisciplinarity is first a work of conceptual translation between two disciplines or more at the service of an obect, which as I will detail further down is essential.


Interdisciplinarity as translation

An article I like quoting a lot regarding translation as a central part of a researcher’s work is Michael Agar’s “Making sense of one other for another: Ethnography as translation”. I must have quoted it once or twice on this blog already. Agar considers, and I agree with him, that an anthropologist’s work consists for a part to translate the target culture’s language (what we study) into the language of another culture, the researcher’s profesionnal culture. There are many things at stake into doing this, but I keep it to a minimum and you can read the article to explore what this thesis implies. The point is that there is as much work to be done in this relation (target culture to scientific field) as there is between scientific fields as they are instituted not only in disciplinary terms, but also in terms of journals, theoretical trends, and across countries or other territories (which means that working between disciplines or between languages, as I do, is not essentially different, the task is the same).

Legitimate questions, concepts, definitions, quotes, methods, and styles vary across disciplines. If I take my thesis through a little bit of a Goffmanian perspective, what is at stake for me, researcher, is to maintain a line which is coherent with the representation I have of “A serious scholar”. To do so I need to engage a number of signs in interaction (writing is a type of interaction), which constitute the face-work by which my line is held. Giving the good signs of seriousness is therefore critical, and that is what disciplinary culture is for. The essential work of interdisciplinarity is therefore to manage a successfull translation while at the same time maintaining enough credentials in each of the academic cultures to remain legitimate in what I have to say, and therefore to incorporate contributions which will be read in both languages as slightly out-of-place, but still comprehensible.

An example of failure: Presenting in a disciplinary setting. One of my experiences of doubt during that production which highlighted how the enterprise is always precarious occurred at some point during the first half of my PhD. I was presenting at a disciplinary panel and presenting a paper which was still very much cut in two between the social movements part and the geography part. After the end of my presentation, I got the chance of being discussed by a geographer and questioned by sociologists. But, once the state of my research exposed, very little discussion occurred, leading me to be afraid my work was actually bad and nobody dared being the first to tell it to me (by the way it may be the case still, since nobody told it to me). I enquired with the event’s organisers, and as it turned out, the absence of questions was according to them actually coming from the fact that the concepts employed were too familiar to them for a part, and too remote for the other. The same went for my geographer discussant. The translation has been a failure: instead of one text in a lingua franca which could allow discussion, my presentation consisted in two texts in two different and hermetic languages. Thankfully this experience of awkwardness was not the first for one of the organisers, who was kind enough to direct me toward a colleague, who had happened to work on the same “Weird stuff” as I was in his own PhD.

We see a tension emerging for the researcher and, far from the mythical vision of a grand scientific enterprise presented by the defenders of the “Death Star model”, interdisciplinarity, at least practiced at this individual scale, looks more like a good way to feel embarassed than anything else. And this matters, because at the end of the day, one as a researcher still has to get papers out there, to go to conferences, to go to workshops, to write books, in front of disciplinary audiences, while being always at risk of being a “half-thing” (half sociologist, half geographer) in an institutional model organised to judge full things. To go beyond the nice and fashionable labelling provided by the “x-disciplinary” terminology means seeing the particular difficulties of the exercice, and its relative ingratitude, the risk of being always “One who does weird stuff” (and this, at this stage of my research, has not been overcome yet).


The valour of interdisciplinarity

Why then put oneself at risk when the situation can be such a pain in the foot? As with many things in research, sometimes the object itself commands it. And in the end only the value of the object matters seriously when it comes to this question. As I wrote earlier there will always be a share of unnamed interdisciplinarity in research (geographers know this very much since the 1970s). To enounce a named interdisciplinarity, the object or the question must demand it. But the object or the question never exists “out there” to be found, and is of course always very dependent on contingency. In my case, for example, it took a diverse interest by several researchers who had to work together in a multidisciplinary setting and were perceiving my Masters dissertation from the two angles of social movements and urban studies, which they had agreed upon were interesting when put together, as well as a PhD supervisor whose work had had to get him interested in geography because of the exceptional dimension that space was taking in his work at the moment, in the context of a rise internationally of a particular visibility of mobilisations in space (because of the importance of place occupations in the early 2010s), to justify the construction of a pluridisciplinary agenda.

The main interest of this agenda has been, in later stage, the way it has allowed me to reconsider questions which were in each discipline taken for granted, as it were, through the criticism brought by the twin discipline. Taking the example of political narratives, for example, geography’s benefit has been essential. One of the elements that has been evoked in the classical approach to the Palestinian camps has been the existence of such narratives, which are conceived as related to different groups and their framing of the world: Hamas for instance would be the producer on an Islamic narrative in the camps, while the PLO used to be the promoter of a nationalist-revolutionary narrative. And these narratives are in interaction with the camps’ symbolic spaces (for example, street names are given, spaces are invested in such and such way, etc.). Bring geography in, you have the notion of multiplicity, which is essential because, as opposed to history, critical geography does not generally consider contradictions as things that have to be resolved eventually, they can cohabit. With this notion of multiplicity, you can take another look at this interaction whereby one narrative does not as much replace or even merge with the others in a different period, but they very much cohabit not only at the same time and place, but within the actors themselves. Similarly, the question of urban injustice has scarcely been approached by geographers (as far as I know, once again) through the forms of constructivism which have given rise to the public problems school in sociology, which considers public problems mostly as dramaturgical constructs and relativises their “objective” content.

As such interdisciplinarity as I have practiced it for the last four years has been a way to interrogate each of the main concepts I used under the eyes of another tradition, which could critique it not because it “saw” something the first one did not, but because it has different questions. What has sociology to say, in other words, of “landscape”, or “scale”, or “the production of space”, etc., and what has geography to say of “resources”, or “political opportunities”, or “collective identities”? All of this also means a point which I am trying as much as I can to make clear: that interdisciplinarity has no intrinsic value in itself. It serves as a tool to interrogate an object.


An intermediary position

To do so I have at first had to reconstruct traditions, and therefore to learn a lot. My supervisor, who had the good idea of forcing me to study the state of the literature in both disciplines in parallel for the first three months of my PhD, has been of great help there. An example of the sorts of devices I produced after that period has already been published here, here, and here on this blog. Another example produced at the same time is my – very naïve – timeline of social movements and human geography:

The coevolution of social movements theory and human geography (note the autocorrect)

What we see here is an attempt to identify how two disciplines form themselves and how they can potentially interact. I could have added the concepts, authors, fields in common, and other more sophisticated elements, but at the time the graph was for me only. What then happens is a long and annoying process of coming and going between disciplines, and therefore of dialogue, in which sources have to be kept at approximately equal distance, in order to produce a framework which would make sense of the accumulation of data, which in itself corresponds to the various interests that have emerged from this dialogue. This is a non-finished process, of course, and it will probably continue in the future if I am given the chance to keep on working in research. One of the many advantages I have found to interdisciplinarity as a practice has been the way in which it forces the theoretical debate to be clearly stated. While a number of theoretical choices can be made under the mask of the implicit in disciplinary practices, interdisciplinarity doubles the chances of being confronted with the question “What do you mean by such word?”.

I would therefore think of interdisciplinarity, in my experience, as the trade of maintaining an “in-between” which comes with its advantages (for example the success of concepts of one discipline when presented to the other) and its inconvenients, which I have stated before. It also means thinking closely to one’s contacts, one’s professional identity (I could discuss the value of the many “hats” interdisciplinarity offers when negotiating different spaces of research, including fieldwork), the events one goes to, and so forth. But it also means working more into “buying” oneself a disciplinary legitimacy in two different fields, which is very difficult. Located between two disciplines, I am constantly doubtful of my legitimacy in any of these disciplines, and persuaded of the platitude and lack of interest of what I have to say. This is not an empty complaint, it is a fact that one has to cope with: having been invited to speak at the disciplinary event of XXX, one cannot help but wonder if this was because of the interest of my research, or because an argument by another discipline would be interesting, although basic. And even in the complete sincerity of my interlocutors, how can I be sure of the appraisal they have of the quality of my work, when they do not hold the keys to the discipline I am mobilising, and which is not theirs? Interdisciplinarity also means doubling the potential impostor syndrome, and as such does not make for an easy, shining, and glorious task. Although it does provide a lot of comfort and pleasure as well, and this post is written by a person who, as of now, has no regrets on his choices.


The four blind elephants

I believe thinking about interdisciplinarity in this way, that is, in a methodological way, rather than through an abstract model using circles and spikes to try presenting something incredibly complex in a simplistic manner and feeling good about oneself, is important, also because it helps doing things properly. Or so I hope. Because naïveté in the matter would lead us to be confronted to disciplines in the same way as that human confronted to four blind elephants who wanted to know what a man was: after the first elephant did his investigation, it concluded that a human was something rather flat and moist. To which, after their own investigation, the three other elephants agreed, and all returned back to their research.

Cite this blog post
Alex Mahoudeau (2017, February 20). Working between disciplines: some thoughts on interdisciplinarity. The Cobble And The Frame. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from

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