The difficulty of interdisciplinary narratives

This post is also cross posted on heatherwiltse.me.

Interdisciplinarity is a concept that is frequently lauded but notoriously challenging to realize. Practical realities like publication and tenure requirements and conceptions of what counts as valid research in established fields tend to push even the best-intentioned academics toward more well-trodden and recognizable paths, despite the potential benefits of interdisciplinary perspectives and collaborations. There is also the intellectual challenge of bringing possibly quite different intellectual traditions into conversation with each other in substantive and non-dilettantish ways.

This last challenge in particular is one that I have been wrestling with in framing my dissertation research. I have been for the last few months working on my dissertation proposal, with my literature review chapter being inordinately irksome. My research deals with the ways in which interactive technologies can mediate engagement with the world in our everyday lives, and aims to develop grounded theoretical frameworks and critical perspectives that can inform technology design and critique. I am actively trying to bridge Social Informatics/STS, HCI design, and philosophy of technology in order to consider social implications of technologies in ways that can speak to their design.

My work is thus suspended in the middle of these three areas, with a number of others being potentially relevant (e.g., media studies, cultural studies, critical theory, information and information society studies, infrastructure, etc.). Just identifying which literatures and theoretical perspectives I should engage with, and how, and why, has been a daunting task. But now that I have this more or less pinned down and have been trying to corral it all into some manageable structure for my literature review I have discovered another, perhaps more basic but still vexing, challenge: that of crafting a narrative to provide the theoretical backdrop for my research.

My Informatics colleagues and I have joked about wishing we were doing something easy, like theoretical physics, because then at least we would have a fairly well-defined problem space (or an established paradigm, in the Kuhnian sense). A scholar working in such an established discipline is able to present (or assume) a boring, predictable setup for her research: the history of her discipline, its intellectual traditions, questions, and progress made toward addressing the problem at hand. Included in this nifty paradigmatic package are also shared conceptions of what count as acceptable problems, methods, and solutions. Of course, even research that fits this pattern has its own significant challenges that I do not mean to trivialize. But at least framing and rhetoric can be fairly straightforward.

When choosing to take a fundamentally interdisciplinary perspective, however, these things cannot be taken for granted. If the problem/question is not well set up (and sanctioned qua problem/question) by any single discipline, one can be left to at least some extent appealing to the audience’s intuitive and practical sense of something being a real problem in the world that requires such a newfangled approach. And one person’s interesting question is often another person’s uninteresting assumption.

Nonetheless, I am convinced that the issues I am wrestling with require multiple perspectives to understand and address, and that understanding and addressing them is important. So I’m going to keep wrestling, and if I figure out this whole interdisciplinary narrative thing I’ll let you know.

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Posted on April 19, 2012, in Research, Social Informatics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I think a must-read book to “get a handlle” on the core issue that you address is the book:
    Robert Alford, The Craft of Inquiry: Theories, Methods, Evidence (Oxford U Press, 1998). I think it is more useful to “dispose” of labels, e.g., “SI/STS, HCI Design, Philosophy of Technology” and to concentrate on the problem that you are trying to understand. These “labels” embrace different theoretical frameworks and are categories that are not mutually exclusive.All incorporate a “theory” or some theory of technology and a set of assumptions, some of which are foregrounded while others are backgrounded. (My assessment of most of the literature in these domains is that a good number of its authors do not make explicit the theoretical foundations of the empirical question they investigate.)

    More to the point, each of these labels that you describe incorporates a number of different theoretical frameworks. This is one reason why Alford’s book is so helpful: he discusses the foregrounding and backgrounding of the assumptions of a particular theoretical stance. He’s a sociologist, so the core/foundational theoretical frameworks that ground his analysis are: Durkheim, Marx, and Weber. His last chapter is a call for a multi-method theoretical stance. (I read and reread his book often and read numerous drafts of the book before it went to press. He was one of my mentors.)

  2. Thank you for your comment Alice, and especially the book recommendation—I will definitely take a look at that. I agree about getting rid of labels, and I actually try to do that and work instead with problems, concepts and perspectives in my writing. The challenge I’ve been facing with that is finding a way to anchor different theoretical perspectives without resorting to a strong disciplinary narrative. In the work I can think of that brings together different types of thinking, there is almost always a sort of disciplinary ‘home base’, and then other perspectives are imported to be used in some specific way. Explicitly starting from multiple points and trying to bring them closer together to address a problem, rather than starting from one position and branching out, seems to be a trickier rhetorical proposition.

  3. Nice post! David Nemer told me about this blog – it looks great and in a few months I’ll try to post more – I’m still Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association, until June 30.

    Just a couple quick thoughts about this great post and sorry in advance they will be so rushed and scattered.

    #1 There are 4 main ways disciplines get defined: (1) object of study (anthropologists study culture), (2) method (anthropologists do ethnography), (3) canon (anthropologists read and cite Mead, Geertz, etc.), (4) institutionally (anthropologists are in the anthropology department). Often when people talk about disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, they are using different definitions and talking past each other.

    #2 One thing I find helpful is to think not in terms of labels but research communities, conversations. And you can’t talk to everyone, you have to have communities of expertise, but you can have more than 1 and can also speak to various publics.

    #3 I always worry about something that everyone seems to agree on. Sometimes it seems everyone thinks interdisciplinarity is good, by definition, and disciplines are bad, by definition. This makes me nervous and wonder about the power effects of interdisciplinarity. This is particularly the case because for instance many government agencies like the NSF often require interdisciplinary teams. Interdisciplinarity is likely not a way of speaking against power per se; it probably depends on the deployment.

    Okay, thanks again for this, sorry so rushed, and hope to read more in the future!

    Tom Boellstorff
    Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine
    Editor-in-Chief, American Anthropologist

  4. Thanks so much for the comment Tom! I agree that interdisciplinarity is not inherently good—it’s all about what is appropriate for a particular purpose.

    Your outline of the different understandings of interdisciplinarity is really helpful and I think can actually help me to clarify a couple things that seem to me to be problematic. One is that disciplines (at least ostensibly) originate as a way to address a particular problem or object of study, and its methods and relations to other areas of study are defined accordingly. But it seems that over time the original reasons for doing things a certain way can become a more calcified conception of just ‘what it is that x type of scholars do’ rather than thinking about what actually makes sense in terms of current challenges. And then dealing in some way with one area’s object of study but from another approach with another canon and different methods can be a bit of a mine field!

    In the end though I absolutely agree that conversations are the important thing here, and thankfully there seem to be a growing number of really interesting ones developing!

  1. Pingback: The difficulty of interdisciplinary narratives « Heather Wiltse

  2. Pingback: Ontology of Students in Interdisciplinary Programs « Social Informatics Blog

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